December 31, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:19 PM


Mortgage Program Pans Out (NICK TIMIRAOS, Dec. 31, 2013, WSJ)

Nearly 3 million homeowners, including at least 900,000 who owe more than their homes are worth, have been able to refinance their loans under the crisis-era program designed to reach borrowers with little or no equity in their homes. The majority of those loans were refinanced in 2012 and 2013, after the government revamped the program following a disappointing start.

"Of everything the government tried to throw at the foreclosure crisis, it ended up being, by far, the most successful thing they did," said Glenn Kelman, chief executive of real-estate brokerage Redfin.

...the stimulus should have just gone to pay down mortgages.

December 30, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:45 PM


Likud sources claim PM ready to negotiate on basis of pre-1967 lines (TIMES OF ISRAEL,  December 30, 2013)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to continue peace talks for another year on the basis of US Secretary of State John Kerry's "framework" agreement, which provides for negotiations for Palestinian statehood on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, according to Likud sources quoted by Israel's Channel 10 news Monday night.

Choosing to side with the forces of democratization in the Middle East and against the Sunni authoritarians who are courting him would seal Bibi's place in history.

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Posted by orrinj at 6:52 PM


The Next Corporate-Friendly Trade Pact : With the TPP facing Congressional scrutiny, the U.S. presses forward on another deal. (COLE STANGLER, 12/30/13, In These Times)

Much like the TPP, the TTIP isn't about eliminating traditional trade barriers such as tariffs. U.S. and EU tariffs already average less than 3 percent, some of the lowest in the world. Instead, the buzz phrase that TTIP advocates like to use is "regulatory harmonization." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for its part, calls for "regulatory coherence" and "regulatory cooperation." Essentially, it's all about better matching up U.S. and European regulations on a broad range of matters: financial services, environmental issues, labor relations, car safety, online data protections and even the chemical make-up of cosmetics--though it remains unclear what exactly would be covered in any final agreement.

On the face of it, standardizing regulations isn't inherently bad. The European Union, after all, has some of the most progressive regulations on the globe. But critics on both sides of the Atlantic are worried the agreement will eventually settle for the lowest common denominator--some kind of nightmarishly corporate-friendly mix of European financial regulations (there's no Dodd-Frank in the EU) and American regulations on the environment and food safety (the EU bans GMOs, hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washed poultry products).

While the secretive negotiations have left the details of "regulatory harmonization" up to the public's imagination, one indication of what it may actually entail came in a recent leak about the EU's desire to create a "Regulatory Cooperation Council." The hypothetical super-agency would be charged with evaluating existing regulations in both partners and coordinating any future rules, subjecting some to a "cost-benefit" analysis of their impact on trade. Under the proposal, the U.S. would be required to notify the special council of any upcoming regulations from federal agencies and allow the EU to comment. That would only further delay what's already a frustratingly slow federal rulemaking process, critics say.

Another potential TTIP provision that has critics alarmed is so-called "investor-state dispute settlement." Negotators on both sides are pushing for these corporate protections, which already exist in free trade agreements like NAFTA and many bilateral investment treaties. They allow corporations to sue governments in special third-party tribunals that have the ability to bypass domestic laws. That's how, for example, a Canadian mining company chartered in Delaware recently filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government after Quebec's 2011 ban on fracking in the bed of the St. Lawrence River nullified its mining permits.

The inclusion of "investor-state" provisions in TTIP is of particular concern because of how deeply integrated the EU and U.S. economies already are. Together they include 75,000 cross-registered firms, according to the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen. Critics warn that investor protections in TTIP could lead to a surge in lawsuits challenging basic public-interest regulations and create a hostile climate for regulators.     

Last week, a transatlantic coalition of labor unions, environmentalists and consumer protection groups sent a letter to the USTR and European Commission calling on the negotiators to drop investor-state dispute settlement from the trade talks.

"[Investor-state dispute settlement] is a one-way street by which corporations can challenge government policies, but neither governments nor individuals are granted any comparable rights to hold corporations accountable," the letter read.

Posted by orrinj at 6:43 PM


Was Jesus a Palestinian? (JONATHAN FELDSTEIN, 12/30/2013, Jerusalem Post)

 Just in time for Christmas, the world was treated last week to the latest offense from the Palestinians with the declaration by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that Jesus was a Palestinian.

He goeth before you into Galilee.

Posted by orrinj at 3:11 PM


Mexico's Second Revolution (Jorge G. Castañeda, DEC 30, 2013, Project Syndicate)

[P]resident Enrique Peña Nieto's task since taking office one year ago has been to ensure that the promise of major change in Mexico finally translates into sustained economic growth, improved living standards, and faster convergence with the US and Canada.

While both the foreign and local press refer generally to "reforms," or lump together education, labor, financial, fiscal, energy, telecommunications, and political reforms, there are significant differences among them. Some consider all of the changes that have taken place in Mexico this year to be equally important. Others have mused that Peña Nieto's administration sometimes seems intent on announcing reforms, regardless of their content, the time necessary to implement them, or their actual impact on Mexican society.

In fact, a clear distinction can be drawn between two subsets of legislative achievements: those that, while not meaningless, are incomplete, superficial, or essentially maintain the status quo, and those that will change Mexico (if all goes well). The changes in how teachers are evaluated and their labor rights (wrongly described as an education reform), together with changes to tax and telecommunications legislation, belong to the first category; energy and political reforms belong to the second.

Energy reform opens up electricity generation and oil exploration, extraction, and refining to private foreign or domestic investment through licenses, concessions, production sharing, or profit sharing. The oil workers' union has been banished from the board of directors of Pemex, the national oil company, and new contracts for shale oil and gas, together with deep-water prospecting and drilling, will be signed with a government agency, not with Pemex.

Once the myriad legal and political obstacles are cleared, Mexico will be able to increase oil and gas production, drive down the price of electricity, and stimulate growth in an otherwise lethargic economy. One hopes that 12 years of obstruction by Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will not mean that these reforms are too little, too late.

The second crucial reform is political. For the first time since the early 1920's, Mexican legislators and mayors will be allowed to seek reelection to consecutive terms. While no panacea, reelection is one of the most important instruments of accountability in a democracy, and Mexico has been deprived of it for nearly a century. The same is true of ballot initiatives, referenda, and independent candidacies, all of which were non-existent until the recent reform. For the first time since Mexico left behind 70 years of authoritarian rule, the country has a political and electoral framework that resembles those found in all modern democracies.

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Posted by orrinj at 3:05 PM


Al Jazeera journalists arrested in Egypt (Al Jazeera,30 Dec 2013)

Egypt's security forces have arrested four Al Jazeera journalists in Cairo.

Correspondent Peter Greste, producers Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed as well as cameraman Mohamed Fawzy are being held in custody after arrested by security forces on Sunday evening.

Greste is a veteran journalist who previously worked for Reuters, CNN and the BBC over the past two decades.

Human rights groups say conditions for journalists in Egypt have become difficult since former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was removed in a coup on July 3, 2013.

Posted by orrinj at 2:59 PM


Why We'll Never Stop Arguing About Benghazi (BLAKE HOUNSHELL, December 29, 2013, Politico)

Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO's extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam. 

"Months of investigation." "No evidence." A swipe at Congress. These are the kinds of authoritative statements you make when you're pretty darn sure of your reporting. [...]

This story isn't going anywhere. And here are six reasons why:  [...]

Ideology. Beyond politics, many on the right were and are deeply offended by the initial claims, offered up by officials like former U.N. ambassador Susan Rice and now backed up by the Times story, that a video mocking the Prophet Mohamed helped trigger the attack on the Benghazi mission. To these critics, this explanation is tantamount to saying America asked for it--and the administration's repeated denunciations of the video rankle. It's a gripe that no amount of evidence will assuage.

People don't agree on what al Qaeda is. There's a long-running debate among experts about whether al Qaeda is more of a centralized, top-down organization, a network of affiliates with varying ties to a core leadership or the vanguard of a broader movement better described as "Sunni jihadism." As Clint Watts, a counterterrorism analyst formerly with the FBI, writes: "There are lots of militant groups around the world which host members that fought in Iraq or Afghanistan or support jihadi ideology. But that doesn't mean they are all part of al Qaeda." For instance, is Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist group that everyone agrees had a presence at the Benghazi attack site, an al Qaeda affiliate? Some, including Issa and Rogers, say it is; others insist it isn't. To make matters more confusing, there are at least two Ansar al-Sharia groups in Libya--one in Benghazi and one in Derna, a city to the east--and dozens of other extremist groups. What about Abu Khattala, the U.S. government's lead suspect and the central figure of the Times story? He evidently shares a jihadist outlook--but Kirkpatrick found no ties between Abu Khattala and al Qaeda. [...]

And on the debate will go. Vast amounts of ink have already been spilled about the Benghazi tragedy, and vast amounts will doubtless be spilled in the weeks and months ahead. What we're not likely to argue much about: Libya itself, a deeply troubled country that Americans once thought was important enough to liberate--and then, scarred by a mysterious attack, left to its fate.

No al Qaeda attacks, no military spending gravy train.

December 29, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 4:07 PM


It's a Myth: There's No Evidence That Coffee Stunts Kids' Growth ( Joseph Stromberg, 12/20/13, Smithsonian)

Despite decades of research into the effects of coffee drinking, there is absolutely no evidence that it stunts kids' growth.

"It's 'common knowledge,' so to speak--but a lot of common knowledge doesn't turn out to be true," says Mark Pendergrast, the author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. "To my knowledge, no one has ever turned up evidence that drinking coffee has any effect on how much children grow."

That said, there isn't strong evidence that coffee doesn't stunt growth, simply because the long-term effects of coffee on children haven't been thoroughly studied (in part, presumably, because it'd be hard to find a parent willing to make his or her kid drink coffee daily for years at a time). There has, however, been research into the long-term effects of caffeine on children, and no damning evidence has turned up. One study followed 81 adolescents for a six-year period, and found no correlation between daily caffeine intake and bone growth or density.

Theoretically, the closest thing we do have to evidence that caffeine affects growth is a series of studies on adults, which show that increased consumption of caffeinated beverages lead to the body absorbing slightly less calcium, which is necessary for bone growth. However, the effect is negligible: The calcium in a mere tablespoon of milk, it's estimated, is enough to offset the caffeine in eight ounces of coffee. Official NIH recommendations state that, paired with a diet sufficient in calcium, moderate caffeine consumption has no negative effects on bone formation.

But if the whole coffee stunting growth idea isn't rooted in science, where did it come from? Shrewdly calculated advertising.
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Posted by orrinj at 4:05 PM


Rescue of icebound Antarctic ship faces setback (KRISTEN GELINEAU, 12/29/13, Associated Press) 

A Chinese icebreaker that was en route to rescue a ship trapped in Antarctic ice was forced to turn back on Saturday after being unable to push its way through the heavy sea ice.

The Snow Dragon icebreaker came within 7 miles (11 kilometers) of the Russian ship MV Akademik Shokalskiy, which has been stuck since Christmas Eve, but had to retreat after the ice became too thick, said expedition spokesman Alvin Stone.

Posted by orrinj at 4:01 PM


The alliance that shouldn't be (YOEL GUZANSKY, 12/29/2013, Jerusalem Post)

[I]srael would do well to distance itself as much as possible from initiatives to form a common front with Saudi Arabia against the Obama administration.

Even the perception that there is such a united front could harm relations with Israel's primary ally, which in any case are in a sensitive period.

America and Iran want self-determination for the people of the Middle East. Israel and the Sa'uds wamnt authoritarianism.

December 28, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:02 PM



From the beginning, Erdoğan's success was made possible by, among other things, an alliance with the followers of Fethullah Gülen, the leader of a far-flung Islamic order whose members pride themselves not just on their piety but also on their business acumen. As I wrote last year in the magazine, the Gülenists, as they're known, come across in person as amalgams of Dale Carnegie and a Christian missionary: smiling, clean cut, and relentlessly cheerful. Gülen himself lives in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, having fled Turkey in 1999, when it appeared as though the Turkish military was preparing to arrest him on charges of conspiring to overthrow the country's secular order. (Gülen was acquitted in 2008, but he has not returned.)

For much of Turkey's history, civilian governments, together with the military, enforced a rigid and often mindless secularism, where even the most nominal displays of piety were suppressed. For this reason, the Gülenists, as members of an Islamic order, operated in secret, rarely advertising their affiliation, even though their brand of Islam is ostensibly moderate.

When Erdoğan came to power, in 2003, the Gülenists, whether by agreement or by design, began to infiltrate Turkey's police departments and judiciary. This enabled Erdoğan to begin an epic crackdown on the military and on what Turks call "the deep state," a shadowy network of élites that, since Turkey's founding in 1923, has helped enforce the secular order. The crackdown, beginning in 2007, targeted something called "Ergenekon," which prosecutors and police claimed was the name given to the deep state itself. Over the past six years, hundreds of Turks have been arrested and jailed, not just military officers but university leaders, newspapers editors, owners of television stations, and opposition politicians, as well.

There isn't much doubt that something called "the deep state" actually existed in Turkey, and that it used violence and intimidation to enforce the secular state enshrined by Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal, or Atatürk. 

Posted by orrinj at 6:54 PM


A Deadly Mix in Benghazi (DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, December 28, 2013, NY Times)

A BOYISH-LOOKING AMERICAN DIPLOMAT was meeting for the first time with the Islamist leaders of eastern Libya's most formidable militias.

It was Sept. 9, 2012. Gathered on folding chairs in a banquet hall by the Mediterranean, the Libyans warned of rising threats against Americans from extremists in Benghazi. One militia leader, with a long beard and mismatched military fatigues, mentioned time in exile in Afghanistan. An American guard discreetly touched his gun.

"Since Benghazi isn't safe, it is better for you to leave now," Mohamed al-Gharabi, the leader of the Rafallah al-Sehati Brigade, later recalled telling the Americans. "I specifically told the Americans myself that we hoped that they would leave Benghazi as soon as possible."

Yet as the militiamen snacked on Twinkie-style cakes with their American guests, they also gushed about their gratitude for President Obama's support in their uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. They emphasized that they wanted to build a partnership with the United States, especially in the form of more investment. They specifically asked for Benghazi outlets of McDonald's and KFC.

The diplomat, David McFarland, a former congressional aide who had never before met with a Libyan militia leader, left feeling agitated, according to colleagues. But the meeting did not shake his faith in the prospects for deeper involvement in Libya. Two days later, he summarized the meeting in a cable to Washington, describing a mixed message from the militia leaders.
Despite "growing problems with security," he wrote, the fighters wanted the United States to become more engaged "by 'pressuring' American businesses to invest in Benghazi."

The cable, dated Sept. 11, 2012, was sent over the name of Mr. McFarland's boss, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Later that day, Mr. Stevens was dead, killed with three other Americans in Benghazi in the most significant attack on United States property in 11 years, since Sept. 11, 2001.

As the attacks begin, there are seven Americans at the mission, including five armed diplomatic security officers; the information officer, Sean Smith; and Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Both Mr. Smith and Ambassador Stevens die in the attack.

The cable was a last token of months of American misunderstandings and misperceptions about Libya and especially Benghazi, many fostered by shadows of the earlier Sept. 11 attack. The United States waded deeply into post-Qaddafi Libya, hoping to build a beachhead against extremists, especially Al Qaeda. It believed it could draw a bright line between friends and enemies in Libya. But it ultimately lost its ambassador in an attack that involved both avowed opponents of the West and fighters belonging to militias that the Americans had taken for allies.

Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO's extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.

A fuller accounting of the attacks suggests lessons for the United States that go well beyond Libya. It shows the risks of expecting American aid in a time of desperation to buy durable loyalty, and the difficulty of discerning friends from allies of convenience in a culture shaped by decades of anti-Western sentiment. Both are challenges now hanging over the American involvement in Syria's civil conflict.

The attack also suggests that, as the threats from local militants around the region have multiplied, an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests.

Posted by orrinj at 10:04 AM


Who are the losers in the 'Duck Dynasty' flap? (CHARLES HOSKINSON, DECEMBER 27, 2013, DC Examiner)

The losers: A&E executives, of course, who knew all along that the Robertson family members were conservative Christians, yet did the world's worst imitation of Claude Rains in "Casablanca" when gay groups complained.

And while we're on that subject, the other big loser is GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, which showed how far it had strayed off the path of encouraging tolerance into the dark woods where conformity is enforced by witchhunts and demands for blood sacrifices. GLAAD's intolerance sparked what its leaders called the worst backlash they'd ever seen -- a backlash that included prominent members of the gay community such as Andrew Sullivan and Camille Paglia.

That's right: Two groups of smug, urban sophisticates got outsmarted by a backwoodsman who shoots ducks for a living.

Heckuva job, folks.

Posted by orrinj at 8:41 AM


Can South Sudan still avoid civil war? (DEutsche-Welle, 12/28/13)

Leading politicians from the south often have in past held posts as commanders in the rebel ranks. Also today's president, Salva Kiir, fought alongside Garang. But in 1991, a 40-year-old officer split the SPLA: Riek Machar, the man who later could become vice president of independent South Sudan. Garang's idea had been to reform Sudan as a whole, Machar instead wanted an independent country for the south.

Kiir and Machar have been in a power struggle for decades and also come from two different ethnic groups - a fact they both try to use to their own advantage. Kiir has the backing of the Dinka, the largest ethnic group making up around 40 percent of the population. Machar, who's now accused of instigating a coup against Kiir, is a member of the Nuer group which makes up around 20 percent of the 8 million to 9 million people in the country. Those ethnic groups are being "mobilizied and used," Schomerus said.

Posted by orrinj at 8:34 AM


Wyoming can give homeless a place to live, and save money (Kerry Drake, December 3, 2013, WyoFile)

In 2005, Utah set out to do something very different than the typical strategy of getting the hard-core homeless off drugs and alcohol, and making them jump through enough bureaucratic hoops to obtain some state assistance and finally get what they need most: permanent housing.

Utah started a pilot program that took 17 people in Salt Lake City who had spent an average of 25 years on the street and put them in apartments. Caseworkers were assigned to help them become self-sufficient, but there were no strings attached - if they failed, the participants still had a place to live.

The "Housing First" program's goal was to end chronic homelessness in Utah within 10 years. Through 2012, it had helped reduce the 2,000 people in that category when it began by 74 percent. Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah's Homeless Task Force, said the state is on track to meet its goal by 2015, and become the first state in the nation to do so.

Fewer homeless, a Bush legacy (David Frum, 4/29/13, CNN)

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that the number of the chronically homeless declined by 30% between 2005 and 2007. You might have expected the numbers to spike again when the financial crisis hit but no. Since 2007, the number of chronic homeless has dropped another 19%.

A broader measure of the number of homeless counts the number of people living out of doors on one randomly chosen night. That broader measure has also improved through the economic crisis. Between January 2011 and January 2012, homelessness among veterans dropped by 7%.

To what or whom do we owe this good news?

In very large part, we owe it to the president whose library opened in Dallas last week: George W. Bush.

For three decades, we have debated what causes homelessness and how to deal with it. Is homelessness a mental health problem? A substance abuse problem? A problem caused by gentrification and urban redevelopment? Or something else again?

The Bush administration substituted a much simpler idea -- an idea that happened to work. Whatever the cause of homelessness, the solution is ... a home.

You really have to be as dumb as a conservative to figure that one out, huh?

Posted by orrinj at 8:25 AM


Law School Grad Forced Into Retail Job Blogs The Loss Of His 'Last Shred Of Dignity' (ERIN FUCHS , DEC. 27, 2013, Business Insider)

As the New Year looms, many law graduates with heavy debt have yet to find work as attorneys -- including the author of the self-deprecating new blog "Law Grad Working Retail."
The blog's anonymous author graduated from a law school that was in the top 50 ranked by U.S. News and World Report. He was on law review and even got a summer position at a firm after his second year. He didn't get a job offer though. 

This grad still hasn't found legal work and took a job selling cologne just before the holidays to make ends meet. Now he says he's "liveblogging the loss of my last shred of dignity." [...]

The sadder parts involve managers talking to him like he's an idiot. From the blog:

The other day I was in the stock room alone unpacking inventory and I was throwing cardboard boxes into this big dumpster. I wasn't breaking them down because I was going to wait until I was done and then break them all down at the end. A manager came in and f---ing chewed my ass out telling me to never throw boxes in there without breaking them down first. She actually explained to me very slowly that the purpose of breaking down the boxes was so we could fit more boxes in. I was on law review.

He's also constantly afraid he'll run into somebody he knows. He really, really doesn't want anybody to see him cleaning.

"[A]s much as it would suck for a law school classmate to see me selling cologne, seeing me cleaning up broken glass on my hands and knees would be a million times worse," he writes.

Pssst...lazy people throw the boxes into the dumpster without breaking them down.  And no one goes back into the dumpster to get the boxes and break them down, nor would it be efficient to do so. He really only gave his manager two choices : slacker or idiot.  She was giving him the benefoit of the doubt assuming the latter.  

December 27, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 2:37 PM


NSA Struggles to Make Sense of Flood of Surveillance Data (JULIA ANGWIN, Dec. 25, 2013, WSJ)

 William Binney, creator of some of the computer code used by the National Security Agency to snoop on Internet traffic around the world, delivered an unusual message here in September to an audience worried that the spy agency knows too much.

It knows so much, he said, that it can't understand what it has.

"What they are doing is making themselves dysfunctional by taking all this data," Mr. Binney said at a privacy conference here.

The agency is drowning in useless data, which harms its ability to conduct legitimate surveillance, claims Mr. Binney, who rose to the civilian equivalent of a general during more than 30 years at the NSA before retiring in 2001.

Sure, you can record every word spoken or written by 300 million people, but you'd need 300 million other people to spend every waking moment listening to and reading it all.

Posted by orrinj at 2:36 PM


There Were Zero Somali Pirate Hijackings This Year (DAVID YANOFSKY, 12/27/13, QUARTZ)

Not a single vessel was hijacked this year off the Horn of Africa, where piracy waged by Somalis was once rampant, according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence.

December 26, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 5:23 PM

60 IN '14:

GOP surges ahead of Democrats in 2014 generic ballot (Rebecca Kaplan, 12/26/13, CBS NEWS)

A new CNN/ORC International poll released Thursday shows Republicans holding a 49 percent to 44 percent edge over Democrats in the "generic ballot," which asks registered voters whether they would choose a Democrat or a Republican in the midterm elections without identifying specific candidates. [...]

Just three in 10 registered voters who were surveyed said they were extremely or very enthusiastic about voting in the upcoming elections, which are still nearly a year away. Democrats are less interested, with just 22 percent saying they are extremely or very enthusiastic about voting. Republicans have slightly more interest - 36 percent.

Posted by orrinj at 5:18 PM


Dan Ariely's New Evidence That People Don't Care Much About Taxes (Paul Solman, 12/26/13, PBS)
Paul Solman spoke with Duke psychologist Dan Ariely about what he thinks is his most surprising research of the year. [...]

Paul Solman: What surprised you the most in the last year?

Dan Ariely: So the thing that surprised me the most in the last year was some experiments we were trying to do on taxes. Now, it's very hard to experiment for real on taxes, so we experimented in a small way. So we would bring people to the lab and we would give them some menial tasks. They would basically see words and they had to classify whether they were real words or not real words. And we paid them tiny amounts of money for each categorization they did.

And then we changed the taxes. Some people paid no tax, some people had 25 percent tax, 50 percent tax.

Paul Solman: On what you were giving them.

Dan Ariely: On what we were giving them. And the reality was that we found no difference between their performance. No difference between how people performed on those three levels. And it still baffles me, you know, I didn't expect people to work half as much for the 50 percent taxes, but I expected them to work less. But we found overall, though, no difference.

December 25, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 5:51 PM


The French Disconnection : The country is in decline, according 74% of the French. And 83% say their president's policies are 'ineffectual.' (John Vinocur, Dec. 25, 2013, WSJ)

'A climate of pain and a feeling of despondency reign, which block any self-projection into a better future. It's the compost in which a possible social explosion is fermenting. Attention is called to the difficulty elected officials are having in creating a sense of proportion and inspiring confidence. This climate of pessimism and defiance is feeding extremist arguments about the impotence of the authorities."

The above paragraph doesn't come from some foreign journalistic Chicken Little reveling in (or reeling through) a tough, despairing moment for the eternally contrary (or is it the gifted and ingenious) French. Rather, it is a message extracted last month from an Interior Ministry report on the mood of the nation, dispatched to high officials in the government and leaked at the ministry's displeasure to Le Figaro.

Posted by orrinj at 5:46 PM


Iran's top leaders praise spirit of Christmas (Rebecca Shabad, 12/24/13, The Hill)

Rouhani on Monday retweeted Iran's conservative supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after he praised Jesus Christ in a tweet on Christmas Eve.

Jesus #Christ, the Son of #Mary, was a herald of God's grace, blessing &guidance for man. 1/12/1987

-- (@khamenei_ir) December 24, 2013
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was responsible for negotiating the interim deal Iran reached with the United States and its allies, also tweeted about Christmas.

May the spirit of Christmas bring joy, peace, empathy and compassion to everyone throughout the coming year. Merry Christmas.

-- Javad Zarif (@JZarif) December 24, 2013 [...] 

The Obama administration hopes to strike a final deal if Iran satisfies the first agreement's requirements. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have both acknowledged an effort to shut down Iran's program entirely could never be on the table.

Rouhani reiterated that position in a tweet Monday.

We'll never give up our right to #nuclear energy. But we're working towards removing all doubts and answer all reasonable questions.

-- Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) December 23, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:37 AM


The sermon/benediction at First Baptist Church in Lebanon, NH last night concerned the "Christmas Spirit" and how the things we associate with that Spirit are implicated in the following passage from Galatians 5:

13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.

14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.

16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.

17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.

18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.

19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,

20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,

21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith

May you all enjoy the fruit of the Spirit on this and every day.

Posted by orrinj at 10:15 AM


With (and Without) God on Our Side : a review of Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy by Andrew Preston  (MICHAEL KIMMAGE, 4/19/12, New Republic)

In over six hundred pages, Preston charts the scope and the centrality of religion in American politics, from the seventeenth century to the present. This book merges American history with the history of Christianity, and in doing so it qualifies the story of Christian empire. Unlike the Christian empires of the past, America has never had an established church. Nor did the American Revolution result in empire. The animating spirit behind much of Preston's narrative is Christian republicanism, and no Christian republic has ever had the territory or the influence or the power that the United States would come to possess.           

Preston's argument is worth outlining in detail. It has the shape of a double helix. One strand entails the melding of Christian sentiment with state power, through diplomatic maneuvers and the waging of war. This is the sword of the spirit, cherished by the Puritans and by George W. Bush alike. The other strand inverts the ideal of the church militant, appealing instead to a Christian hunger for international peace, for the beating of swords into ploughshares, for a fraternity of nations liberated from war. This is the shield of faith. Preston weaves these metaphors, both taken from Paul's letter to the Ephesians, into a sweeping historical analysis.

Seeking to explain why "U.S. foreign policy has often acquired the tenor of a moral crusade," Preston first turns his attention to the seventeenth century. Avidly Protestant, "the American colonies never underwent a counterreformation," he observes, and they waged almost continuous war against enemies deemed theologically other--i.e. Catholics and Native Americans. These Christian soldiers prided themselves on fighting holy wars, regularly fitting themselves into Old Testament patterns, the New World's Israelites imbued with "a consistent belief in America as a chosen nation and in Americans as a chosen people."            

Going forward, Preston accents the Protestant origins of the American Revolution. London was equated with Rome, and "the new political order [in America] newly codified a very old and very Protestant tradition of hostility to arbitrary power," Preston observes. American historians have outdone themselves in analyzing the Founders and the Enlightenment, the legacy of Hume and Montesquieu in American political thought. Preston notes that "Adams, Washington, and especially Jefferson cited Milton to justify or explain their political views," citations that reflect the rise of an American-style Christian republicanism. In the place of an established church, and opposed to the Church of England, not to mention the Church of Rome, was the first amendment to the constitution.

America's Christian republicanism could be warlike, and it could just as well be pacifist. A Vermont newspaper labeled the War of 1812 "a holy war," while this same war so outraged other (no less devout) New Englanders that they publically debated secession from the Union. The War of 1812 provoked "the first truly pacifistic antiwar movement" in the United States, Preston writes. Antiwar movements would continue to emanate from New England for centuries to come. In antebellum America, Christian republicanism nurtured the abolitionist spirit, and the Civil War was (among other things) a war over the proper relationship between the Christian faith and the American polity.

Preston applies a consciously contemporary vocabulary to the Civil War. This was "the nation's first war of humanitarian intervention," he states, with North and South construed as separate countries, one advanced and the other backwards. Abolitionists defined the Union's campaign as "a war of liberation." The Civil War marked another portentous development: the entry of Catholics into American civic life. What had been implacably Protestant, in the American self-conception, was becoming more broadly Christian and was destined to become Judeo-Christian in the twentieth century. Catholics, followed by Jews, did a great deal to link America to the outside world. So did millions of Protestant missionaries in the far-flung lands they were laboring to convert. In the second half of the nineteenth century, these American missionaries were "the brokers of global cultural exchange," Preston argues, just as the United States was inserting itself into the global economy and scrambling for empire with the great European powers.

Between World War I and World War II, pacifist aspirations kept colliding with the call for war. In fact, the American presidents of this period could only justify overseas war by promising international peace. Woodrow Wilson was the first to do so, motivated in his foreign policy by "Christian reformism," as Preston calls it. Wilson was drawn forward by his vision of a League of Nations, which was to be headquartered in Geneva, "the birthplace of Calvinism and the seat of Reformed Protestantism," Preston reminds us. Wilson's dreams collapsed beneath the opposition of more conservative American Protestants.

Where Woodrow Wilson failed, Franklin Roosevelt succeeded. FDR's was a "serene spirituality," and no less tenacious for its serenity. Synthesizing centuries of historical experience, FDR held "the Christian republican view that religion was the source of democratic freedom because it was the source of conscience and private belief," Preston writes. Roosevelt pushed this conviction in an ecumenical direction. Catholics and Jews were invited to participate in an American project sure to outshine the authoritarian evils of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

Preston moves from FDR to John Foster Dulles, who is often pictured as the archetypal anti-Soviet crusader, a dour Presbyterian who happily waved the sword of the spirit. Preston revises this caricature: an "ecumenical Christian," Dulles "stood at the crux of Protestant idealism and realism." In the 1940s, Dulles envisioned a world of postwar ploughshares, a joining of global hands, and was enraged when the Soviet Union refused to honor his vision. For Dulles, an idealistic dream of peace came to mandate an eventual Cold War realism.

Preston's double helix of an argument is visible throughout his Cold War chapters. He emphasizes the dissent of Christian liberals from Eisenhower's anti-communism, rightly dubbing the 1950s "an era falsely remembered for its homogeneity." The antiwar movement of the '60s widened such dissent. In reaction, the '70s witnessed an intensifying alliance between conservative Christians, together with a handful of rightward turning Jews, and the Republican Party.

The beneficiary of this reaction was Ronald Reagan, about whom Preston makes two shrewd points. One is that Reagan narrowed religion's political application, as opposed to Roosevelt and Truman, who sought something broadly national in their religious appeals, and as opposed to John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, who shied away from Judeo-Christian fervor. Reagan enthusiastically "deployed religious rhetoric to rally his supporters rather than to bind the nation together as a whole behind a common cause," Preston contends. And yet Reagan eschewed a holy war with the Soviet Union. His tactic was to imply an ecumenical, peace-loving bond between the American and Russian people, whatever the Politburo felt about the status of the Soviet soul. This is the climax of Preston's argument: "Reagan ... discarded the sword of the spirit for the shield of faith," and on these terms the Cold War came to its magical end.

Preston does not defer to the internet age, with its pressure to streamline, to simplify, and to bundle information behind a sensational thesis statement. Nor is this a conventional academic book: in fashioning an unapologetically master narrative, Preston juggles three centuries and multiple world religions. Coming after a generation of historians who discovered the minority in American history, Preston balances minority with majority in pursuit of his enormous question: in what way has religion invented America?

...Promised Land/Crusader State.

Posted by orrinj at 9:57 AM


Adam Smith, Communitarian : a review of Adam Smith's Pluralism by Jack Russell Weinstein (DAVID J. DAVIS, December 19, 2013, American Conservative)

To appreciate Smith fully, Weinstein rightly suggests, we must dispose of Kant's quest for singularity and uniformity and, following thinkers like MacIntyre, acknowledge the permanent reality of differing moral traditions.

Much of the book is spent illustrating Smith's appreciation for the kind of variety and depth in human nature and reason that is absent from the Kantian tradition. Smith, Weinstein argues, did not bifurcate the human faculties of reason and emotion, which is why any attempt to develop a single Smithian motivation for human action is erroneous. Reason and emotion are too interlinked in the human condition to be separated. This is why Smith distrusted any logical or analytical approach to human society that demoted emotion and intuition to a second or third tier of experience. Weinstein explains that for Smith, far from emotions being the antithesis of reason, they regularly "initiate, are the consequence of, and are often indistinguishable from reason."

The complexity that Smith sees in human reason flows over into his study of human society. Smith refused to accept the cynical view of human nature propounded by Hobbes and Mandeville. Yet he was also a moral realist who acknowledged human vice and vanity, which were at odds with an equally evident inclination toward virtue. Following from this, in a particularly insightful portion of the book Weinstein completely discredits any purely economic reading of Smith. He contends that "life is not a marketplace" for Smith. Instead, "it is often familial, pedagogical, spiritual, and natural; it is only sometimes commercial." Competition and self-interest were means to an end, not ends in themselves. Rather, Weinstein sees the healthy notion of harmony as the most dominant ideal running through Smith's philosophy.

Weinstein builds upon Smithian harmony, explaining that while life is not always commercial, it is always communal. Community, in turn, derives its lifeblood from "imagination," because imagination creates the capacity for sympathy. Unlike Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, Smith "presumes human difference" as a necessary and inherent aspect of civilization, rejecting the Kantian ideal of "noncontextual normativity." Smith recognized that cultural, temporal, and social differences shaped norms and values, making it impossible to create a single, all-inclusive norm of human behavior. This is why sympathy is so important. It offers a means that is natural to the human condition--our desire to commiserate with our fellow man--to bridge the gap between our differences.

Smith believed that "political society is not derived from a social contract," according to Weinstein. Instead, society is a natural expression of what it means to be human. The state of nature for Smith is one of community, and the ultimate questions related to human society are questions of morality and virtue, not economics and politics. Thus, a broad, morally robust education rooted in a particular community is essential to forming sympathetic individuals. While Smith did not idealize the role of education--it could not completely eliminate human selfishness and vanity--he believed it had the power to "direct vanity to proper objects" and to "convert competing passions into a harmonious character."

The role of language is an essential component of Smith's moral philosophy because it is the fundamental connection between the individual and the community. In his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, Smith expounded on the virtue of both poetry and prose, which "provide the capacity for exchange and agreement" in different contexts of human relations. It is in the sections of Adam Smith's Pluralism on the importance of language that Shaftesbury's influence on Smith shines through the strongest, particularly with Shaftesbury's stress on language as a vehicle for unifying "the good and the beautiful."

Some years ago, waiting at the bottom of the local ski hill for our kids, I was talking about the national debt with a friend who happens to be one of the nation's leading economists. He was quite worked up about the size of the debt until I asked him what difference it made in purely economic terms, to which he replied : "None!"

"Then why does it bother yopu so much?"

"It's just unsightly!"

Reason is small beer compared to aesthetics.

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Posted by orrinj at 9:52 AM


A Marshmallow World (Mark Steyn, December 24, 2013, SteynOnline)

I didn't plan to do a Christmas single. It was a happy accident arising out of what was really a very minor bit of administrative confusion on an entirely different project that found me in London in September with a singer, an arranger, an orchestra and a bit of spare time on our hands. And I thought it would be fun as a postscript to the other, weightier business to do a seasonal song with Jessica, just as a little promotional giveaway for some of our clients - a kind of musical Christmas card, like the ones Johnny Mercer used to send out to distributors and record store owners every December when he was the executive honcho at Capitol. Jessica is a great mainstay of the West End stage - she's starred in Me And My Girl, South Pacific, Sweeney Todd and recently premiered the new Michel Legrand musical Marguerite. If memory serves, I first met her at Paddington Station many years ago when Cameron Mackintosh, flush from his success with Cats and Les Miserables and whatnot, inaugurated a chair of contemporary theatre at Oxford University and asked me to moderate the all-star workshops. So heading down to Oxford to chair a session on acting with Patti LuPone (currently on Broadway in Gypsy) and sometime Bond villain Jonathan Pryce, I bumped into Jessica and Cameron's mum on the platform at Paddington. In the Nineties, I helped write a one-woman show for her at the Edinburgh Festival, and she appeared as a guest on a terrible BBC celebrity quiz I used to host - parlor games, songs, jokes, that kind of thing. Jessica's a tremendous trouper and has been ever since she was a teenager singing with her dad's band at a club in Mayfair when Barbra Streisand walked in one night and Jessica decided to lurch through an impromptu medley of "The Way We Were", "People", "You Don't Bring Me Flowers", etc, to an ever more stony-faced Barbra. ("I thought she'd want to hear something she knew.") She's a terrific impressionist - she has a little Yuletide medley where she starts with Eartha Kitt doing "Santa Baby" and works her way through Streisand, Julie Andrews et al - but I've always loved Jessica singing in her own voice, so I said to her, "Fancy a duet on 'Marshmallow World'?" And next thing you know, there we were at the Angel Studios on a dismal grey day in Islington rhapsodizing about meteorological joys north London rarely enjoys:

Oh, the world is your snowball
See how it grows
And that's how it goes
Whenever it snows...

And you know, with the band behind you, fully loaded with sleigh bells and glockenspiels, it's hard not to believe that's so.

Posted by orrinj at 9:37 AM

Creamy Cornbread Casserole (John Broening, 12/25/13,  The Denver Post)

½ cup all-purpose flour

¾ cup yellow corn meal

4 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1 15-ounce can sweet whole kernel corn (do not drain)

1 15-ounce can cream-style sweet corn

¾ cup sour cream or crème fraîche

½ cup heavy cream

2 eggs

1½ cups shredded cheese (sharp cheddar, Parmesan, pecorino or Manchego)

Pinch of cayenne and nutmeg (optional)


Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a 7-by-11-inch baking dish; set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt.

In a large bowl, mix melted butter, corn kernels and their liquid, cream-style corn, sour cream, heavy cream, eggs and 1¼ cups cheese; stir until combined. Whisk in dry ingredients and spices, if using, combine and pour into prepared dish. Sprinkle the remaining ¼-cup cheese on top and bake until golden, 30-35 minutes.

Posted by orrinj at 9:35 AM


Suppressing the children of Egypt's revolution : In Egypt, the police and military are repressing young revolutionaries: Three iconic figures of Mubarak's peaceful overthrow have been imprisoned, and one young activist was shot dead (Deutsche-Welle, 12/25/13)

If Egypt ever had a tragic revolutionary, it would be Bassam Mohsen. The young activist died of his injuries last Saturday (22.12.2013) - the police had shot him in the head and chest.

Mohsen's tale started in 2011 when he was just 20 years old: He left his hometown Suez to join the protests against then-President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo. He was among the thousands who demonstrated for democracy and freedom at Tahrir Square, and he also took part in protests after Mubarak stepped down that same year. Bassem lost an eye when a policeman shot him in the face in front of the interior ministry. But that didn't stop him.

In 2012, Mohsen protested against the imprisonment of friends who faced a military tribunal. He was sentenced to two years in prison. But Mohamed Morsi granted him amnesty, and he didn't serve time.

Discontent about the political and economic situation in the country grew under the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Mohsen participated in some serious scuffles with Brotherhood supporters. Mohsen joined the Tamarod ("rebellion") movement, becoming its leader in Suez. The movement's petition and mass demonstrations backed up the military's overthrow of Morsi.

Prefer tidy military repression to unruly democracy and may you get it.

Posted by orrinj at 9:32 AM


'The Year Without a Santa Claus': A children's book and Rankin/Bass combine for a great holiday special : Despite less-known source material, 'The Year Without a Santa Claus' is a holiday classic. (Molly Driscoll, December 25, 2013, CS Monitor)

["T]he Year Without a Santa Claus," the other most well-known Rankin/Bass special, is based on a fairly obscure children's book and, despite a little-known source, the story of "Year," written by William Keenan and based on the picture book of the same name by Phyllis McGinley, is both memorable and heartwarming.

The premise of "Year" is pretty simple. Santa, who is after all human, too, gets a cold right around Christmas. He would soldier on, but he's been feeling a lack of Christmas spirit in the world lately. Would anyone even notice, he wonders, if he didn't turn up?

The way in which Mrs. Claus, the elves Jingle and Jangle, and a boy from America named Iggy prove it to him is somewhat complicated, but suffice it to say that it's the children of the world who finally show him that the holiday spirit is alive and well. Santa has given them presents year after year, and now it's their turn - the North Pole's mail system is showered with cards and gifts for Santa Claus. Santa is visibly moved. "I didn't know children had such kind hearts," he says.

It's a lovely moral, one that any kid should hear, and it's the characters of the Heat Miser and Snow Miser who make the special not only thoughtful but also very entertaining (and tuneful). 

Posted by orrinj at 9:30 AM


Posted by orrinj at 9:27 AM


Posted by orrinj at 8:09 AM


The Largely Forgotten, Cynical Genius Behind A Christmas Story : Jean Shepherd was an icon in his time. Now he's not. What happened? (CHRIS HELLERDEC, 24 2013, Slate)

Shepherd's famous wit soured into pessimism as he aged, too. During one of his last radio interviews, according to a Time column published soon after his death, he repeatedly dismissed his radio years as "just another gig." (In an essay for Slate, longtime fan Donald Fagen guessed that Shepherd "succumbed to that very real disease of self-loathing.") At the very same time that A Christmas Story was growing into a latter-day cultural phenomenon, Shepherd was downplaying the bulk of his career. He sarcastically criticized his "night people"--the late-night devotees who listened to his wild, rambling stories--and disavowed radio as little more than a stepping-stone to television and film. To borrow his favorite slur, Jean Shepherd had become a fathead.

Mercifully, A Christmas Story doesn't share even a smidge of that cynicism. The movie embraces all of Shepherd's warm humor--tinged by the horror of childhood, of course--without any maudlin sentiment. Perhaps the movie outlasted the man because it's bigger than he ever was, an ideal way to tell the stories he created decades earlier. It takes the greatest parts of Shepherd's routine--his inimitable wordplay, the way he measured his voice to match a story's mood, that friendly chuckle--and enhances them with on-screen magic. "The Old Man" and "Ralphie's Mother" are ever-present in Shepherd's work, but as played by Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon, they're brought alive in a way they couldn't be in print or on the radio. That's what makes A Christmas Story special. Just as Shepherd narrates the movie as an adult, director Bob Clark presents it through the eyes of a young boy. This allows for a depth to Ralphie's naïve viewpoint, while also making gags out of the things he doesn't understand. When The Old Man wins a "major award"--a crude lamp shaped like a woman's leg, which he won for reasons unknown--Ralphie lingers in front of it, smitten by the "the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window." It's a bizarre mixture of adult temptation and childish fascination, and it epitomizes the movie's conflicted, nostalgic perspective.

The differences between A Christmas Story and Shepherd's stories are largely insignificant, for what it's worth. If you listen to "Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid," you'll hear some many of his best lines. If you read In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, you'll see that the movie is basically a collection of vignettes, inspired by his funniest work. The effect is clear: Without Jean Shepherd, there would by no Christmas Story--and the movie resonates so strongly because he had a unique talent for making his audience feel like his stories were their own. "You can tell a story about anything," he told an interviewer in 1971, "but the only stories that have any fidelity, any feeling, are stories that either did happen to you or conceivably could have happened to you."

Posted by Orrin Judd at 7:24 AM


The Incarnation (Frank Sheed, From A Map of Life)

Christ is God-made-man: that is He is truly God and He is truly man. He is God-with the nature of God: He took to Himself and made His own a complete human nature-a real human body and a real human soul. He is, then, one person-God-with two natures-divine and human. Nor is all this mere abstract matter, of no real concern to us. Everything in our life is bound up with the one person and the two natures of Christ. We must grasp this central luminous fact, or everything remains in darkness.

The distinction between person and nature is not some deep and hidden thing to which philosophy only comes after centuries of study. It is, on the contrary, a distinction so obvious that the smallest child who can talk at all makes it automatically. If in the half-light he sees a vague outline that might be anything, he asks "What is that?" If, on the other hand, he can see that it is a human being, but cannot distinguish or does not recognize the features, he asks "Who is that?" The distinction between what and who is the distinction between nature and person. Of every man the two questions-what is he? and who is he?-can be answered. Every man, in other words, is both a nature and a person. Into my every action, nature and person enter. For instance I speak. I, the person, speak. But I am able to speak only because I am a man, because it is of my nature to speak. I discover that there are all sorts of things I can do: and all sorts of things I cannot do. My nature decides. I can think, speak, walk: these actions go with the nature of man, which I have. I cannot fly, for this goes with the nature of a bird, which I have not.

My nature, then, decides what I can do: it may be thought of as settling the sphere of action possible to me. According to my nature, I can act: apart from it, I cannot. But my nature does not do these things-I, the person, do them. It is not my nature that speaks, walks, thinks: it is I, the person.

A man may then be thought of as a person-who acts-and a nature-which decides the field in which he acts. In man there is simply one nature to one person. In Christ there are two natures to one person: and our minds used to the one-nature-to-one-person state of man tend to cry out that there is a contradiction in the idea of two natures to one person.

But once it has been grasped that "person" and "nature" are not identical in meaning: once it has been grasped that the person acts and the nature is that principle in him which decides his sphere of action, then we see that mysterious as Our Lord's person and nature may be, there is no contradiction. God the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity,[1] assumed-took to Himself-a human nature: made it His own: not simply as something which He could use as a convenient sphere to act in, but really as His own: just as our nature is our own. In us the relation of person and nature is such that not merely do we say "I have a human nature" (as we might say "I have an umbrella") but person and nature are so fused in one concrete reality that we say "I am a man." So God the Son can say not only "I am God with a human nature to act in" but in the most absolute fullness of meaning He can say "I am man." He does not simply act as man: He is man-as truly man as we.

This one person has two spheres of action: Christ our Lord could act either in His nature as God or in His nature as man. Remember the principle stated a few paragraphs back, that it is not the nature that acts, but the person. Therefore, whether He was acting in His divine nature or in His human nature, it was always the person who acted: and there was only the one person-God.

Then this is the position. Christ is God: therefore whatever Christ did, God did. When Christ acted in His divine nature (as when He raised the dead to life) it was God who did it: when Christ acted in His human nature (as when He was born, suffered and died) it was God who did it: God was born, God suffered, God died. For it is the person who acts: and Christ is God.

[originally posted: 12/28/08]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 7:00 AM


Ongoing Incarnation: Would Christmas have come even if we had not sinned? (Philip Yancey, 1/10/2008, Christianity Today)

More than two centuries before the Reformation, a theological debate broke out that pitted theologian Thomas Aquinas against an upstart from Britain, John Duns Scotus. In essence, the debate circled around the question, "Would Christmas have occurred if humanity had not sinned?"

Whereas Aquinas viewed the Incarnation as God's remedy for a fallen planet, his contemporary saw much more at stake. For Duns Scotus, the Word becoming flesh as described in the prologue to John's Gospel must surely represent the Creator's primary design, not some kind of afterthought or Plan B. Aquinas pointed to passages emphasizing the Cross as God's redemptive response to a broken relationship. Duns Scotus cited passages from Ephesians and Colossians on the cosmic Christ, in whom all things have their origin, hold together, and move toward consummation.

Did Jesus visit this planet as an accommodation to human failure or as the center point of all creation?

Had He anticipated our sinfulness, God would have had no need to become Man in order to comprehend our plight, nor have despaired Himself when mortal.

[originally posted 1/10/08]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 6:23 AM


This video contains such a patent lie it can only have been produced by al Qaeda (or The Other Brother) and we pity anyone who falls for it.

[originally posted: 12/11/07]

Posted by orrinj at 6:11 AM

FROM THE ARCHIVES : DUEL IN THE SNOW (Jean Shepherd, 12/24/1974, WOR Radio):

[originally posted : 12/25/12]
Posted by Orrin Judd at 6:00 AM


The Creche By The Side of the Road (Gerard Van der Leun, 12/30/03, American Digest)

It was long past sunset when our yearly Christmas pilgrimage to our families around Sacramento sent us climbing up the Grapevine. My wife
was driving because my eyes don’t adjust quickly to oncoming headlights and because she is, by far, the better driver. My stepson was wedged
within a small mountain of bags and presents in the back seat, his cherubic face illuminated by the gray-blue glow of his Gameboy.

I gazed out the window at the churning wall of trucks and the slate black slopes. Heavy cloud cover made everything more obscure. Only the streams of headlights coming on and the endless red flares of brake lights in front of us broke the darkness. It was the nadir of the year, two days before Christmas, climbing between dark mountains with millions of others, most aiming at some destination filled with the rituals of the season; rituals that seemed, as they often do, mere experiences bereft of any meaning.

It came up fast and passed faster as things often do up on the Grapevine. It was vague at first. A dim smudge of light in the middle of a looming dark hillside. Then it resolved itself as we sped up on it at around 70 miles per hour. We came abreast and I saw it clearly for only a few brief seconds. It was that rarest of all this season’s sights, a roadside nativity scene.

[originally posted: 2003-12-30]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:56 AM


The Littlest Angel (Charles Tazewell)

And the voice of God spoke, saying: Of all the gifts of all the angels, I find that this small box pleases me the most. Its contents are of the earth and of men, and my Son is born to be king of both. These are the things my Son, too, will know and love and cherish and then, regretfully, will leave behind him when his task is done. I accept this gift in the name of the child, Jesus, born of Mary this night in Bethlehem.

(Originally posted: 12/25/04)

Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:40 AM


Christmas and Christianity: Why religion remains a mainstay of American culture. (JAMES Q. WILSON, December 24, 2004, Wall Street Journal)

Let me suggest that there is a link between religious freedom and the size and vigor of most American churches. We are more religious than any European state precisely because in this country there has never been a national church against which to rebel.

Matters are very different in Europe. The English were dismayed by the constant struggle between a nationally supported Catholic church and a nationally supported Anglican one, interrupted by a brief period of Puritanical rule.

The Scandinavians, when they came under the rule of Social Democratic parties, were expected to dismantle their state-supported churches, but instead they chose to make them instruments of their new welfare states governed by state-managed bureaucracies. The Swedes eliminated all religious qualifications for serving on church boards, so that, as Professors Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have pointed out, control of the Swedish state church has passed into the hands of atheists.

Since the French Revolution in the 18th century, the government has worked, with some ups and downs, toward state regulation of churches. An appointment to be a Roman Catholic bishop must be approved by the government, and an organization called the Observatory of Cults oversees "dangerous" religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and other evangelical movements. Messrs. Stark and Finke argue that state control, however weak, leads to a reduction in church affiliation. [...]

[I]n general, there has been in Europe very little that resembles the First Amendment to the American Constitution. Here, where the free exercise of religion is guaranteed and there is a ban on laws "respecting an establishment of religion," there has never been a national church. Without one, there is no enemy to defeat, and so there has never been a political reason to either rebel or become secular.

In this empty space of religious freedom aspiring ministers compete for adherents. The more skilled the ministers and the more demanding the benefit of becoming an adherent, the more people join them. As a result, mainline Protestant churches, lacking both evangelical zeal and a deeply meaningful religion, have lost the struggle for members to fundamentalist churches that recruit members and expect a lot of them.

This fact worries many people in the Blue States just as it pleases many in the Red ones. Those who are alarmed by the extent of religious belief in this country have roused themselves to make the so-called wall of separation between church and state both higher and firmer. In insisting that we describe our late December holiday as having nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, in fighting to keep every nativity scene away from any government property, by arguing that our freedoms will be compromised by any reference to Christianity, they have succeeded only in intensifying religious beliefs among the great majority of our people who are angered by these assaults.

They would be well advised to let matters alone.

They can't though, because they're trying to establish their religion.

[originally posted: 2004-12-24]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:38 AM


The Climax of History (Matt Connally, Leadership U)

[T]he Biblical view of history is radically unique as compared to all other views, for Christianity alone accounts for the past based solely upon what the records and the eyewitnesses say happened. For example, when a physician named Luke went to write an account for a friend concerning the news of Jesus, he began by stating his sources:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)

Together with the other three gospels--Matthew, Mark, and John--the early church saw these as four different views of the same events, perhaps very comparable to how a director will use several cameras to shoot the same scene for a movie. Although they have variations in style and differ in what details they present and what they emphasize, they weave together into a singular historical record of astonishing depth and complexity (especially when read in light of the Old Testament). And again, they all claim to be first hand accounts of historical events. As the fisherman John put it:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life--the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us--that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us. (1 John 1:1-3)

By contrast, all other views of the past--at least in regard to what God has done--are dictated by man according to presuppositions and/or special revelations. For example, Mohammed dramatically edited 2000 years of Biblical history based upon what he said an angel told him in a cave. So although Muslims claim to descend from Abraham, going through his first son Ishmael rather than his second son Isaac (as the Jews did), their history did not start with Abraham and then gradually develop over the next two millennia; instead, it sprang up all at once in the 7th century A.D. Similar methods of accounting for the past are found in the proclamations of Mormons, all the Gnostic forms of Christianity, and many cults. Even Hinduism, whose history reaches back several thousand years, does not rest upon eyewitness accounts but rather upon mystical revelations. That is why they can exalt Christ as a great spiritual teacher without believing that he is the one and only God.

A slightly different way of doing history is espoused by Naturalism--the worldview which is based upon evolutionary theory. For the most part Naturalists hold to the presupposition that supernatural events simply do not occur. Therefore, the Biblical account must be wrong and should be edited according to an evolutionary view of society. They speculate on what political motives might lay behind particular writings and beliefs and insist, quite ironically, that true religious belief rests upon presuppositions and blind faith.

But at the end of the day we are still confronted with the testimonies about what happened two thousand years ago. The event was so dramatic that Jerusalem, after centuries of being dominated by several empires (the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans) without budging a single inch, suddenly transformed by leaps and bounds. The Roman Empire soon followed, and today the news continues to change societies.

[originally posted: 12/25/08]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:37 AM


The Oxen--A Poem for Christmas 1915 (Thomas Hardy, Times of London, 24 December 1915)

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

[originally posted: 2004-12-24]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:31 AM


The Coming of Jesus in Our Midst (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

When early Christianity spoke of the return of the Lord Jesus, they thought of a great day of judgment. Even though this thought may appear to us to be so unlike Christmas, it is original Christianity and to be taken extremely seriously. When we hear Jesus knocking, our conscience first of all pricks us: Are we rightly prepared? Is our heart capable of becoming God�s dwelling place? Thus Advent becomes a time of self-examination. �Put the desires of your heart in order, O human beings!� (Valentin Thilo), as the old song sings.

It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God, whereas the world fell into trembling when Jesus Christ walked over the earth. That is why we find it so strange when we see the marks of God in the world so often together with the marks of human suffering, with the marks of the cross on Golgotha.

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God�s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God�s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.

[originally posted: 2004-12-24]

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Posted by orrinj at 5:31 AM


Let's Have an American Christmas! (Peter Lawler, December 22, 2012, Big Think)

Our objections to the excessive commodification of Christmas remains basically Puritanical.  Our secularized Puritans sometimes display a hostility to the very idea of the religious holiday as offensive to our egalitarian identity.  But often the objection is softer and on behalf of a more Christian Christmas.  The evangelicals in my semi-rural county sometimes display signs saying "Christmas is a birthday" in their yards. And the objection to turning "Merry Christmas" into "Happy Holidays" is sometimes to the pointless hyper-commercialization Rand celebrates and Walmart promotes.

Our Puritans were against Christmas because it was un-Christian.  And our founders dissed it because it was un-republican and un-American.  It was a decaying English tradition unfit for our enlightened way of life, our new order of the ages.

The Christmas revival in the South was quicker and very antebellum.  The aristocratic southerners quickly became attuned to the gentle relational pleasure of traditional celebrations. And they lost Mr. Jefferson's hostility to what the Bible actually says about God becoming man by being born of a virgin.

We find another distinctively southern American form of Christmas in the "Christmas spiritual."  Most of these haunting tunes adorned with elegantly simple and profoundly Biblical words were written by slaves and collected after the war.  They were preserved and popularized through African-American churches and groups such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Here is a good list of the top ten Christmas spirituals.  It has two flaws that I'm able to notice.  Where's "Mary Had a Baby"?  And "I Wonder as a Wander" is a white Appalachian Christmas song, which is also a distinctively American but somewhat different genre.

These spirituals typically had double meanings.  They indirectly refer to the coming redemptive act of being liberated from chattel slavery.  But they also, quite authentically, refer to the redemption described in the Bible, the redemption from sin and from our homelessness in this world.  Our African-American poets, at their best, showed us that neither form of "the theology of liberation" should stand alone.

So we might begin with them in developing our American criticism of Rand.

[originally posted : 12/23/12]
Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:29 AM


America's Messiah (Michael Linton, December 1997, First Things)

While Messiah is a masterpiece, it is but one of many from Handel's pen, masterpieces that have not endured so steadfastly as Messiah. Why?

I think the answer lies in the fact that for the last two hundred years, English-speaking Christianity, and in particular, American Christianity, has found a singularly eloquent vehicle for self-reflection in Messiah. Despite much talk to the contrary, religion remains deeply important to most Americans. But as many writers have noted, that religiosity is not denominational or even confessional in nature. Instead, it is individualistic, a matter of personal belief and individual choice not dictated by bishops, mediated by ritual, or regulated by the state. Furthermore, American Christianity is deeply eschatological, the sense of the impending eschaton being not so much a dread premonition of a coming doom, but rather a purposeful optimism. Americans work for and expect the eventual establishment of the kingdom of God, that "city on a hill."

Messiah speaks to such a Christianity. Although reminiscent of the lectionary texts from Advent through Trinity from the Book of Common Prayer, the oratorio cannot be said to be denominational (although the lack of passages dealing with Mary certainly gives it a distinctly Protestant cast). Its biblical texts are equally accessible to Episcopalians and National Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals, and until fairly recently, could be said to be known by heart by almost all. Unlike Bach's cantatas and passions, the oratorio requires neither a liturgical setting nor a particular occasion for it to be grasped. And despite the current custom of abridged Christmas performances (an aberration largely the result of reduced attention spans), the oratorio is not seasonal. If the work points to anything at all, it is neither Christmas nor Easter but rather the Second Coming and the individual's faith in Christ's eventual triumph.

Messiah is a concert work for the concert hall, and very much in the mold of the modern Protestant sermon, which entertains its listener for the purpose of edifying him. Like his contemporary George Whitefield (who was also criticized for using theatrical devices for religious ends), Handel uses the conventions of the theater to compel his listener into a personal encounter with the scriptural texts. Messiah, contrary to most critics' readings, is highly dramatic. But its drama is an interior one, a personal confrontation between the individual listener and the story of salvation that Handel unfolds before him. To a population where that confrontation is the fulcrum of their lives, performances of Messiah become almost autobiographical.

It is because of the religious character of Americans that Messiah is so important here. And because of that religious character, it can be said that Messiah forms the foundation of America's art music culture. Not only do performances of the oratorio undergird the finances of many of the country's performing organizations, the work itself is the entrance of tens of thousands into the realm of classical music. It is not only the one classical piece that almost everyone will recognize (hence Madison Avenue's shameless exploitation of it), but in many cases it is the only major classical piece that most amateur musicians will themselves perform.

[originally posted: 12/23/08]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:28 AM


Facing the scandal of Christmas, will we turn away? Or believe and obey?: A Scriptural Reflection on the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Carl E. Olson, December 19, 2010, Ignatius Insight)

[T]he most scandalous, outrageous claim of all is that the God who created all things became flesh and dwelt among us, stooping so low as to be born in a cave some two thousand years ago. "For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven," states the Nicene Creed, "by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man."

No one, other than the occasional Scrooge, is opposed to celebrating family or giving gifts or singing joyful songs. The scandal of Christmas, however, is that the Incarnation is not a vague, sentimental concept, but a stunning, concrete reality. It is an Event that is a Person. And that Person, Jesus Christ, requires a response. If the Lord did give a sign, as the prophet Isaiah states in today's Old Testament reading, we need to ask, "What is it? What does it mean?"

If the Son of God did descend from King David "according to the flesh," as St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, we should wonder, "How? Why? Who?" If this son of the virgin is Emmanuel, we must consider, "How will I respond to the God who is with us?"

Joseph Ratzinger, in a reflection on Christmas (The Blessing of Christmas, Ignatius, 2007), went right to the heart of the matter. "We are too proud to see God," he wrote, "We are like Herod and his theological specialists: on this level, we no longer hear the angels singing. On this level, we may find God either threatening or boring--but nothing more than that! On this level, we no longer want to be 'his own possessions'--that is, God's own possession. All we want it to belong to our own selves. And this is why we cannot receive the one who comes into his own property, for that would oblige us to make a radical change and acknowledge that he possesses us."

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[originally posted: 12/19/10]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:27 AM


The Journey of the Magi (T. S. Eliot)

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

[originally posted: 12/24/09]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:27 AM


The Man Who Told A Christmas Story: What I learned from Jean Shepherd. (Donald Fagen, Dec. 21, 2009, Slate)

In the late '50s, while Lenny Bruce was beginning his climb to holy infamy in jazz clubs on the West Coast, Shepherd's all-night monologues on WOR had already gained him an intensely loyal cult of listeners. Unlike Bruce's provocative nightclub act, which had its origins in the "schpritz" of the Catskills comics, Shepherd's improvised routines were more in the tradition of Midwestern storytellers like Mark Twain, but with a contemporary urban twist: say, Mark Twain after he'd been dating Elaine May for a year and a half. Where Bruce's antics made headlines, Shepherd, with his warm, charismatic voice and folksy style, could perform his most subversive routines with the bosses in the WOR front office and the FCC being none the wiser. At least most of the time.

I was introduced to Shep, as his fans called him, by my weird uncle Dave. Dave, who was a bit of a hipster, used to crash on our sofa when he was between jobs. Being a bookish and somewhat imperious 12-year-old, already desperately weary of life in suburban New Jersey and appalled by Hoss and Little Joe and Mitch Miller and the heinous Bachelor Father, I figured Dave was my man. One night, after ruthlessly beating me at rummy, he put down the cards and said, "Now we're gonna listen to Shepherd--this guy's great." The Zenith table model in the kitchen came to life midway through Shepherd's theme music, a kitschy, galloping Eduard Strauss piece called the "Bahn Frei" polka. And then there was that voice, cozy, yet abounding with jest.

He was definitely a grown-up but he was talking to me--I mean straight to me, with my 12-year-old sensibility, as if some version of myself with 25 more years worth of life experience had magically crawled into the radio, sat down, and loosened his tie. I was hooked. From then on, like legions of other sorry-ass misfits throughout the Northeast, I tuned in every weeknight at 11:15 and let Shep put me under his spell.

You can check out the show at The Brass Figalee. We go on the Carousel of Progress at Disney just to hear his narration.

[originally posted: 12/23/09]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:25 AM


The Other Wise Man (Henry Van Dyke, 1896)

You know the story of the Three Wise Men of the East, and how they travelled from far away to offer their gifts at the manger-cradle in Bethlehem. But have you ever heard the story of the Other Wise Man, who also saw the star in its rising, and set out to follow it, yet did not arrive with his brethren in the presence of the young child Jesus? Of the great desire of this fourth pilgrim, and how it was denied, yet accomplished in the denial; of his many wanderings and the probations of his soul; of the long way of his seeking and the strange way of his finding the One whom he sought--I would tell the tale as I have heard fragments of it in the Hall of Dreams, in the palace of the Heart of Man.

The magi who lived the mandatum novum

(Originally posted: 12/24/04)

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Posted by orrinj at 5:16 AM


Mark's Yuletide Movie Vault (Mark Steyn, 23 Dec 2012)


Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937) is difficult to beat. Two French PoWs have escaped from their camp and found sanctuary on the farm of a German widow. On Christmas Eve they surprise her by building a manger from wood and cardboard and sculpting Jesus, Mary and Joseph from potatoes. One of the escapees is a gruff Jew. 'Baby Jesus, my blood brother, ' he observes.

...there is no bad time of year for a conservative to watch Grand Illusion again.

[originally posted : 12/25/12]
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Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:09 AM


JINGLE BELLS by James Pierpont (Mark Steyn, 11/22/10, excerpted from Mark's book A Song For The Season)

Dashing through the snow
In a one horse open sleigh
O'er the fields we go
Laughing all the way...

As well they might. Just in time for Thanksgiving, here comes, er, "Jingle Bells" - which was written not for the Yuletide season but, allegedly, for Thanksgiving. In Boston, in the fall of 1857, the city's leading music publisher, Oliver Ditson, introduced the world to a new song called "The One-Horse Open Sleigh". Before "White Christmas" and "Rudolph" came along in the Forties, before "Winter Wonderland" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" in the Thirties, the most popular secular seasonal song in the American catalogue was "Jingle Bells", written before the Civil War but such a potent brand a century later that it was still spawning bizarre mutated progeny with every new musical trend - "Jingle Bell Boogie", "Jingle Bell Mambo" and, of course, "Jingle Bell Rock".

I notice a lot of album sleeves credit the writing of "Jingle Bells" to "Anon." And you can see why they'd think that. It doesn't seem the kind of song you'd need a professional to write, and it's hard to imagine, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein, sitting down to rattle it off:

"Okay, we'll start off with 'Jingle Bells'."


"And then for the second line, how about 'Jingle Bells'?"

"Same words, but different notes maybe?"

"Nah, why knock yourself out? And then for the third line we'll go with..."

"Let me guess. 'Jingle...'?"

"Right, but this time we pull the old switcheroo and go with 'Jingle all the way'."

"Great. By the way, when we say 'Jingle Bells', is that a type of bell? Or is it an injunction - 'Jingle', comma, 'Bells'?"

Yet the song is not the work of "Anon". Unlikely as it sounds, a real live songwriter did sit down one day and write "Jingle Bells". His name was James Lord Pierpont and he wrote and published many other songs in his lifetime, among them "The Colored Coquette" and others lost to posterity, but a few that have survived, such as "Our Battle Flag", a paean not to Old Glory but to the banner of the Confederacy. Every song but "Jingle Bells" was a flop.

But, if you're going to be a one-hit wonder, "Jingle Bells" is the one hit to have.

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[originally posted: 12/24/11]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:05 AM


Washington's Gift (THOMAS FLEMING, December 24, 2007, Wall Street Journal)

[W]ashington drew a speech from his coat pocket and unfolded it with trembling hands. "Mr. President," he began in a low, strained voice. "The great events on which my resignation depended having at length taken place; I now have the honor of offering my sincere congratulations to Congress and of presenting myself before them to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the service of my country."

Washington went on to express his gratitude for the support of "my countrymen" and the "army in general." This reference to his soldiers ignited feelings so intense, he had to grip the speech with both hands to keep it steady. He continued: "I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God and those who have the superintendence of them [Congress] to his holy keeping."

For a long moment, Washington could not say another word. Tears streamed down his cheeks. The words touched a vein of religious faith in his inmost soul, born of battlefield experiences that had convinced him of the existence of a caring God who had protected him and his country again and again during the war. Without this faith he might never have been able to endure the frustrations and rage he had experienced in the previous eight months.

Washington then drew from his coat a parchment copy of his appointment as commander in chief. "Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action and bidding farewell to this august body under whom I have long acted, I here offer my commission and take leave of all the employments of public life." Stepping forward, he handed the document to Mifflin.

This was -- is -- the most important moment in American history.

The man who could have dispersed this feckless Congress and obtained for himself and his soldiers rewards worthy of their courage was renouncing absolute power. By this visible, incontrovertible act, Washington did more to affirm America's government of the people than a thousand declarations by legislatures and treatises by philosophers.

[originally posted: 12/24/07]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:05 AM


"The God In The Cave" | From The Everlasting Man (G.K. Chesterton)

Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world. The first act of the divine drama was enacted, not only on no stage set up above the sightseer, but on a dark and curtained stage sunken out of sight; and that is an idea very difficult to express in most modes of artistic expression. It is the idea of simultaneous happenings on different levels of life. Something like it might have been attempted in the more archaic and decorative medieval art. But the more the artists learned of realism and perspective, the less they could depict at once the angels in the heavens and the shepherds on the hills, and the glory in the darkness that was under the hills. Perhaps it could have been best conveyed by the characteristic expedient of some of the medieval guilds, when they wheeled about the streets a theater with three stages one above the other, with heaven above the earth and hell under the earth. But in the riddle of Bethlehem it was heaven that was under the earth.

There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man's end. All this popular and fraternal element in the story has been rightly attached by tradition to the episode of the Shepherds; the hinds who found themselves talking face to face with the princes of heaven. But there is another aspect of the popular element as represented by the shepherds which has not perhaps been so fully developed; and which is more directly relevant here.

Men of the people, like the shepherds, men of the popular tradition, had everywhere been the makers of the mythologies. It was they who had felt most directly, with least check or chill from philosophy or the corrupt cults of civilization, the need we have already considered; the images that were adventures of the imagination; the mythology that was a sort of search the tempting and tantalizing hints of something half human in nature; the dumb significance of seasons and special places. They had best understood that the soul of a landscape is a story and the soul of a story is a personality. But rationalism had already begun to rot away these really irrational though imaginative treasures of the peasant; even as systematic slavery had eaten the peasant out of house and home. Upon all such peasantries everywhere there was descending a dusk and twilight of disappointment, in the hour when these few men discovered what they sought. Everywhere else Arcadia was fading from the forest. Pan was dead and the shepherds were scattered like sheep. And though no man knew it, the hour was near which was to end and to fulfill all things; and though no man heard it, there was one far-off cry in an unknown tongue upon the heaving wilderness of the mountains. The shepherds had found their Shepherd.

And the thing they found was of a kind with the things they sought. The populace had been wrong in many things; but they had not been wrong in believing that holy things could have a habitation and that divinity need not disdain the limits of time and space. And the barbarian who conceived the crudest fancy about the sun being stolen and hidden in a box, or the wildest myth about the god being rescued and his enemy deceived with a stone, was nearer to the secret of the cave and knew more about the crisis of the world, than all those in the circle of cities round the Mediterranean who had become content with cold abstractions or cosmopolitan generalizations; than all those who were spinning thinner and thinner threads of thought out of the transcendentalism of Plato or the orientalism of Pythagoras. The place that the shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic; it was not a place of myths allegorized or dissected or explained or explained away. It was a place of dreams come true. Since that hour no mythologies have been made in the world. Mythology is a search.

[originally posted: 12/24/08]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 4:57 AM


The Maid-Servant at the Inn (Dorothy Parker)

"It's queer," she said; "I see the light
As plain as I beheld it then,
All silver-like and calm and bright-
We've not had stars like that again!

"And she was such a gentle thing
To birth a baby in the cold.
The barn was dark and frightening-
This new one's better than the old.

"I mind my eyes were full of tears,
For I was young, and quick distressed,
But she was less than me in years
That held a son against her breast.

"I never saw a sweeter child-
The little one, the darling one!-
I mind I told her, when he smiled
You'd know he was his mother's son.

"It's queer that I should see them so-
The time they came to Bethlehem
Was more than thirty years ago;
I've prayed that all is well with them."

[First posted: 2004-12-24]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 4:45 AM


THE MARK STEYN CHRISTMAS SHOW (Mark Steyn, 12/09/09, Steyn Online)

For many years, starting back when I was a teenage disc-jockey, I hosted Christmas shows on radio or TV. And, for some reason, back in late summer I started thinking about reviving the tradition. Initially, I planned just to raid the archives and produce a Best-of-Steyn Christmas Compilation. But one thing led to another and we wound up producing two hours of new audio entertainment, including good conversation with guests from at least three countries and live music in at least four languages - plus a couple of highlights from the vaults. We hope you enjoy the results.

I stuck mainly to old friends and neighbors for this first tentative fur-trimmed boot toe back on the Santa sleigh. Rob Long, writer of everything from "Cheers" to Al Gore's e-mails, joins me to talk Christmas comedy. From across the Connecticut River in Vermont, Elisabeth von Trapp fills us in on what happened to her famous family after The Sound Of Music. There are a brace of British lyricists - Don Black, writer of "Born Free", "Ben", "To Sir With Love", and "Diamonds Are Forever"; and Tim Rice, writer of Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, The Lion King and, of course, "One Night In Bangkok". There are a couple of Québecois cuties - Dorothée Berryman*, star of the Oscar-winning film Barbarian Invasions, and Monique Fauteux, from the province's legendary progressive rock band Harmonium. Hugh Martin, composer of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", performs his classic song his way; and Martha Stewart, America's homemaker, mocks my pie dishes. And I couldn't celebrate Christmas without my Sweet Gingerbread Gal Jessica Martin, but, if you've ever wondered what she sounds like de-Steyned, she gets a shot at a couple of solos.

Along the way we consider a range of topics from Ron Paul's artificial Christmas tree and Perry Como's cocaine classic to the dearth of New Hampshire songs and the alleged sexiness of my French. And there's lots of live music from my guests, including performances of "White Christmas", "Silent Night", "My Favorite Things", a bilingual "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" not to mention North America's oldest Christmas carol, and a song that nobody's sung in over a century, plus a couple of great medleys.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 4:36 AM


[originally posted: 12/24/10]

Posted by orrinj at 4:24 AM



For the first of our Christmas audio specials this holiday season, we're presenting an encore of Mark's two-part audio tribute to the composer of our Song of the Week #107 and one of the most popular of all seasonal standards, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"

Hugh Martin died on Friday March 11th this year at the age of 96. As longtime listeners will recall, he was a guest on The Mark Steyn Christmas Show on a couple of occasions. In this special podcast, Mark draws on those archive interviews to celebrate a talented composer, lyricist, vocal arranger, pianist, singer and actor. In this two-part program, we'll hear "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Twisted Sister, and from the Steyn archives we'll hear Hugh Martin's own live performance of his seasonal standard - followed by Mark and Jessica's very different take on the song.

[originally posted: 12/24/11]
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Posted by Orrin Judd at 4:16 AM


What the Dickens are population controllers up to?: The flint-hearted, prune-faced, carbon-obsessed bean-counters who want fewer people, especially fewer poor people, should reread A Christmas Carol. (Michael Cook, 24 December 2009, MercatorNet)

After 2000 celebrations of how precious a single life is, we still haven't learned the lesson of A Christmas Carol. Had I thought of it earlier, I would have sent a copy to Sir David Attenborough, the famed documentary director who is an enthusiastic patron of the OPT. The OPT's fanatical determination to eliminate CO2 by eliminating people is basically the "odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling" Malthusian policy of eliminating poverty by eliminating the poor. Scrooge was a Malthusian, you will remember. Here he is refusing a few pence for the poor:

"'I wish to be left alone,' said Scrooge. '... I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [prisons and workhouses] - they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.'

"'Many can't go there; and many would rather die.'

"'If they would rather die,' said Scrooge, 'they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.'"

It sounds familiar doesn't it? The rich, isolated, beggar-my-neighbour individual. The mean, narrow-minded bean-counting. The fear of the population bomb. The scoffing at the possibility of happiness. "'If I could work my will,' said Scrooge indignantly, 'every idiot who goes about with "Merry Christmas" on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!'"

How do the Spirits of Christmas teach Scrooge that "quality of life" isn't everything? Basically by showing him visions of family life. It's the simple, affectionate family life of the impoverished Cratchits and their six children. "They were not a handsome family; they were not well-dressed... but they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time," says Dickens. Of all of them, it is Tiny Tim, the "useless" cripple, with his crutch and iron frame, who strikes the spark of human sympathy into Scrooge's withered heart.

[originally posted: 12/24/09]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 4:16 AM


THE FOOLISH FIR-TREE Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933)

A tale that the poet Rückert told
To German children, in days of old;
Disguised in a random, rollicking rhyme
Like a merry mummer of ancient time,
And sent, in its English dress, to please
The little folk of the Christmas trees.

A LITTLE fir grew in the midst of the wood
Contented and happy, as young trees should.
His body was straight and his boughs were clean;
And summer and winter the bountiful sheen
Of his needles bedecked him, from top to root,
In a beautiful, all-the-year, evergreen suit.

But a trouble came into his heart one day,
When he saw that the other trees were gay
In the wonderful raiment that summer weaves
Of manifold shapes and kinds of leaves:
He looked at his needles so stiff and small,
And thought that his dress was the poorest of all.
Then jealousy clouded the little tree's mind,
And he said to himself, "It was not very kind
"To give such an ugly old dress to a tree!
"If the fays of the forest would only ask me,
"I'd tell them how I should like to be dressed,--
"In a garment of gold, to bedazzle the rest!"
So he fell asleep, but his dreams were bad.
When he woke in the morning, his heart was glad;
For every leaf that his boughs could hold
Was made of the brightest beaten gold.
I tell you, children, the tree was proud;
He was something above the common crowd;
And he tinkled his leaves, as if he would say
To a pedlar who happened to pass that way,
"Just look at me! don't you think I am fine?
"And wouldn't you like such a dress as mine?"
"Oh, yes!" said the man, "and I really guess
I must fill my pack with your beautiful dress."
So he picked the golden leaves with care,
And left the little tree shivering there.

"Oh, why did I wish for golden leaves?"
The fir-tree said, "I forgot that thieves
"Would be sure to rob me in passing by.
"If the fairies would give me another try,
"I'd wish for something that cost much less,
"And be satisfied with glass for my dress!"
Then he fell asleep; and, just as before,
The fairies granted his wish once more.
When the night was gone, and the sun rose clear,
The tree was a crystal chandelier;
And it seemed, as he stood in the morning light,
That his branches were covered with jewels bright.
"Aha!" said the tree. "This is something great!"
And he held himself up, very proud and straight;
But a rude young wind through the forest dashed,
In a reckless temper, and quickly smashed
The delicate leaves. With a clashing sound
They broke into pieces and fell on the ground,
Like a silvery, shimmering shower of hail,
And the tree stood naked and bare to the gale.

Then his heart was sad; and he cried, "Alas
"For my beautiful leaves of shining glass!
"Perhaps I have made another mistake
"In choosing a dress so easy to break.
"If the fairies only would hear me again
"I'd ask them for something both pretty and plain:
"It wouldn't cost much to grant my request,--
"In leaves of green lettuce I'd like to be dressed!"
By this time the fairies were laughing, I know;
But they gave him his wish in a second; and so
With leaves of green lettuce, all tender and sweet,
The tree was arrayed, from his head to his feet.
"I knew it!" he cried, "I was sure I could find
"The sort of a suit that would be to my mind.
"There's none of the trees has a prettier dress,
"And none as attractive as I am, I guess."
But a goat, who was taking an afternoon walk,
By chance overheard the fir-tree's talk.
So he came up close for a nearer view;--
"My salad!" he bleated, "I think so too!
"You're the most attractive kind of a tree,
"And I want your leaves for my five-o'clock tea."
So he ate them all without saying grace,
And walked away with a grin on his face;
While the little tree stood in the twilight dim,
With never a leaf on a single limb.

Then he sighed and groaned; but his voice was weak--
He was so ashamed that he could not speak.
He knew at last that he had been a fool,
To think of breaking the forest rule,
And choosing a dress himself to please,
Because he envied the other trees.
But it couldn't be helped, it was now too late,
He must make up his mind to a leafless fate!
So he let himself sink in a slumber deep,
But he moaned and he tossed in his troubled sleep,
Till the morning touched him with joyful beam,
And he woke to find it was all a dream.
For there in his evergreen dress he stood,
A pointed fir in the midst of the wood!
His branches were sweet with the balsam smell,
His needles were green when the white snow fell.
And always contented and happy was he,--
The very best kind of a Christmas tree.

[originally posted: 12/24/09]

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Posted by orrinj at 4:14 AM


Malthus and Scrooge: How Charles Dickens Put Holly Branch Through The Heart Of The Worst Economics Ever (Jerry Bowyer, 12/24/12, Forbes)

What was Dickens really doing when he wrote A Christmas Carol? Answer: He was weighing in on one of the central economic debates of his time, the one that raged between Thomas Malthus and one of the disciples of Adam Smith.

Malthus famously argued that in a world in which economies grew arithmetically and population grew geometrically, mass want would be inevitable. His Essay on Population created a school of thought which continues to this day under the banners of Zero Population Growth and Sustainability. The threat of a "population bomb" under which my generation lived was Paul Ehrlich's modern rehashing of the Malthusian argument about the inability of productivity to keep pace with, let alone exceed, population growth.

Jean Baptiste Say, Smith's most influential disciple, argued on the other hand, as had his mentor, that the gains from global population growth, spread over vast expanses of trading, trigger gains from a division of labor which exceed those ever thought possible before the rise of the market order.

Guess whose ideas Charles Dickens put into the mouth of his antagonist Ebenezer Scrooge.

Remove the zero-sum game and there's nothing left of Darwinism.

[originally posted : 12/27/12]

Posted by Stephen Judd at 4:00 AM


Forever ember: 'Yule Log' story (MARISA GUTHRIE, 11/29/2006, NY Daily News)

Except for a 10-year interruption from 1990-2000, when bean-counting scrooges decided it was too expensive to run the marathon log session without commercials, "The Yule Log" has run every year in New York on a three-hour loop accompanied by holiday music.

It was our fights over whether the Yule log really burned for three hours or was a loop that first convinced me that Orrin doesn't (and never has) believed in the conservation of energy and matter.

[originally posted: 12/24/06]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 3:59 AM


Is There a Santa Claus? (The New York Sun, 1897)


I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, "If you see it in The Sun, it's so."
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

Virginia O'Hanlon
115 West Ninety-Fifth St.

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except (what) they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

[originally posted: 12/24/09]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 3:54 AM


[originally posted: 12/24/09]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 3:41 AM


Bing and Bowie: An Odd Story of Holiday Harmony (Paul Farhi, 12/19/06, Washington Post)

Bowie, who was 30 at the time, and Crosby, then 73, recorded the duet Sept. 11, 1977, for Crosby's "Merrie Olde Christmas" TV special. A month later, Crosby was dead of a heart attack. The special was broadcast on CBS about a month after his death.

The notion of pairing the resolutely white-bread Crosby with the exquisitely offbeat Bowie apparently was the brainchild of the TV special's producers, Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion, according to Ian Fraser, who co-wrote (with Larry Grossman) the song's music and arranged it.

Crosby was in Great Britain on a concert tour, and the theme of the TV special was Christmas in England. Bowie was one of several British guest stars (the model Twiggy and "Oliver!" star Ron Moody also appeared). Booking Bowie made logistical sense, since the special was taped near his home in London, at the Elstree Studios. As perhaps an added inducement, the producers agreed to air the arty video of Bowie's then-current single, "Heroes" (Crosby introduced it).

It's unclear, however, whether Crosby had any idea who Bowie was. Buz Kohan, who wrote the special and worked with Fraser and Grossman on the music, says he was never sure Crosby knew anything about Bowie's work. Fraser has a slightly different memory: "I'm pretty sure he did [know]. Bing was no idiot. If he didn't, his kids sure did."

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 3:37 AM


Whose Christmas Is It? (MICHAEL FEINSTEIN, 12/18/09, NY Times)

If you look at a list of the most popular Christmas songs, you'll find that the writers are disproportionately Jewish: Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," "The Christmas Song" (yes, Mel Tormé was Jewish), "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Silver Bells," "Santa Baby," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Winter Wonderland" -- perennial, beloved and, mostly, written for the sheet music publishers of Tin Pan Alley, not for a show or film. (Two notable exceptions: "White Christmas," introduced in "Holiday Inn," and "Silver Bells," written for "The Lemon Drop Kid.")

You'll notice that certain famous Jewish songwriters are conspicuously absent from this list. Why? Unlike the Tin Pan Alley songwriters, who churned out songs to order on every conceivable subject for their publishers, writers like Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Richard Rodgers and Harold Arlen mainly created songs for musical plays and films, and unless a story line required a holiday song they had no need to write one. When they did try one outside the framework of a show, it rarely had the same spark. Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Happy Christmas, Little Friend," recorded by Rosemary Clooney in the '50s, is sadly lethargic. Even Clooney couldn't recall it when asked to sing it 30 years later. Or so she claimed.

In my holiday shows, I'm always looking for novel expressions of the season, and when I introduce a new song I don't usually think about the religion of its creator. That said, I'm always pleased to discover a surprising juxtaposition. It doesn't take Freud to figure out that the sugarplums, holly and mistletoe all tap into a sense of comfort, longing, security and peace that so many fervently desire; that we all wish the clichés were true. As Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists and everything in between, we are all more alike than we are different. That's something to celebrate.

[originally posted: 12/18/10]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 3:27 AM


[originally posted: 12/24/11]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 3:04 AM


A Christmas Trilogy: Berlioz's intimate, inventive 'L'Enfance du Christ' (BARRYMORE LAURENCE SCHERER, 12/26/09, WSJ)

From Handel's "Messiah" to Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," most everyone has his favorite seasonal music. Mine is Hector Berlioz's trilogy, "L'Enfance du Christ" (The Infancy of Christ), a surprisingly intimate score from a composer best known for such blockbusters as the "Symphonie Fantastique" and the towering Requiem. "L'Enfance du Christ" is probably the composer's most gentle choral work, characterized by numerous dynamic markings instructing that passages be played piano (soft), pianissimo (very soft), and even pianississimo (extremely soft).

It originated in a surprisingly offhanded gesture. In 1850, while a bored guest at a Parisian party, Berlioz was asked to write in a friend's autograph album. On the spur of the moment he began to jot down a few bars of music. "It seemed to have a rustic style," Berlioz later recalled, "and also to suggest a naïve mystical feeling, so I immediately invented some appropriate words for it. It became a chorus of shepherds in Bethlehem, bidding farewell to the infant Jesus as the Holy Family departs for Egypt."

Scholars have suggested that Berlioz may have previously visited the Louvre, viewing its many paintings of the Flight into Egypt. Whatever his inspiration, he soon followed this musical autograph with a movement called "The Repose of the Holy Family," and then with an overture. In November of that year, needing a choral piece to fill out a concert program, he decided to link the overture and two movements together and present them as the work of a fictitious 17th-century French composer he called Pierre Ducré.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 3:02 AM


A Visit from Saint Nicholas (Clement Clarke Moore?)

T'was the night before Christmas,
when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, --not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled down for a long winter's nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, DASHER! now, DANCER! now, PRANCER and VIXEN!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes -- how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

There Arose Such a Clatter: Who Really Wrote "The Night before Christmas"? (And Why Does It Matter?) (Stephen Nissenbaum, January 2001, Common-Place)
In a chapter of his just-published book, Author Unknown, Don Foster tries to prove an old claim that had never before been taken seriously: that Clement Clarke Moore did not write the poem commonly known as "The Night before Christmas" but that it was written instead by a man named Henry Livingston Jr. Livingston (1748-1828) never took credit for the poem himself, and there is, as Foster is quick to acknowledge, no actual historical evidence to back up this extraordinary claim. (Moore, on the other hand, did claim authorship of the poem, although not for two decades after its initial--and anonymous--publication in the Troy [N.Y.] Sentinel in 1823.) Meanwhile, the claim for Livingston's authorship was first made in the late 1840s at the earliest (and possibly as late as the 1860s), by one of his daughters, who believed that her father had written the poem back in 1808.

Why revisit it now? In the summer of 1999, Foster reports, one of Livingston's descendants pressed him to take up the case (the family has long been prominent in New York's history). Foster had made a splash in recent years as a "literary detective" who could find in a piece of writing certain unique and telltale clues to its authorship, clues nearly as distinctive as a fingerprint or a sample of DNA. (He has even been called on to bring his skills to courts of law.) Foster also happens to live in Poughkeepsie, New York, where Henry Livingston himself had resided. Several members of the Livingston family eagerly provided the local detective with a plethora of unpublished and published material written by Livingston, including a number of poems written in the same meter as "The Night before Christmas" (known as anapestic tetrameter: two short syllables followed by an accented one, repeated four times per line--"da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM," in Foster's plain rendering). These anapestic poems struck Foster as quite similar to "The Night before Christmas" in both language and spirit, and, upon further investigation, he was also struck by telling bits of word usage and spelling in that poem, all of which pointed to Henry Livingston. On the other hand, Foster found no evidence of such word usage, language, or spirit in anything written by Clement Clarke Moore--except, of course, for "The Night before Christmas" itself. Foster therefore concluded that Livingston and not Moore was the real author. The literary gumshoe had tackled and solved another hard case.

Foster's textual evidence is ingenious, and his essay is as entertaining as a lively lawyer's argument to the jury. If he had limited himself to offering textual evidence about similarities between "The Night before Christmas" and poems known to have been written by Livingston, he might have made a provocative case for reconsidering the authorship of America's most beloved poem--a poem that helped create the modern American Christmas. But Foster does not stop there; he goes on to argue that textual analysis, in tandem with biographical data, proves that Clement Clarke Moore could not have written "The Night before Christmas." In the words of an article on Foster's theory that appeared in the New York Times, "He marshals a battery of circumstantial evidence to conclude that the poem's spirit and style are starkly at odds with the body of Moore's other writings." With that evidence and that conclusion I take strenuous exception.

[originally posted: 2004-12-24]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 2:36 AM


[originally posted: 12/24/09]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 2:31 AM


Life is sacred: that's what Christmas really means (Archbishop Peter Smith, 19/12/2004, Daily Telegraph)

The essential message of Christmas is that in the birth of Jesus "we see our God made visible and so are caught up in the God we cannot see". He didn't come to condemn us, or to manipulate and control us. He didn't come with any worldly ambition to be successful or powerful. He came speaking the language of vulnerable, self-giving love which respects the dignity and worth of every person. It is a proclamation of the Good News that every human life is sacred because it reflects the image and likeness of the living God.

For all the doubts and difficulties many may have with the Church today, there is something deeply compelling about this core belief of Christians, namely that God became man out of unconditional love and compassion for wounded humanity. I think it is the instinctive acceptance of that truth which helps explain the remarkable statistic that more than 70 per cent of the population of this country still regards itself as Christian. So perhaps we are not yet - in fact we may be very far from - the secular utopia that is so often trumpeted.

But Christian faith in God and the sanctity of human life is more than an intellectual assent to the truth expressed in dogma. It must be fully lived and lead to an engagement of the whole person in love, service, prayer and witness. Only then can such witness to the extraordinary life-giving power of Christian love be truly influential in sustaining and transforming the lives of individuals, their families and the communities in which they live.

Unfortunately many have become "light users" of the Christian religion and have only a residual faith. In an age where the media too often dismiss a balanced public witness to the value of Christian faith and moral teaching as old-fashioned and irrelevant, our society is, I believe, becoming more vulnerable than ever to losing its moral bearings.

France will pass without anyone shedding a tear, but England is worth saving.

[originally posted: 2004-12-19]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 1:51 AM


How Jewish Family Values Shaped Christianity: The world into which Jesus was born and raised has shaped morals for two millennia. How Jewish mores became Christianity's customs. (Lisa Miller, Dec. 18, 2006, Newsweek)

[W]hatever one's personal beliefs, no student of religion or culture should overlook the significance of the world of the Nativity, for the milieu into which Jesus was bornâ€"and in which he was raisedâ€"has fundamentally shaped the manners and morals of the ensuing two millennia. The Jewish family values that were prevalent in first-century Judeaâ€"the values of Mary and Joseph and of the young Jesusâ€"became the values of Christianity, and of the regions of the world in which Christianity has long been a critical force.

It all began with the habits and culture of Judaism. The emphasis on family, on sexual morality, on caring for one's kith and kinâ€"all were (and are) sacred Jewish traditions, and the transmission of those mores from a relative backwater of the Roman Empire in the first years of the Common Era to our own time is the unlikely result of Mary and Joseph's parenting, the disciples' failed apocalyptic hopes and, ultimately, the early Christians' search for a way to survive once they realized the Second Coming was not as imminent as they first believed.

The story of Jesusâ€"and thus the story of Christianityâ€"begins with a common Jewish family. Mary is an innocent; Joseph is generous and protective, even of a child who is not his own. The baby is a baby, miraculous enough; like all happy births, his is cause for gossip, celebration and gift giving. On close inspection, the details of the Nativity don't add up particularly well: the birth narrative appears in just two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, and they differ a great deal. Matthew starts with a genealogy, Luke with the story of the miraculous pregnancy of Mary's cousin Elizabeth. The Christmas story most people know from church pageants and television specials is a conflation of the two Gospels, putting Matthew's Magi together with the shepherds of Luke.

As the Nativity story makes clear, though, Mary and Joseph's era was one rich in moral standards designed to offer stability in an uncertain world, and they would have transmitted those standards to their son as he grew up. A woman's virginity, for example, was a sacred possession, to be given away or stolen at great cost. According to Deuteronomy, a man who violated a virgin had to pay a fine of 50 silver shekels and marry the woman in question; an unmarried woman who willfully had sex with a man other than her fiancé could be put to death. In ancient Israel, this value was probably a matter of pragmatism more than theology; it assured men who lived in a culture that prized family above all that their children were their own. "Because it was encoded in Biblical texts and the texts became sacred, [virginity] took on a moral dimension," says Carol Meyers, editor of "Women in Scripture" and a professor of religion at Duke. "By the time of Christianity ... any violation was seen as going against God's word."

The values of Jewish families were unique given the circumstances of the time. It is true that Romans of the first century had some regard for family, too (in his book "Jewish Marriage in Antiquity," Brown University professor Michael Satlow points out that Roman law esteemed married men with children above married men without children and unmarried men as part of the social order).

But Jewish devotion to family predates the Romans by thousands of yearsâ€"think of all those begatsâ€"and by the time of Jesus, Jewish family values were noticeably different from those of their neighbors. A Roman father could, for any or no reason, choose to kill his newborn infant either by cutting the umbilical cord too close or by leaving the baby outside, and the Jewish refusal to do so was seen as peculiar. "The Jews see to it that their numbers increase," wrote the historian Tacitus around A.D. 100. "It is a deadly sin to kill a born or unborn child, and they think that eternal life is granted to those who die in battle or executionâ€"hence their eagerness to have children, and their contempt for death." Herod himself executed two of his own sons, leading Augustus Caesar to remark that "I'd rather be Herod's pigs than Herod's sons."

In a culture so devoted to children, married sex was a blessing. "The harmonious coming together of man and woman and their consummation is figuratively a house. And everything which is without a woman is imperfect and homeless," wrote the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.-A.D. 40). Within this context, whether Joseph and Mary, a married Jewish couple, did or did not eventually procreate on their own is a subject of endless scholarly and theological debate. When, in the Gospel of Matthew, the author says that Joseph had no union with Mary "until she gave birth to a son," he implies that a union did occur afterwardâ€"a decent explanation for the appearance in Mark and Matthew of Jesus' brothers James, Joseph, Judas and Simon, as well as unnamed sisters. "Some good historians believe that [these brothers and sisters] were part of Jesus' entourage," says Rodney Stark, of Baylor University.

And so the growing Jesus would have come of age in a world that cherished procreation, family ties and the history and theology of Israel, including immersion in the Scriptures and the ancient stories of God's deliverance of his people. According to Luke, when Jesus was 12, he traveled with his parents to Jerusalem from Galilee to celebrate Passover. The family feasted there and when they were done, Joseph and Mary turned around and headed home. After a day, they noticed that their son was missing from their entourage and rushed back to Jerusalem to find him. There, the story goes, they discovered Jesus in the temple, talking to the priests and astonishing the assembled crowds with his wisdom.

But his parents were parents, and they were worried. "Son, why have you treated us like this?" his mother asks. "Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you."

"Why were you searching for me? Didn't you know I had to be in my father's house?" But they did not understand what he was saying.

It would not, in all likelihood, be the last time. Their son was growing up in a time of great theological and political turbulence in Judea; in the time of Mary and Joseph, some Jews had begun to believe that the end of the world was coming any day. It would be brought about by a warrior king, a messiah from the house of David, who would destroy the wicked and usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth. The Gospels do not say what Joseph and Mary believed about the apocalypse, but John the Baptist believed in one, and when Jesus says, in Luke, "The Kingdom of God is near," an apocalypse is precisely what he means.

In the temple, Jesus is as rude as a 12-year-old can be. But he's also the kind of Jewish son a mother would be proud of: he takes the family values of his childhood and, in his later years, makes a revolutionary leap. Family, he comes to preach, is not in the blood ties and biology his parents' generation so reveres. To him, the end of the world is coming and what matters now is the community of believers, the followers of the Messiahâ€"on earth and in heaven. What matters is the family, as he put it, of man. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes this point again and again. "Let the dead bury the dead," he says in Luke. There's no need for sweet goodbyes. The only thing a believer must do is "follow me" and proclaim the Kingdom of God.

[originally posted: 12/24/06]

Posted by orrinj at 1:16 AM


I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS by Walter Kent, Kim Gannon and Buck Ram: Song of the Week #205 (Mark Steyn, 12 Dec 2011)

If you had to pin a precise date to the dawn of the Golden Age of American Christmas Songs, it would probably be December 1942. Irving Berlin had written "White Christmas" a couple of years earlier, and was reasonably confident about it. But, as canny as he was, he didn't foresee how the song would be transformed by a single event: Pearl Harbor. Twelve months after the attack, American servicemen were far away in the south Pacific and contemplating their first Christmas at war, under glorious tropical skies that only made home seem even more distant:

I'm dreaming of a White Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know...

"White Christmas" isn't a song about snow, it's a song about home. And Berlin wasn't the only songwriter to understand there was a huge audience for that at a time when most families had at least one empty chair round the Christmas table. For example:

I'll Be Home For Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow
And mistletoe
And presents on the tree...

The man who wrote that music is about as obscure as Irving Berlin is famous. His name was Walter Kent, and he was born Walter Kaufmann in New York one hundred years ago - November 29th 1911.

[originally posted : 12/24/11
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Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:56 AM


Blaming Christmas (Lee Harris, 12/24/03, Tech Central Station)

To learn that your parents are Santa Claus is the end of one philosophic journey; but it is also the start of another, if you are prepared to continue it. For the skeptic must now ask himself, If my parents don't believe in Santa Claus, why have they tried so hard to get me to believe in him? Indeed, why have they saved money all year long -- or, as so often nowadays, maxed their credit card to the limit -- in order that I would continue to remain under such a costly illusion? Why do my own parents so empathically insist that I go on giving the tribute that is theirs to someone else instead -- especially when that someone else doesn't happen to exist, and with whom it is not even possible to score transcendental brownies points, as with God? Does this -- does any of this -- make sense? If Christmas is just an elaborate hoax, it would appear to be a hoax perpetuated at the expense of the hoaxer.

When the skeptical child becomes a skeptical adult, he may feel that he has hit upon the correct answer: his parents were themselves saps and suckers, hoodwinked by Madison Avenue into believing they were honor-bound to keep up the pretence that all this expensive merchandise was really manna from heaven, in order to bolster the sales of self-serving manufacturers and
retailers. But, here again, the skeptic lacks the will to push his skepticism to its logical conclusion, because he fails to ask the next question: Okay, suppose my parents were just the unwitting tools of capitalism, suppose that they had been brainwashed into buying more stuff
than any child could possibly need, or often want, why did they feel hide-bound to preserve the illusion of Santa Claus for me? What made them look upon Christmas as if it were a sacred duty?

They were hide-bound because they were honor-bound. They felt that they owed their children a happy Christmas, and felt it as a genuine ethical obligation, akin to the military service that a man may feel that he owes to his nation. That is what a sense of honor is all about. And it is the origin
of this sense that we must address, if we are to explain our parents' passion for perpetuating such a bizarre delusion.

Even if they were deluded by Madison Avenue, their susceptibility did not stem from a defective intellect, but from an overfull heart: they would not have been so vulnerable to cynical manipulation if they had not been so desperate to do their duty by their children that the mere idea that they might be depriving their children one of the good things of life drove them to a frenzy of anguished consumption, but at the same time drove them to something that the timid skeptic can never understand.

In their anxiety to do right by their kids, they achieved the supreme self-sacrifice of the human ego -- the doing of good without any expectation of getting credit for it. To question whether this self-sacrifice was worth it may be a legitimate function of the intellect; but it must not tempt you
to overlook the most significant fact about such self-sacrifice, namely, that it happens at all.

This too is a rebuke to neoconservatism.

[originally posted: 2003-12-24]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:55 AM


Red Ryder's Eternal Home on the Range: Ralphie's hero now has a fitting tribute. (MARK YOST, December 23, 2003, Wall Street Journal)

PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo.--If the umpteen showings of A Christmas Story and a new 20th-anniversary, two-disc DVD set aren't enough to sate your appetite for Ralphie Parker and his tortured quest for a Red Ryder BB gun, then you need to head to this little town in the southwest corner of Colorado. It's home to the Fred Harman Art Museum.

Who's Fred Harman, you ask? He's the cartoonist who created Ralphie's hero, Red Ryder, and his Indian sidekick, Little Beaver.

As if the connection to A Christmas Story didn't suffice to make one think about violating the Time Zone Rule, The greatest Country and Western tune of all time comes to its thrilling conclusion against "the side of a feed store In downtown Pagosa Springs.

[originally posted: 2003-12-23]

Posted by orrinj at 12:55 AM


Who is Saint Nicholas? : Writer Adam C. English explores the life of the man behind the myth in his book 'The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus.' (Randy Dotinga / December 25, 2012, CS Monitor)
Q: Who was Saint Nicholas in real life?
A: The historical Saint Nicholas was born around the late third century or early fourth century. He lived his life in what is now the southwest shores of Turkey. He served as a bishop, a Christian pastor of the church in Myra, doing good works of gift-giving and generosity, serving the people as a true civil servant. There are stories of him bartering with grain ships to get grain to save the starving people of Myra, going to the capitol to appeal for lower taxes, interfering in court cases and saving three men from beheading.

As a young man, he inherits gold from his parents, and he hears of a man in town who's become desperately poor and is thinking about selling off his own daughters. Nicholas bags up some of that gold and throws it through his window. It's used as a dowry for one of the daughters. He returns two times so the other daughters might be able to marry.

[originally posted : 12/25/12]

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Posted by orrinj at 12:55 AM


The Gospel According to Peanuts: How A Charlie Brown Christmas almost didn't happen (Lee Habeeb, 11/25/11, National Review)

We learned in that American Masters series that Schulz had some ideas of his own for the Christmas special, ideas that didn't make the network suits very happy. First and foremost, there was no laugh track, something unimaginable in that era of television. Schulz thought that the audience should be able to enjoy the show at its own pace, without being cued when to laugh. CBS created a version of the show with a laugh track added, just in case Schulz changed his mind. Luckily, he didn't.

The second big battle was waged over voiceovers. The network executives were not happy that the Schulz's team had chosen to use children to do the voice acting, rather than employing adults. Indeed, in this remarkable world created by Charles Schulz, we never hear the voice of an adult.

The executives also had a problem with the jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. They thought the music would not work well for a children's program, and that it distracted from the general tone. They wanted something more . . . well . . . young.

Last but not least, the executives did not want to have Linus reciting the story of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. The network orthodoxy of the time assumed that viewers would not want to sit through passages of the King James Bible.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:53 AM


On Christmas: Each of Us Is a Salvation History (Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., December 24, 2009, Ignatius Insight)

"There is in every person the desire to be accepted as a person and considered as a sacred reality, for every human history is a sacred history and demands the utmost respect." -- Benedict XVI, Rome, Spanish Steps, December 8, 2009. [...]

"Through the ages, He (God) prepared a way for the Gospel. Finally, God appears. He speaks through His Son. This Son turns out to be "the eternal Word." God from God, Light from Light. He will enlighten men, make known "the innermost things of God." This Word is "Jesus Christ, the word made flesh." He did what the "Father gave him to do." The Evangelist Luke recounts these things. They actually happened.

This Christ completed God's intended revelation. He did this making known what He wanted to make known in all his words and deeds, in the principal events of His life. The dramatic event of His Crucifixion was carried out under the authority of Tiberius Caesar by a Roman Governor by the name Pontius Pilate. But the event seemed to concern the Jews more than the Romans, at least initially. Pilate wanted to "wash his hands" of the whole mess. Many leading Jews just wanted this troublemaker out of the way. Pilate asked the crowd what to do with Him. They shouted "Crucify him."

But no one can crucify a man who does not exist. The message of all these events was "that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to eternal life."

Chesterton tells us that this event of Christ's birth is one of comfort and really of making merry, of rejoicing. The two go together. The metaphysics and the brightness are there. But the birth of Christ into this world is a comfort, something ordinary folks can understand. Such ordinary folk have always suspected their lives mean something. No one has told them why. If Christ is born as a Child and if He is the Son of God, does this not tell us something about ourselves, about each son of man and woman (there are, as Chesterton said, no sons of man and man, though there is a Son of Man, born of woman)?

Revelation tells us first that we are not God. We are men, finite beings. Yet, we are not to have strange gods before us. The only God we want before us is the one who is testified to here, the one born of Mary in Bethlehem. She is evidently there because of a decree of Caesar Augustus. Her husband, Joseph, was of the house of David. The angel has said to her, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord be with you." She said, "Be it done unto me." She said this after she inquired "how."

Is there really any other way? Maybe God will figure out that the way He chose from the beginning was not "working." Maybe He will send a Mohammed or a Nietzsche, or a Grand Inquisitor, to explain things differently? No, it did not and will not happen. Robert Hugh Benson spoke of The Lord of the World. This Lord was present at the Fall.

Dei Verbum says: "The Christian dispensation, because it is the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and no new public revelation is any longer to be looked for before the manifestation in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ." I find this rather comforting. It is a reason for making merry. We have already been given all we need to know. The light has shone in the darkness, even if the darkness did not comprehend it.

But I am intrigued by Benedict's phrase "every human being is a salvation history." The pope says "is" a salvation history, not "has" one. That phrase "salvation history" is usually used of the way that God reveals Himself and His purposes in history, the history of the world from Creation to final Judgment. It includes the rise and fall of nations. Yet it is here singular, as if the rise and fall of nations passes through our own souls. Well, of course it does. Plato said this. Solzhenitsyn said this. It is obvious. There is no collective salvation that bypasses what each of us is, destined to eternal life.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:52 AM


CHRISTMAS DAY [William Drummond (1585-1649)]

Bright portals of the sky,
Emboss'd with sparkling stars,
Doors of eternity,
With diamantine bars,
Your arras rich uphold,
Loose all your bolts and springs,
Ope wide your leaves of gold,
That in your roofs may come the King of Kings.

O well-spring of this All!
Thy Father's image vive;
Word, that from nought did call
What is, doth reason, live;
The soul's eternal food,
Earth's joy, delight of heaven;
All truth, love, beauty, good:
To thee, to thee be praises ever given!

O glory of the heaven!
O sole delight of earth!
To thee all power be given,
God's uncreated birth!
Of mankind lover true,
Indearer of his wrong,
Who doth the world renew,
Still be thou our salvation and our song!

[originally posted: 2003-12-25]

Posted by orrinj at 12:49 AM


Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:48 AM

FROM THE ARCHIVES: BENT (via Judd Heartsill):

Christmas has come (Bill Murchison, December 23, 2003, Townhall)

In truth, the defect implied by the coming of the Lord in human form was more basic: Our human nature was bent, like an overburdened clothing rod. More than smiles and politeness and observance of duty would be necessary to fix it. And, in earthly terms, it really could not be "fixed," not just yet. Faith in the Little Lord Jesus was a sound step in the short run, but it would take his resurrection and return to dispose once and for all of the "bentness" problem.

In the meantime, Christians would be ... people. Of a certain sort, naturally. But, still, people. Not always "nice" to others, not even nice, all the time, to fellow Christians. This was notwithstanding the commandment of the Babe, grown to manhood, that they should "love one another," as he had loved them. They would try. But -- sigh -- bentness often would block the way.

Over the centuries, the physical achievements of Christianity -- the hospitals, schools, universities and missions -- as well as the deeds of mercy, forbearance and sacrifice would surpass all logical expectation. At their very best, the people of the manger -- Christians -- would speak of themselves as the redeemed, bearing a message of redemption "which shall be to all people."

The stumbles along the way, the falls, the catastrophes, would remind them of the human mess over which the angels hovered on that silent night: not in approval or confirmation, rather, in love of the wayward humans into whose midst a savior had come. To whom, that is, Christmas had come.

The miracle of Christmas is, of course, that God would even care about Man enough to try and comprehend us and would be so determined to do so that He would lower Himself to our level and live a mortal life. (How many scientists, after all, care enough about the rats in their lab that they'd be willing to live and die like one?) But the key moment in the life of Christ is when he pleads: "Forgive them, Father. They know not what they do." What God learned--and, yes, it will seem presumptuous to some to say that God had things left to learn, but the tale is inexplicable otherwise--is that Man is incapable of behaving as He wished us to when He Created us, no matter how hard we try. So the taunt of the unbelievers, that faith is useless because Christians continue to act like men instead of like Christ, is obviously inane. Men are men; such is our tragedy. We struggle, in futility, against our natures; that is our triumph. Give up the struggle and all that's left is the tragedy.

Is there absolute objectivity? (Rabbi Hillel Goldberg , 12/19/03, Jewish World Review)

Essentially, the Heisenberg principle states that the momentum and the position of a subatomic particle cannot both be known precisely. For the only way to measure either is to use some kind of illumination, which changes either the velocity or the position. The participant changes reality.

This is not a technical difficulty that some new technology will eliminate. It is in the nature of subatomic reality.

Under Einstein's special theory of relativity, no two observers moving through space at different speeds � and we are all moving through space � see things the same way. For example, observers moving at different speeds will measure the length of a stick differently. They will also measure the time it takes for the stick to pass by differently. Time is relative to the speed and position of the observer. On earth, we are all moving through space at the same speed, so reality seems objective. It is not this way.

All this is another way of pointing out the contingent nature of the human being as he or she strives to become like, to apprehend and to communicate with the one objective reality, G-d.

[originally posted: 2003-12-25]

Posted by orrinj at 12:48 AM


Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:47 AM


[originally posted: 12/24/2010]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:47 AM


"God's sign is that he makes himself small, he becomes a child": "No longer is he the distant God who can in some way be perceived from afar, in creation and in our own consciousness." From Bethlehem erupts the news that changes everything, even the "hearts of stone." The pope's homily for Christmas Eve (Benedict XVI, 12/24/09, Chiesa)

Let us once again listen directly to the Gospel. The shepherds tell one another the reason why they are setting off: "Let us see this thing that has happened." Literally the Greek text says: "Let us see this Word that has occurred there." Yes indeed, such is the radical newness of this night: the Word can be seen. For it has become flesh. The God of whom no image may be made - because any image would only diminish, or rather distort him - this God has himself become visible in the One who is his true image, as Saint Paul puts it (cf. 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). In the figure of Jesus Christ, in the whole of his life and ministry, in his dying and rising, we can see the Word of God and hence the mystery of the living God himself.

This is what God is like. The Angel had said to the shepherds: "This will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Lk 2:12; cf. 2:16). God's sign, the sign given to the shepherds and to us, is not an astonishing miracle. God's sign is his humility. God's sign is that he makes himself small; he becomes a child; he lets us touch him and he asks for our love. How we would prefer a different sign, an imposing, irresistible sign of God's power and greatness! But his sign summons us to faith and love, and thus it gives us hope: this is what God is like. He has power, he is Goodness itself. He invites us to become like him.

Yes indeed, we become like God if we allow ourselves to be shaped by this sign; if we ourselves learn humility and hence true greatness; if we renounce violence and use only the weapons of truth and love. Origen, taking up one of John the Baptist's sayings, saw the essence of paganism expressed in the symbol of stones: paganism is a lack of feeling, it means a heart of stone that is incapable of loving and perceiving God's love. Origen says of the pagans: "Lacking feeling and reason, they are transformed into stones and wood" (in Lk 22:9). Christ, though, wishes to give us a heart of flesh. When we see him, the God who became a child, our hearts are opened. In the Liturgy of the holy night, God comes to us as man, so that we might become truly human. Let us listen once again to Origen: "Indeed, what use would it be to you that Christ once came in the flesh if he did not enter your soul? Let us pray that he may come to us each day, that we may be able to say: I live, yet it is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me (Gal 2:20)" (in Lk 22:3).

Yes indeed, that is what we should pray for on this Holy Night. Lord Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, come to us! Enter within me, within my soul. Transform me. Renew me. Change me, change us all from stone and wood into living people, in whom your love is made present and the world is transformed. Amen.

[originally posted: 12/24/09]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:46 AM


The Old Testament and the Messianic Hope (Thomas Storck, November/December 1996, The Catholic Faith)

One persistent, and indeed paramount, Old Testament theme is the connection of the Messiah with Abraham and David. The reason for this connection involves the covenants that God made with each of these men, covenants by which God promised some future benefit. The covenant with Abraham, for example, first mentioned in Genesis 12:2-3, promised a blessing for His descendants and for all people.

I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
and curse those who curse you.
All the communities of the earth
shall find blessing in you.

This was the covenant, later ratified by the rite of circumcision (Genesis 17:9-27), which made Abraham the father of the chosen people, the Jews. This covenant pledged two important things: that God would bless all the people of the earth, and that this blessing would somehow be accomplished through Abraham. By establishing Abraham's descendants as a chosen people God provided for the fulfillment of both promises, for the chosen people were a kind of seedbed for the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who was a son of Abraham, and in Him all people of the world can indeed find blessing.

[originally posted: 12/20/09]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:42 AM



This is the month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav'n's eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.
That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav'n's high council-table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside, and here with us to be,
Forsook the courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.
Say Heav'nly Muse, shall not thy sacred vein
Afford a present to the Infant God?
Hast thou no verse, no hymn, or solemn strain,
To welcome him to this his new abode,
Now while the heav'n, by the Sun's team untrod,
Hath took no print of the approaching light,
And all the spangled host keep watch in squadrons bright?
See how from far upon the eastern road
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet:
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the angel quire,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.
The Hymn
It was the winter wild,
While the Heav'n-born child,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in awe to him
Had doffed her gaudy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
It was no season then for her
To wanton with the Sun, her lusty paramour.
Only with speeches fair
She woos the gentle air
To hide her guilty front with innocent snow,
And on her naked shame,
Pollute with sinful blame,
The saintly veil of maiden white to throw,
Confounded, that her Maker's eyes
Should look so near upon her foul deformities.
But he, her fears to cease,
Sent down the meek-eyed Peace:
She, crowned with olive green, came softly sliding
Down through the turning sphere,
His ready harbinger,
With turtle wing the amorous clouds dividing;
And waving wide her myrtle wand,
She strikes a universal peace through sea and land.
No war or battle's sound
Was heard the world around;
The idle spear and shield were high uphung;
The hooked chariot stood
Unstained with hostile blood;
The trumpet spake not to the armed throng;
And kings sate still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by.
But peaceful was the night
Wherein the Prince of Light
His reign of peace upon the earth began:
The winds with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kist,
Whispering new joys to the mild Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.
The Stars with deep amaze
Stand fixed in steadfast gaze,
Bending one way their precious influence;
And will not take their flight,
For all the morning light,
Or Lucifer that often warned them thence,
But in their glimmering orbs did glow,
Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go.
And though the shady gloom
Had given day her room,
The Sun himself withheld his wonted speed,
And hid his head for shame,
As his inferior flame
The new-enlightened world no more should need:
He saw a greater Sun appear
Than his bright throne or burning axle-tree could bear.
The shepherds on the lawn,
Or ere the point of dawn,
Sate simply chatting in a rustic row;
Full little thought they than
That the mighty Pan
Was kindly come to live with them below:
Perhaps their loves, or else their sheep,
Was all that did their silly thoughts so busy keep;
When such music sweet
Their hearts and ears did greet,
As never was by mortal finger strook,
Divinely warbled voice
Answering the stringed noise,
As all their souls in blissful rapture took:
The air such pleasure loth to lose,
With thousand echoes still prolongs each heav'nly close.
Nature, that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia's seat, the Airy region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done,
And that her reign had here its last fulfilling:
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all heav'n and earth in happier union.
At last surrounds their sight
A globe of circular light,
That with long beams the shame-faced Night arrayed;
The helmed Cherubim
And sworded Seraphim
Are seen in glittering ranks with wings displayed,
Harping in loud and solemn quire,
With unexpressive notes to Heav'n's new-born Heir.
Such music (as 'tis said)
Before was never made,
But when of old the sons of morning sung,
While the Creator great
His constellations set,
And the well-balanced world on hinges hung,
And cast the dark foundations deep,
And bid the welt'ring waves their oozy channel keep.
Ring out ye crystal spheres!
Once bless our human ears
(If ye have power to touch our senses so)
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time,
And let the bass of Heav'n's deep organ blow;
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort to th'angelic symphony.
For if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
Time will run back and fetch the age of gold,
And speckled Vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould;
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering Day.
Yea, Truth and Justice then
Will down return to men,
Orbed in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
Mercy will sit between,
Throned in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;
And Heav'n, as at some festival,
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.
But wisest Fate says no:
This must not yet be so;
The Babe lies yet in smiling infancy,
That on the bitter cross
Must redeem our loss,
So both himself and us to glorify:
Yet first to those ychained in sleep,
The wakeful trump of doom must thundcr through the deep,
With such a horrid clang
As on Mount Sinai rang
While the red fire and smould'ring clouds outbrake:
The aged Earth, aghast
With terror of that blast,
Shall from the surface to the centre shake,
When at the world's last session,
The dreadful Judge in middle air shall spread his throne.
And then at last our bliss
Full and perfect is,
But now begins; for from this happy day
Th'old Dragon under ground,
In straiter limits bound,
Not half so far casts his usurped sway,
And, wrath to see his kingdom fail,
Swinges the scaly horror of his folded tail.
The Oracles are dumb;
No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance or breathed spell
Inspires the pale-eyed priest from the prophetic cell.
The lonely mountains o'er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
From haunted spring, and dale
Edged with poplar pale,
The parting Genius is with sighing sent;
With flow'r-inwoven tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
In consecrated earth,
And on the holy hearth,
The Lars and Lemures moan with midnight plaint;
In urns and altars round,
A drear and dying sound
Affrights the flamens at their service quaint;
And the chill marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat.
Peor and Baalim
Forsake their temples dim,
With that twice-battered god of Palestine;
And mooned Ashtaroth,
Heav'n's queen and mother both,
Now sits not girt with tapers' holy shine;
The Libyc Hammon shrinks his horn;
In vain the Tyrian maids their wounded Thammuz mourn.
And sullen Moloch, fled,
Hath left in shadows dread
His burning idol all of blackest hue:
In vain with cymbals' ring
They call the grisly king,
In dismal dance about the furnace blue.
The brutish gods of Nile as fast,
Isis and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste.
Nor is Osiris seen
In Memphian grove or green,
Trampling the unshower'd grass with lowings loud;
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest,
Naught but profoundest Hell can be his shroud:
In vain with timbreled anthems dark
The sable-stoled sorcerers bear his worshipped ark.
He feels from Juda's land
The dreaded Infant's hand,
The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eyn;
Nor all the gods beside
Longer dare abide,
Not Typhon huge ending in snaky twine:
Our Babe, to show his Godhead true,
Can in his swaddling bands control the damned crew.
So when the Sun in bed,
Curtained with cloudy red,
Pillows his chin upon an orient wave,
The flocking shadows pale
Troop to th'infernal jail,
Each fettered ghost slips to his several grave,
And the yellow-skirted fays
Fly after the night-steeds, leaving their moon-loved maze.
But see, the Virgin blest
Hath laid her Babe to rest:
Time is our tedious song should here have ending.
Heav'n's youngest-teemed star,
Hath fixed her polished car,
Her sleeping Lord with handmaid lamp attending;
And all about the courtly stable,
Bright-harnessed Angels sit in order serviceable.

(Originally posted: 12/24/04)

Posted by orrinj at 12:41 AM


It's a Wonderful Life: The Little Story That Did : Part Dante, part film noir, part Bible story, Capra's classic survives its unhappy debut. (Patrick Coffin, National Review)

While shaving on the morning of February 28, 1938, a man named Philip got an idea for a short story. The whole thing came to him at once, from beginning to end. It was about the averted suicide of a desperate man named George, who, with a little help from a heavenly friend, finds out what would have happened had he not been born. Excited, Phil hocked his little fable to editors everywhere.

No one wanted it.

But Philip Van Doren Stern never gave up. He printed 200 copies of his 24-page mini-epic and gave them as Christmas gifts to friends, including his Hollywood agent, in 1943. In the parlance of Facebook, this is when it got "liked." Big-time.

A producer at RKO Studios thought Cary Grant might be a good fit for the role of the suicide wannabe. Mr. Grant begged to differ. Three different scripts were churned out, but none captured the charming spirit of Stern's original. On September 1, 1945, RKO head Charles Koerner off-loaded all three scripts, plus Stern's original pamphlet, for the lowly sum of $10,000 to a successful director who had recently returned from a four-year stint serving in World War II, when he had made pro-American documentaries to boost morale for the U.S. war effort.

His name was Frank Capra.

[originally posted : 12/25/12]
Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:36 AM


Behind the scenes of 'It's a Wonderful Life': The holiday fixture is a film classic, but the production wasn't always angelic. (Stephen Cox, December 23, 2006, LA Times)

It's no mystery why this year the American Film Institute named Capra's postwar classic "It's a Wonderful Life" the most inspiring motion picture ever made.

To most, it's an enriching, sentimental Christmas favorite not to be missed â€" almost sacrilege when viewed during any other season.

It's all the more remarkable that this homespun movie, which was not initially envisioned as a "holiday" film, has become so entrenched in popular culture, such a beloved tradition for families to share.

Oddly enough, the film was unceremoniously released during Christmas week of 1946. Never mind the yuletide flavor, the wintry snowdrifts in Bedford Falls and the holly wreath George Bailey carries slung around his arm â€" this Jimmy Stewart-Donna Reed romance was originally scheduled to open in January 1947. But RKO Studios knew it had something special and rushed it into theaters a few weeks early to meet the deadline for Academy Award consideration that year.

Capra shot much of the film on a specially constructed quaint-town set located at RKO's ranch in the San Fernando Valley â€" a site that has long been overtaken by property development. In media interviews at the time, Capra did not portray it as a holiday film. In fact, he said he saw it as a cinematic remedy to combat what he feared was a growing trend toward atheism and to provide hope to the human spirit. In a moment of possible revisionism decades later, Capra said that he also realized that with the holiday season comes an inherent vulnerability in all humans, and that this uplifting tale might just ride on that sentiment.

Without question, however, is the fact that audiences trusted Capra to deliver such patriotisms, all neatly wrapped with a ribbon and bow. Like "Meet John Doe" (1941), about a lie that sparks a political movement. Some critics accused Capra of presenting a "naive" faith in the common man within a syrupy-slick presentation. So skillful in his flair for filmmaking and eliciting emotion, his titles were once called "Capra-corn."

But the Oscar-winning director has had the last laugh.

"It's a Wonderful Life" keeps popping its way back into homes on television, in commercials, on DVD, routinely broadcast twice each season on NBC. (It's being broadcast Sunday night.)

Capra, an Italian-born filmmaker who gave us such early classics as "It Happened One Night" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," died in 1991, but not before witnessing "It's a Wonderful Life" take on iconic wings of sort when television began airing it regularly in the 1970s.

The movie transcended time and soared well beyond his imagination.

"It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen," Capra told the Wall Street Journal in 1984. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I'm like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I'm proud ... but it's the kid who did the work. I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea."

In probably his best-loved role, and a dark one at that, Stewart plays selfless everyman George Bailey through a tumultuous timeline that climaxes in near suicide on Christmas Eve. In answer to his desperate prayer at the bar, George is rescued by an unlikely angel with a smiling marshmallow face â€" a little fellow named Clarence â€" who convinces him that life is precious and that each man's life touches another with untold influence.

"I think, as the story unfolds," Stewart explained years ago, "it becomes clear that the movie is about hope, love and friendship."

Perhaps the best programming decision in television history was to buy back the rights to the film and put it on a network one night a year, making it the sort of old-fashioned event broadcast that we all watch at the same time.

[originally posted: December 23, 2006]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:35 AM


Witches vs. Baby Jesus (12/15/07, Washington Times)

That's when the scandal began. Not that a Baby Jesus on the lawn of the municipal building is against the law or a violation of the Constitution -- it is neither -- but New York is one of those states where political correctness is an art form. Most people believe in Jesus, but the ones who don't are adept at raising a stink. And a stink was raised in Olean.

The regular folks seemed pretty happy with things, finding the Nativity display a nice holiday addition. Unfortunately, in America in 2007, the regular folks don't matter. Majority rule is a thing of the past and special interests are the masters of the society. That is how the pentacle came to be there. Do you know what that is? It's a five-pointed star inside a circle and it's supposedly the symbol of the Wicca witchcraft people.

See, Baby Jesus ticks off witchcraft people. They're all about tolerance for themselves, but are pretty darned intolerant of others. That's how this whole diversity thing goes. Acceptance is demanded for everything -- except the values, opinions, faith and culture of the majority. Multiculturalism is about the sanitizing of culture, about the eradication of the mainstream culture.

So, like I said, the witchcraft people got ticked off. Though there might just have been one of them. At any rate, figuring that actually walking up and urinating on the Baby Jesus would stir up the locals, it looks like folks decided to go for the next best thing. That's how the 10-foot by 10-foot Wicca symbol got built in the shadow of the stable. It was a big square, with a dark blue background and a white circle. Inside the white circle was a white five-pointed star against a light-blue background. That's a pentacle.

Also known as kindling.

[originally posted: 12/26/07]

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Posted by orrinj at 12:34 AM


The Inspiring, Nerdy Toys of A. C. Gilbert: Early toys got kids interested in science and engineering through experimentation (Rose Eveleth  | December 24, 2011, Scientific American)

Before video games and robotics competitions, toys were much simpler: girls got dolls; boys got model trains and bicycles. Toys that promoted learning and experimentation were rare until one inventor, Alfred Carlton ("A. C.") Gilbert, started making toys that taught children about science and engineering. His most famous, the Erector set, became one of the best -selling toys of its day and inspired children across the country to build everything from bridges to robots.

Gilbert was a man of many talents. He financed his medical degree from Yale University by working as a magician, invented the pole-vaulting box and won a gold medal in the sport in 1908, and broke the world record for consecutive chin-ups--39 in a row. In 1918 he became "the man who saved Christmas" by convincing Congress not to ban toy production during the war.

But he is most famous for his toys. Gilbert founded the A. C. Gilbert Company and went on to invent and sell all kinds of classic science toys from chemistry sets to robots to microscopes. Gilbert's real innovation was to provide kids with a way to experiment with real-life tools and parts, says William Brown, director of the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, Conn., where a large collection of Gilbert toys is on display. "They had that feel of being not symbolic but part of the real world," he says. "You were working with a motor for your Erector set that could actually move heavy things."


And that real-life appeal did not just apply to kids. In 1949 doctors at the Yale School of Medicine used an Erector set to build a precursor to the modern artificial heart.

[originally posted: 12/25/12]
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Posted by orrinj at 12:34 AM


[originally posted : 12/25/12]
Posted by orrinj at 12:34 AM


[originally posted: 11/24/11]
Posted by orrinj at 12:33 AM


What I Like About Scrooge : In praise of misers. (Steven E. Landsburg, Dec. 9, 2004, Slate)
Here's what I like about Ebenezer Scrooge: His meager lodgings were dark because darkness is cheap, and barely heated because coal is not free. His dinner was gruel, which he prepared himself. Scrooge paid no man to wait on him.

Scrooge has been called ungenerous. I say that's a bum rap. What could be more generous than keeping your lamps unlit and your plate unfilled, leaving more fuel for others to burn and more food for others to eat? Who is a more benevolent neighbor than the man who employs no servants, freeing them to wait on someone else?

Oh, it might be slightly more complicated than that. Maybe when Scrooge demands less coal for his fire, less coal ends up being mined. But that's fine, too. Instead of digging coal for Scrooge, some would-be miner is now free to perform some other service for himself or someone else.

Dickens tells us that the Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his 50 cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor's household should--presumably for a houseful of guests who lavishly praised his generosity. The bricks, mortar, and labor that built the Mansion House might otherwise have built housing for hundreds; Scrooge, by living in three sparse rooms, deprived no man of a home. By employing no cooks or butlers, he ensured that cooks and butlers were available to some other household where guests reveled in ignorance of their debt to Ebenezer Scrooge.

In this whole world, there is nobody more generous than the miser--the man who could deplete the world's resources but chooses not to.

What makes the miser so anti-human is precisely that he buys into the notion of scarcity and of life as a zero-sum game.

[originally posted : 12/25/12]

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Posted by orrinj at 12:32 AM


[originally posted : 12/25/12]
Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:30 AM


Nativity (John Donne)

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves his welbelov'd imprisonment,
There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come;
But Oh, for thee, for him, hath th'Inne no roome?
Yet lay him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars, and wisemen will travel to prevent
Th'effect of Herod's jealous general doom;
Seest thou, my Soul, with thy faith's eyes, how he
Which fills all place, yet none holds him, doth lie?
Was not his pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss him, and with him into Egypt goe,
With his kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

(Originally posted: 12/24/04)

Posted by orrinj at 12:29 AM


Mark Steyn on 'White Christmas,' the original Christmas no1 (Mark Steyn, 24 December 2012, Spectator)

When something's that big, you take it for granted. If you've heard 'White Christmas' in a shopping mall or elevator or while stuck in touch-tone hell trying to make a telephone booking, you don't usually think, 'Gee, "White Christmas" again. That must be the 50th version this month.' But, if you did, you'd want to know how it got that way. What particular combination of circumstances blessed 'White Christmas' out of all the other songs written that month? Berlin, wrote Jody Rosen in his book about the anthem, 'had tried to kick-start the Tin Pan Alley Christmas song some years before.' In 1912, the year after his first big hit with 'Alexander's Ragtime Band', he'd published 'Christmas Time Seems Years and Years Away', which, from his point of view, it was. Before radio, before a real record industry, the sheet-music business couldn't see the point of working a song that would be dead on 26 December. The notion that it might be a seasonal insurance policy, returning year after year for decade after decade, never occurred to them.

But it occurred to Irving Berlin.

[originally posted : 12/25/12]
Posted by orrinj at 12:28 AM


I Wonder as I Wander (Peter Lawler, December 24, 2011, Big Think)

A Christmas carol of Appalachian origin captures a lot about what's singularly wonderful about what happened the first Christmas day:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die

For poor on'ry people like you and like I

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

There's nothing worse than subjecting poetry--especially beautiful songs--to analysis.  But here's a few words on each of the three lines:

1) To be human is to wonder and wander. The being who wonders can't be fully at home in the cosmos the scientists can otherwise, perhaps, perfectly describe. There's nothing more wonderful than he being who wanders (and knows it) "under the sky." So even Jesus was quite literally born "on the road."

2) He was born, for one thing, on the road to death.

[originally posted: 12/24/11]

Posted by orrinj at 12:25 AM


Images of first Christmas owe more to artists than historians (Tim Townsend, 12/25/12,

Historians and theologians say it is that sense of family intimacy, coupled with the humbling circumstances of Christ's birth as told in the Gospel of Luke, that has resonated with Christians for centuries.

Many Christians hang a crucifix or cross -- a symbol of the resurrection -- in their homes, "but the other pillar of Christianity is the incarnation," said St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson. "When the savior of the world was born, he wasn't born in a palace, he was not born as a king. He came as a defenseless child."

And, of course, Luke made Christ's vulnerability even more stark by placing Mary and Joseph in a stable. When the time came for Mary to deliver the child, she "gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn," wrote the author of Luke's Gospel.

Public Christian art didn't exist before the Roman emperor Constantine lifted restrictions on Christians in the fourth century. As soon as Christ's followers were allowed to practice their faith out in the open, Christian artists began to depict the Nativity, which comes from the Latin word "nativus," or "born."

[originally posted : 12/25/12]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:25 AM


[originally posted : 12/24/11]

Posted by orrinj at 12:25 AM


Gimme Five: Our Christmas favorites include Nat King Cole, Vince Guaraldi ... and Henry Rollins?!? (Something Else! Reviews, 12/25/12)

[originally posted : 12/25/12]
Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:24 AM


THE MAGI (W. B. Yeats, 1865-1939)

OW as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

[originally posted: 12/24/08]

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Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:19 AM


Log: The Directors' Cuts (ALESSANDRA STANLEY, 12/24/08, NY Times)

It seems like cheating, or bad karma, but it's possible to have a yule log crackling on the television screen anytime, even several days before Christmas -- or on Halloween or Presidents' Day, for that matter.

With titles like "Ambient Fire" and "The Happy Holiday Hearth," yule log DVDs offer a dizzying array of flaming options, from stately baroque plumes to crispy, woodsy campfires. There is even a soft-core porn Christmas log: on "Yule a Go-Go," dancers like Ms. Tickle and Bunny Love perform tassled, spangled burlesque-style stripteases to Christmas carols in front of a roaring fire. (Actually, those flames are quite subdued, for perhaps obvious reasons.)

There used to just be one yule log on television. Viewers had to wait for it, and it didn't come with naughty features or special effects. The WPIX Christmas yule log was first shown in New York in 1966, in black and white, and for several uninterrupted hours, apartment dwellers could stare at flames flickering in a hearth as Christmas songs played in the background. Later, other stations around the country began offering yule logs, but in New York the WPIX log, a kitschy tribute to television as the family hearth -- not just metaphorically but literally -- became a fiercely cherished local tradition, like the Biltmore clock or egg creams.

Gotta watch the live telecast.

N.B. (12/24/09): If you're lucky enough to have Comcast, they've got the Yule Log live in On Demand. We've been watching all month.

[originally posted: 12/24/08]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:17 AM


Tracking the elusive Jolly Old Elf's history involved a labyrinthine journey that would make Daedalus proud. The search began with 19th century gift givers in America, Britain, and Germany. These gift givers appeared at end-of-year celebrations, but didn't travel alone; they were accompanied by a predictable entourage, no matter what country they trod. Santa's companions invariably included a Bessy - a man dressed as a woman - and assorted merrymakers dressed in goat or bear skins or wearing goat or bear masks. The other characters varied; usually there was a comic doctor and often an archer. Of course, America's Christmas Man wasn't called Santa at the time; he gained that name in the mid-1800s. First, he was Pelznichol, or Nicholas in Furs; in Nova Scotia he was the Janney; in Trinidad he was Papa Bois; in Great Britain he was Yule until Ben Johnson christened him Father Christmas in his 1616 Christmas Masque. His names were as varied as the communities he both terrorized and blessed.

The Wild Man's motley crew went door-to-door, demanding entry. After the raucous group was welcomed, they acted out an odd play - the leader, who dressed in goat or bear skins, argued with another character or with the woman figure. He was killed, the woman lamented, and the doctor comically resuscitated him, or he spontaneously revived, declaring he wasn't dead after all. Before the troupe left to visit the next house, they demanded gifts. This might sound somewhat familiar; today's Halloween trick-or-treaters carry on a juvenile version of the original visit - going house to house, demanding gifts and treats. In the bygone adult festival, the troupe gave its blessing and shared fruits of the land with the inhabitants, or wreaked havoc and cursed the homes if they weren't well received.

This invasion didn't take place at only at Yuletide; in Germany, Carnival signaled the Wild Man's wild rush into town in the Schembartlauf (run of bearded men).

[originally posted: 2002-12-18]
Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:12 AM


Handel's 'Messiah' from Philadelphia (NPR, December 18, 2007

From the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, WHYY and NPR present Handel's holiday masterpiece performed by the "Fabulous Philadelphians" -- one of the world's great orchestras, joined by the nationally-renowned Philadelphia Singers Chorale. Acclaimed British choral master Richard Hickox conducts. Hosted by Fred Child and Melinda Whiting.

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[originally posted: 12/24/11]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:11 AM


Jingle Bell Schlock (MAUREEN DOWD, 12/05/04, NY Times)

If I hear "Frosty the Snowman" one more time, I'll rip his frozen face off.

It's a scientific fact, or should be, that Christmas music can turn you into a fruitcake. It either sends you into a Pavlovian shopping trance, buying stupid things like the Robosapien, or, if you hear repeated Clockwork-Orange choruses of "Ring, Christmas Bells" drilling into your brain with that slasher-movie staccato, makes you feel as possessed with Christmas spirit as Norman Bates.

I've never said this out loud before, but I can't stand Christmas.

Everyone in my family loves it except me, and they can't fathom why I get the mullygrubs, as a Southern friend of mine used to call a low-level depression, from Thanksgiving straight through New Year.

"You're weird," my mom says.

[originally posted: 2004-12-07]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:10 AM


Angels Passing: A Christmas story (Allan Massie, 12/25/10, The Scotsman)

"And what about Helmut?"

I had hesitated before putting the question, but she received it with a smile.

"We found him wandering in the woods. He was in a bad way, very nervous. It was something he had seen. He won't talk about it."

But he did to me, because I was a soldier too, and would understand.

"It was truly horrible," he said, "and so I did the only thing I could do. I ran away. I deserted. I came south because most deserters are stupid and make for home and because this was then the unoccupied zone. I was sick, very sick at heart. Albertine has made me whole again."

We were playing chess and he took my queen and said, "I was never a Nazi. I hate them. In fact I'm a Communist. Like my father. He was a Communist and they put him in a camp and killed him. What about you, Jock?"

"I'm an auld Scots Radical," I said, "and that means I'm agin the government, any government."

"Shake hands, Jock," he said..

"Christmas Eve is the great feast in Provence," Albertine told me, and what a feast it was! We had smoked eel with horse-radish sauce and then the cassoulet. That's a dish of pork and spiced sausage and white beans and other vegetables and the pork is first browned and flamed with marc. It had been cooking in the stove for hours and the smell was a meal in itself. And then we had prunes that had been soaked in brandy and a cheese that Albertine had made herself from the cow's milk. It was her grandmother's recipe, like the cassoulet, she said. Helmut and I drank a litre of the local wine and we all sat back, replete, rubbing our bellies and happy. We had talked throughout the meal, the talk of good fellowship with no mention of the war and its suffering, and had laughed as you should laugh in good company. And then we fell silent, as silent as the night on the hillside, and I looked at my watch and said, "angels passing".

"It's a saying we have," I explained. "When a silence falls at twenty to the hour or twenty past, we say it's because the angels are flying by. I don't know why."

"It's a lovely thought," Albertine said, "and it might be true..."

"Angels?" Helmut said. "Well, I don't know about that."

Nor did I, but I kept quiet and gave myself another glass of wine and a slice of Albertine's cheese.

It was then that we noticed the children had slipped away.

"Pierre likes to look at the stars," Albertine. said. "They often go out at night. There's no cause for anxiety."

Then the door burst open and the children were there with faces alight with joy.

"Come quick," Marie cried, "it's the angels."

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[originally posted : 12/24/11]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:04 AM



One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young."

The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

[originally posted: 2004-12-24]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:03 AM


Moving On From Ground Zero (Petra Bartosiewicz, NY Observer)
On Sept. 11, 2001, Abby Lindsay was pulled out from beneath the towers just in time. A cop named Nick with a gray mustache had found her huddled under two chairs propped against each other like a teepee, where she thought she wouldn?t be killed by the falling towers. He grabbed her and told her to run.

As it turned out, Abby didn?t go far. The next day, she had returned to Ground Zero and was busy behind a table of hot trays, feeding the firefighters. Her 5-foot-1 frame was tiny beside the men. She had outrun death by a few seconds-a matter of yards-and she had not staggered out of the haze looking for home or the nearest hospital. Instead, she?d shrugged off her cuts and scrapes and, less than 24 hours later, was a seasoned volunteer with a solid line on the surest place to find a flashlight, a spare sweatshirt, a carton of cigarettes. But with the dirt streaking her round cheeks, and wearing a pair of borrowed shorts that came to her ankles, she looked less like a gritty rescue worker than a child caught in a war zone.

"I?m not leaving till this is over," she told me. Behind the genial smile, her eyes were slightly wild.

Here's a review of an unusual piece of music that's been helpful in "moving on": Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1993) (Gavin Bryars 1943-) [originally posted : 9/24/02]
Posted by orrinj at 12:01 AM


What Ever Happened To The Classical Christmas Album? (TOM HUIZENGA, December 24, 2012, NPR)

[A]t a time of year when nostalgia is not only condoned but encouraged (with cookies and eggnog on the side), I find myself longing for my old classical Christmas favorites. Here are a few, thanks to the interwebs. And ... if you've run across a great classical Christmas release we missed this year, tell us all about it in the comments section.

[originally posted : 12/25/12]
Posted by orrinj at 12:01 AM


Kwanzaa is made-up, but useful. (Melonyce McAfee, Dec. 26, 2011,

I don't know where we got a candelabrum. But there we were, lighting the candles in the kinara and reciting Swahili words like umoja, ujima, and kujichagulia while my brother poured water from an earthenware jug onto a half-dead plant. We placed whatever fruit we had (apples, oranges, bruised bananas) onto a table festooned with African objets d'art, the kinara, and a small jug of water. For seven nights, we lit a candle and recited one of the Nguzo Saba principles, like nia for faith. The Swahili didn't roll off our tongues, but we liked how it sounded. We performed a libation, pouring liquid from the kikombe cha umoja, or unity cup, into soil in remembrance of our ancestors.

It was Mom's idea, like the world-beat reggae concerts, Earth Day fairs, and Marcus Garvey coloring books. Kwanzaa was a way to bring our ragtag family together and nudge us away from the false idols and commercial trickery of the holiday season. We only celebrated Kwanzaa for a couple of years. That might sound like a fist-in-the-air dalliance into neo-black-holiday land. But the dismissal wouldn't be fair. Kwanzaa may be made-up, but for my family it was useful.

Kwanzaa was conjured up in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, former chair of the black studies department at California State University, Long Beach, to "reaffirm and restore our rootedness in African culture." For my mother, a black child of the cause-oriented 1960s and '70s raising three black children of the Cosby-fied '80s and '90s, that seemed perfect. Since the untimely departure of my father from the family (oh, he's still alive, mind you), my little brother had been in need of male guidance. He attended a mentorship program in which black men organized camping trips and kumbaya-ing for boys in need of a male role model. The program was Pan-African in its ideology--black role models, institutions, language, and, apparently, holidays for black people. This led us to Kwanzaa.

We also had a toe rooted in the Southern Baptist church. And going to the homes of my extended family on Christmas--with their pinned-up stockings and glinting trees--showed me the importance of the holiday to black Christians.

[originally posted : 12/26/11]
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Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:00 AM


A Revolutionary Christmas Story (LYNNE CHENEY, 12/21./04, NY Times)

AS 1776 was drawing to a close, Elkanah Watson, a young man in Massachusetts, expressed what many Americans feared about their war for independence. "We looked upon the contest as near its close," he wrote, "and considered ourselves a vanquished people."

There was good reason for pessimism. The British had driven Gen. George Washington and his men out of New York and across New Jersey. In early December, with the British on their heels, the Americans had commandeered every boat they could find to escape across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. They were starving, sick and cold. The artist Charles Willson Peale, watching the landing from the Pennsylvania shore, described a soldier dressed "in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long and his face so full of sores that he could not clean it." So disfigured was the man, Peale wrote, that at first he did not recognize him as his brother James.

In these desperate circumstances, George Washington made a stunning decision: to go back across the Delaware and launch a surprise attack on the Hessian mercenaries occupying Trenton. On Christmas night, he led 2,400 men, many of them with their feet wrapped in rags because they had no shoes, to a crossing point nine miles upstream from Trenton. As freezing temperatures turned rain to sleet and snow, they began to cross the river.

One of the best books of 2004 was David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing, which covers this period brilliantly and opens with a terrific rehabilition of Emmanuel Leutze's iconic painting of the Crossing

[originally posted: 2004-12-21]

December 24, 2013

Posted by Orrin Judd at 11:48 PM


Sufjan Stevens - Gloria! Songs for Christmas, Vol. 6 by rawkblog

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[originally posted : 12/24/11]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 11:36 PM


The amazing grace of Christmas morn (Wesley Pruden, December 25, 2007, Washington Times)

The malls and the Main Streets fall silent. The ringing cash registers and the happy cries of children echo across the silent land. But the Christ born in a manger 2,000 years ago lives, liberating the hearts of sinners and transforming the lives of the wicked.

The redeeming grace of the Christmas message is nowhere more vividly illustrated than in the incredible life of an English slaver named John Newton.

[originally posted: 12/25/07]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 11:31 PM


Tracing the Christmas tree's roots
(Religion News Service, December 21, 2004)

The Christmas tree remains a powerful symbol for many of us, a mandala of sorts, evoking emotions that can be traced through thousands of years of humankind and across many faiths.

"Christmas trees probably add more to mark the period of 'peace on Earth, goodwill toward men' than any other product of the soil," says Ann Kirk-Davis, whose family has been raising and selling Christmas trees for generations. "This enduring tree symbol -- which is even older than Christianity and not exclusive to any one religion -- remains a firmly established part of our holiday customs, engaging not only our senses of sight, touch and smell, but also our sense of tradition."

The Christmas tree has evolved from centuries-old traditions.

Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Chinese and other cultures used evergreens to mark the winter solstice, celebrate the end of the harvest year and symbolize the spirit of renewal. Druids used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life.

In the 7th century in Germany, St. Boniface used the triangular shape of the tree to symbolize the Holy Trinity. In the Middle Ages, evergreens were decorated with red apples -- the paradise tree -- to mark the pagan festival of Adam and Eve.

In Riga, Latvia, in 1510, Martin Luther, inspired by the stars shimmering through the trees as he walked through the woods one wintry night, cut down a small tree, took it home and decorated it with candles for his children.

[originally posted: 2004-12-23]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 11:08 PM

FROM THE ARCHIVES: David Cohen sends this link:

The Klezmonauts and their klezmer Christmas album, Oy to the World. [Originally posted: 2002-12-08]
Posted by orrinj at 3:41 PM


What Gun Owners Really Want : I've owned six guns. I've drawn them on bad guys. I want to be understood. (WALTER KIRN, 1/20/13, New Republic)

They push back when they're fired. That's the elemental fact involved, the deep Newtonian heart of the whole business. They kick at your will in the instant they also project it, reminding you that force is always two-sided. It's a shock the first time, an insult to the senses, but once you've learned to expect it, absorb it, ride it, recoil becomes a source of pleasure. You're up on your board turning turbulence to flow. You want to do it again, again--again!--and the urge becomes part of your body, your nervous system. It feels as though it was always there, this appetite, this desire for a small, acute struggle that you can win. Win consistently. Repeatedly.


When I shoot at the range, I don't feel personally powerful but like the custodian of something powerful. I feel like a successful disciplinarian of something radically alien and potent. Analyze this sensation all you want; you still can't make it go away. But that's the primitive, underlying fear, of course, which the likes of LaPierre exploit: the fear that it will be curtailed, suppressed, prohibited--perhaps not any time soon, but ultimately.

We're not talking rights here; we're talking instincts. It's not the gun that the so-called "clingers" cling to and don't like the thought of anybody screwing with. It's not even the power of the gun. It's the power over the power of the gun.

Posted by orrinj at 3:32 PM


Obama Couldn't Use Website To Sign Up For Obamacare (CBS News, December 24, 2013)

He won't use it, and he didn't actually sign up for it himself, but President Barack Obama has enrolled for health coverage through the new insurance exchanges.

Announcing his enrollment Monday, the White House called it a symbolic show of Obama's support for the fledgling exchanges where millions of Americans must buy insurance or face a penalty. Ironically, it also served as a reminder of just how complex and sometimes daunting the process can be.

Obama, like so many other Americans, couldn't use the website. [...]

Unable to offer a camera-friendly photo-op of the president breezing through an improved, the White House quietly announced on Monday that, sometime over the weekend, aides had enrolled Obama through an in-person enrollment site while the president was vacationing in Hawaii.

The photo op was the entire point of the exercise.

Posted by orrinj at 3:24 PM


Ford's 3D-Printed Auto Parts Save Millions Of Dollars (Arab Times, 12/23/13)

One day, millions of car parts could be printed as quickly as newspapers and as easily as pushing a button on the office copy machine, saving months of development time and millions of dollars. 3D printing technology is making that day come sooner at Ford Motor Company. The development of the engine cover for the all-new Ford Mustang is the most recent example of the use of this technology. Ford uses 3D printing to quickly produce prototype parts, shaving months off the development time for individual components used in all of its vehicles, such as cylinder heads, intake manifolds and air vents. With traditional methods, an engineer would create a computer model of an intake manifold -- the most complicated engine part -- and wait about four months for one prototype at a cost of $500,000. With 3D printing, Ford can print the same part in four days, including multiple iterations and with no tooling limits -- at a cost of $3,000.

"For the customer, this means better quality products that also can be weight-optimized to help improve fuel efficiency," explains Paul Susalla, Ford section supervisor of rapid manufacturing.
3D printing saves millions of dollars in the product development process by eliminating the need for special tooling, or dedicated molds, for parts likely to change. The technology also allows engineers to experiment with more radical, innovative part designs inexpensively and quickly.

Posted by orrinj at 3:18 PM


CNN Poll: Health care law support drops to all-time low (Paul Steinhauser, 12/24/13, CNN) 

According to the survey, 43% say they oppose the health care law because it is too liberal, with 15% saying they give the measure a thumbs down because it is not liberal enough. That means half the public either favors Obamacare, or opposes it because it's not liberal enough, down four points from last month.

Congress can please both sides by making it genuinely universal with an HSA/Catastrophic default.
Posted by orrinj at 2:45 PM


Health Insurance Shoppers are Terrible at Choosing Cost-Effective Plans (CLARA RITGER, 12/24/13, NATIONAL JOURNAL)

Health insurance shoppers do a terrible job of picking the plan that will serve them best, according to a new study.

The study presented subjects with health insurance websites that mirror the exchanges set up by the Affordable Care Act and asked them to pick a plan. The results were not pretty: Left to their own devices, consumers who selected their own plans ended up only slightly better off than they would have had their plans been assigned randomly.

When given four options, the consumers chose the most cost-effective plan only 42 percent of the time. When given eight options, the success rate plummeted to 21 percent--a rate indistinguishable from random assignments. [...]

Consumers tend to overweigh the importance of premiums and underestimate the costs from deductibles and out-of-pocket contributions, the researchers wrote. Low premium payments are attractive, but for someone who uses a lot of health services, the high deductible that often accompanies the low premium means the consumer will pay the full cost of care until he or she reaches the deductible, when insurance kicks in and starts to share a portion of those expenses.

December 23, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 5:35 PM


Stephen Deusner on Johnny Cash: The Life : The Man in Black in Shades of Gray (Stephen Deusner, December 23rd, 2013, LA Review of Books)

Both Folsom and The Holy Land were passion projects for Cash, and both show the extremes of his persona. Here was a man who could ingest handfuls of pills and bed women who were not his wife (June Carter only one among several), yet could still sing a gospel song with utmost conviction. He yearned for salvation out of both personal spiritual need and his perceived social responsibility as a country musician, yet he continued for decades to wallow in sin. There was significance to his struggle, which allowed fans to identify personally with him as a flawed human being and prevented him from preaching down to his audience. Even as he fought mightily and often futilely against temptation, he came to represent larger American ideals, most characteristically musical authenticity, social empathy, and spiritual striving. These seemingly oppositional urges toward damnation and salvation continue to animate the Cash legend even a decade after his death, bisecting him neatly into two figures. The man himself was a deeply fallible human being, while the Man in Black has grown into an American tall tale similar to Paul Bunyan or John Henry.

Anyone attempting to discuss Cash in any context -- whether it's a critical examination of his catalog or a summation of his life -- must address these two roles and their inherent contradictions. Hilburn is less interested in the mythology than in the man who constructed it, and Johnny Cash is all the more fascinating, refreshing, and revelatory for that approach. The arc of Cash's life is so long and varied, opening in rural Arkansas before traversing the globe many times and ranging from upstart musician on Sun Records to aging icon on American Recordings. It's a rich story full of triumphs and failures, fadeouts and comebacks, yet it can be intimidating in both its length and its familiarity. Somehow Hilburn manages to fit the story into 700 pages without sacrificing detail, nuance, or character. Even more impressive is his ability to make these events new and revealing even after so many books and films and documentaries about the subject. Cash may be one of the most studied figures in American music, but Johnny Cash still finds new material and new approaches. [...]

Folsom may have revitalized Cash commercially, but it was not quite a new beginning for the artist. Rather, with its feisty renditions of old material, it closed out the first of several long, uncertain phases in his career. Less popular and certainly less well regarded, The Holy Land may mark a true turning point. At the very least it proved equally pivotal, as it set in place the concerns that would guide Cash throughout much of the 1970s -- a decade defined by his relentless spiritual questing and a renewed emphasis on gospel music. Cash insisted on playing hymns when he auditioned for Sun Records, until Sam Phillips persuaded him to try his hand with secular material. Years later, Cash would maintain that one of his earliest Sun hits, "I Walk the Line," was less about his new wife than about his God (yet Hilburn strikes a note of subtle skepticism).

Nevertheless, some of Cash's best singles worked as both secular and spiritual ponderings. Hilburn rightly suggests that his three signature tunes in 1969 and 1970, when Cash was reaching millions via his variety show on ABC, smuggled Christian ideas onto the radio via pop hits. In fact, "What Is Truth?" and especially "The Man in Black" can be read as extensions of his quest for salvation, viewing such topical concerns as the Vietnam War and prisoners' rights through the lens of Christian faith. Cash was, as Hilburn notes, "a man struggling to understand the times," and few other artists were quite so well positioned to speak across the various political and social divides that defined America at this point in history. Here was a man who could release a counterculturally sympathetic inquisition like "What Is Truth?" with its verse devoted to questioning the war, and follow it up with a performance at Nixon's White House.

It was, of course, impossible for Cash to walk such a fine line in American culture for very long, and eventually his endorsement of Nixon, his appearances with evangelist Billy Graham, and his emphasis on hymns over hits alienated his younger fans. Meanwhile, well outside the city limits, a new generation of musicians including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Jerry Jeff Walker rode the wave of outlaw country that displaced Cash on the charts, relegating him to Nashville's old guard: unhip, out of touch, irrelevant. Hilburn notes the irony that Cash had been rendered obsolete by the very movement he inspired.

Posted by orrinj at 5:12 PM


'As You Wish' : True (Self-)Love and The Princess Bride (JORDAN J. BALLOR, Winter 2014, University Bookman)

As much as The Princess Bride trucks in the ideals of true love, heroism, and adventure, the gritty details of a scene like this with Miracle Max evince an insightful realism in the midst of fantasy. Relatedly, the limits of revenge as a motive strike home in the successful realization of Inigo's quest. As the actor Mandy Patinkin recently said in reflecting on the film, his favorite line has become Inigo's confession at the conclusion of the tale. Patinkin says that as he has grown older he has come to appreciate the ambiguity of Inigo's conclusion about what comes after vengeance: "Is very strange. I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it's over, I don't know what to do with the rest of my life."

Westley provides a timely response: "Have you ever considered piracy?" he asks. "You'd make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts." In this ending we catch another resonance from Augustine's meditations on the confrontation between pirate and emperor. For as long as political tyranny persists, as long as oppression prevents true love and association between human beings, there will be a need for reckoning. For as Augustine asks, "Justice removed, then, what are kingdoms but great bands of robbers?" The Princess Bride offers a worthy testimony--attired in the garb of fanciful narrative, adventure, true love, revenge, and self-interest--to the need for justice in political order.

Posted by orrinj at 5:06 PM


The Mideast's Unlikely Allies (BEN FISHMAN, 12/23/13, NY Times)

For Israel, no level of security assistance seems capable of overcoming its anxiety that the United States will ultimately accept a nuclear Iran rather than initiate a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities if the diplomatic process falls apart or Iran develops the capability and know-how to produce nuclear weapons in short order.

Mr. Obama has acknowledged that Israel should not be expected to contract out its security. And yet he is hoping Mr. Netanyahu will do just that by foregoing a military strike and trusting America to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon through sanctions-backed diplomacy and force, if necessary.

The Gulf states have long feared being sold out by America to their Persian rivals, especially since the president first proposed engagement with Iran in 2009.

Iran's Rouhani eyes rebuilding relations with United States (Reuters, Dec 23, 2013)

"We want to rebuild and improve our relations to European and North American countries on a basis of mutual respect," he wrote in a contribution for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

"We are striving to avoid new burdens on relations between Iran and the United States and also to remove the tensions that we have inherited," said Rouhani, who has promised to reduce Tehran's isolation and to win an easing of sanctions.

December 22, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 6:37 PM


In Egypt, the 'revolution' is eating its young (Dan Murphy, December 22, 2013, CS Monitor)

[T]he latest bit of bad news was the sentencing of three activists to three years in prison today under a law passed after the military coup the deposed Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically-elected president, in July.

Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, co-founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, were sentenced along with Ahmed Douma. The incident that led to their arrests and imprisonment came when Mr. Maher arrived at a Cairo courthouse to surrender on an earlier warrant of organizing an illegal demonstration. A small protest accompanied his arrival, in which Mr. Adel and Mr. Douma participated. The protesters complaint was simple. If Maher or any other Egyptian could be charged with a crime for peacefully demonstrating, then Egypt was not free, the uprising against Mubarak had not succeeded.

Egypt's military rulers responded to that protest with new charges against Maher and by arresting Adel and Douma. Adel was arrested in a raid on the offices of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights last week. Douma was arrested at his home in early December.

Their convictions signal a military-government crackdown on political dissent that is expanding far beyond the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that catapulted Mr. Morsi to the presidency.

That's the counter-Revolution doing the eating.

Posted by orrinj at 11:51 AM


First shots fired on military compensation (Jeremy Herb, 12/21/13, The Hill)

The battle over military retirement benefits in the budget deal was the first skirmish in a larger compensation war, and next year's outcome could determine the fate of long-protected military compensation programs.

Budget experts and veterans groups say the retirement benefits fight will serve as a test case to see what appetite there is on Capitol Hill to actually cut military compensation costs -- and how much blowback will come from those efforts.

"There's no doubt that this is a little bit of a weather vane, a litmus test as to what the veterans and military communities' tolerance is going to be for this, and what types of cuts we're going to be willing to tolerate and what types of cuts we're going to fight on," said Alex Nicholson, legislative director for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

"And what you saw I think from us was an absolute tip of the iceberg," he said.

Compensation costs had long been off limits for budget cutters, but military leaders have begun calling for reforms to retirement benefits, TRICARE and more after dealing with the dual problems of budget squeezes from sequestration and ballooning personnel costs. 

Posted by orrinj at 11:49 AM


India and Japan Begin Joint Naval Exercises (SANTANU CHOUDHURY, Dec. 19, 2013, WSJ)

Indian and Japanese navy ships started their first-ever joint exercises in Indian waters as the countries took steps to tighten military ties at a time when both are facing territorial disputes with China.

Two destroyers from Japan joined three ships from the Indian Navy Thursday for the start of four days of military exercises in the Bay of Bengal. The exercises will be the second for the navies of the two countries. The first exercise was off the coast of Tokyo in June of last year. [...]

Relations between India and Japan have been on the rise of late, with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visiting India in the last month to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and India. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Tokyo in May.

Posted by orrinj at 11:43 AM


Covert action in Colombia : U.S. intelligence, GPS bomb kits help Latin American nation cripple rebel forces (Dana Priest,  December 21, 2013, Washington Post)

The 50-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), once considered the best-funded insurgency in the world, is at its smallest and most vulnerable state in decades, due in part to a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders, according to interviews with more than 30 former and current U.S. and Colombian officials.

The secret assistance, which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It is not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia, which began in 2000.

Above: A Colombian Air Force member cleans an A-29 Super Tucano, a turboprop aircraft typically involved in strikes on FARC targets. (Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images)
The previously undisclosed CIA program was authorized by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s and has continued under President Obama, according to U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program is classified and ongoing.

The covert program in Colombia provides two essential services to the nation's battle against the FARC and a smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN): Real-time intelligence that allows Colombian forces to hunt down individual FARC leaders and, beginning in 2006, one particularly effective tool with which to kill them.

That weapon is a $30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb. Smart bombs, also called precision-guided munitions or PGMs, are capable of killing an individual in triple-canopy jungle if his exact location can be determined and geo-coordinates are programmed into the bomb's small computer brain.

In March 2008, according to nine U.S. and Colombian officials, the Colombian Air Force, with tacit U.S. approval, launched U.S.-made smart bombs across the border into Ecuador to kill a senior FARC leader, Raul Reyes. The indirect U.S. role in that attack has not been previously disclosed.

The covert action program in Colombia is one of a handful of enhanced intelligence initiatives that has escaped public notice since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Most of these other programs, small but growing, are located in countries where violent drug cartels have caused instability.

Thanks, W.
Posted by orrinj at 9:56 AM


3D printing making museum artifacts more accessible (Natalie Morris,  Dec. 17, 2013 , State Journal-Register)

Paleontologist Chris Widga wouldn't dream of letting visitors man-handle the remains of a 29,000-year-old saber-toothed cat that the Illinois State Museum staff unearthed in a Minnesota cave in 2007.

But cutting-edge technology of 3D printing is beginning to remove the "Do Not Touch" barrier formerly necessary to protect priceless pieces from the past.

"We've passed the printed skull around to school kids in ways you just can't do with an artifact," said Widga, an associate curator of geology in the museum's research and collections center.

"That opens doors, ways of thinking."

3D printing technology is being touted as a game changer for many disciplines, although its presence is just beginning to emerge in Springfield.

"This technology isn't ready for prime-time yet," said Joseph Deken, director of the not-for-profit New Blankets Inc., which is dedicated to making technology like 3D printing accessible to the masses. "But 3D printing is a big thing."

Both GE and Rolls Royce Are To Use 3D Printing To Make Jet Engines And Violate Engineering's Prime Commandment (Tim Worstall, Forbes)

There is an old and important saying in engineering: fast, better, cheaper. The point being that you can only ever have two out of the three. But in this pair of tales about how both GE and Rolls Royce are to be using 3D printing in order to produce their respective jet engines we've an interesting violation of that basic engineering commandment.

Here's the GE story:

General Electric GE +0.15% (GE), on the hunt for ways to build more than 85,000 fuel nozzles for its new Leap jet engines, is making a big investment in 3D printing. Usually the nozzles are assembled from 20 different parts. Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing can create the units in one metal piece, through a successive layering of materials. The process is more efficient and can be used to create designs that can't be made using traditional techniques, GE says. The finished product is stronger and lighter than those made on the assembly line and can withstand the extreme temperatures (up to 2,400F) inside an engine.

This is 3D printing using metals of course, not the plastics that most of the home and small business printers are currently using. But do note that they are claiming that the new process is both more efficient (that is, cheaper) and also better, in that they can create more complex parts this way. And then there's the Rolls Royce side of the story:

Rolls-Royce is looking to use 3D printers to make lighter components for its aircraft engines, the company's head of technology strategy has said.

Henner Wapenhans said the new technology could allow the manufacturer to produce parts more quickly, slashing lead times, the Financial Times reported.

"3D printing opens up new possibilities, new design space," Dr Wapenhans said. "Through the 3D printing process, you're not constrained [by] having to get a tool in to create a shape. You can create any shape you like. 

3D printing: not yet a new industrial revolution, but its impact will be huge (Jim Chalmers, 10 December 201, The Guardian)

When music was a physical item - a vinyl record, a tape or a CD - ownership could be verified and quality could be assured. In the last decade, music progressively morphed into little more than a file which can be easily shared and edited. Now, the vast and rapid technological advances being catalysed by three dimensional printing could see this phenomenon repeated for a much wider range of products.

The 3D printing industry is predicted to be worth over $8bn globally by 2020. Physical items, mass produced and bought in outlet stores, will become replicable and editable by anyone with knowledge of computer-aided drawing and access to a 3D printer. 

Already, 3D printing technology is being used to manufacture a wide array of items - from auto parts and prototypes to human skin and organs. In a world where mass-manufacturing takes place on scales never seen before, 3D printing is starting to spell big changes for the way the world thinks about production. This inevitably means we will face new frontiers in global trade as well.

The engineering behind the 3-D printing revolution (Cecile J. Gonzalez, 12/04/13, Science X)

While 3-D pens and printers are enjoyed by students, artists and makers, innovative American companies are using similar equipment to manufacture aerospace, automotive and medical technologies. The number of technologies customized and created using additive manufacturing processes is growing each year.

But understanding how the processes work takes more than prying open your 3-D pen.

Many of the foundational techniques for additive manufacturing, briefly described below, were discovered and patented in the 1980s. The development of three of these methods--selective laser sintering, sheet lamination and 3-D printing--had critical support from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Additive manufacturing is a way of making 3-D objects by building up material, layer upon layer, with the guidance of a digital design. The processes are engineered to use material more efficiently, give designs more flexibility and produce objects more precisely. Above all, they make things quickly.

"Early research led to making prototypes to determine the form and fit of the parts in an assembly, such as an engine," said Kesh Narayanan, deputy assistant director for NSF's Engineering Directorate. "Large-scale manufacturing of parts, especially critical components, at attractive cost is the ongoing challenge for broader use of additive manufacturing."

More and more companies are taking on the challenge of commercializing these foundational technologies, including the very first one, stereolithography.

How the Innovation Economy is Turning Makers Into Manufacturers (Chris Anderson, Popular Mechanics)

True, none of these are designed for mass production; they're small and somewhat limited in the materials they can use. But you'd be surprised at how much of the manufacturing process can be done at this scale. 

Take the injection molding of plastic parts. This is traditionally an expensive and time-consuming process for any company making hardware. After a part has been designed in CAD and prototyped on a 3D printer, it's typically sent to specialists to be turned into a mold, and then to an injection-molding factory that makes the final parts. That's a process that can cost at least $10,000 and take more than two months--just to get ready to start actually manufacturing anything. 

For complex parts and large runs, that's still the right way to do it. But for simple components that will be made in batches of up to a few thousand, the whole process can now be done with desktop tools. Once you have the part itself designed, you can use plug-ins for CAD tools to generate a design for your mold, and then carve it out of aluminum on a three-axis desktop CNC mill. That mold can then be used with a desktop handpressed injection-molding machine that's no larger than a small drill press. 

It's not hard to make six parts a minute, or 360 parts an hour. Several thousand can be produced in a few days by someone with no special skills at a cost of a few hundred dollars, as little as 1 to 2 percent of what professional production would cost. More important, the timeline is days, not months--you can make the parts on demand. The time savings alone can make this a game changer for small, fast-moving companies. 

These are all examples of desktop manufacturing, which is the enabling technology trend for the maker movement. Although the manufacturing capability is sometimes exaggerated (desktop prototyping is usually closer to the truth with 3D printers), what's important about this democratization trend is that it taps the huge pool of talent, energy, and creativity outside the world of trained professionals. 

Just like the PCs of the 1980s (which were more feeble than the professional computers of the time but available to far more people) and the Internet of the 1990s (which was slow and limited at the start but open to all), what desktop manufacturing tools lack in power, they more than make up for in accessibility. And they're getting better and cheaper even faster than the computing and communications technologies of the past two generations did--in part because they are built on the PC and the Web, and have inherited innovation models such as online content sharing that those technologies created. 

Posted by orrinj at 9:40 AM


Ruffled feathers (S.R., 12/17/13, The Economist)
The criticism did not end there. Mr Jafari criticised some of the Rohani Government's "methods" for being similar to those of the previous administration under the now widely-ostracised Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The current government has become "polluted with Western doctrines and a fundamental change must be made," Mr Jafari said. Meanwhile, 53 members (out of 290) of Iran's parliament have summoned Mr Zarif to explain his comments.
While some conservative groups in Iran have been wary of the new government from its first days in office, Mr Rohani has enjoyed backing from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to engage in nuclear talks. He and Mr Zarif also went to great pains to secure the approval of powerful conservative clerics. As a result, Mr Rohani can boast unprecedented progress on the nuclear file, but the reproach from Mr Jafari is a reminder that not everyone is equally impressed. "As soon as Rohani begins to rear his head and try something new, we see this pressure from the conservative wings," says Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in WashingtonDC. "The reason is that reforms mean less power for people like Jafari."
Indeed, Mr Rohani seems keen to curb the direct influence of the Revolutionary Guard on the government. He appointed only four IRGC veterans to his 18-strong ministerial cabinet. The president also replaced all the governors-general of Iran's 31 provinces, who were chosen by Mr Ahmadinejad. Among Rohani's new appointees, only four are connected to the Guard (that's the point: it is both in the cabinet and in the provinces he is purging the IRGC), while Mr Ahmadinejad had picked 17 provincial representatives from the ranks of the IRGC.

Posted by orrinj at 9:26 AM


Looking Out for Those In Need (GEOFFREY NORMAN, 12/22/13, Weekly Standard)

Temperatures in the high 40s, with some rain.  That's the forecast for Buffalo on Sunday when the Bills and the Dolphins kick it off.  Balmy, then.  So much so that the team from Miami can't, should they lose, use the weather for an alibi.  Likewise, the fans who choose not to pay sit in the stadium and watch.  The Bills have been disappointing but not surprising.  They seem always to be disappointing.  And it's almost Christmas.  So, even if you follow the team and have since the Jim Kelly days, it might seem more appealing to stay at home and wrap presents.  With the game on the television.  In the background, of course.

But not so fast there.  

If there are not enough people in Buffalo willing to pay up and fill the stadium to watch their forlorn team play what is for them a meaningless game at the tag end of another lost season ... well, then, there will be consequences.  People will pay.  Including shut-ins who are Bills fans.  Nobody, but nobody, in Buffalo will be permitted to watch the game on television.

It's hard to overstate how boring attending an NFL game is.  There's a risen all the guys there got drunk in the parking lot first.

Posted by orrinj at 9:21 AM


Don't Mistake This for Gridlock (TYLER COWEN, 12/22/13, NY Times)

The period immediately before the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970 was a time of creative ferment in the United States, when different branches of government, including those at the state and local level, competed to offer solutions for cleaning up the air. Yet once these laws were passed, a period of retrenchment and gridlock set in, whereas Sweden saw through its reforms more consistently. Later, the United States had another wave of rapid policy change with amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990. On balance, both countries ended up in more or less the same place, namely with effective antipollution laws.

That may seem old news, but similar patterns have been repeated recently. Consider the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Coordinated actions by the Federal Reserve, the Treasury and Congress geared up rapidly, were decisive by global standards and received a fair amount of bipartisan support. In contrast, the euro zone is still discussing how to manage its bailouts or whether to start a program of quantitative easing, which the Federal Reserve will begin to wind down in January. And Japan, after letting problems with bad banks fester for decades, is only now using monetary policy to fight deflationary pressures.

After that initial decisiveness in the financial crisis, America did indeed slow down in policy innovation. Bailouts and our activist central bank have become extremely contentious factors in the nation's politics, and there has been bitter fighting over how to set into motion the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

Lunging and lurching forward with big changes, then enduring periods of backlash, consolidation and frustration, is often a better description of our political system than is "gridlock," which is too unidimensional a concept to capture the reality. [...]

Of course, gridlock can save us from major mistakes, and sometimes we should wish for more of it. One problem, however, is that the fear of eventual gridlock can make our policy lurches too hasty and ill-considered. It might have been better to think through the Affordable Care Act or the fiscal stimulus more carefully, but a now-or-never logic discourages such introspection. Indeed, subsequent improvement of the legislation has proved politically difficult in both cases.

Posted by orrinj at 9:14 AM


The gross distortions of GDP (Tim Harford, 12/12/13, Financial Times)

GDP is problematic, and increasingly so. We seem to have no convincing measure, for example, of what contribution financial services make to the economy. In the wake of the recession, Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England pointed out that according to the UK's national accounts, this contribution grew at the fastest rate on record in the fourth quarter of 2008 - the quarter that began a fortnight after Lehman Brothers collapsed.

Or consider what appears to be an opposite error. According to the economist Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT, the information sector of the economy (software, telecoms, publishing, data processing, movies, TV) has scarcely grown over the past 25 years as measured by GDP. This seems bizarre but it's easy to see the logic: GDP measures the price paid for goods and services, but many valuable digital services are free or cheap. Brynjolfsson and co-author JooHee Oh reckon that every year consumers in the US are enjoying an extra $100bn of services online they don't have to pay for.

There are plenty of other knotty problems too - from how to measure the losses caused by distracting Facebook posts to how to calculate the gains from antibiotics and super-efficient lighting.

Posted by orrinj at 9:10 AM


Earth's 17th Year Without Global Warming (Michael Bastasch, 12/21/3, Daily Caller)

In honor of the 17th year without global warming, The Daily Caller News Foundation has put together seven setbacks for global warming alarmism.

(1) Studies show that the world was warmer than it is today during the Roman Empire and when the Vikings were plundering Europe and North America. In fact, even in the 19th Century, there were discussions surrounding the fact that the Vikings could settle the northernmost reaches of Greenland and North America because there was less ice coverage. [...]

(4) Global cooling is on the way, according to an increasing number of scientists. German scientists have predicted that based on declining sunspot activity and natural climate oscillation the world will cool over the next century. Temperatures will eventually drop to levels corresponding with the "little ice age" of 1870.

(6) The United Nations climate bureaucracy's latest global warming report was called "hilarious" by a leading scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Richard Lindzen said the UN's report "has truly sunk to level of hilarious incoherence" because they continue to proclaim with ever greater certainty that mankind is causing global warming, despite their models continually being wrong.
"Their excuse for the absence of warming over the past 17 years is that the heat is hiding in the deep ocean," Lindzen said. "However, this is simply an admission that the models fail to simulate the exchanges of heat between the surface layers and the deeper oceans."

Posted by orrinj at 9:07 AM


The Match Maker : Bobby Riggs, The Mafia and The Battle of the Sexes (Don Van Natta Jr., 8/25/13, Outside the Lines)

WHEN HAL SHAW heard the voices at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in Tampa, Fla., on a winter night some 40 years ago, he turned off the bench light over his work table and locked the bag room door. He feared burglars. Who else would be approaching the pro shop long after midnight? Then Shaw, who was there late rushing to repair members' golf clubs for the next day's tournament, heard the pro shop's front door unlock and swing open.

Peering through a diamond-shaped window, Shaw, then a 39-year-old assistant golf pro, watched four sharply dressed men stroll into the pro shop. He says he instantly recognized three of them: Frank Ragano, a Palma Ceia member and mob attorney whose wife took golf lessons from Shaw, and two others he knew from newspaper photographs -- Santo Trafficante Jr., the Florida mob boss whom Ragano represented, and Carlos Marcello, the head of the New Orleans mob. Trafficante and Marcello, now deceased, were among the most infamous mafia leaders in America; Marcello would later confide to an FBI informant that he had ordered the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A fourth man, whom Shaw says he didn't recognize, joined them.

Shaw's workroom was about 20 feet from the men, who sat at a circular table. Through the window to the darkened bag room door, he could see them, but they couldn't see him. Shaw says he was "petrified" as he tried to remain completely still, worrying that the men would find him lurking there. Then Shaw heard something he'd keep secret for the next 40 years: Bobby Riggs owed the gangsters more than $100,000 from lost sports bets, and he had a plan to pay it back.

Shaw, now 79, told the story of what he saw and heard that Tampa night to a friend late last year for the first time. This spring, he told it to "Outside the Lines."

The men, Shaw says, used an array of nicknames for Riggs -- "Riggsy," "BB," "Bobby Bolita." Ragano told the men that "Riggsy" was prepared to "set up two matches ... against the two best women players in the world," Shaw says. "He mentioned Margaret Court -- and it's easy for me to remember that because one of my aunt's names was Margaret so that, you know, wasn't hard to remember -- and the second lady was Billie Jean King."

Ragano explained that Riggs "had the first match already in the works ... and the second match he knew would follow because of Billie Jean King's popularity and everything that it would be kind of a slam dunk to get her to play him bragging about beating Margaret Court," Shaw says Ragano told the men. Shaw also says he heard Ragano mention an unidentified mob man in Chicago who would help engineer the proposed fix.

"Mr. Ragano was emphatic," Shaw recalls. "Riggs had assured him that the fix would be in -- he would beat Margaret Court and then he would go in the tank" against King, but Riggs pledged he'd "make it appear that it was on the up and up."

At first, Trafficante and Marcello expressed skepticism, Shaw says. They wondered whether Riggs was in playing shape to defeat Court or King, but Ragano, now deceased, assured them Riggs was training. The men also wondered whether there would be enough interest in exhibition tennis matches to generate substantial betting action. In the early 1970s, as it does today, tennis attracted a tiny fraction of sports betting dollars. Ragano assured them that there was ample time for Riggs to get the media to promote the matches so enough people would be interested to place bets with the mobsters' network of illegal bookmakers.

Finally, Shaw says, the men asked about Riggs' price for the fix. "Ragano says, 'Well, he's going to [get] peanuts compared to what we're going to make out of this, so he has asked for his debt to be erased.'" Riggs "has also asked for a certain amount of money to be discussed later to be put in a bank account for him in England," Ragano told the men, according to Shaw.

After nearly an hour, the four men stood up, shook hands and agreed they'd move forward with Riggs' proposal, Shaw says.

Posted by orrinj at 8:57 AM


The Late, Great American WASP : The old U.S. ruling class had plenty of problems. But are we really better off with a country run by the self-involved, over-schooled products of modern meritocracy? (JOSEPH EPSTEIN, Dec. 20, 2013, WSJ)

What our new meritocrats have failed to evince--and what the older WASP generation prided itself on--is character and the ability to put the well-being of the nation before their own. Character embodied in honorable action is at the heart of the novels and stories of Louis Auchincloss, America's last unembarrassedly WASP writer. Doing the right thing, especially in the face of temptations to do otherwise, was the WASP test par excellence. Most of our meritocrats, by contrast, seem to be in business for themselves.

Trust, honor, character: The elements that have departed U.S. public life with the departure from prominence of WASP culture have not been taken up by the meritocrats. Many meritocrats who enter politics, when retired by the electorate from public life, proceed to careers in lobbying or other special-interest advocacy. University presidents no longer speak to the great issues in education but instead devote themselves to fundraising and public relations, and look to move on to the next, more prestigious university presidency.

A financier I know who grew up under the WASP standard not long ago told me that he thought that the subprime real estate collapse and the continuing hedge-fund scandals have been brought on directly by men and women who are little more than "greedy pigs" (his words) without a shred of character or concern for their clients or country. Naturally, he added, they all have master's degrees from the putatively best business schools in the nation.

Thus far in their history, meritocrats, those earnest good students, appear to be about little more than getting on, getting ahead and (above all) getting their own. The WASP leadership, for all that may be said in criticism of it, was better than that.

The WASPs' day is done. Such leadership as it provided isn't likely to be revived. Recalling it at its best is a reminder that the meritocracy that has followed it marks something less than clear progress. Rather the reverse.

The key difference is that we WASPs understand that our advantages were handed to us irrespective of ourselves.  That's why we owe--our country, our faith, our institutions, etc..  The "meritocracy" convinces people that they made it on their own and owe noone anything.  

Posted by orrinj at 8:55 AM


Elf lobby blocks Iceland road project (Associated Press, 22 December 2013)

Elf advocates in Iceland have joined forces with environmentalists to urge authorities to abandon a highway project that they claim will disturb elf habitat, including an elf church.

The project has been halted until the supreme court of Iceland rules on a case brought by a group known as Friends of Lava, who cite both the environmental impact and the detrimental effect on elf culture of the road project.

The group has regularly mobilised hundreds of people to block bulldozers building a direct route from the tip of the Álftanes peninsula, where the president has a property, to the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer.

Issues about Huldufolk (Icelandic for "hidden folk") have affected planning decisions before, and the road and coastal administration has come up with a stock media response for elf inquiries, which states in part that "issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on".

Posted by orrinj at 8:52 AM


Spike in Harm to Liver Is Tied to Dietary Aids (ANAHAD O'CONNOR,  December 21, 2013, NY Times)

New data suggests that his is not an isolated case. Dietary supplements account for nearly 20 percent of drug-related liver injuries that turn up in hospitals, up from 7 percent a decade ago, according to an analysis by a national network of liver specialists. The research included only the most severe cases of liver damage referred to a representative group of hospitals around the country, and the investigators said they were undercounting the actual number of cases.

While many patients recover once they stop taking the supplements and receive treatment, a few require liver transplants or die because of liver failure. Naïve teenagers are not the only consumers at risk, the researchers said. Many are middle-aged women who turn to dietary supplements that promise to burn fat or speed up weight loss.

"It's really the Wild West," said Dr. Herbert L. Bonkovsky, the director of the liver, digestive and metabolic disorders laboratory at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C. "When people buy these dietary supplements, it's anybody's guess as to what they're getting."

December 21, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:19 AM


Does Phil Robertson get the Bible wrong? (Daniel Burke, 12/20/13, CNN Belief Blog)

Here's what Robertson says: "Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."

Robertson, 67, then paraphrases a Bible passage from the New Testament: "Don't be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers - they won't inherit the kingdom of God."

That's a pretty close citation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which is a letter from Paul, often called the father of Christianity theology, to a fledging Christian community in Corinth, Greece.

Here's what Paul's passage says, as translated in the New International Version, by far the most popular translation among evangelicals and conservative Christians such as Robertson:

"Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."

Evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the U.S. population, tend to take that passage at face value. The Robertson family pastor, for instance, told CNN on Thursday that "the verse explains itself."

Posted by orrinj at 10:01 AM


Time is now for immigration reform (Jeb Bush Jr., 12/20/13, The Hill)

Immigration is no longer a partisan issue. Support for reform crosses the aisle and the country. And the longer we delay on this critical issue, the higher the costs to our economy, our security and our families.

As a businessman, I recognize the vital role immigrants play in our local and national economies. For businesses big and small, immigrants are producers and consumers, workers and entrepreneurs.

Across industry and skill level, the bottom line remains the same: Our economy requires an immigration system that allows for a future flow of workers and new citizens that reflects our nation's economic and labor needs.

These immigrants have become part of our communities, our businesses, our families. But our current immigration system tears families apart and forces our hardworking neighbors to live in the shadows.

Every day that passes is another day without a new immigration process that will be good for all Americans.

While support from within the halls of Congress continues to grow, poll after poll shows that constituents overwhelmingly want their members of Congress to act. Our lawmakers shouldn't be backing away from the issue, but stepping up.

At a juncture where Americans are eager to see their politicians transcend politics, immigration reform has true bipartisan support.

Posted by orrinj at 9:59 AM


Iran copes with sanctions but wants to bloom (David Ignatius, December 20, 2013, Washington Post)

The true burden of sanctions is that this economy is a shadow of what it might be. This cost in lost opportunity will only grow if Iran can't make a nuclear deal that would ease the squeeze on oil sales and banking. And Iranians know it: Many told me during a visit here last week that their economy could be booming if the country weren't so isolated.

"The situation from the economic point of view is very bad, this is no secret," says Saeed Laylaz, an economic commentator and analyst who advises Iran's domestic automobile industry. Car production has plummeted the past two years, he says, after rising from 6,000 vehicles annually when he started working with the automakers in 1989 to 1.5 million in 2011.

Mohammad Khoshchehreh, an economics professor at Tehran University, told me that economic output overall has fallen by about 6 percent over the past year. That's close to the estimate of a 5.6 percent drop released Thursday by the Institute of International Finance in Washington.

The middle class here is especially squeezed. An apartment for a family of four in central Tehran costs at least $500 a month. Feeding the family adds another $700. So that's $1,200 a month -- more than many jobs pay -- before the family even begins paying for other necessities and incidentals. Typically, both husband and wife must work, often at two jobs, to pay the bills.

Frustration about poor economic performance seems to center on hard-liners such as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. 

Posted by orrinj at 9:55 AM


The Age of Intolerance : The forces of "tolerance" are intolerant of anything less than full-blown celebratory approval.  (Mark Steyn, 12/20/13, National Review)

Here are two jokes one can no longer tell on American television. But you can still find them in the archives, out on the edge of town, in Sub-Basement Level 12 of the ever-expanding Smithsonian Mausoleum of the Unsayable. First, Bob Hope, touring the world in the year or so after the passage of the 1975 Consenting Adult Sex Bill:

"I've just flown in from California, where they've made homosexuality legal. I thought I'd get out before they make it compulsory."

For Hope, this was an oddly profound gag, discerning even at the dawn of the Age of Tolerance that there was something inherently coercive about the enterprise. Soon it would be insufficient merely to be "tolerant" -- warily accepting, blithely indifferent, mildly amused, tepidly supportive, according to taste. The forces of "tolerance" would become intolerant of anything less than full-blown celebratory approval.

Second joke from the archives: Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra kept this one in the act for a quarter-century. On stage, Dino used to have a bit of business where he'd refill his tumbler and ask Frank, "How do you make a fruit cordial?" And Sinatra would respond, "I dunno. How do you make a fruit cordial?" And Dean would say, "Be nice to him." [...]

Look, I'm an effete foreigner who likes show tunes. My Broadway book was on a list of "Twelve Books Every Gay Man Should Read." Andrew Sullivan said my beard was hot. Leonard Bernstein stuck his tongue in my mouth (long story). But I'm not interested in living in a world where we have to tiptoe around on ever thinner eggshells. If it's a choice between having celebrity chefs who admit to having used the N-word in 1977 (or 1965, or 1948, or whenever the hell it was) and reality-show duck-hunters who quote Corinthians and Alec Baldwin bawling out some worthless paparazzo who's doorstepping his family with a "homophobic" slur, or having all of them banished from public life and thousands upon millions more too cowed and craven to speak lest the same fate befall them, I'll take the former any day.

Because the latter culture would be too boring for any self-respecting individual to want to live in, even more bloody boring than the current TV landscape where, aside from occasional eruptions of unerotic twerking by sexless skanks, every other show seems to involve snippy little Pajama Boys sitting around snarking at each other in the antiseptic eunuch pose that now passes for "ironic." It's "irony" as the last circle of Dante's cultural drain; it's why every show advertised as "edgy" and "transgressive" offers the same pitiful combination of attitude and impotence as a spayed cat humping.  

Such a pansified culture is going nowhere.

December 20, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 6:34 PM


Chris Christie signs bill granting in-state tuition to N.J. immigrants (Christopher Baxter, 12/20/13, The Star-Ledger)

The new law allows unauthorized immigrants who graduated high school in New Jersey after attending that school for at least three years to be eligible for the lower in-state rates at state college and universities, including in-county rates at community colleges.

The Legislature on Thursday sent Christie a version of the bill that would also have made immigrant students eligible for state financial aid programs, including tuition aid grants. Christie then conditionally vetoed the bill to remove that provision and sent it back to the Senate and Assembly, which both promptly agreed to the change.

Posted by orrinj at 6:30 PM


Australia and Canada: a conservative bromance (Colin Horgan, 12/19/13,

Perhaps not since Harper recited one of Howard's speeches verbatim, without credit, in the House of Commons, have the Canadian and Australian governments been reading so closely from the same page. The two nations were jointly responsible for blocking a Commonwealth initiative to establish a climate fund for poor nations in November; Abbott has, as Harper did, promised to squash asylum seekers landing ashore by boat from Asia; and Abbott's platform carried the promise of further mandatory minimum sentencing for gun crimes. The Harper government has already implemented the same for some sexual and drug offences. 

So when Abbott's government killed the Australian carbon tax, it was little surprise that the loudest cheer came from Ottawa. The prime minister's parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, told the House that Canada "applauds" the decision, and that Abbott's move "sends an important message." Which is true for a few reasons.

It was important for the Conservative government for purely rhetorical uses. It provided fresh fodder for a tired, farcical talking point against Canada's opposition New Democrats, who the government alleges would implement something similar if ever given power.

Also important: it clearly showed the Harper Conservatives have a staunch ideological ally - finally.

The fact that the two parties and leaders are allies isn't a total shock. The parallels between Abbott and Harper were easily drawn months ago. Both are economists. Both are young. Both were grown into leaders after long-term grassroots participation in conservatism. And just as easily linked are the messaging strategies, borne from continued and very close relationship between the Canadian Conservative and Australian Liberal parties. Abbott's election night promise of guaranteeing a government "that is competent, that is trustworthy, and which purposefully and steadfastly and methodically sets about delivering on our commitments," would sound nice (and familiar) to Harper's "strong, stable, national Conservative majority government." 

And Conservatives will tell you the Liberals have recently turned to Harper and his team for guidance, and found a very welcoming ear. They had to return the favour, after all. Earlier this decade key figures within the Conservative party like strategic planner Patrick Muttart, were studying Australia's successes - particularly Howard's ability to covet the working- and middle-class. They adopted and adapted aspects of it to eventual success. That's useful for both sides, if only to do what Calandra did and justify each other's existence and continued power.

Posted by orrinj at 6:17 PM


THE WORLD IS YOUR BROWSER : How the "internet of things" will replace the web (Christopher Mims, December 15, 2013, Quartz)

The next layer of the internet of things will require combining disparate streams of data "mined" from reality--everything from your location to the members of your social network. This is called sensor fusion, a task that is basic to all big data projects. Knowing where you are throughout the day won't mean much, but add in data about who else is present and a computer algorithm can tell you how likely you are to get the flu. Finding the connections--in other words, meaning--in all this data is key to making it useful. "We have frictionless data gathering but we don't have frictionless correlation," Esri's Case said at last year's Le Web conference. "If you have to be a data scientist to do it, then it's totally wrong."

Mike Bell, head of the new devices group at Intel, says that the future of smart devices, "whether it's a wearable [computer] or a next-generation tablet replacement, will have a real user interface, but it's not necessarily visual." Bell, whose primary interest is wearable computing, can't talk about what Intel is currently working on, but I'd guess from our conversations that it's more likely to look like a wristband fitness monitor than another cell phone.

In other words, the internet of things will replace the internet, but not by giving us another way to explicitly tell computers what we want. Instead, by sensing our actions, the internet-connected devices around us will react automatically, and their representations in the cloud will be updated accordingly. In some ways, interacting with computers in the future could be more about telling them what not to do--at least until they're smart enough to realize that we are modifying our daily routine.

If this all sounds like mind reading, that's because in a way it is. Munjal Shah, entrepreneur in residence at Charles River Ventures, surveyed a thousand people about what super powers they would acquire if they could. The most popular answer was "speak all languages," but the number two answer might surprise you: the ability to comfort anyone. Shah had conducted the survey in order to determine what sort of businesses could be built to give people these abilities (the first one, universal translation, is at least plausible). Comforting a friend is, he concluded, exactly the sort of thing the internet of things would be good at. First, our connected devices will be able to monitor our state--inactivity could indicate sickness or depression. And maybe we've recently posted on social media about a tragedy that befell us. Text alerts are sent out to friends, asking them to reach out, and voila--in as much as mediated communication is any sort of comfort, no one need ever feel lonely again.

Once our possessions can both sense and respond, and are directed for the most part by computers, the world becomes something like a living creature. "We believe the digital world and the physical world are merging, and that done correctly what this will do is create a virtual representation of all of our physical devices online," said Jeff Hagins, chief technology officer of Smartthings. "What that will accomplish is that it will make the physical world programmable. When we change the digital representation, the physical world will change in response." If your goal is to fuse your mind and body with the internet, this is good news. But if you were hoping that in the future, getting away from it all would be as simple as switching off your mobile phone, you're in for a rude surprise.

Posted by orrinj at 6:06 PM


COME BINGE WITH ME (IAN CROUCH, 12/17/13, The New Yorker)

"C'mon, honey, just one more. Just one more." How many of us have made this minor bargain with ourselves or our co-watchers? (Back in the DVD era, the first season of "24," with its hour units of supposed real-time drama, was for me a kind of crucible, in that I could almost, with ready sustenance and economical bathroom breaks, fit the whole thing into a single day.) This is junkie talk, making Netflix's report feel a bit like a pusher touting the unexpected benefits of a drug to its clients.

Part of the problem is the phrase itself: binging on something is not traditionally considered an admirable behavior. No one ever says, "You know, I went on a wild charity binge this year. I just couldn't stop selflessly giving my time and money to incredible causes all over the city." "Binge" also carries the whiff of medical or psychiatric diagnosis, as in eating and drinking binges. It's hard, for example, to hear "binge" without thinking of "purge," part of the horrible cycle of disordered eating associated with bulimia. I'm not sure what a television purge would look like. Maybe reading a book?

Netflix would probably love for people to start calling it "immersive viewing" or some such, but that ship has likely sailed. This year, the phrase "binge watching" became increasingly common, largely because of Netflix's own practice of releasing original episodes of the shows "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development" en masse, leaving decisions about viewing up to the stamina and schedule of its subscribers. (Its own report prominently features the phrase.)

The company has a clear financial interest in making TV binges seem like a popular and ordinary choice rather than a compulsion, and can tout audience demand when convincing television companies to make more of their shows available for streaming. And binge watching may be just that: a basically undramatic choice to dedicate an amount of time longer than the traditional hour or half an hour over to a particular show. In its polling, Netflix found that seventy-nine per cent of respondents agreed with a prompt suggesting that binge watching made a show more enjoyable. That seems right: watching a show straight through can increase its dramatic density, making it easier to spot connections and motifs across the seasons. It helps keep thorny plots straight and characters in their proper order--and leaves the viewer alert to the intricacy of a good show. It saves time in the long run: fewer ads, no hours lost to Web recaps. People who haven't seen a show that all their friends are suddenly talking about can catch up quickly and join the conversation. And it can even allow for innovations to the medium itself, as Mitchell Hurwitz, the creator of "Arrested Development," showed to a mixed but invigorating degree in this year's new season bloc, which was full of callbacks and scenes replayed from different perspectives.

But it isn't a perfect way to watch. Binging makes a television series--something that might exist in the cultural consciousness for years--into a smaller thing. I ran through the first season of Neftlix's prison dramedy "Orange is the New Black" in just a weekend this summer. For two days, I was thrilled by it, but I haven't thought about it much since. The characters lived with me for a matter of hours, whereas if I'd been awaiting their weekly arrival they would have been a small, but real, part of my daily life. TV shows live beyond the bounds of their running time, and the binge model squeezes out all that air.'ll never see a critic complain about people binge-reading books that they like, nor writing that the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird didn't stay with them because they read it in two days.  

My current binge is Borgen, which had me right up until the final episode of Season 1, when the PM offered her husband a deal that he could cheat on her as long as he was discrete.  Caring that much about her political career is not just a turn off, but disproves most of her politics.

By the way, we would offer one pivotal defense of bingewatching: who wants to get involved with a TV series only to have it be cancelled before it ties up loose ends?  Waiting until the show runs its course lets you wait and see if the creators are allowed to finish what they started.

Posted by orrinj at 5:54 PM


2013: The Best Year in Human History : Five Reasons to Celebrate Progress (Zack Beauchamp, 12/17/13, Breakthrough Institute)

2. Fewer people suffer from extreme poverty, and the world is getting happier.

There are fewer people in abject penury than at any other point in human history, and middle class people enjoy their highest standard of living ever. We haven't come close to solving poverty: a number of African countries in particular have chronic problems generating growth, a nut foreign aid hasn't yet cracked. So this isn't a call for complacency about poverty any more than acknowledging victories over disease is an argument against tackling malaria. But make no mistake: as a whole, the world is much richer in 2013 than it was before.

721 million fewer people lived in extreme poverty ($1.25 a day) in 2010 than in 1981, according to a new World Bank study from October. That's astounding -- a decline from 40 to about 14 percent of the world's population suffering from abject want. And poverty rates are declining in every national income bracket: even in low income countries, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty ($1.25 a day in 2005 dollars) a day gone down from 63 in 1981 to 44 in 2010. [...]

3. War is becoming rarer and less deadly.

Another massive conflict could overturn the global progress against disease and poverty. But it appears war, too, may be losing its fangs.

Steven Pinker's 2011 book The Better Angels Of Our Nature is the gold standard in this debate. Pinker brought a treasure trove of data to bear on the question of whether the world has gotten more peaceful, and found that, in the long arc of human history, both war and other forms of violence (the death penalty, for instance) are on a centuries-long downward slope.

Pinker summarizes his argument here if you don't own the book. Most eye-popping are the numbers for the past 50 years; Pinker finds that "the worldwide rate of death from interstate and civil war combined has juddered downward...from almost 300 per 100,000 world population during World War II, to almost 30 during the Korean War, to the low teens during the era of the Vietnam War, to single digits in the 1970s and 1980s, to less than 1 in the twenty-first century." Here's what that looks like graphed:

So it looks like the smallest percentage of humans alive since World War II, and in all likelihood in human history, are living through the horrors of war.

December 19, 2013

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Posted by orrinj at 4:01 PM


Egypt Accuses Morsi of Vast Terrorist Plot (DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, 12/19/13, NY Times)

Prosecutors accused Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, of having allied with the historic enemies of the security forces and the military. Prosecutors charged that, in addition to colluding with Iran, Mr. Morsi plotted with the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and with the Palestinian Sunni group Hamas, and that he planned to work with extremists to declare an Islamic emirate in Sinai.

"They are pretty fantastical, to say the least," Sarah Leah Whitson, the regional director for Human Rights Watch, said of the accusations. "Through both legal processes and their control of the media, the government has been trying to generate this notion that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization carrying out violent acts, with the absence of any evidence, and these charges really underscore the extent to which the government is focused on exterminating the Muslim Brotherhood as a political opposition. It is an all-out campaign to destroy it."

Posted by orrinj at 3:48 PM


"We Thought That [Obama] Was Going to Be the Next Messiah" (Peter Wehner, 12.19.2013, Commentary)

In an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan, this exchange took place:

MORGAN: You have interviewed every president of my lifetime. Why is Obama facing so much opposition now? Why is he struggling so much to really fulfill the great flame of ambition and excitement that he was elected on originally in 2009?


WALTERS: Well, you've touched on it to a degree. He made so many promises. We thought that he was going to be - I shouldn't say this at Christmastime, but - the next messiah. And the whole ObamaCare, or whatever you want to call it, the Affordable Health Act, it just hasn't worked for him, and he's stumbled around on it, and people feel very disappointed because they expected more.

Ms. Walters is right to say it might not be quite appropriate to say around Christmastime that Mr. Obama had been widely thought to be "the next messiah," though I'd recommend that be expanded to include anytime, not just Christmastime.

Posted by orrinj at 3:41 PM


Mandela v Thatcher: the mourning wars : Leftists celebrated the death of Thatcher, yet right-wingers were respectful following Mandela's death. Why the difference? (Patrick West, 
Remember when Margaret Thatcher died in April? 'Ding dong, the witch is dead!' they rejoiced on the streets and on social media, the recalcitrant losers of the old left uniting with today's self-styled radicals, for whom Thatcher was a semi-mythical creature from the past who had wronged their ancestors. The Iron Lady was a mean old bitch, they cried, her creed of individualism being responsible for today's troubled times.

A few months later, the hero of the left dies. Where was the comparable vitriol from the right, as was expected, about 'Nelson Mandela the terrorist'? Sure, there was the odd, fringe UKIP fruitcake (isn't there always?), but for the most part there was warmth and praise. Some, like former UK prime minister John Major, even said that the Conservatives were wrong on South Africa in the 1980s. Even the right-wing press has been quiet on Mandela's real legacy and South Africa's future. Curiously, only the Guardian - in articles by Simon Jenkins and Slavoj Žižek - has really questioned the saintly status accorded to Madiba (though not nearly as well as spiked has done, of course).

Indeed, the only tangible vitriol to emerge has come from old lefties themselves, complaining on social media when David Cameron paid homage. How dare the Tories try to appropriate a foreign leader to make themselves appear virtuous? We bagsied him first!

Politics isn't meant to be this way. Right-wing people are meant to be horrid and selfish and left-wingers caring and nice. Yet, episodes such as this seem to suggest, once again, the opposite. 

Posted by orrinj at 3:38 PM


Why Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson -- and not Alec Baldwin -- became a cause célèbre (Peter Weber, 12/19/13, The Week)

On Wednesday, GQ published an interview with Phil Robertson, the patriarch on the A&E hit reality show Duck Dynasty. "We're Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television," Robertson told GQ's Drew Magary. That means, Robertson added, that he and his Louisiana hunting family believe America would improve with a little repentance and love of God. Then things got dicey.

For repentance of sins, Robertson told Magary, "start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men." Then he paraphrased a passage from St. Paul's letters to the Corinthians: "Don't be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers -- they won't inherit the kingdom of God." And then, this:

It seems like, to me, a vagina -- as a man -- would be more desirable than a man's anus. That's just me. I'm just thinking: There's more there! She's got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I'm saying? But hey, sin: It's not logical, my man. It's just not logical. [Robertson, to GQ]

The reaction was swift: Gay rights group GLAAD warned that "Phil's decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families."

One must not violate the code of silence by which public commentary ignores the fact that homosexuality requires contact with the anus.  Pretending away the "stereotype" was, after all, even more important to advocates than addressing the causes of AIDS.

Posted by orrinj at 3:29 PM


WALKING IS BEST (Colin Thubron, January/February 2014, Intelligent Life)

Many people have remarked on the curious relationship between walking and thinking. The rhythm of the body seems to free the mind, just as the rhythm of a mother's walk (it is imagined) puts at rest her babe-in-arms. Solvitur ambulando, declared the ancients: "it is solved by walking". Wordsworth wrote many of his poems on the move, as did John Clare. Nietzsche claimed to have made all his philosophical discoveries while walking, and Kierkegaard wrote that "I have walked myself into my best thoughts."

In an age when time is precious, walking has become a luxury. But of course it is among the earliest human desires (one-year-olds cannot stop). It is no surprise that pilgrims travelled on foot, and still do. The body purges the mind, and its primal contact with the ground reminds the pilgrim that we are dust. A few years ago the Chinese talked of building a road around Mount Kailash in Tibet: a mountain too sacred ever to have been climbed. In the end the idea of a pilgrimage by car was so bizarre that even the Chinese began to relent.

December 18, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:07 PM


Book Review: 'No Ordinary Men,' by Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern : The pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his lawyer brother-in-law worked together to resist the Nazis and help Jews escape Germany. (ALEXANDER KAZAM, Dec. 18, 2013, WSJ)

Though the Nazis never won an outright majority in the parliament of the decaying Weimar Republic, they received nearly 44% of the vote in the critical election of March 1933--a mandate that enabled Adolf Hitler's anointment as supreme leader. To some, however, the evil character of the Nazi regime was visible from the start. Among them were the young Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, the subjects of Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern's "No Ordinary Men." In this concise, engaging account, Ms. Sifton, an eminent book editor, and Mr. Stern, a distinguished historian of Germany, trace Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi's evolution from partaking in small acts of opposition to playing leading roles in the anti-Hitler resistance.

Bonhoeffer, a pastor, fought Nazi efforts to meld Protestant churches into a single "Reich Church." Dohnanyi, a lawyer in the military intelligence service, used his position to document Nazi crimes and save Jews while joining several plots to kill Hitler. Their paths of resistance intertwined when Dohnanyi recruited Bonhoeffer to the anti-Hitler conspiracy. [...]

Dohnanyi came into contact with a circle of anti-Hitler army officers, and in 1939 he became a deputy in the Abwehr (military counterintelligence), a redoubt of anti-Nazi sentiment. Hans soon brought on board Bonhoeffer, who was to use his foreign contacts to gather intelligence for the resistance. Together they coordinated a daring rescue operation--brilliantly conceived by Dohnanyi--that allowed more than a dozen Jewish refugees to escape to Switzerland using false papers. Bonhoeffer called on Swiss friends, including Karl Barth, to help secure their passage.

It wasn't long, however, before the Gestapo had the pair in its sights, as more and more evidence linked them to the rescue operation and multiple failed attempts on Hitler's life. After they were arrested in early April 1943, their resistance took another form: withstanding isolation and harsh interrogations and refusing to name names. Both men found sustenance in their Bibles. And their families provided indispensable support, sending letters and packages with hidden messages that helped them coordinate their responses to questioning. Unbowed to the last, they were finally hanged in April 1945.

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Posted by orrinj at 8:02 PM


Behind Mexico's Oil Revolution : The country's leaders saw America's energy boom and didn't want to be left behind. (Daniel Yergin, 12/18/13, WSJ)

[P]ressing economic reality--and a sense of new opportunity--finally trumped history and vested interests.

Between 2004 and 2013, while the world oil price increased from $20 a barrel to around $100, Mexico's production declined by 27%. Some predicted that Mexico could even end up a net importer of oil (as it is already of natural gas). This posed a huge risk for government finances, since revenues from Pemex, the state-owned petroleum company, provide a third of the national budget.

Moreover, officials and politicians began to ask why the government should bear the costs of exploration risk, when that is what private companies do for a living. Despite enormous development in the deep water on the American side of the Gulf of Mexico, Mexico's considerable potential in deep water has gone untapped. Pemex simply did not have the technical capabilities or the funding.

Meanwhile, with wages now competitive with China, Mexico is becoming a manufacturing center not just for exports to the U.S. but to the world market. High energy costs are recognized as a burden on the burgeoning manufacturing sector.

Developments in the U.S. also drove the change. "We can see what is going on in the United States," Pemex CEO Emilio Lozoya told me after last week's vote. "Shale gas in the United States created a sense of urgency for us." What he and others in the industry see is natural gas production rising rapidly north of the border, and its positive impact on U.S. jobs (more than two million) and competitiveness.

Posted by orrinj at 7:34 PM


Corporate tax giveaways are not worth the trouble (Claire Zillman, December 16, 2013, CNN Money)

Tax incentives in exchange for corporate commitments have now become the norm, but research indicates that they rarely do what they promise.

In 2002, economists Todd Gabe and David Kraybill found that "incentives do not result in the creation of more jobs than would have been created without the programs." Peter Fisher now of the Iowa Policy Project backed up that conclusion in 2004 when he reasoned that a community that gave an incentive package equal to 30% tax break could credit just 9% of new jobs to the tax cut.

Recent research from Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, has found no connection between economic development incentives and any measure of positive economic performance, such as average wages and income and state unemployment.

What would contribute to growth are simpler tax codes that treat all businesses equally, says Lyman Stone, an economist at the Tax Foundation. But the tax incentives -- now worth some $80 billion each year -- have become a prisoners' dilemma for states, says Kenneth Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. They'd all be better off not paying the incentives, but to politicians brokering these agreements, a new development deal and its promised jobs equal talking points and bragging rights. And companies know that's a temptation too great.

Companies recognize the decision of where to locate a factory or headquarters as "a rent-seeking opportunity," says Thomas. "And more and more, [they] are exploiting it to the hilt."

Posted by orrinj at 7:29 PM


They're Watching You at Work : What happens when Big Data meets human resources? The emerging practice of "people analytics" is already transforming how employers hire, fire, and promote. (DON PECK, NOV 20 2013, Atlantic)

Consider Knack, a tiny start-up based in Silicon Valley. Knack makes app-based video games, among them Dungeon Scrawl, a quest game requiring the player to navigate a maze and solve puzzles, and Wasabi Waiter, which involves delivering the right sushi to the right customer at an increasingly crowded happy hour. These games aren't just for play: they've been designed by a team of neuroscientists, psychologists, and data scientists to suss out human potential. Play one of them for just 20 minutes, says Guy Halfteck, Knack's founder, and you'll generate several megabytes of data, exponentially more than what's collected by the SAT or a personality test. How long you hesitate before taking every action, the sequence of actions you take, how you solve problems--all of these factors and many more are logged as you play, and then are used to analyze your creativity, your persistence, your capacity to learn quickly from mistakes, your ability to prioritize, and even your social intelligence and personality. The end result, Halfteck says, is a high-resolution portrait of your psyche and intellect, and an assessment of your potential as a leader or an innovator.

When Hans Haringa heard about Knack, he was skeptical but intrigued. Haringa works for the petroleum giant Royal Dutch Shell--by revenue, the world's largest company last year. For seven years he's served as an executive in the company's GameChanger unit: a 12-person team that for nearly two decades has had an outsize impact on the company's direction and performance. The unit's job is to identify potentially disruptive business ideas. Haringa and his team solicit ideas promiscuously from inside and outside the company, and then play the role of venture capitalists, vetting each idea, meeting with its proponents, dispensing modest seed funding to a few promising candidates, and monitoring their progress. They have a good record of picking winners, Haringa told me, but identifying ideas with promise has proved to be extremely difficult and time-consuming. The process typically takes more than two years, and less than 10 percent of the ideas proposed to the unit actually make it into general research and development.

When he heard about Knack, Haringa thought he might have found a shortcut. What if Knack could help him assess the people proposing all these ideas, so that he and his team could focus only on those whose ideas genuinely deserved close attention? Haringa reached out, and eventually ran an experiment with the company's help.

Over the years, the GameChanger team had kept a database of all the ideas it had received, recording how far each had advanced. Haringa asked all the idea contributors he could track down (about 1,400 in total) to play Dungeon Scrawl and Wasabi Waiter, and told Knack how well three-quarters of those people had done as idea generators. (Did they get initial funding? A second round? Did their ideas make it all the way?) He did this so that Knack's staff could develop game-play profiles of the strong innovators relative to the weak ones. Finally, he had Knack analyze the game-play of the remaining quarter of the idea generators, and asked the company to guess whose ideas had turned out to be best.

When the results came back, Haringa recalled, his heart began to beat a little faster. Without ever seeing the ideas, without meeting or interviewing the people who'd proposed them, without knowing their title or background or academic pedigree, Knack's algorithm had identified the people whose ideas had panned out. The top 10 percent of the idea generators as predicted by Knack were in fact those who'd gone furthest in the process. Knack identified six broad factors as especially characteristic of those whose ideas would succeed at Shell: "mind wandering" (or the tendency to follow interesting, unexpected offshoots of the main task at hand, to see where they lead), social intelligence, "goal-orientation fluency," implicit learning, task-switching ability, and conscientiousness. Haringa told me that this profile dovetails with his impression of a successful innovator. "You need to be disciplined," he said, but "at all times you must have your mind open to see the other possibilities and opportunities."

What Knack is doing, Haringa told me, "is almost like a paradigm shift." It offers a way for his GameChanger unit to avoid wasting time on the 80 people out of 100--nearly all of whom look smart, well-trained, and plausible on paper--whose ideas just aren't likely to work out. If he and his colleagues were no longer mired in evaluating "the hopeless folks," as he put it to me, they could solicit ideas even more widely than they do today and devote much more careful attention to the 20 people out of 100 whose ideas have the most merit.

Haringa is now trying to persuade his colleagues in the GameChanger unit to use Knack's games as an assessment tool. But he's also thinking well beyond just his own little part of Shell. He has encouraged the company's HR executives to think about applying the games to the recruitment and evaluation of all professional workers. Shell goes to extremes to try to make itself the world's most innovative energy company, he told me, so shouldn't it apply that spirit to developing its own "human dimension"?

Posted by orrinj at 7:25 PM


Switching to This Flat LED Light Bulb Could Be an Easy Resolution to Keep in the New Year (Tuan C. Nguyen, 12/18/13, Smithsonian)

It was only when the Cree warm white LED bulb was introduced in March of this year that consumers and critics felt they may soon have acceptable options. Here, at least, was a replacement that was omni-directional, dimmed smoothly, worked quietly and cost around $12 for the 6-watt (40W) version. Royal Philips Electronics CEO Frans van Houten says that the tipping point for consumers is "well below $10."

Hailed as the first LED bulb to actually feel like a conventional bulb, the Cree warm white was praised widely by reviewers for its coverage and ability to cast a "warm and pleasant" glow. In response, Cree's main competitor, Philips, is now set to release a high-performance, 60-watt model with a rumored price that's even lower (under $10), an achievement made possible by--get this--simply flattening the bulb.

The SlimStyle's radical design allows for continuous operation without the need for aluminum heat sinks, one of the major cost drivers of LED bulbs. These components are built into LED lights to draw heat away from the diode, or light source, which is prone to overheating, a consequence that shortens the bulbs' life span. A heat sink, however, generally amounts to 16 percent of the cost of manufacturing a single bulb. Instead, positioning an array of LEDs along the raised rim of a flat bulb, according to a Philips representative, "helps conduct heat away from the LEDs, eliminating the need for the heavy aluminum heat sinks associated with LED bulbs."

Posted by orrinj at 7:17 PM


Geoffrey Hill: poetry should be shocking and surprising : Sometimes difficult and often very funny, Sir Geoffrey Hill is Britain's greatest living poet. He grants a rare audience to Sameer Rahim (Sameer Rahim, 14 Dec 2013, The Telegraph)

In 1964, the critic Christopher Ricks brought Hill's work to a wider audience through an article in the London Magazine. Ricks writes via email: "I bought his first book, For the Unfallen, and have never found it other than moving and mountain-moving". Hill says he was "very grateful" for the attention in what was then a prestigious publication. Over the years Ricks has been his finest critic - though they have disagreed, notably over Larkin.

"They are never of one mind, those two," says Goodman, joining our conversation. "When I was young," she says, "going from a Ricks to a Hill lecture was like going from 78rpm to 33rpm."

"She means that Christopher was quick and scintillating and I was laborious and convoluted," says Hill.

I am reminded of a Blake quotation Ricks used in a recent essay on Hill: "Opposition is true Friendship." "Exactly," Hill says.

Another contentious area for Hill is religion. Much of his verse dramatises a passionate wrestling with faith. Is he a Christian poet? "Well, it's a tag, isn't it?" says Hill. "They tag you with a convenient epithet." He pauses. "I'm reasonably au fait with the Christian documentation. I'm quite able to use theological terms." He turns to the Rev Alice Goodman: "Can I say that I dislike the Church of England in so many ways without harming you?" he asks. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written appreciatively on the following lines from Canaan: "I say it is not faithless / to stand without faith, keeping open / vigil at the site." One reason why Williams and other members of the clergy love Hill, Goodman claims, is "because he expresses the things about the Church and about the faith that they felt but could not in their position articulate". Yet she reminds him he has written sensitively on Vaughan's and Donne's work. "Yes," he replies, "because it's excellent and fascinating. Not because I suddenly feel that Vaughan is a brother in the faith or that reading Donne converted me to a love of Christ."

Goodman points out that he kneels at the Church altar on Sundays. Her husband, she says, is "communicant but resentful".

"When did I say that?" says Hill.

"You didn't, I just said it now."

"It sounds like me."

"I've been married to you for some years," she says drily.

December 17, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:14 PM


A Lifelong Fight Against Trans Fats ( MELANIE WARNER, 12/16/13, NY Times)

In 1957, a fledgling nutrition scientist at the University of Illinois persuaded a hospital to give him samples of arteries from patients who had died of heart attacks.

When he analyzed them, he made a startling discovery. Not surprisingly, the diseased arteries were filled with fat -- but it was a specific kind of fat. The artificial fatty acids called trans fats, which come from the hydrogen-treated oils used in processed foods like margarine, had crowded out other types of fatty acids.

The scientist, Fred Kummerow, followed up with a study that found troubling amounts of artery-clogging plaque in pigs given a diet heavy in artificial fats. He became a pioneer of trans-fat research, one of the first scientists to assert a link between heart disease and processed foods. [...]

In the past two years, he has published four papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, two of them devoted to another major culprit he has singled out as responsible for atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries: an excess of polyunsaturated vegetable oils like soybean, corn and sunflower -- exactly the types of fats Americans have been urged to consume for the past several decades.

The problem, he says, is not LDL, the "bad cholesterol" widely considered to be the major cause of heart disease. What matters is whether the cholesterol and fat residing in those LDL particles have been oxidized. (Technically, LDL is not cholesterol, but particles containing cholesterol, along with fatty acids and protein.)

"Cholesterol has nothing to do with heart disease, except if it's oxidized," Dr. Kummerow said. Oxidation is a chemical process that happens widely in the body, contributing to aging and the development of degenerative and chronic diseases. Dr. Kummerow contends that the high temperatures used in commercial frying cause inherently unstable polyunsaturated oils to oxidize, and that these oxidized fatty acids become a destructive part of LDL particles. Even when not oxidized by frying, soybean and corn oils can oxidize inside the body.

If true, the hypothesis might explain why studies have found that half of all heart disease patients have normal or low levels of LDL.

"You can have fine levels of LDL and still be in trouble if a lot of that LDL is oxidized," Dr. Kummerow said.

This leads him to a controversial conclusion: that the saturated fat in butter, cheese and meats does not contribute to the clogging of arteries -- and in fact is beneficial in moderate amounts in the context of a healthy diet (lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other fresh, unprocessed foods).

Posted by orrinj at 7:04 PM


Multivitamins Found to Have Little Benefit (JEANNE WHALEN, Dec. 16, 2013, WSJ)

Multivitamins offer almost no benefit in preventing chronic disease "and they should be avoided," experts said Monday in a medical-journal editorial accompanying the publication of two new clinical trials.

The rigorously conducted studies, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, showed multivitamins had no effect on cognitive function or cardiovascular health. They are the latest in a series of reports--including a review last month of 26 vitamin studies--indicating that supplements have little health benefits in generally well-nourished, Western populations.

"The message is simple: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided," four physicians and public health experts wrote in an editorial accompanying the studies.

The editorial added that beta-carotene, vitamin E and possibly high doses of vitamin A increased the risk of death in some other trials.

Posted by orrinj at 7:00 PM


So which Bible version is really the most authentic? (Richard Ostling, 12/16/13, Get Religion)

The beloved "Authorized" or King James Version from 1611 is a monument of English literature that retains wide popularity, especially among Protestant Fundamentalists, some of whom champion a "King James Only" movement. 

Posted by orrinj at 6:40 PM


White House delayed enacting rules ahead of 2012 election to avoid controversy (Juliet Eilperin, December 14, 2013, Washington Post)

The White House systematically delayed enacting a series of rules on the environment, worker safety and health care to prevent them from becoming points of contention before the 2012 election, according to documents and interviews with current and former administration officials.

Some agency officials were instructed to hold off submitting proposals to the White House for up to a year to ensure that they would not be issued before voters went to the polls, the current and former officials said.

The delays meant that rules were postponed or never issued. The stalled regulations included crucial elements of the Affordable Care Act, what bodies of water deserved federal protection, pollution controls for industrial boilers and limits on dangerous silica exposure in the workplace. [...]

The number and scope of delays under Obama went well beyond those of his predecessors, who helped shape rules but did not have the same formalized controls, said current and former officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Posted by orrinj at 6:12 PM


How George W. Bush Evolved From the Uncoolest Person on the Planet to Bona Fide Hipster Icon (Juli Weiner, Vanity Fair)

[I]f you are younger than 24, you might not have attended anti-Bush rallies in high school and in college. You might not have pinned "SHRUB" buttons to your tote bag, and might not even remember Bush as a war-lovin', vowel-droppin', faux-folksy, ostentatiously religious Connecticut cowboy. This is because Bush has, quietly and wholly, ingeniously refashioned himself into an Internet-friendly, cat-loving, ironic-hat-wearing painter-cum-Instagram savant. Lately, George W. Bush is a hipster icon, and the Internet, unofficial Fourth Estate of the youth of America, is totally buying it.

Bush's encouraging letter to student-athlete Cade Foster, the 22-year-old University of Alabama kicker who just about single-handedly (single-footedly) lost his team the 2013 Iron Bowl, is the Internet sensation of the week. How nice, Bush is, to reach out to a Troubled Youngster™! Foster's photograph of the letter has more than 4,000 retweets; President Bush has innumerable new fans.

Though definitely aided by his love of animals, biking hobby, Internet savvy, and U-Street-friendly uniform, Bush's transmutation from iPod-threatening lameness monster into smiling blog mascot aligns closely with his painting career.

Posted by orrinj at 6:05 PM


Should the U.S. force citizens to save? (Allison Schrager DECEMBER 17, 2013, Reuters)

Retirement in America is supposed to be financed by three sources: Social Security, employer pensions, and additional saving. Social Security in America makes up the foundation and serves two roles: it's a forced saving plan by making everyone contribute 12.4 percent (the employer and employee contribution) of their income (up to the first $113,700 they earn) in exchange for the promise of income in retirement. It's also social insurance because the lower your income, the larger your benefit will be relative to what you paid in. But for most people, it is not intended to finance all of retirement.

The problem is the other two sources are falling short. Employer pensions, for those who had them in the private sector, have been replaced by private accounts like a 401(k) plan. With these accounts, the individual is left to save enough and bear investment risk. Alas, most people don't contribute enough. That's apparent with baby boomers, the first generation to have these accounts for decades, who are nearing retirement with meager savings. According to the Survey of Consumer Finances collected by the Federal Reserve Board, the median value of financial assets (non-housing saving) of working Americans between age 55 to 65 was just $67,000 in 2010. That means many people will retire almost entirely dependent on Social Security and take a big cut in their living standard.

A big drop in consumption is not only a problem for the individual. Collectively it creates a drop in demand, which can devastate economic growth. Plus without any wealth, more retirees will qualify for Medicaid, in addition to Medicare, to finance end-of-life care. Projections of elder healthcare costs assume seniors will for pay the expenses Medicare doesn't cover, especially long-term care. But if people run out of money, the burden falls on the state.

Does that justify forcing people to save more?

We should be forced to save, but that will, of course, reduce consumption in our younger years instead of our older.

Posted by orrinj at 6:01 PM


4 tech tools that are disrupting the doctor's office (Carmel Lobello, 12/17/13, The Week)

The anesthesiologist robot

Anesthesiologists, some of the highest paid doctors, are responsible for administering sedation and keeping a patient ticking during surgeries. This year, Johnson & Johnson released what some are calling a robot anesthesiologist -- a system named Sedasys that "automates the sedation of many patients undergoing colon-cancer screenings called colonoscopies," says The Wall Street Journal.

Anesthesiologists see big problems with the bots, warning they may not be able to respond accurately to complications. But tests so far show the machines are not only safe, but may even reduce the risk of over-sedation. And hospitals see a clear benefit: Cost. J&J will lease the machines to doctor's offices for about $150 per procedure, compared to the $600 to $2,000 that anesthesiologists typically charge.

Posted by orrinj at 5:59 PM


Feeling the Heat: Temperature, Physiology & the Wealth of Nations (Geoffrey Heal, Jisung Park, December 2013, NBER Working Paper No. 19725)

Does temperature affect economic performance? Has temperature always affected social welfare through its impact on physical and cognitive function? While many studies have explored the indirect links between climate and welfare (e.g. agricultural yield, violent conflict, or sea-level rise), few address the possibility of direct impacts operating through human physiology. This paper presents a model of labor supply under thermal stress, building on a longstanding physiological literature linking thermal stress to health and task performance. A key prediction is that effective labor supply - defined as a composite of labor hours, task performance, and effort - is decreasing in temperature deviations from the biological optimum. We use country-level panel data on population-weighted average temperature and income (1950-2005), to illustrate the potential magnitude of the effect. Using a fixed effects estimation strategy, we find that hotter-than-average years are associated with lower output per capita for already hot countries and higher output per capita for cold countries: approximately 3%-4% in both directions. We then use household data on air conditioning and heating expenditures from the US to provide further evidence in support of a physiologically based causal mechanism.

Posted by orrinj at 5:55 PM


Subdued Inflation Weighs on U.S., EU (Sudeep Reddy, Brian Blackstone, Jason Douglas, 12/17/13, WSJ)

Inflation is slowing across the developed world despite ultralow interest rates and unprecedented money-printing campaigns, posing a dilemma for the Federal Reserve and other major central banks as they plot their next policy moves.

Posted by orrinj at 5:52 PM


Americans Increasingly Paying Off Their Credit Cards : Since the recession, Americans have started carrying lower balances and are paying off their balances more often (DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, December 17, 2013, US News)

A growing share of Americans are regularly paying off their full credit card balances than were prior to the recession, according to data released Tuesday by the American Bankers Association. The trade group's quarterly figures show that in the second quarter of 2013, 28.7 percent of all credit card accounts were "transactor" accounts - industry-speak for accounts whose balances are paid off in full each month. That's a nearly 50 percent increase since the start of 2008, early in the Great Recession. At that time, only 19 percent of accounts were in this category.

December 16, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 2:38 PM


Federal budget: 10 cuts that would save the most (Brianna Ehley, 12/15/13, The Fiscal Times)

You can find all 65 recommendations in the PDF below, but here are the 10 cuts that would have the largest budget impact:

1. Eliminate crop insurance program: $87.1 billion
This program, which was created during the Great Depression to protect farmers from financial ruin, now subsidizes insurance premiums for agribusinesses on coverage they could afford on their own. According to the report, "it distorts the insurance market and market for commodity crops by encouraging overplanting and is partially duplicative as other programs provide more rational insurance for farmers."

2. Reduce spending for other DOD procurement: $85 billion
This category includes overspending on items like night vision goggles and radios. According to the President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, the military spent $400 billion more than their base budget on these items. The $85 billion savings would equal the cost of the entire first wave of sequester cuts. [...]

4. Bundle Medicare payments: $46.6 billion 
Adopt bundled payments in Medicare so that a single payment is made to health care providers for individual episodes including inpatient care and 90 days of post-acute care. "This will create incentives for more efficient care and reduce medical errors," the report said. [...]

6. Cancel F-35 joint strike fighter: $37.1 billion
"The F-35 Lightning may represent all that is wrong with our acquisition process," according to the Sustainable Defense Task Force. The program, which will ultimately cost $1.5 trillion over 55 years, suffers from consistent engine problems and has never been used in combat. This option, suggested by the CBO, would eliminate the F-35 and replace it with sufficiently advanced planes, the F-16 and F/A-18.

December 15, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 6:40 PM


John McCain tells Ukraine protesters: 'We are here to support your just cause' (Guardian, 15 December 2013)

Senator John McCain on Sunday told thousands of Ukrainian protesters camped on Kiev's main square that Ukraine's destiny lay in Europe and that it would make Europe better. 

"Ukraine will make Europe better and Europe will make Ukraine better," he said to crowds protesting against President Viktor Yanukovich's U-turn in trade policy away from Europe towards Russia. 

"We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe," said McCain, a leading Republican voice on US foreign policy. 

Posted by orrinj at 4:27 PM


Whose blood is cleaner? (Malynnda Littky, 12/15/13, Times of Israel)

No medical literature was available showing that the international community believes blood donations from former Ethiopian nationals to be at significantly higher risk of infecting a blood supply that is already being tested.

Worse, I found credible literature that shows that the risk has already been studied and quantified, and which points to a possible cost, in terms of lives that could be saved, when potential donors are turned away. As far back as 1998, Yale Professor, Dr. Edward Kaplan, published an article in the British medical journal The Lancet, noting that destroying all donations from Ethiopian blood saves perhaps one life every ten years. In 1996, there were public demonstrations in reaction to the revelation that Magen David Adom was destroying blood donated by Israelis who were born, or who had lived for a significant period, in Ethiopia. A commission, headed by former Israeli President Yitzhak Navon, reviewed the procedures that were then in place. That commission recommended that the MDA stop dumping blood based on ethnic criteria and proposed instead strict guidelines for careful, pint-by-pint screening of blood donations from Ethiopian Jews and other high-risk groups.

Posted by orrinj at 2:30 PM


Country of the Year? Try Mexico. (The Monitor's Editorial Board, December 15, 2013, CS Monitor)

The latest reform, approved Thursday by elected lawmakers, will allow foreign and private investment in the oil sector for the first time in more than 70 years. The move upends a notion of Mexican patriotism that stated the national identity rests on government monopoly of the petroleum industry.

In adding this historic reform to earlier ones - in banking, taxation, education, telecommunications - Mexico is well on its way to implement an agreement among three political parties reached last December after the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Posted by orrinj at 2:20 PM


Fed Stimulus Blunted as Software Replaces Hardware (Craig Torres and Ilan Kolet December 09, 2013, Business Week)

Mike Nobis saw how the financial crisis led his customers to postpone orders until the last minute, forcing his 100-year-old family printing business to work faster to deliver on time.

Instead of adding more people or machinery, he found the solution to the new business demands in a piece of software.

"We are investing a whole lot more in the software we are using so we can use less and less employees to do the exact same work," said Nobis, president of JK Creative Printers & Mailing, of Quincy, Illinois, which produces items from business cards to catalogues.

Nobis's strategy is being replicated at companies around the U.S., where investment in software is up 19 percent since the 2007 business-cycle peak, while spending on hard assets has slumped. Executives are taking less risk on physical assets such as computer hardware, machinery or warehouses, and using software to increase efficiency or reach customers on the Internet.

Posted by orrinj at 8:32 AM


Iran's long distrust of the 'Old Fox' Britain (Con Coughlin, 14 Dec 2013, The Telegraph)

[B]ritain's first direct involvement in Iranian affairs during the modern era can be traced back to 1813 and the Treaty of Gulistan, under which Persia was forced to concede territory to Russia. The treaty was put together by British diplomat Sir Gore Ouseley and is regarded in Iran as a humiliation.

It was by this treaty that the myth - or reality - of the devious British was established.

Britain was also instrumental in setting Iran's borders with India in the 1860s.

Then in the 1920s, British forces in Iran under General Edmund Ironside (later British land forces commander in the Second World War after Dunkirk) helped put Reza Shah on the Peacock throne. His son was Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the Shah overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979.

But the event that ultimately decided the fractious nature of Anglo-Iranian relations, which has lasted until the modern day, was the direct involvement of British intelligence in the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq, the country's first democratically-elected prime minister, in 1953. As in the early 19th century, the primary motivation for Britain's supposedly clandestine intervention in Iran's internal affairs was to prevent Tehran from falling under Russian influence, especially as this was the height of the Cold War and the restless Soviets were forever looking for new territories to dominate.

Though the operation achieved its goal, it laid the foundations for decades of Iranian mistrust, particularly as British intelligence officers continued to maintain close links with SAVAK, the brutal intelligence service operated by the Shah, whose survival in office owed much to the backing of his British and American backers.

The fact that scores of former SAVAK officers found their way into the new Iranian intelligence service created by the ayatollahs following the 1979 Iranian revolution, meant that the new regime founded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was left in no doubt about the perfidious activities of the British.

Hence, while the ayatollahs have demonised the US as the Great Satan for its refusal to accept the uncompromising tenets of the Iranian revolution, Britain - along with Israel - is regarded as Little Satan because of its slavish support for American policy, as well as its long history of meddling in Iranian affairs.

Everyone trying to understand Iran should read My Uncle Napoleon.

Posted by orrinj at 8:11 AM


EU Grooming Klitschko to Lead Ukraine (Nikolaus Blome, Matthias Gebauer and Ralf Neukirch, 12/15/13, Der Spiegel)

While "regime change" is too strong a term for what Germany is seeking, it's not entirely off base. Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the European People's Party (EPP), a family of European conservative parties, have chosen Klitschko as their de facto representative in Ukraine. His job is to unite and lead the opposition -- on the street, in parliament and, finally, in the 2015 presidential election. "Klitschko is our man," say senior EPP politicians, "he has a clear European agenda." And Merkel still has a score to settle with Putin.

Much of the work happens behind the scenes. Klitschko's party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), formed in 2010, became an observer member of the EPP recently. EPP offices in Brussels and Budapest are training UDAR personnel for parliamentary work and providing support in the development of a nationwide party structure. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is closely aligned with the CDU, also plays an important role, and Klitschko has expressly asked Merkel's advisors for help from the foundation. Four UDAR members of the Ukrainian parliament paid a visit to Berlin last week, where they met with German CDU lawmakers and officials from both the labor and justice ministries. For some time, the Adenauer Foundation has been preparing Ukrainian opposition politicians to assume responsibility in the context of a "dialogue program."

But Klitschko himself remains the focal point of the effort. He has been meeting with Ronald Pofalla, Merkel's chief of staff, who has maintained ties to members of the opposition in Eastern Europe for years, especially in authoritarian-ruled Belarus. After countless discussions, Pofalla has familiarized himself with the methods Eastern European regimes employ to intimidate members of the opposition when they become too prominent or influential: defamation, daily harassment, arbitrary arrests, show trials and separation from their families. Over time, Pofalla has seen how this approach has succeeded in silencing critical voices in Eastern European countries. He has given Klitschko a number of tips, and the heavyweight boxer and political novice has asked Pofalla for advice. For instance, Klitschko wants to know how to respond to rumors about his alleged "affairs with women" that the Ukrainian government is spreading to spoil his chances as a viable political leader in the country.

Klitschko can also depend on discreet help from Pofalla and the German government when it comes to the 2015 presidential election. His candidacy is currently blocked by a law, presumably written specifically with him in mind, whereby a citizen with a residence permit in other countries is not considered a resident of Ukraine. This prevents Klitschko from proving that he lived in Ukraine for 10 years prior to the election, which is a requirement for a candidacy under the country's constitution. But he can count on Merkel to appeal to President Yanukovych to ensure that the law will not derail Klitschko's candidacy.

To that end, the professional boxer will have to be groomed as a serious politician, both in Ukraine and abroad, which is precisely what is happening.

Posted by orrinj at 7:51 AM


7 days in Iran : How a possible thaw with the West is viewed in Iran - on the factory floor, at Friday prayers, and in government suites. (Scott Peterson,  December 15, 2013, CS Monitor)

For a journalist, getting onto the Tehran University campus usually requires letters of approval from authorities, and perhaps an official guide. Or it just requires walking past the guards already overwhelmed by crowds clamoring to hear a speech by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

He is the rock star they want to see, the new Elvis of Iranian diplomacy. The goateed, American-educated Mr. Zarif might seem an unlikely hero for students who were barely teenagers when he finished his tour as Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, and then was relegated to the political wilderness during the presidency of archconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But today Zarif is the chief diplomat for a president whose election prompted jubilant street celebrations across Iran. And here, in person, is the man who negotiated - during three rounds of marathon talks in Geneva - a nuclear deal that has spurred new hope, by breaking a decade-long deadlock that at times for Iran has risked war and economic ruin. Tougher negotiations await a final accord that will prevent Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons, in exchange for lifting crippling sanctions.

Hard-liners are deeply skeptical of the deal, castigating it as a capitulation to the West that endangers Iran's national security. But for most of the students trying to force their way into a packed auditorium, Zarif has brokered a deal just in time to stave off disaster.

On the leafy campus, latecomers cluster tightly at the sliding glass door that leads to the central library, where security guards are trying to prevent more from entering. The door opens slightly, letting in one or two, and those outside surge ahead, forcing the glass facade to bow.

I hold up my camera and press card, like a handful of other journalists who have misjudged the fervent desire of the students to hear Zarif's justification of the Geneva deal, as its salesman in chief.

Guards herd most of the students into a spillover venue with a live video feed. But my interpreter and I join the battle at the door. We finally pop through, finding ourselves at the back of the auditorium. Zarif is just beginning his remarks, making jokes to those standing in the aisles, fanning themselves from the rigors of just getting in.

For their exertion, the diplomat treats them to a discourse on a changing world, and how Iran could take advantage of this "transition time." He says the Geneva deal shows how the government was being successful at "creating security and creating power."

Cheers erupt as Zarif speaks about how military power is giving way to "actual power" of the kind that Iranian voters had shown in electing Rouhani. He also explains why Iran doesn't need nuclear weapons to be strong.

"It is not an honor to be able to destroy the world 100 times," says Zarif, referring to the US nuclear arsenal and the size of its defense budget. "That's why they called it mutually assured destruction: They wanted to create security through lunacy."

A bomb is "not useful" for Iran, says Zarif, but notes that the country will never compromise on its "rights" to peaceful nuclear power.

"We don't even imagine the Islamic Republic with a nuclear weapon," Zarif says, his voice rising. "Even if someone put a nuclear weapon on a platter and gave it to me, I would say, 'I don't want it'.... A nuclear weapon does not create security for us ... it only creates problems and harm and threat for the Islamic Republic."

After two hours, Elvis leaves the building. The case is made. One Iranian security guard apologizes to me for his forceful pushing. As we leave, workmen are already trying to realign the glass door.

December 14, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 5:11 PM


The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder (ALAN SCHWARZ, 12/13/13, NY Times)
[Dr. Keith Conner] noted that recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the diagnosis had been made in 15 percent of high school-age children, and that the number of children on medication for the disorder had soared to 3.5 million from 600,000 in 1990. He questioned the rising rates of diagnosis and called them "a national disaster of dangerous proportions."

"The numbers make it look like an epidemic. Well, it's not. It's preposterous," Dr. Conners, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Duke University, said in a subsequent interview. "This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels."

The rise of A.D.H.D. diagnoses and prescriptions for stimulants over the years coincided with a remarkably successful two-decade campaign by pharmaceutical companies to publicize the syndrome and promote the pills to doctors, educators and parents. With the children's market booming, the industry is now employing similar marketing techniques as it focuses on adult A.D.H.D., which could become even more profitable. [...]

[E]ven some of the field's longtime advocates say the zeal to find and treat every A.D.H.D. child has led to too many people with scant symptoms receiving the diagnosis and medication. The disorder is now the second most frequent long-term diagnosis made in children, narrowly trailing asthma, according to a New York Times analysis of C.D.C. data.

Behind that growth has been drug company marketing that has stretched the image of classic A.D.H.D. to include relatively normal behavior like carelessness and impatience, and has often overstated the pills' benefits. Advertising on television and in popular magazines like People and Good Housekeeping has cast common childhood forgetfulness and poor grades as grounds for medication that, among other benefits, can result in "schoolwork that matches his intelligence" and ease family tension.

A 2002 ad for Adderall showed a mother playing with her son and saying, "Thanks for taking out the garbage."

Posted by orrinj at 4:52 PM


Skip the Supplements (PAUL A. OFFIT and SARAH ERUSH, 12/14/13, NY Times)

PARENTS whose children are admitted to our hospital occasionally bring along something extra to help with their care: dietary supplements, like St. John's wort to ameliorate mild depression or probiotics for better health.

Here's the problem: The Joint Commission, which is responsible for hospital accreditation in the United States, requires that dietary supplements be treated like drugs. It makes sense: Vitamins, amino acids, herbs, minerals and other botanicals have pharmacological effects. So they are drugs.

But the Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate dietary supplements as drugs -- they aren't tested for safety and efficacy before they're sold. [...]

Parents of children admitted to our hospital often request that we continue treating their child with dietary supplements because they believe in them, even if that belief isn't supported by evidence.

Posted by orrinj at 8:39 AM


Shopping for Investments in a Health Savings Account (ANN CARRNS, 12/12/13, NY Times)

There are now about nine million H.S.A.'s with total assets of more than $18 billion; the average account balance is about $2,000, but accounts with funds in investment options, rather than just F.D.I.C.-insured accounts, average about $10,000, according to Devenir, which is based in Minneapolis and provides investment plans for H.S.A.'s. For 2014, you can contribute as much as $3,300 as an individual and $6,550 for families. So if you haven't had to tap the funds for a year or two, you may have a significant balance that you'd like to invest for longer-term expenses. "You're looking at it with a different lens," said Liz Ryan, head of health benefits services at Wells Fargo.

If your employer offers an H.S.A. along with your high-deductible health plan, it's usually simplest to use that account. Companies often contribute to the accounts to encourage workers to use them, and your own pretax contributions can be withdrawn automatically from your paycheck. "You can't overstate the convenience factor of using your employer's plan," said Christine Benz, director of personal finance for Morningstar.

If your employer doesn't offer an H.S.A., however, or if you buy insurance on your own, you'll want to shop around. Some account providers -- known as "custodians" -- offer the accounts through employers only, but many offer them directly to individuals.

What criteria should you consider? Ease of use (a debit card or online banking, for instance, makes it easy to use your money when you need it); availability of investment options, if you're thinking long-term; and fees, which can eat away at your savings, said Roy Ramthun, founder of HSA Consulting Services, which advises employers and account providers. "These are banking products, and banks charge fees for a number of things," he said.

Typical fees might include account setup and closing fees, monthly or annual maintenance fees and additional fees for using an investment account. Not all banks charge all fees, however, and many are waived if you maintain a minimum balance. Most accounts charge flat service fees, so the impact of the fee lessens as your balance grows, Ms. Benz said.

Devenir recently has started compiling a list of H.S.A. providers on a new website, The site lists 31 providers, along with information on fees, interest rates, minimum balance requirements and availability of investment options; it's expected to cover about 50 accounts by the end of the year, said Eric Remjeske, Devenir's president. The site provides links to the providers' websites and includes some ratings from a pool of "several hundred" early users who were asked to comment on their experience; a public forum will be available on the site in a few weeks, he said.

Among the largest providers offering accounts directly to individuals are Optum Bank, an arm of UnitedHealth Group; Bank of America; JPMorgan Chase; and HSA Bank, Mr. Remjeske said.

Offerings vary widely. Wells Fargo, which reported that it had more than 400,000 H.S.A. account holders with more than $1 billion in assets, offers only Wells Fargo mutual funds. Optum Bank, which said early this year it had more than one million accounts with nearly $2 billion in assets, offers funds from a variety of different fund families. HSA Bank offers self-directed investing through TD Ameritrade accounts.

Here are some questions to consider when selecting an H.S.A....

Posted by orrinj at 8:35 AM


A referendum on independence? (THe Economist, Dec 13th 2013)

RISING tension between Madrid and Catalonia reached a new peak yesterday with the announcement by the Catalan president, Artur Mas, that he plans to hold an independence referendum on November 9th next year. Flanked by leaders of parties that hold two-thirds of seats in the region's parliament, Mr Mas launched the biggest challenge to Spain's internal structure in recent history. The Catalans, he said, are "a people who want to decide for themselves on their own future".

Posted by orrinj at 8:21 AM



One of the consequences of waking up suddenly, and too early, is a phenomenon called sleep inertia. First given a name in 1976, sleep inertia refers to that period between waking and being fully awake when you feel groggy. The more abruptly you are awakened, the more severe the sleep inertia. While we may feel that we wake up quickly enough, transitioning easily between sleep mode and awake mode, the process is in reality far more gradual. Our brain-stem arousal systems (the parts of the brain responsible for basic physiological functioning) are activated almost instantly. But our cortical regions, especially the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in decision-making and self-control), take longer to come on board.

In those early waking minutes, our memory, reaction time, ability to perform basic mathematical tasks, and alertness and attention all suffer. Even simple tasks, like finding and turning on the light switch, become far more complicated. As a result, our decisions are neither rational nor optimal. In fact, according to Kenneth Wright, a neuroscientist and chronobiology expert, "Cognition is best several hours prior to habitual sleep time, and worst near habitual wake time." In the grip of sleep inertia, we may well do something we know we shouldn't. Whether or not to hit the snooze button is just about the first decision we make. Little wonder that it's not always the optimal one.

Other research has found that sleep inertia can last two hours or longer. In one study that monitored people for three days in a row, the sleep researchers Charles Czeisler and Megan Jewett and their colleagues at Harvard Medical School found that sleep inertia took anywhere from two to four hours to disappear completely. While the participants said they felt awake after two-thirds of an hour, their cognitive faculties didn't entirely catch up for several hours. Eating breakfast, showering, or turning on all the lights for maximum morning brightness didn't mitigate the results. No matter what, our brains take far longer than we might expect to get up to speed.

When we do wake up naturally, as on a relaxed weekend morning, we do so based mainly on two factors: the amount of external light and the setting of our internal alarm clock--our circadian rhythm. The internal clock isn't perfectly correlated with the external one, and so every day, we use outside time cues, called zeitgebers, to make fine adjustments that mimic the changes in light and dark that take place throughout the year.

The difference between one's actual, socially mandated wake-up time and one's natural, biologically optimal wake-up time is something that Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, calls "social jetlag." It's a measurement not of sleep duration but of sleep timing: Are we sleeping in the windows of time that are best for our bodies? According to Roenneberg's most recent estimates, based on a database of more than sixty-five thousand people, approximately a third of the population suffers from extreme social jetlag--an average difference of over two hours between their natural waking time and their socially obligated one. Sixty-nine per cent suffer from a milder form, of at least one hour.

Roenneberg and the psychologist Marc Wittmann have found that the chronic mismatch between biological and social sleep time comes at a high cost: alcohol, cigarette, and caffeine use increase--and each hour of social jetlag correlates with a roughly thirty-three per cent greater chance of obesity. "The practice of going to sleep and waking up at 'unnatural' times," Roenneberg says, "could be the most prevalent high-risk behaviour in modern society." According to Roenneberg, poor sleep timing stresses our system so much that it is one of the reasons that night-shift workers often suffer higher-than-normal rates of cancer, potentially fatal heart conditions, and other chronic disease, like metabolic syndrome and diabetes. Another study, published earlier this year and focussing on medical-school performance, found that sleep timing, more than length or quality, affected how well students performed in class and on their preclinical board exams. It didn't really matter how long they had slept or whether they saw themselves as morning people or not; what made a difference was when they actually went to bed--and when they woke up. It's bad to sleep too little; it's also bad, and maybe even worse, to wake up when it's dark.

Fortunately, the effects of sleep inertia and social jetlag seem to be reversible. When Wright asked a group of young adults to embark on a weeklong camping trip, he discovered a striking pattern: before the week was out, the negative sleep patterns that he'd previously observed disappeared. In the days leading up to the trip, he had noted that the subjects' bodies would begin releasing the sleep hormone melatonin about two hours prior to sleep, around 10:30 P.M. A decrease in the hormone, on the other hand, took place after wake-up, around 8 A.M. After the camping trip, those patterns had changed significantly. Now the melatonin levels increased around sunset--and decreased just after sunrise, an average of fifty minutes before wake-up time. In other words, not only did the time outside, in the absence of artificial light and alarm clocks, make it easier for people to fall asleep, it made it easier for them to wake up: the subjects' sleep rhythms would start preparing for wake-up just after sunrise, so that by the time they got up, they were far more awake than they would have otherwise been. The sleep inertia was largely gone.

Posted by orrinj at 8:08 AM


The problem of patriotism and the left (GERRY HASSAN, 11 December 2013, OpenDemocracy)

Left-wing patriotism has consistently had a problem and been thrown by the right. They have baulked at the stories and crimes of Empire, imperial wars and militarism.

This leads in one of two directions: the first is the pointless rejection of all things British which does not get you very far. The other is nearly as bad: the disingenuous Gordon Brown approach of stating that 'the British Empire was much better than any other'.

One reason that the left has had such a problem is the power of the continuity story of Britain. The people's Britain, with its struggles and radicalism, the G.D.H. Cole account of 'the common people' with its English and Scottish variants expressed so eloquently by E.P. Thompson and Tom Johnston respectively, never sidelined the Whig account of British history.

There is also the perennial problem the left had with nationalism. British left-wingers have consistently tried to deny that they are British nationalists, witness their age-old cry, 'I am an internationalist not a nationalist'.

So the Michael Foots, Tony Benns, George Galloways and, closer to home, Brian Wilsons of this world, have been comfortable embracing numerous national liberation movements - Vietnamese, Palestinian, Venezuelan - all of which are nationalist, but tied themselves in knots at home. This of course continues in spades in the independence referendum, with unionists in denial that their philosophy is a nationalism. That nasty word is all about the other lot - the 'narrow nationalism' beloved of Labour politicians as a bogey.

There is fortunately another strand on the left: that of the British radical patriot seen in George Orwell and in the present day by the likes of Billy Bragg. This understands that you cannot leave the word patriotism to the right and expect to compete for power and legitimacy.

Orwell grasped that the Union Jack, that was the flag of Empire, slavery and conquest, was also the flag which abolished slavery, oversaw decolonisation, stood alone against the evils of Hitler and Nazism, and built the welfare state. It also gave the world a tradition of standing against state oppression, for liberty and dissent.

It isn't an accident that Bragg doesn't have a problem with the British nationalist tag, has reclaimed past radical currents, and demonstrated a subtlety on the Scottish independence argument. It is just sad that so many British leftists have not shown a similar grasp of history.

Tory MEP Daniel Hannan added his voice to the Vaz/Rusbridger exchange this week, approvingly quoting Herbert Butterfield from the 1930s, 'The study of the past with one eye upon the present is the essence of what we mean by the word 'unhistoric''.

Hannan is author of the just published, 'How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters' which, despite its title, is a reflective case for a Tory Eurosceptic patriotism. Where is the Labour and left equivalent to this, making the case for progressive Britain as it faces the multiple crises of Osborne's austerity, the independence debate, and how the UK re-interprets its position vis-à-vis Europe? Nowhere.

That silence isn't an accident. It is a product of the British left's problem with British history which has cost it dear through the centuries. 

Orwell was, of course, conservative.
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Posted by orrinj at 8:06 AM


Cover Oregon's hidden HSA health insurance plans (Brent Hunsberger, November 26, 2013, Oregon Live)

I've written quite a bit this year about HSAs and their related insurance plans. They're not for everyone. If you use health care a lot, racking up a number of little bills, you might not want one. You'll be paying mostly out of pocket for those visits until you've exhausted your deductible.

But for healthy individuals, couples and some careful consumers, their lower premiums can make a lot of sense. If you keep expenses below your deductible, you can spend less overall using an HSA with lower premiums than with a lower-deductible plan with higher premiums.

Meanwhile, you're still protected from catastrophic health costs. Plus, under health reform, these plans must cover most preventive visits for no charge.

Bob Thompson says that's just what he needs. The 62-year-old Tigard triathlete rarely visits a doctor. But he has a blood-clotting disorder that lands him in the hospital about once a decade, he says. 

So he wants what essentially amounts to catastrophic-like coverage for those events. An HSA would allow him to save up money to foot the deductible for that hospitalization or to use on medical costs in retirement.

But because of his protein S deficiency, Kaiser Permanente would not let him move from his existing health plan onto its HSA-eligible plan, he said.

That changes in 2014. Insurers can't bar people because of a pre-existing condition. Thompson says he's eyeing one of Kaiser's HSA plans on Cover Oregon that costs $35 less per month than his current Kaiser plan.

"Cover Oregon appears to be a good thing for me in that they've bullied their way in to get insurance companies to be more competitive," Thompson said. "That has worked to my advantage."

Lisa Lettenmaier, owner of Health Source NW insurance brokerage in Tigard, says she discusses HSA-eligible plans with most men who are in good health and avoid doctors visits.

"If I ask, 'How often you go to the doctor,' and the wife chuckles and says, 'When I make him' or 'When the duct tape's not working,' then I'm going to put him on an HSA," she says.

She even puts healthy early retirees on them to save on premiums and to help them save money in the HSA for Medicare premiums or other costs in retirement.

December 13, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:53 PM


Why computers of the next digital age will be invisible (Tom Chatfield, 12/04/13, BBC)

The author Douglas Adams once made a witty point about technology: the inventions we label "technologies" are simply those which haven't yet become an invisible, effortless part of our lives.

"We no longer think of chairs as technology," he argued. "But there was a time when we hadn't worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often 'crash' when we tried to use them. Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs...and we will cease to be aware of the things."

Adams's prediction was prescient. Computers have been such a prominent, dazzling force in our lives for the past few decades that it's easy to forget that subsequent generations might not even consider them to be technology. Today, screens draw constant attention to themselves and these high-visibility machines are a demanding, delightful pit into which we pour our waking hours. Yet we are on the cusp of the moment when computing finally slips beneath our awareness - and this development will bring both dangers and benefits.

Computer scientists have been predicting such a moment for decades. The phrase "ubiquitous computing" was coined at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the late 1980s by the scientist Mark Weiser, and described a world in which computers would become what Weiser later termed "calm technologies": unseen, silent servants, available everywhere and anywhere.

Although we may not think about it as such, computing capability of this kind has been a fact of life for several years. What we are only beginning to see, however, is a movement away from screens towards self-effacing rather than attention-hungry machines.

The information age is in its infancy.
Posted by orrinj at 7:50 PM


A Setback for Manichean Conservatives (Peter Wehner, 12.13.2013, Commentary)

[L]ibertarians and conservatives who portrayed this deal as a "cave in" and a "shame" and an example of "a party that has lost its principles and bearings" look rather silly.

This budget deal (which now heads to the Senate) may be a marginally good one or it may be a marginally bad one; but it was hardly a dramatic or defining moment in the history of modern conservatism. It'll be forgotten in a few weeks (and maybe in a few days). Yet there are some on the right who insist on turning every debate into a battle between liberty and tyranny, pitting the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness. For them it's Def Con 1 all the time. It's the American Revolution all over again.

This approach can be entertaining up to a point, but it grows old and stale after a time; and a party that follows its Manichean Wing ends up battered and damaged.

The Right, like the Left, exists to amuse us.

Posted by orrinj at 6:46 PM


Inflation still low as wholesale prices fall for 3rd straight month (Jim Puzzanghera, December 13, 2013,LA Times)

 Wholesale prices dropped in November for the third straight month, indicating that inflation remains in check as Federal Reserve officials consider reducing a key stimulus program. [...]

During the previous 12 months, wholesale prices rose 0.7%. That figure was up from a 0.3% 12-month rate through October, but remained well below the Fed's target of 2% annual inflation.

Central bank policymakers rely on a different inflation measure based on prices for personal consumption expenditures. But the latest 12-month figure for that gauge, through October, also was 0.7%.

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Posted by orrinj at 6:43 PM


How the budget deal could pave the way for immigration reform (Bill Scher, 12/13/13, The Week)

Instead of immigration, the fall season gave us the Syrian crisis, the government shutdown, and the botch, all of which demanded media attention that deprived immigration activists of the ability to maximize grassroots pressure. Momentum appeared to stall. The Hill even ran a two-part series in mid-November called "How Immigration Died."

But a funny thing happened two weeks after that obituary: President Obama publicly accepted Boehner's position that the House pass a series of piecemeal immigration bills instead of a single comprehensive bill like the Senate's. [...]

A few days later, Boehner surprised Washington by hiring a new immigration policy aide from the Bipartisan Policy Center who supports what Democrats insist on but what many Republicans resist: A pathway to citizenship for the currently undocumented.

This week's deal is another signal that congressional leaders are ready to close the curtains on the budget kabuki and bring immigration back to center stage. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), who negotiated the budget deal, already has made clear his support for reform that includes a pathway to citizenship, and has an interest in lowering the political temperature through this agreement. In turn, his negotiating partner Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) made sure to point out that the reduced tensions should help get immigration done.

In which case, the housing market is seriously undervalued.

Posted by orrinj at 6:39 PM


Light bulb ban set to take effect (Steve Hargreaves, December 13, 2013, CNN)

The rules were signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2007. They are designed to address gross inefficiencies with old light bulbs -- only 10% of the energy they use is converted into light, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has a handy fact sheet about the changes. The rest is wasted as heat. [...]

While there were initial grumblings from consumers when the ban was first announced, Pitsor said most of the concerns faded away as people become more familiar with the new light bulbs and realize they can still buy high efficiency incandescents.

Experts point out how much consumers can save with more efficient bulbs.

The high efficiency incandescents cost about $1.50 each, compared to 50 cents or so for the old bulbs. But they last twice as long, and use 28% less power.

With LEDs, the saving are even greater. While a 40-watt LED goes for about $7.50 -- a big drop from the $50 or so it cost just a few years back -- it uses 85% less energy than a traditional bulb.

Over the course of the year, a LED will consume about $2 in power under normal circumstances, said Mark Voykovik, national light bulb merchant for Home Depot (HD, Fortune 500). That compares to over $7 for an incandescent.

"In two years, you pay off that bulb," said Voykovik. And because LED bulbs are expected to last at least 20 years -- it's all savings for the next 18 years.

Moreover, LEDs are free from many of the issues that plagued compact fluorescent bulbs. They turn on instantly, do not contain mercury and give off a warm light similar to an incandescent.

Fayetteville, Ark. and Waco, Texas were also hot markets, a fact Home Depot attributed to local rebate programs and the warm climate, where air conditioning drives up power bills.
Nationwide, about 12% of a home's power bill goes towards lighting, according to the EPA.

It's a Puritan Nation--we find waste morally repulsive.
Posted by orrinj at 6:32 PM


Bush Without Hysteria : Peter Baker's masterpiece of objectivity : a review of Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, by Peter Baker (MATTHEW HENNESSEY, 13 December 2013, City Journal)

The Bush that emerges from Days of Fire is a decent man, a thoughtful executive with a knack for facilitating debate and an unfailing devotion to the trust placed in him by the American people. He feels the weight of his office, and the many impossible decisions he must make, deeply. His capacity for self-reflection and self-correction--though never self-pity--is on full display. "There's a great pressure not to lead--not to act," Bush tells his demoralized national security team during the internal administration debate over the 2007 troop surge into Iraq. "There's pressure to say, 'Oh, well, this is too damn hard, too risky, let's not do it.'" Baker's Bush is a man with a surprisingly well-tuned moral compass, willing to make unpopular choices and suffer the consequent dips in his approval rating. He's not, as the popular bumper sticker had it, the village idiot from Texas who somehow wound up in the White House. "People say Bush needs to see the world as it is," he laments. "Well, I've been here six years now and I see the world as it is, maybe better than most."

Baker's Cheney comes across not as the Darth Vader of caricature, but as a valued foreign policy and defense counselor in the administration's first term and an increasingly peripheral figure in the second. In the summer of 2007, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert visits Washington, pressing the administration to bomb a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor. Stung by the failure to find WMD in Iraq and told that intelligence officials can't confirm the site is part of a weapons program, Bush won't commit to a strike. Olmert turns instead to Cheney, whom Baker calls "a receptive audience." Cheney is gung-ho, making an impassioned case before the president and his advisers. "It would rock the North Koreans back on their haunches in terms of thinking they could peddle their nuclear technology and get away with it," he says. Bush remains disinclined, but opens the questions to a vote. "Does anyone here agree with the vice president?" he asks. According to Baker, "not a single hand went up." The Israelis bombed the site anyway, but Cheney was humiliated, and you get the sense that Bush knew he would be. [...]

Though Baker gives Bush more credit than most, his treatment falls well short of hagiography. Bush was great in crises, Baker notes, but he was often responsible for causing them. He devastated Iraq before stabilizing it with the surge. He fumbled the Katrina response before ultimately getting it right (eventually earning praise even from Democrats, such as Al Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile). He presided over financial collapse before stabilizing the economy with the Troubled Asset Relief Program. "In other words," Baker writes, Bush "was at his best when he was cleaning up his worst."

Granted, he should have cracked down on derivative fraud, but how could he have prevented a 30 year dictatorship and a hurricane in a city below sea level.

Posted by orrinj at 6:27 PM


Why Do Ivy League Teachers Inflate Grades?  (ALLISON SCHRAGER, 12/13/13, QUARTZ)

The revelation that the median grade at Harvard is an A- prompted lots of discussion, especially among Ivy-league educated journalists. Some speculated high grades reflect intelligence. Others say professors just want their students to get jobs, or, selfishly, they want favorable teaching evaluations. As a teaching assistant in the economics department at Columbia, I too inflated student grades, but for none of those reasons.

I just didn't want to deal with all the complaining.

Of course, I (and every other graduate student and professor I worked with) read everyone's work carefully and especially rewarded students who demonstrated a solid understanding of the material. But the distribution of grades was very narrow. Great work got an A, pretty good to average got an A-, slightly below average was a B+, not great was a B, very bad was a B-. Anything below was akin to failure and required showing zero effort or even hostility to the class.

We all cared about teaching and fairness. But the real reason so many of us inflate grades is to avoid students complaining.

Posted by orrinj at 3:21 PM


Retirees Should Consider Health Savings Accounts (Robert Schmansky, 12/12/13, US News)

According to a 2013 study of employee retirement savings, health care concerns are driving many to cut retirement contributions and seek ways to save more for future health care costs. Mercer's workplace study finds preretirees may cut back on retirement contributions by 10 percent in 2014 and due to a lack of trust in future health care benefits, these same workers may be putting those savings into health savings accounts, combined with high-deductible health plans or plans which have a deductible minimum of $1,250 for individuals and $2,500 for families.

The study shows more employers are offering the high-deductible health plans and more employees are taking them up on those plans, which allow employees to establish health savings accounts that either they or their employer may put money into to pay for future health care costs. With the ongoing changes to health care, some pundits have speculated that trend is likely to continue to show strong growth in health savings accounts.

While employees may be making these moves due to concerns about future health care costs, they may actually be contributing to a better overall retirement savings plan than they realize. Health savings accounts provide a vehicle to save for health care and have some significant retirement savings benefits over a traditional plan to only save to a 401(k), 403(b) or other employer-based plans.

Posted by orrinj at 3:18 PM


Halfway to victory over malaria (Martin Edlund, December 11, 2013, CNN) 

 Progress against global diseases is typically slow, incremental and hard-won. But there are moments -- such as Wednesday's release of the World Health Organization's World Malaria Report -- when the cumulative effort of dozens of nations, millions of people and billions of dollars adds up to a true breakthrough.

With the new report, we have turned a corner in the malaria fight. We have reduced the rate of deaths from malaria among children under 5 by 51% from 2000 to 2012 -- halfway to our goal of ending death by mosquito bite. For the first time, the number of children dying from this preventable and treatable disease fell below half a million.

Progress against malaria is responsible for fully 20% of the reduction in child mortality since 2000. Malaria control has saved 3.3 million lives since 2000 -- 3 million of them children under 5.

I often compare the malaria fight to the moonshot. Both are human milestones, measures of our progress as a species and a society. And both were made possible by U.S. vision and leadership. The seeds of today's progress were sown under President George W. Bush with the launch of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in 2002 and the U.S. President's Malaria Initiative in 2005.

Posted by orrinj at 3:16 PM


The one word that will convince conservatives that inflation is actually low "COLA" (Josiah Neeley, 12/13/1`3, The Week)

Since 2009, inflation has remained below the 2 percent average of recent decades.

And while many have recognized this reality, others on the Right have concluded that if inflation hasn't shown up in the official numbers it's because it is being hidden. Some have sought refuge in the website ShadowStats, which purports to provide "unskewed" inflation numbers and has shown inflation at around 8 percent (in reality Shadowstats simply adds around 6 percent to the official inflation rate). In 2010, many pointed to a rapid rise in the price of commodities like oil as evidence of inflation (ignoring the fact that the prices of the same commodities had fallen even more during the early months of the crisis). For a while the price of gold was taken as the key indicator (the price of gold has fallen more than $400 an ounce this year). And lately some have started to see increases in stock prices as proof of inflation (even though the P/E ratio for the S&P 500 is not out of line with historical averages). Government manipulation of the consumer price index is also belied by the existence of privately run price indexes, such as the Billion Prices Project, which also show low inflation.

The big irony here is that in claiming that the CPI understates inflation, conservatives are effectively arguing for higher taxes and more government spending. That's because a version of the CPI is used to calculate cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for government programs like Social Security. If government numbers showed an inflation rate of 8 percent or more, this would result in billions more being spent on Social Security payments, as well as an increase in the amount of wages subject to the payroll tax.

Likewise, if inflation has been a lot higher than the government is admitting, then real spending hasn't risen by nearly as much as the official numbers indicate. All the talk about Obama's big spending ways, therefore, would have to be scaled back, if not abandoned.

Posted by orrinj at 3:14 PM


Audit Shows FHA Faces $1.3 Billion Deficit (NICK TIMIRAOS, Dec. 13, 2013, WSJ)

The FHA doesn't make loans but instead insures lenders against losses. It has played a critical role helping the housing market by backing loans to borrowers who make down payments of as little as 3.5%.

Most of the agency's losses stem from loans made between 2007 and 2009, when the housing bust deepened. Loans made since 2010 are profitable, the report found.

The agency has taken a series of steps over the past few years to curb mounting losses, including raising the insurance premiums that it charges to borrowers. That has steered business away to other mortgage investors, and officials said they don't plan on any additional premium increases.

Separately, the agency is required by law to reduce in around 650 counties the maximum loan amount that it guarantees beginning next month, a step that could further reduce its market share.

Congress mandates that the agency maintain reserves equal to 2% of all loans that it guarantees. The agency breached that 2% capital-reserve ratio in 2009. The latest report shows that the agency could return above that 2% level next year, which is two years sooner than was forecast in last year's report.

Posted by orrinj at 3:12 PM


December House Overview: GOP Back on Track to Gain Seats (David Wasserman, December 12, 2013, Cook Political Report)

At the moment, the political environment appears to have come back down to earth. And, with the 2014 election back to looking more like a referendum on President Obama than House Republicans, we have updated our outlook to a GOP gain of zero to ten House seats.

The candidate most symbolic of the times is Democratic Omaha Councilman Pete Festersen, who entered the race against weak GOP Rep. Lee Terry (NE-02) in the midst of the shutdown but dropped out this week. This shouldn't come as a shock: every cycle has a "gut check" time when candidates reevaluate the climate or their own capabilities, and many candidates who come storming out of the gate in off-years find they can't sustain their momentum.

But for Democrats to have really built on their October progress, they would have needed 1) the promise of more Republican intransigence on continuing resolutions and debt ceilings, 2) more Republican retirements from marginal or semi-marginal districts, and 3) a raft of five to ten more "grade A" candidates in GOP-held districts. In the aftermath of the ACA's launch, none of the three have materialized.

Towards the very end of the government shutdown, the HuffPost Pollster average of the congressional generic ballot showed Democrats peaking at roughly a 45 percent to 39 percent lead, approaching the point at which the House GOP majority might be in danger. Post-ACA roll-out, the latest average shows Republicans leading 40 percent to 37 percent, with many more undecided voters - a result that points towards small GOP gains.

Posted by orrinj at 3:04 PM


Hydrogen squeezed from stone could be new energy source (Simon Redfern, 12/13/13, , BBC News)

The method promises a new green energy source, providing copious hydrogen from a simple mixture of rock and water.

It speeds up a chemical reaction that takes geological timescales in nature.

In the reaction, the mineral olivine strips one oxygen and hydrogen atom from an H2O molecule to form a mineral called serpentine, releasing the spare hydrogen atom.

The results were discussed at this week's meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, and have been published in the journal American Mineralogist.

December 12, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 6:34 PM


Pemex's Oil Monopoly Nears an End (JUAN MONTES, Dec. 11, 2013, WSJ)

The end of Pemex's monopoly is seen by some as the biggest economic change in Mexico since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

The energy sector overhaul represents Mr. Pena Nieto's grand wager to lift oil production that has stagnated at around 2.5 million barrels a day in recent years and tap shale-gas deposits in the north.

If passed and implemented Mexico could add 1.5 million barrels of oil a day and double gas output by 2025--lifting annual economic growth by as much as 1.6 points, according to estimates included in the bill.

Posted by orrinj at 5:43 PM


Global Study Finds Majority Believe Traditional Hospitals Will Be Obsolete In The Near Future (Nicole Fisher 12/09/13, Forbes)

A global study was released this morning by the Intel Corporation indicating that around the world people's health care wants and needs are principally focused on technology and personalization. The "Intel Health Innovation Barometer" found a consistent theme: customized care. At the intersection of health, care and technology, communities around the world consistently said they wanted to see their biological makeup and individual behaviors used to make receiving care more effective and efficient. This unsurprisingly was described by people through means such as telehealth, mobile health and the sharing of health information in real time. However, surprising methods of care were also common themes throughout the world such as ingestible monitoring systems and care that involves no utilization of hospitals. [...]

Surprising Findings:

-       Traditional hospitals, according to 57% of people, will be obsolete in the future

-       Majority of people (84%) would be willing to share their personal health information to advance and lower costs in the health care system

-       More than 70% of people are receptive to using toilet sensors, prescription bottle sensors and swallowed health monitors

-       72% of those surveyed would be willing to see a doctor via video conference for non-urgent appointments

-       66% of people say they would prefer a care regimen that is designed specifically for them based on their genetic profile or biology

-       More than half of people (53%) would trust a test they personally administered as much or more than if that same test was performed by a doctor

Posted by orrinj at 5:37 PM


Techies Are the New Puritans : Silicon Valley's ugly treatment of homeless people has a long history. (NOREEN MALONE, 12/11/13, New Republic)

One of his Facebook friends, Li Jiang, replied, "why is this the showcase of the center of San Francisco. We're supposed to be a gleaming utopia of what a city could be. Why should we have homeless shelters, method one [sic] shelters, strip clubs all in the center of town."

Emphasis added by me, because Jiang's "gleaming utopia"--which is a vision of San Francisco I think many in the tech world share--echoes the famous "city on a hill" formulation that the Puritan Reverand John Winthrop plucked from the Sermon on the Mount way back in the 1600s. It's a beautiful sentiment, but it's also a strikingly unforgiving, rigid one (that is, a remarkably Puritan one). In the Puritan model of charity, the rich have an obligation to do good for the poor--but the poor also have an obligation to the rich, to try to be a useful part of the same society. It sounds not unlike the way Silicon Valley understands homelessesness: Why are the poor dropping their end of the bargain?

This is, of course, a conservative worldview, where harder work will solve most problems. In his farewell speech, Ronald Reagan called America, "a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity." 

We were in Seattle this Summer and the transgressive nature of the homeless population downtown is truly disturbing.  These aren't guys down on their luck who could use some help, they're aggressively anti-social.  And it's a surprisingly central topic of public conversation.

Posted by orrinj at 5:32 PM


The case for a six-hour workday (Lauren Davidson, 12/12/13, Quartz)
Today, workers are putting in increasingly more hours--so much so that the 40-hour week has become a relic of the past. But pushing employees to clock up those extra hours is bad for their well-being and detrimental to your company.

When you sleep is more important than the number of hours you sleep, a recent study found. What's more, getting too little sleep might not be ideal, but waking up while it's still dark is worse. (As we've pointed out before, turning up to the office feeling sleepy is like showing up to work drunk.)

In a recent article for the New Yorker, neuroscientist Kenneth Wright said that "cognition is best several hours prior to habitual sleep time, and worst near habitual wake time"--which suggests that you do your best work later in the day, not first thing in the morning. Your consciousness kicks in almost immediately after waking up, but it can take up to four hours for your mind to crank itself up to full awareness and alertness--and in that time, you won't make good decisions.

Posted by orrinj at 4:58 PM


Nov. 15, 1864: Sherman's March to the Sea Changes Tactical Warfare (Tony Long, November 15, 2010, Wired)

In a 62-day campaign of destruction, the 62,000-man Union force cut a ruinous, 60-mile-wide swath through Georgia: tearing up railroads, firing factories, destroying bridges, burning plantations, seizing livestock and freeing slaves. The army lived off the land, sacking the unfortunate homesteads and plantations that lay along the line of march.

After Savannah fell Dec. 22, Sherman paused only long enough to secure the seaport before swinging north into the Carolinas. The destruction wrought by the Federals in South Carolina -- the first Southern state to secede from the Union -- was even worse than it had been in Georgia.

Vengeance aside, the real objective of Sherman's march was to cut the Confederacy in two, cripple Southern industrial capacity, destroy the railroad system and compel an early Confederate surrender. It was also intended to break Southern morale -- in Sherman's words, to "make Georgia howl."

Sherman was vilified for his barbarism, but the Union commander was a realist, not a romantic. He understood -- as few of his contemporaries seemed to -- that technology and industrialization were radically changing the nature of warfare.

Contemporaries?  The two sides in WWI didn't understand it.
Posted by orrinj at 4:55 PM


U.S. Senators introduce bill to eliminate corn ethanol mandate (Timothy Gardner, 12/12/13, Reuters) 

A group of 10 U.S. Senators introduced a bipartisan bill on Thursday to eliminate the corn ethanol mandate, arguing that current law raises the cost of food and animal feed and damages the environment.

The bill, introduced by Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat; Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican; and eight cosponsors, faces an uphill battle as many lawmakers from agricultural states support the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)that dictates that rising volumes of ethanol made from grains, including corn, be blended into motor fuel.

Posted by orrinj at 4:53 PM


Spotify music service now offers free mobile version (Consumer Reports, December 12, 2013)

Like Spotify but have been reluctant to pay for access on your smart phone? Starting today you won't have to, as you'll now be able to get the streaming music service--with some restrictions--on smart phones as well as tablets without the $10 monthly subscription fee.

Posted by orrinj at 2:39 PM

Beer of the week: Samuel Adams Winter Lager (Evan S. Benn, 12/12/13, Miami Herald)

This malt-forward lager is brewed with a blend of Indonesian and Vietnamese cinnamon as well as orange peel and ginger, giving it a flavor that's in tune with the holiday season. It's not a spice bomb like other winter beers, and it's not heavy, despite its deep ruby-brown color. Bocks like Samuel Adams Winter Lager were traditionally brewed by monks in preparation for Lenten fasting.

Posted by orrinj at 2:36 PM


U.S. Import Prices Down 0.6% in November (JEFFREY SPARSHOTT,  Dec. 12, 2013, WSJ)

Prices of goods imported into the U.S. fell in November for the second straight month, the latest sign of falling energy prices and slow growth overseas keeping inflation subdued at home. [...]

Import prices are down 1.5% from a year earlier.

Posted by orrinj at 2:24 PM


Stop Wasting Money: Buy the Identical, Cheaper Versions of Big Brands (Melanie Pinola, 12./12/13, Lifehacker)

One secret of store brands--or "private label" brands with seemingly bargain quality--is that they're often made by the same companies that manufacturer big name products. So instead of paying twice as much for the same (or very similar) product, buy the just-as-good carbon copies. Here's a look at some of the many products you can save a ton of money on.P

Private label brands are owned by the retailer or supplier but the items are made by other manufacturers and just packaged differently. Some examples include Costco's Kirkland Signature products and just about everything at Trader Joe's. Reynolds Wrap, McCormick, and Birds Eye are all producing versions of their aluminum foil, spices, and frozen and canned vegetable products for store brands.P

The potential savings are great. According to the Private Label Manufacturers Association, we can save more than 30% on average by shopping supermarkets' private labels instead of national brands:

Among individual food items the cost savings ranged as high as 62% for white sandwich bread, 48% for macaroni and cheese, and 47% for hot chocolate. Savings on average for non-food categories were led by sinus spray (the store brand version cost a full 53% less), body lotion (36% less), and cold medicine (30% less).

Unfortunately for us, retail stores and their manufacturing partners prefer to keep mum about their relationships, so we can't assume that a generic white bread is made by the likes of Pepperidge Farm or Wonder Bread. Sometimes the generic version is produced by a manufacturer who only makes store brands. With a little bit of sleuthing, though, we did find quite a few examples of store brands that are most likely (if not certainly) manufactured by the same companies making the national brand equivalent.

December 11, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 3:12 PM


Chesterton and the Meaning of Progress (Joseph Pearce, 12/11/13, Imaginative Conservative)

 "Progress", wrote Chesterton, "is a useless word; for progress takes for granted an already defined direction: and it is exactly about the direction that we disagree."[1] As usual, Chesterton cuts through the cant and cuts to the chase. Since progress is the means by which an end is achieved we cannot meaningfully talk about progress until we have decided upon the end towards which we wish to progress. Thereafter progress must be judged in relation to the end it serves. Against this vision of progress, Chesterton laments the fatalistic determinism of the "progressive" thinker whose vision of progress is amorphously goalless: "The typical modern man...has no positive picture at all of what he is aiming at, but only a vague (and erroneous) sensation of progress."[2] It is to this typical modern man that Barack Obama was appealing when he reiterated ad nauseam the mantra of "change" during his successful election campaign. A populace bewitched by the god of progress will always be seduced by the magical charm of "change" because the progressive god promises that "change" is always for the better. The irony inherent in these calls for "change" is that they play on the discontentment of those who are the beneficiaries of centuries of "change". If "change" is beneficially progressive why are we always discontented regardless of the numerous "changes" that we have experienced?

Ultimately progress must be measured against the ideal, the goal, to which we as individuals or as a society are striving. If the ideal to which we are striving is holiness, we can be said to be progressing towards the ideal to the degree that we live more virtuously. Thus we can speak of making progress in our spiritual life. If we forsake such an ideal in the interests of self-gratification, we have to radically change our understanding of progress; it is no longer connected to a growth in virtue but to the gratification of selfish desire. Any progress made in the direction of the first ideal will ipso facto be an act of regression with regard to the other, and vice versa.

...was economics.  Of course, Chesterton didn't understand it either.  While we can all appreciate the "holiness" involved in giving away everything you have to the poor and living as an ascetic, an economy based on this model would obviously be a disaster for all concerned.  In reality, the capitalist economic system and social welfare systems we've developed have not only elminated poverty for the former have-nots but made life easier for the haves.  

God/Christ was not unconcerned with lessening the hardship and suffering of the poor.  Has the progress we've made in doing so really not been holy? not been progress?  It seems an asinine argument to make.

Posted by orrinj at 11:54 AM


Posted by orrinj at 11:47 AM


Are You Overpaying for Name-Brand Drugs When Generics Would Be Just as Effective? (Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber, 12/10/13, Pacific Standard)

We talked to dozens of experts for our report on how Medicare is wasting hundreds of millions of dollars a year by failing to look into doctors who disproportionately prescribe name-brand drugs. They struggled to explain why some doctors wouldn't routinely pick cheaper generics.

Name-brand drugs are appropriate in certain circumstances, they said: when there are no equivalent generics, when patients have side effects, or if they are particularly sensitive to slight changes in a drug's composition. But these factors should apply to only a small fraction of cases, they said.

...a sugar pill would be the best alternative.

Posted by orrinj at 11:43 AM


Ex-IDF chief: Israel prefers that Assad stay in power (SPENCER HO, December 11, 2013, Times of Israel)

Israel would prefer that Bashar Assad hold onto the presidency in Syria, rather than leave a power vacuum that could be filled by Islamic radicals, according to former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz.

"The regime in Syriak kills it's citizens every day, but we must acknowledge that the opposition in Syria is composed of Muslim extremists like al-Qaeda," he said at a fundraising event in Moscow on Monday, according to the Israel daily Ma'ariv. 

Posted by orrinj at 11:41 AM


Reflections on the Iran nuclear deal (Ismael Hossein-zadeh, 12/11/13,  Asia Times Online)

The underlying logic for the Iran nuclear negotiations was and continues to be preposterous: on one side of the negotiating table sat major nuclear powers who are all in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires them to have either dismantled or drastically reduced their nuclear arsenal; on the other side, an NPT- compliant country that neither possesses nor pursues nuclear weapons - a fact that is testified to both by the US and Israeli intelligence agencies. 

In an ironically perverse way, the culprits have assumed the role of the police, the prosecutor and the judge, shamelessly persecuting and prosecuting the innocent for no other reason than trying to exercise its NPT-granted right to peaceful nuclear technology. 

This obviously means that Iran is essentially negotiating under duress. Largely shut out of normal international trade, and constantly threatened by economic strangulation, it is essentially negotiating with a bullet to its head. As an astute observer of the negotiations has pointed out, "Iran voluntarily agreed to the [nuclear] deal the same way that a robbery victim voluntarily agrees to give up valuable possessions" to save his or her life [1]. 

To reach the interim deal, the Iranian negotiators agreed to a number of concessions with very little reciprocity in terms of relief from sanctions. These included: limiting its enrichment of uranium to only 3-5% purity, from the current level of 20% purity; rendering unusable its existing stockpile of 20% fuel for further enrichment; not using its more advanced IR-M2 centrifuges for enrichment; not activating its heavy-water reactor in Arak; and consenting to highly intrusive inspections. 

This means that under the deal, the Iranian negotiators have agreed to more than freezing Iran's nuclear technology; perhaps more importantly, they have reversed and rolled back significant scientific achievements and technological breakthroughs of recent years. One can imagine the feeling of disappointment (and perhaps betrayal) on the part of the many dedicated scientists, engineers and technicians who worked so hard to bring about such scientific advances; only to see them dishonored or degraded by reversing and freezing them at a much lower level. 

In return for these significant concessions, the US and its allies would agree: to unfreeze less-than 7 billion dollars of Iran's nearly 100 billion dollars of oil revenue frozen in bank accounts overseas; to consider easing sanctions banning trade in precious metals, petrochemicals and auto industry; and to suspend the EU and US sanctions on insurance and transportation services for the drastically reduced sale of Iran's oil. 

The most crippling sanctions on Iran's oil and banks, which served as the financial facilitators of international trade, would remain intact under the proposed interim deal. 

Threat to Iran's sovereignty

A careful reading of the interim agreement reveals that the Iranian negotiators gave up more than scaling down and freezing their country's nuclear technology and/or knowledge. More importantly, if implemented, the deal effectively places Iran's nuclear program (through IAEA) under total control of the United States and its allies. This is no speculation; it follows from the interim deal's vastly invasive inspections regime...

Until Iran is governed as democratically as we think it should be, we will determine how much sovereignty the regime has.

Posted by orrinj at 11:36 AM


Budget Deal Asks New Feds to Contribute More to Pensions (Kellie Lunney December 10, 2013, Government Executive)

New federal employees and military retirees would have to contribute more to their pensions under the bipartisan deal the congressional budget conference committee unveiled Tuesday evening.

Federal workers hired on or after Jan. 1, 2014, with less than five years of service would have to pay 4.4 percent toward their defined retirement benefit -- 1.3 percent more than the current 3.1 percent that employees hired after 2012 contribute.

Military retirees under the age of 62 would see a decrease, phased-in over the next two years, to the calculation of their cost-of-living adjustment, equal to inflation minus 1 percent. "This change would be gradually phased in, with no change for the current year, a 0.25 percent decrease in December 2014, and a 0.5 percent decrease in December 2015," according to a summary of the deal. The change would not affect service members who retired because of injury or disability.

The proposal also caps the amount the government can reimburse contractors for executive compensation at $487,000. The current cap is more than $900,000.

The deal requires new civilian federal workers and military retirees to contribute $12 billion in savings overall -- $6 billion from each group -- to help partially repeal the sequester for fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015. That $12 billion figure is part of the total proposed $63 billion in savings to offset the automatic spending cuts for two years.

A typical bipartisan Third Way reform..

December 10, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:36 PM


Details Of The Ryan-Murphy Budget Deal Reveal GOP Holds The Winning Hand (Rick Ungar, 12/10/13, Forbes)

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc) and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Oregon) have reached a two-year budget agreement guaranteed to make most Republicans and Democrats unhappy--with Democrats taking the bigger hit.

In the "good news" column, Democrats will not suffer any cuts to entitlements and there will be no tax increases to spoil Christmas for Republicans.

On the bad news side of the lever for the GOP, spending in 2014 will be about $45 billion more than what it would have been had this deal not been negotiated with the GOP also failing to accomplish any of the changes to Social Security and Medicare they so deeply desired.

The Democrats take a licking in a number of areas, including the denial of an extension to long-term unemployment benefits, no new taxes, no provision to delay the SGR cuts to physician Medicare payment rates, the requirement that federal employees will have to make a larger contribution to their pensions and the continuation of a large percentage of sequestration cuts.

Posted by orrinj at 5:55 PM


Americans Continue to Regain Lost Wealth (NEIL SHAH, Dec. 9, 2013, WSJ)

The stage could be set for stronger economic growth next year, as a surging stock market and run-up in home values have helped Americans recoup nearly all the wealth they lost in the recession.

The net worth of U.S. households and nonprofit organizations--the values of homes, stocks and other assets minus debts and other liabilities--rose 2.6%, or about $1.9 trillion, in the third quarter of 2013 to $77.3 trillion, the highest on record, according to the Federal Reserve.

Of course, we'd be doing even better if bank bailouts had been built around retiring mortgages.

Posted by orrinj at 5:52 PM


Why America's new love affair with saving is not great economic news (John Aziz, 12/10/13, The Week)

Now, there's no doubt that everyone should have some liquid savings as insurance against the uncertainty of the future, although the historical record illustrates that investing money in productive companies tends to have a much, much higher yield than sitting on it in a savings account, certificate of deposit, or money market fund.

At our annual benefits enrollmenbt meeting it was revealed that only one employee had their HSA money invested instead of saved.

Individuals can't be left to control such accounts.

Posted by orrinj at 5:47 PM


Environmentalists Who Oppose GM Crops Are Unscientific And Dangerous (THE ECONOMIST, DEC. 10, 2013)

In August, environmentalists in the Philippines vandalized a field of Golden Rice, an experimental grain whose genes had been modified to carry beta-carotene, a chemical precursor of vitamin A.

Golden Rice is not produced by a corporate behemoth but by the public sector. Its seeds will be handed out free to farmers. The aim is to improve the health of children in poor countries by reducing vitamin A deficiency, which contributes to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and cases of blindness each year.

Environmentalists claim that these sorts of actions are justified because genetically modified (GM) crops pose health risks. Now the main ground for those claims has crumbled.

Last year a paper was published in a respected journal, Food and Chemical Toxicology. It found unusual rates of tumors and deaths in rats that had been fed upon a variety of maize resistant to a herbicide called Roundup, as a result of genetic modification by Monsanto, an American plant-science firm. Other studies found no such effects, but this one enabled campaigners to make a health-and-safety argument against GM crops--one persuasive enough to influence governments. After the study appeared, Russia suspended imports of the grain in question. Kenya banned all GM crops. And the French prime minister said that if the results were confirmed he would press for a Europe-wide ban on the GM maize.

But the methodology of the study, by Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen and colleagues, was widely criticized and, on November 28th, the journal retracted the paper (see "GM maize, health and the Séralini affair: Smelling a rat"). There is now no serious scientific evidence that GM crops do any harm to the health of human beings.

There is plenty of evidence, though, that they benefit the health of the planet. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:35 PM


More Bureaucrats, Fewer Jets and Ships : More than half of our active-duty servicemen and women serve in offices on staffs. (JOHN LEHMAN, Dec. 9, 2013, WSJ)

Although current U.S. spending on defense adjusted for inflation has been higher than at the height of the Reagan administration, it has been producing less than half of the forces and capabilities of those years. [...]

There is one great numerical advantage the U.S. has against potential adversaries, however. That is the size of our defense bureaucracy. While the fighting forces have steadily shrunk by more than half since the early 1990s, the civilian and uniformed bureaucracy has more than doubled. According to the latest figures, there are currently more than 1,500,000 full-time civilian employees in the Defense Department--800,000 civil servants and 700,000 contract employees. Today, more than half of our active-duty servicemen and women serve in offices on staffs. The number of various Joint Task Force staffs, for instance, has grown since 1987 from seven to more than 250, according to the Defense Business Board.

The constant growth of the bureaucracy has resulted from reform initiatives from Congress and by executive order, each of which established a new office or expanded an existing one. These new layers have accumulated every year since the founding of the Department of Defense in 1947. Unlike private businesses--disciplined by the market--which require constant pruning and overhead reduction to stay profitable, each expansion of the bureaucracy is, to paraphrase President Reagan, the nearest thing to eternal life to be found on earth.

The Pentagon, like Marley's ghost, must drag this ever-growing burden of chains without relief. As a result something close to paralysis is approaching. The suffocating bloat of overstaffing in an overly centralized web of bureaucracies drives runaway cost growth in weapons systems great and small. Whereas the immensely complex Polaris missile and submarine system took four years from a draft requirement until its first operational patrol in February 1960, today the average time for all weapons procured under Defense Department acquisition regulations is 22 years.

Posted by orrinj at 5:32 PM



We asked demographer Wendell Cox to crunch the latest demographic data for us to determine where people have moved by age cohort from 2007 to 2012. The data reveals the obvious: People do not maintain the same preferences all their lives; their needs change as they get older, have children and, finally, retire. Each stage leads them toward somewhat different geographies.

As it turns out, the vast majority of young people in their late teens and 20s - over 80 percent -- live outside core cities. Roughly 38 percent of young Americans live in suburban areas, while another 45 percent live outside the largest metropolitan areas, mostly in smaller metro areas.

To be sure, core urban areas do attract the young more than other age cohorts. Among people aged 15 to 29 in 2007, there is a clear movement to the core cities five years later in 2012 -- roughly a net gain of 2 million. However, that's only 3 percent of the more than 60 million people in this age group.

Surprisingly, most of this movement to the urban centers comes not from suburbs, but from outside the largest metro areas, reflecting the movement of people from areas with perhaps lower economic opportunity. It also is likely reflective of the intrinsic appeal of metro areas to younger, single people, as well as the presence of many major universities and colleges in older "legacy cities."

Here's how the geography of aging works. People are most likely to move to the core cities in their early 20s, but this migration peters out as people enter the end of that often tumultuous decade. By their 30s, they move increasingly to the suburbs, as well as outside the major metropolitan areas (the 52 metropolitan areas with a population over 1,000,000 in 2010).

This pattern breaks with the conventional wisdom but dovetails with research conducted by Frank Magid and Associates that finds that millennials prefer suburbs long-term as "their ideal place to live" by a margin of 2 to 1 over cities.

Based on past patterns, by the time people enter their 50s, the entire gain to the core cities that builds up in the 20s all but dissipates, as more people move to suburbs and to outside the largest metropolitan areas.

Posted by orrinj at 5:27 PM


Is Singapore Western Intelligence's sixth eye in Asia? (Murray Hunter, DECEMBER 09, 2013, Malaysia Times)

The largely Anglophile Singapore is an anomaly in Southeast Asia. It has staunch connections with the US and Israel, and a network of varied corporate interests all around the world. [...]

In particular, Indonesia is very concerned that Singapore has been colluding with Australia and the United States with spying activities within Indonesia, recently calling the Singapore Ambassador to Jakarta for an explanation.

The majority of Indonesia's international telephone and internet traffic is routed through Singapore, which leaves the country very vulnerable to Singapore's SIGINT programmes.

Singapore has extensive military links with other nations of the "Western block" with air force squadrons based in France, the United States, and Australia. These relationships are also firmly embedded in the intelligence arena.

The Singapore Special Branch, was the forerunner to the Security Intelligence Division under the Ministry of Defence (SID) and Internal Security Division (ISD) under the Home Ministry.

The Special Branch was set up by the British, and later Singaporean operatives were trained by Australians who operated the old Kranji SIGINT listening post, before its closure in 1974. Due to historical reasons, both the SID and ISD have a strong anti-communist culture.

The role of the SID is to gather and analyse intelligence related to the national security of Singapore. The SID has an external focus and undertakes clandestine activities like it did in supplying weapons to anti-communist fighters in Cambodia during the 1980s.

December 9, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 2:13 PM


GM, Chrysler federal bailouts were net economic gain, report argues (Jerry Hirsch, December 9, 2013, LA Times)

The Center for Automotive Research, a Michigan nonprofit organization that analyzes auto industry issues, said Monday that the U.S. government will lose about $13.7 billion on its bailout of GM and Chrysler Group.

But the think tank said those funds "saved or avoided the loss of $105.3 billion in transfer payments and the loss of personal and social insurance tax collections -- or 768% of the net investment."

Additionally, the center said the bailouts and financial restructurings saved about 2.6 million jobs in the U.S. economy in 2009 and $284.4 billion in personal income over 2009 and 2010.

In a presidency that hardly lacked achievements, perhaps W's greatest was teaching us how to avoid a Depression.

December 8, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:57 AM

Best Gifts for Bread Bakers (Renee Pottle, 12/05/13, Mother Earth News)

Rock Maple Rolling Pin from King Arthur Flour, $42.95. As with many things, old-time bakers knew best - maple is the way to go. Forget plastic or silicone rolling pins, nothing works nearly as well as a maple pin. It's heavy enough to roll out even the most developed dough, but light enough that the kids can use it. Plus, maple is nearly indestructible, so those kids may be using this family heirloom while baking with their own kids someday.

Maple Rolling Pin

Brotform from King Arthur Flour, $29.95. You know those beautiful, round, artisan loaves pictured in almost every bakery ad? We home baker want to make those too. This is how, with a brotform. Dough goes into the brotform to rise, and then is gently flipped onto a stone or sheet to bake. Voila! Beautiful, artisan made bread from the home oven. Are you listening Santa? This has been on my list for two years now.

EuroEuropean Style Artisan Bread Flourpean Style Artisan Bread Flour from King Arthur Flour, $7.95. Many people might think a bag of flour is a pretty lame gift, but not the bread bakers on your list. This isn't just any flour, it's the same flour used to make true French baguettes or Italian bread. No, I don't mean the loaves found at the local grocery store for $0.99, I mean true European breads. Unless your bread baker lives in a major city, or [Norwich], Vermont, home of King Arthur Flour, it's nearly impossible to find this flour locally. If you are looking for a truly unique gift, this is it.

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Posted by orrinj at 7:55 AM


Large Companies Prepared to Pay Price on Carbon (CORAL DAVENPORT, 12/05/13, NY Times)

Mainstream economists have long agreed that putting a price on carbon pollution is the most effective way to fight global warming. The idea is fairly simple: if industry must pay to spew the carbon pollution that scientists say is the chief cause of global warming, the costs will be passed on to consumers in higher prices for gasoline and electricity. Those high prices are expected to drive the market away from fossil fuels like oil and coal, and toward low-carbon renewable sources of energy.

Past efforts to enact a carbon price in Washington have failed largely because powerful fossil-fuel groups financed campaigns against lawmakers who supported a carbon tax.

In 1994, dozens of Democratic lawmakers lost their jobs after Al Gore, who was vice president at the time, urged them to vote for a climate change bill that would have effectively taxed carbon pollution. In 2009, President Obama urged House Democrats to vote for a cap-and-trade bill that would have required companies whose carbon-dioxide emissions exceeded set levels to buy emissions rights from those who emitted less. The next year, Tea Party groups spent millions to successfully unseat members who voted for the bill.

But ExxonMobil, which last year was ranked by the Fortune 500 as the nation's most profitable company, is representative of Big Oil's slow evolution on climate change policy. A decade ago, the company was known for contributing to research organizations that questioned the science of climate change. In 2010, ExxonMobil purchased a company that produces natural gas, which creates less carbon pollution than oil or coal.

ExxonMobil is now the nation's biggest natural gas producer, meaning that it will stand to profit in a future in which a price is placed on carbon emissions. Coal, which produces twice the carbon pollution of natural gas, would be a loser. Today, ExxonMobil openly acknowledges that carbon pollution from fossil fuels contributes to climate change.

"Ultimately, we think the government will take action through a myriad of policies that will raise the prices and reduce demand" of carbon-polluting fossil fuels, said Alan Jeffers, an ExxonMobil spokesman.

Internally, ExxonMobil now plans its financial future with the expectation that eventually carbon pollution will be priced at about $60 a ton, which Mr. Jeffers acknowledged was at odds with some of the company's Republican friends.

"We're going to say and do what's in the best interest of our shareholders," he said. "We won't always be on the same page."

Posted by orrinj at 7:34 AM


Bungling the Easy Stuff : Hospitals are still overcharging the poor. Obamacare was supposed to fix that too. What went wrong? (Steven Brill, Dec. 16, 2013, TIME)

Under Section 9007, the only step left to enforce the law was for the Treasury Secretary or his designees at the IRS to issue specific regulations instructing hospitals like Yale--New Haven how to comply. Without the instructions, the hospitals have nothing to comply with.

Then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, or current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, could have written the regulations with his staff the day after the law was signed, and there is nothing John Boehner or Ted Cruz could have done about it. After posting the rules in the Federal Register and a brief comment period, the regulations would have taken effect.

Instead, the rules were not drafted and published in the Federal Register until June 26, 2012--more than two years after Obamacare was passed. And that was just an initial draft called "Proposed Regulations." The American Hospital Association then complained--no surprise--that the drafted rules were too prescriptive.

Nothing has happened since. No final rules have been issued. So there are still no restraints on hospital bill collections or chargemaster charges for the neediest patients.

Asked what happened to the regulations, Assistant Treasury Secretary for Tax Policy Mark Mazur, who oversees the IRS and is the Administration's point man for tax issues related to Obamacare, said, "These things take time. It's something we're actively working on." Did the nearly four-year delay have anything to do with the Administration's need for the hospitals to help in the rollout of Obamacare by encouraging and assisting patients to enroll? "No," said Mazur, a highly regarded veteran tax-policy expert. "We're working as fast as we can, and we can't and don't look at political implications."

"We have not changed our financial assistance policies because Yale--New Haven Health has a long established, robust financial-aid policy," said Vincent Petrini, a spokesman for Yale--New Haven Hospital. He was referring to policies that he described when I was writing "Bitter Pill"--and which didn't help Emilia Gilbert in 2008 or Jeremy Kopylec in October. "Lawsuits are extremely rare," he added. "They are all still individually approved by our management oversight committee and are considered a last resort."

A docket search of Connecticut superior courts reveals 34 collection cases filed this year through November by Yale--New Haven. As with Kopylec's suit, they all seem to be for bills based on chargemaster rates, but I cannot know for sure. Other cases may have been filed in other courts.

Only a sliver of these cases ever result in suits; most result in consumers paying up before they are finally sued, after they have been hounded by enough threatening letters or phone calls (and after their credit ratings have been torpedoed).

Since Obamacare was signed into law, there have been more than 3.5 million personal bankruptcies filed in the U.S. Some 60%, or more than 2 million, are estimated to have involved medical debt as a key factor. So the delay in writing these regulations has likely had an enormous toll in bankruptcy filings and in damaged credit ratings.

Posted by orrinj at 7:27 AM


An effective eye drug is available for $50. But many doctors choose a $2,000 alternative. (Peter Whoriskey and Dan Keating, December 7, 2013, Washington Post)

The two drugs have been declared equivalently miraculous. Tested side by side in six major trials, both prevent blindness in a common old-age affliction. Biologically, they are cousins. They're even made by the same company.

But one holds a clear price advantage.

Avastin costs about $50 per injection.

Lucentis costs about $2,000 per injection.

Doctors choose the more expensive drug more than half a million times every year, a choice that costs the Medicare program, the largest single customer, an extra $1 billion or more annually.

Spending that much may make little sense for a country burdened by ever-rising health bills, but as is often the case in American health care, there is a certain economic logic: Doctors and drugmakers profit when more-costly treatments are adopted.

I don't care which my insurance company pays for.  I do care how much I have to transfer from my HSA.

Posted by orrinj at 7:21 AM


Get set for the rise of the machines (Jonah Goldberg, December 6, 2013, NY Post)

On Tuesday, the day before Obama called for an increase in the minimum wage, the restaurant chain Applebee's announced that it will install iPad-like tablets at every table. Chili's already made this move earlier this year.

With these consoles customers will be able to order their meals and pay their checks without dealing with a waiter or waitress. Both companies insist that they won't be changing their staffing levels, but if you've read any science fiction, you know that's what the masterminds of every robot takeover say: "We're here to help. We're not a threat."

But the fact is, the tablets are a threat. In 2011, Annie Lowrey wrote about the burgeoning tablet-as-waiter business. She focused on a startup firm called E La Carte, which makes a table tablet called Presto. "Each console goes for $100 per month. If a restaurant serves meals eight hours a day, seven days a week, it works out to 42 cents per hour per table -- making the Presto cheaper than even the very cheapest waiter. Moreover, no manager needs to train it, replace it if it quits, or offer it sick days. And it doesn't forget to take off the cheese, walk off for 20 minutes, or accidentally offend with small talk, either."

Applebee's is using the Presto. Are we really supposed to believe that the chain will keep thousands of redundant human staffers on the payroll forever?

People don't go into business to create jobs; they go into business to make money. Labor is a cost. The more expensive labor is, the more attractive nonhuman replacements for labor become. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:18 AM


Al-Qaeda: Death to Shi'ites for 'Damaging Mohammed's Legacy' (Dalit Halevi, Tova Dvorin, 12/8/2013, Arutz Sheva)

A video has surfaced from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria advocating the systemic genocide of Shi'ite Muslims for allegedly "damaging Mohammed's legacy" in perpetrating their beliefs. 

Posted by orrinj at 6:55 AM


The True Cost of a Higher Minimum Wage  (ZACHARY KARABELL, DEC 7 2013, Atlantic)

There is growing income inequality in the United States, which has accelerated in the past few decades. Wages for labor have flattened while capital has flourished. As Goldman Sachs chief executive officer Lloyd Blankfein recently remarked, "This country does a great job of creating wealth, but not a great of distributing it." And he would know. The top 10 percent of earners in the United States have gone from constituting a third of all income in the U.S. in the 1970s to half today. The top 1 percent accounts for 20 percent of the nation's wealth.

Meanwhile, the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is actually much less than it appears, relative to the past. In 1996, the minimum wage was $4.75 an hour. Today's $7.25 is only a few cents above that, when adjusted for inflation, and both minimum wages were significantly below the equivalent wage in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Today's lower minimum wage has contributed to the rise in inequality over the past thirty years.

What's not clear, however, is whether mandating a higher wage will do anything to change that. Nearly 20 states have a higher minimum wage than the federal rate. That means that the federal law has little effect in wide swaths of the country. What's more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 5 percent of all workers are paid at or less than the current minimum wage. Thus, increasing it will make precious little difference in most people's lives.

As Mr. Blankfein suggests, market wages help us to create wealth.  Rather than endanger wealth creation with mandatory wage hikes, just redistribute the wealth more effiectively once it's created, as universal HSAs and O'Neill and personal SS accounts would do, making even the poor into part of that flourishing capitalist class.

Posted by orrinj at 6:51 AM


Slowly They Modernize: A Federal Agency That Still Uses Floppy Disks (JADA F. SMITH, December 6, 2013, NY Times)

Now government infrastructure experts are hoping that public embarrassments like the debacle will prompt a closer look at the government's technological prowess, especially if it might mean getting rid of floppy disks.

"You've got this antiquated system that still works but is not nearly as efficient as it could be," said Stan Soloway, chief executive of the Professional Services Council, which represents more than 370 government contractors. "Companies that work with the government, whether longstanding or newcomers, are all hamstrung by the same limitations."

The use of floppy disks peaked in American homes and offices in the mid-1990s, and modern computers do not even accommodate them anymore. But The Federal Register continues to accept them, in part because legal and security requirements have yet to be updated, but mostly because the wheels of government grind ever slowly.

Davita Vance-Cooks, the head of the Government Printing Office, which prints The Federal Register and publishes it online, spoke at a congressional hearing on Wednesday about her department's attempts to make its work remain relevant in a post-print world. Despite creating mobile apps, The Federal Register still requires agencies to submit information on paper, with original signatures, though they can create a digital signature via a secured email system.

Agencies are also permitted to submit the documents on CD-ROMs and floppy disks, but not on flash drives or SD cards. "The Federal Register Act says that an agency has to submit the original and two duplicate originals or two certified copies," said Amy P. Bunk, The Federal Register's director of legal affairs and policy. As long as an agency does that through one of the approved methods of transmission, she said, "they've met the statutory requirement."

But the secure email system -- which uses software called Public Key Infrastructure technology -- is expensive, and some government agencies have not yet upgraded to it. As a result, some agencies still scan documents on to a computer and save them on floppy disks. The disks are then sent by courier to the register.

December 7, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:23 AM

60 in '14:

Republicans on 2010 pace in House generic vote -- at least momentarily (MICHAEL BARONE, DECEMBER 6, 2013, RCP)

The current RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows Republicans leading Democrats 43 percent to 41 percent (they actually put it at 43.5 percent to 41 percent, but I prefer to round off to integer percentages and always round the .5 percentages down). I went back to RealClearPolitics' 2010 figures to see how they compared. The answer is that if you average the most recent results available at this stage of the 2010 cycle (using just the most recent result from Rasmussen Reports, which asks the question most frequently, and omitting polls that were in the field on Dec. 6), you find Republicans trailing Democrats 43 percent to 45 percent (43.4 percent to 45 percent, to include the tenths).

Republicans ended up winning the popular vote for the House 52 percent to 45 percent in November 2010, so an initial comparison suggests they are on track to do better in 2014. But I see reasons for caution in reaching such a conclusion. 

Posted by orrinj at 10:21 AM


Telework Boosts Volunteerism (American Interest, 4/03/13)

Looking to get involved in your community? Try teleworking. A new study shows that people are 44 percent more likely to regularly volunteer if they have flexible work arrangements, like flexible schedules and the option to work remotely. The Canadian government released a report yesterday (h/t Globe and Mail) that looks at the link between flexible work arrangements and volunteering. Here are some highlights:

Among full-time workers with flexible work conditions, that is, those who can choose their start and finish times and who work at home at least occasionally, 26% volunteered on a regular basis. The corresponding number for those with fixed working schedules and who did not work at home was 18%.

Commuting time also affected the likelihood of being a regular volunteer. Among full-time workers who took 45 minutes or more to get to work, 15% were regular volunteers. For those whose commute was 30 minutes or less, the rate was 21%.

Posted by orrinj at 9:56 AM


Carlos Beltran as Evidence of the Changing Market (Dave Cameron, December 6, 2013, FanGraphs)

In the winter of 2011, Carlos Beltran hit free agency. He was heading into his age-35 season, but he was also coming off a pretty great walk-year, as he posted a 152 wRC+ in 598 plate appearances, the best single season wRC+ of his career. Even with declining defensive skills and a sub-par UZR rating, he still racked up +4.3 WAR, 15th best in baseball among outfielders. And, because of a clause inserted in his contract, the Giants were not allowed to offer him arbitration, so he hit the market as a no compensation free agent.

And he got 2 years and $26 million. Heath Bell got $27 million that winter -- granted, it was for three years instead of two -- but the market still gave Heath Bell more guaranteed money than Carlos Beltran two off-seasons ago. Since then, two teams have paid to get rid of Heath Bell, and I think it's fair to say that the market missed on that deal. But the market also clearly missed on Beltran that winter, as he was one of the most productive hitters signed that off-season and got a fraction of what the premier free agents were landing. That wasn't a recessionary winter; that was the winter that saw Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder land deals for over $200 million apiece and $100+ million commitments for both Yu Darvish and Jose Reyes.

Now, Beltran is two years older, and heading into his age-37 season. His new walk year wRC+ is 132, still very good, but not at the level he was at the last time he went into free agency. His defense has continued to decline, and now his walk-year WAR is just +2.0. Still, the Cardinals made him a qualifying offer, so this time around, any team signing him would have to forfeit a draft pick in order to do so.

Two years older. Not as good of a player as he was. Compensation attached. This time, 3 years and $45 million. [...]

But enough of Beltran as a sign of baseball's riches. Let's at least spend a paragraph or two talking about Beltran as a player, and now, Beltran as a Yankee. Pretty much every projection I've seen for 2014 has him as a roughly league average player. Carlos Beltran, as great as his career has been, is probably currently overrated. It's not that average players don't have value, but they probably shouldn't cost $15 million a year for three years, plus the loss of a draft pick, especially for their age 37-39 seasons.

As a part-time OF/part-time DH, Beltran can still help a contender, and probably help them for the next two years, though I wouldn't be so sure about year three. But $15 million a year for an above average hitter/below average defender combo pack? When guys like David Murphy, David DeJesus, and Nate McLouth are all signing for around 2/$11M?

Posted by orrinj at 9:39 AM


Football: A Waste of Taxpayers' Money : Why are we subsidizing such a hugely profitable sport? (Nick Gillespie, Dec. 06, 2013, TIME)

It's just not right when governments shovel tax dollars at favored companies or special interests, even when those firms are called, say, the Minnesota Vikings or the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers University. The NFL's Vikings are lousy at scoring touchdowns - they have the worst record in the NFC North - but they've proven remarkably adept in shaking down Minnesotans for free money. Next year they'll be playing ball in a brand-spanking new $975 million complex in downtown Minneapolis, more than half of whose cost is being picked up by state and local taxpayers. Over the 30-year life of the project, the public share of costs will come to $678 million. The team will pay about $13 million a year to use the stadium, but since it gets virtually all revenue from parking, food, luxury boxes, naming rights, and more, it should be able to cover that tab. Not that the Vikings were ever hard up for money: Forbes values the franchise at nearly $800 million and the team's principal owner, Zygi Wilf, is worth a cool $310 million. When the Minnesota legislature signed off on its stadium deal for the Vikings, the state was facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit. Priorities, priorities.

The Vikings deal isn't the exception, it's the rule. It might even be kind of a bargain. The Atlanta Falcons, owned by a billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, are getting a $1.2 billion pleasure dome built with hundreds of millions of tax dollars. The team gets to sell seat licenses and naming fees and keeps all revenue generated by the facility. In The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America, Gregg Easterbrook writes that public dollars have covered about "87 percent of the total capital cost of NFL stadia" even though there is zero reason to believe that publicly funded sports facilities ever pay back their costs by increasing overall economic activity or putting more tax revenue in government coffers.

At the college level, the subsidies take different forms but are just as misguided. In a recent interview, Easterbrook told me that Rutgers' athletics programs get a subsidy from the university of about $29 million a year, the lion's share of which goes to the Scarlet Knights football team. As the flagship state university of New Jersey, that money is not only coming out of tuition and fees paid by students but out of the pockets of Garden State taxpayers.

As with NFL stadium deals, such lavish, publicly financed gifts are the norm for college football.

Mr. Easterbrook's most recent book, The King of Sports, was somewhat poignant as his attempt to extoll a sport he loved turned into an attack on its funding and the indifference to things like head injuries.  Ultimately, he ended up having to talk about Frank Beemer and his Virginia Tech program precisely because they're anomolies.

Posted by orrinj at 8:33 AM


Back in the Cold War, when navies still mattered, we allowed three of our allies to treat domestic populations in a manner we would not have allowed in peace time : the Brits, in Ireland; the Israelis in Palestine; and the Boers in South Africa.  We bore the oppressed peoples no animus and our relations with our allies suffered some level of strain because of their actions, but we largely turned a blind eye rather than risk allowing the Soviets entree to three naval choke-points.

Inevitably, as soon as it became apparent that we'd won the Cold War we began bringing pressure to bear on these three allies top rectify the respective situations, which they promptly did--to one degree or another.  Gerry Adams, Yassir Arafat and Nelson Mandela thus became the beneficiaries of events that they were rather secondary to and they handled their good fortune with different degrees of class, from some to none.

Obviously Nelson Mandela is the giant of this triumvirate.  And he does deserve credit for not seeking reprisals against the Afrikaaners when he assumed power.  But those were two dang low bars to clear and an appalingly minimal threshold for secular sainthood.  One strains to see any way in which he used his personal freedom and the empowerment of his people to help ameliorate the suffering of other peopls mired in dictatorship.  His own continent offered no end of regimes that deserve toppling as much or more than the white South African government did, yet where was he?  

Indeed, given the opportunity to join the West in deposing one of the most brutal dictators of the era, he instead sided with Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi people.  In the end, he was a "small man" who handled a big moment about as well as could have been hoped.  To pretend he was anything more is to engage in what a big-hearted man once called "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Mandela's death marks a time of reckoning for South Africa's ANC (Anne Applebaum, December 6, 2013, Washington Post)

Without Mandela, the ANC can no longer pretend to be a party, as he once put it, with a "noble cause": It is simply the party of power. Although South African democracy is extraordinarily healthy in many senses -- its media, judiciary and civil society function well -- ANC candidates have until now won most national and regional elections by enormous margins. That means that people join the party in large numbers to get jobs, to get contracts, to get ahead.

In this narrow sense, the ANC now functions like the Chinese Communist Party: The most important political debates in South Africa take place within its ranks and at its congresses. Actual electoral contests matter much less. The consequences of 20 years of mostly one-party rule are the same for South Africa as they are in China: ANC-owned companies enjoy privileged access to state contracts; ANC politicians have been involved in complex cases of corruption; businesses often succeed or fail because of their political contacts and not because of their merit. Without real political competition, ANC politicians are not motivated to reform a state that doles out patronage to black insiders, just as the apartheid state once reserved its jobs and contracts for whites. 

The longer walk to equality (The Economist, Dec 6th 2013)

Under its own majority rule, the lot of the ever-growing black population--today forming over three-quarters of the national total--has been notably poor. Misguided governance, low-quality education, skills shortages and massive unemployment levels of around 40% have left it more disadvantaged today than when Nelson Mandela was still behind bars. Black income has virtually flat-lined, betraying tremendous gulfs between the wealth of the different racial groups. Sadly, the nation Mandela leaves behind today remains one of the most unequal in the world.

Posted by orrinj at 8:31 AM


Historic 'first': Deal struck at WTO summit to boost global trade (Dessianing Ariyanti, 12/07/13,The Associated Press)

A deal to boost global trade has been approved by the World Trade Organization's 159 member economies for the first time in nearly two decades, keeping alive the possibility that a broader agreement to create a level playing field for rich and poor countries can be reached in the future.

WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo shed tears during the summit's closing ceremony Saturday as he thanked host nation Indonesia and his wife.

"For the first time in history, the WTO has finally delivered" on large scale negotiations, he said.

Trade ministers had come to the four-day WTO meeting on the resort island of Bali with little hope that an agreement would be reached.

Posted by orrinj at 8:25 AM


The Myth of America's Great Stagnation : Why there's hope for long-term growth--if we invest in it. (MICHAEL LIND, December 06, 2013, Politico)

GDP growth is driven principally by two factors: labor-force growth, due to increases in population and labor force participation, and productivity growth, the ability to produce more goods and services using the same number of workers or fewer, due to innovative technology or organization. Demographic trends, without a doubt, are putting the first factor in danger, with population growth and labor-force participation both in long-term decline. [...]

If the United States is to reverse, or at least mitigate, slowing growth, productivity might be our best hope. The contribution of labor-force growth to GDP growth has plummeted, from 46 percent in the 1960s to less than 20 percent beginning in the 2000s, according to the McKinsey Global Institute--which means productivity, in comparison, now accounts for 80 percent of that growth. In other words, growth of the American economy in the future will depend not on adding masses of people to the workforce but almost entirely on improvements in how much we can produce and how quickly. [...]

But who's to say there aren't 21st-century versions of the steam engine that are yet to come--or already here? As the economic historian Joel Mokyr has written, "Technology has not finished its work; it has barely started." Indeed, the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, who coined the phrase "creative destruction," argued nearly a century ago that technological progress goes through stages, in which there is often a lag between the invention of a transformative "general-purpose technology" and the uses that are eventually found for it. Decades, for example, elapsed between James Watt's development of the steam engine in the late 18th century and the perfection of railroads and steamboats that could open previously impassable continental interiors in the United States and elsewhere.

Today, the personal computer and the iPhone are often considered the most transformational innovations in modern information technology. But other innovations that build on these devices--for instance, the self-driving automobiles pioneered by Google and Amazon's experiments with drone deliveries--might yet transform the way we live, work and shop even more dramatically than the desktop computer. The application of IT to manufacturing is responsible for 3-D printing and other kinds of advanced, do-it-yourself manufacturing that have vast, and still uncertain, implications for society, government and the economy.

Meanwhile, a fourth industrial revolution may be in its gestation--poised to yield a whole new set of innovations like nothing we've seen before. In laboratories and factories around the world, researchers are experimenting with new materials, molecular-level assembly and biotech--including "in vitro meat," food grown in labs from stem cells. Because many of these technologies are not ready for primetime, overly optimistic investors have been disappointed so far in their limited availability. But similar complaints about the slow pace of computerization were heard in the 1970s and 1980s--right before Bill Gates and Steve Jobs came along and brought us the personal computing revolution.

Folks are, not surprisingly, having tremendous difficulty processing the realty that whereas the two factors rode in tandem for thousands of years they now stand in opposition to one another. Productivity is the enemy of employment and vice versa.  We can either have more wealth of more jobs.

Joel Mokyr on Growth, Innovation, and Stagnation (Hosted by Russ Roberts, 11/25/13, EconTalk)

Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the future of the American economy. Mokyr rejects the claims that the we are entering an area of stagnation or permanently lower economic growth. He argues that measured growth understates the impact on human welfare. Many of the most important discoveries are new products that are often poorly measured and not reflected in measures such as gross domestic product or income. The conversation closes with a discussion of the downsides of technology and why Mokyr remains optimistic about the future.

Posted by orrinj at 8:07 AM


In Tehran, Rouhani defends nuclear deal (ALI AKBAR DAREINI, December 7, 2013, AP)

A strict sanction regime leveled by Western powers on Iran over its disputed nuclear program has taken an immense toll on the nation's economy, and Rouhani was elected in a landslide earlier this year with the expectation that he would quickly fix the economic malaise. At times, he has tried to frame the debate over the nuclear deal in economic terms, stressing the boost it would give to the economy.

"Centrifuges should spin. But the life of people and the economy also need to spin," he added. "Without economic might, our national might won't be enhanced."

Economists blamed Iran's economic malaise on a combination of sanctions and mismanagement under Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Rouhani has vowed to revive the economy through better management at home and constructive interaction with the outside world.

His speech was interrupted by chants of "moderation, reforms" from supporters and "Death to America" from hard-line students who attended the speech. Rouhani paused for seconds when supporters called for the release of opposition leaders while opponents demanded their execution.

"We need domestic unanimity and consensus to reach our goals. So, we should increase our tolerance," Rouhani said with a smile. "If we can't resolve a domestic issue through rationality and unanimity, how can we resolve the complicated regional and global issues?"

Posted by orrinj at 8:01 AM


Saudi Arabia - Israel's New BFF? (Joshua Cohen, 12/06/13, Times of Israel)

Given the fact that both the Saudis and Israelis are a) worried about the effects of the nuclear deal the US has cut with Iran; and b) see the Iranian regime as their greatest adversary, does this mean that there is scope for an alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia?

The short answer is that it depends on what is meant by "alliance". If we are talking about a formal treaty  - with Bibi and King Fahd exchanging cheek kisses - than the answer is no. Alliances like that between the US and the UK or the US and Israel are built not just on shifting definitions of national interests, but on a deep and enduring sense of shared values and history. Needless to say, this is not the type of relationship Israel and the Saudis share.

If only that were the case, but what unites them is the shared value and history of opposing popular sovereignty in the Middle East.

December 5, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 5:55 PM


House, Senate Negotiators Near Deal on Trade Powers (DAMIAN PALETTA And WILLIAM MAULDIN, Dec. 5, 2013, WSJ)

House and Senate negotiators are close to a deal on legislation that could streamline the Obama administration's efforts to finalize trade agreements with other countries, people familiar with the process said.

A final deal had not been reached as of late Thursday, but senior lawmakers from the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee were close to a package, according to people with knowledge of the talks. A bipartisan deal on the measure could help the Obama administration finish negotiating and pass a trade agreement with 11 Asia-Pacific countries next year.

Lawmakers are looking to renew "trade promotion authority," or TPA, a form of legislation that helps the U.S. negotiate and approve trade agreements. The timing is important because U.S. officials are seeking to clinch the Asia-Pacific trade deal as soon as this month, with meetings scheduled over the weekend in Singapore. The most recent version of TPA, frequently known as "fast track," expired in 2007, just after the Bush administration finished negotiating a free-trade agreement with South Korea. [...]

Many Democrats have been opposed to renewing TPA, saying that it would cede too much power to the White House and limit lawmakers' ability to weigh in on agreements that could affect businesses and workers in their states. Meanwhile, some conservative Republicans are also skeptical of granting the Obama administration additional powers used in complicated agreements overseas.

Posted by orrinj at 4:53 PM


Can France Halt Its Decline? (Milton Ezrati | December 5, 2013, National Interest)

Talk of reform has put French economic policy back into the headlines and brought much skepticism, too. Enthusiasm would be well warranted were Paris truly to lift its outsized business tax burdens, stultifying labor regulations, and constraining product rules. That kind of reform would head off the grim economic and financial future otherwise facing France, including a loss of influence within the European Union (EU) and the prospect of finding itself numbered among Europe's beleaguered periphery. Sadly though, recent talk of reform sounds neither sincere enough nor sufficiently broad-based to address France's deep-seated problems.

Posted by orrinj at 4:51 PM


Iran acting to allow closer monitoring of nuclear program (FREDRIK DAHL, Dec 5, 2013, Reuters) 

U.N. inspectors are to visit an Iranian plant on Sunday linked to a planned heavy-water reactor that could yield nuclear bomb fuel, taking up an initial gesture by Iran to open its disputed nuclear program up to greater scrutiny.

The increased transparency is one of the various spin-offs from a dramatic diplomatic rapprochement over the past month highlighted by a deal Iran struck with six world powers to curb its nuclear program in return for some easing of sanctions.

It will be the first time in more than two years that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is allowed to go to the Arak heavy-water production plant, which is designed to supply a research reactor under construction nearby.

Posted by orrinj at 4:18 PM


 Iran's president in storm over #PersianGulf tweet (BBC Trending, 12/04/13)

The Gulf. The Persian Gulf. The Arabian Gulf. What's in a name? A lot, if social media is anything to go by. These are all terms used to describe the body of water between Iran and the Arabian peninsula. When a tweet went out on Saturday from an account believed to be that of the Iranian president saying he had arrived in the "#PersianGulf port of #Asaluyeh" it did not go unnoticed in the Arab world. "Arabian Gulf Mr President!" chided one. "It is still called ARABIAN GULF, Sir," tweeted another. Iranians were quick to respond, citing a UN panel of experts - which in 2006 concluded that the term "Persian Gulf" should be used, based on its long history in maps and written records.

Posted by orrinj at 4:14 PM


Oldest Known Early Human DNA Recovered (Ross Pomeroy, December 4, 2013, Real Clear Science)

The most famous site at Atapuerca, Sima de los Huesos -- "The Pit of Bones" -- is precisely that. Located at the bottom of a 43-foot chimney in the winding cave system of Cueva Mayor, it contains approximately 5,500 ancient human bones dated at over 350,000 years old! Now, drawing upon this piled wealth of history, Matthias Meyer, a lead researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and a team of colleagues have recovered and analyzed the earliest known human DNA. [...]

After sequencing 98% of the mitochondrial DNA genome, Meyer and his colleagues estimated the specimen's age using the length of the DNA branch as a proxy. The femur clocked in at around 400,000 years old, placing its former owner in the Middle Pleistocene and making the DNA by far and away oldest human DNA ever collected. The previous record belonged to 100,000-year-old Neanderthal DNA.

The team then attempted to determine the specimen's position in the ancient human family tree and were surprised to find that the owner did not share a common ancestor with Neanderthals, but instead with Denisovans, a mysterious subspecies of human discovered in 2008 that last shared an ancestor with Neanderthals and Homo sapiens about one million years ago. Indeed, the more scientists discover about our prehistoric ancestors, the further they seem to fall down Alice's Rabbit Hole. Things just get curiouser and curiouser.

Meyer presented three possibilities that could account for the team's unexpected findings.*

"First, the Sima de los Huesos hominins may be closely related to the ancestors of Denisovans."

"Second, it is possible that the Sima de los Huesos hominins represent a group distinct from both Neanderthals and Denisovans that later perhaps contributed the mtDNA to Denisovans."

"Third, the Sima de los Huesos hominins may be related to the population ancestral to both Neanderthals and Denisovans."

December 4, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:05 PM


An Economists' Oscar Wilde : a review of  THE MEMOIRS OF WALTER BAGEHOT By Frank Prochaska (Martin Walker, Wilson Quarterly)

It is indeed remarkable to consider the many modern tropes Bagehot addressed in the years of Queen Victoria's reign. In weighing the controversies over the single European currency, there are few better places to start than the preface of his 1869 book A Universal Money, in which he suggested that a good idea in theory may in practice bring unexpected calamities.  In the current debate over the widening gap between rich and poor, it's worth remembering Bagehot's observation that "in truth, poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell. One half of the world, according to the saying, do not know how the other half lives. Accordingly, nothing is so rare in fiction as a good delineation of the poor. Though perpetually with us in reality, we rarely meet them in our reading." (A curious comment, this, from one who greatly admired George Eliot and visited her regularly in St. John's Wood, where they would discuss the money markets and the pain she felt in composing her novels.)

In today's discussions about the balance between personal freedom and national security, Bagehot again sets the tone: "So long as war is the main business of nations, temporary despotism--despotism during the campaign--is indispensable." Bagehot even has something useful to say regarding the recent arguments between atheists and believers: "The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were invaluable at first, and deadly afterwards."

Bagehot's epigrams rival even those of Oscar Wilde. One of my favorites, and a word to the wise for those of us who earn our livings from our pens, is his dry observation that "the reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything." Wilde himself would have been proud to concoct Bagehot's observation that "it is good to be without vices, but it is not good to be without temptations." And when it comes to relations between the sexes, I cannot decide which of Bagehot's gems I prefer. "Men who do not make advances to women are apt to become victims to women who make advances to them" is a classic. But how can one resist "A man's mother is his misfortune, but his wife is his fault"? [...]

The tragedy is that Bagehot, in the vast range of his writings, left no autobiography. But that lacuna has been splendidly filled by an American scholar of Britain, Frank Prochaska, who has taught at Yale and at Oxford, where he was a visiting fellow at All Souls College. He has written on the British monarchy, and on women and philanthropy and Christianity in Victorian England, and has immersed himself so deeply in the life and times of Bagehot that the man's voice appears to be speaking to us eerily from the grave.

Posted by orrinj at 6:33 PM


Dems now party of women (Juan Williams - 12/02/13, The Hill)

As the 2014 midterm election season begins, the Democratic Party is in full bloom as the political home of the modern American woman.

Unless she's married--then she doesn't need the state for a husband,

Posted by orrinj at 6:31 PM


Why the military is becoming a lean, green fighting machine (Eugene K. Chow, December 2, 2013, The Week)

Between 2003 and 2007, over 3,000 American soldiers were killed during fuel supply convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan. Put another way: One in 24 fuel convoys resulted in an American death.

The experience of those wars taught the military a brutal lesson: Its dependence on oil is deadly and - with the cost of delivering gas to remote regions of Afghanistan at $400 a gallon -- financially unsustainable.

So in response, the Pentagon is going green.

It's a practical reaction to battlefield conditions: Less fuel consumption means fighter jets can stay in the air longer, fewer fuel convoys in Afghanistan that can be attacked, and lower overall costs as budgets shrink and the price of oil continues to rise.

Take the Marines, for instance.

Once skeptical of renewable energy, Marines on the front lines of Afghanistan have become some of solar power's greatest proponents.

Marines have widely deployed several solar panel systems, including a small, pack-carried panel that can charge radio batteries, a solar tarp that fits over a tent to power lighting systems, and a larger ground unit that can power four computers at a time.

In addition, by using solar chargers to power equipment at night, the Marines don't have to run noisy generators, which reveal their position to the enemy. The solar panels are also light and highly compact. With the ability to recharge batteries on the go, Marines can forgo packing spares and carry more ammo and other critical supplies.

At forward operating bases, these chargers have reduced generator fuel consumption from 20 gallons a day to 2.5 gallons a day, which in turn has reduced the number of fuel convoys, which are prime targets for insurgents and IEDs.

Posted by orrinj at 6:23 PM


Why Does Economy Grow More Under Democratic Presidents? (DAVID WESSEL, 12/03/13, WSJ)

Professors Blinder and Watson identify three factors that stand out statistically in their attempt to explain why the economy does better with a Democratic presidents. Together they account for somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of the growth gap:

- Oil price shocks explain between one-eighth and one-fourth of the Democrat-Republican difference in growth rates, and tend to occur when Republicans are in the White House. They don't blame President Richard Nixon for the first OPEC oil shock or President Jimmy Carter for the second, but suggest that George H.W. Bush's Gulf War and George W. Bush's Iraq war were policy decisions that affected oil prices.

- Surges in productivity, or output per hour, account for about one-quarter of the gap. "As with oil shocks, we consider them as mainly reflecting luck," they say.

- Swings in consumer confidence explain about a quarter of the Democrat-Republican gap between 1962 (when the University of Michigan's survey data begins) and 2013. This, they say, "comes tantalizingly close to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which consumers correctly expect the economy to do better, and make that happen by purchasing more consumer durables. But direct measures showing increasing optimism after Democrats are elected are hard to find."

December 3, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:16 PM


CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX 2013 (Transparency International)(
Posted by orrinj at 3:27 PM


The French Connection : How the Revolution, and two thinkers, bequeathed us 'right' and 'left.' (Gertrude Himmelfarb, December 9, 2013, Weekly Standard)

Hard cases, it is said, make bad law. So, too, extreme situations make bad policy and worse philosophy. The French Revolution was just such a situation; compared with the French, the English and American revolutions are almost unworthy of the title of revolution. No one took the measure of the extremity of that revolution better than its contemporaries Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. And nobody drew the most far-reaching, antithetical, and enduring political and philosophical lessons from that revolution.

"The Great Debate" between Burke and Paine, Yuval Levin demonstrates, has persisted to this day in the form of the great divide between right and left. Levin is uniquely qualified to deal with both the political and philosophical aspects of that debate, then and now. As a writer, editor, and former policy staffer in the White House (where he dealt with such "wonkish" issues, he explains, as health care, entitlements, and the budget), he is himself a combatant in that debate. He is also a credentialed political philosopher, having earned his doctorate from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. It is a formidable task Levin has set himself: to appreciate not only the exigencies and complexities of that historic moment (sometimes obscured by the passionate rhetoric of the protagonists), but also the underlying philosophical assumptions that drove the debate and continue to inspire it today.

Edmund Burke does not make that task easy. On the contrary, he almost defies it. He made no secret of his contempt for "metaphysicians." "I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions," he wrote in his defense of the American Revolution. "I hate the very sound of them." Twenty years later, the French revolutionaries provoked him even more: "Nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thoroughbred metaphysician. It comes nearer to the cold malignity of a wicked spirit than to the frailty and passion of a man."

Nor was it only philosophy in the formal "metaphysical" sense that he derided. On one occasion after another, he expressed his distrust of "principles" and "abstractions." "History is a preceptor of prudence, not of principles," he declared. 

Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.

The issue is complicated by the charge leveled against Burke, in his time and since, that he was inconsistent, most notably in his support of the American Revolution and condemnation of the French Revolution. Burke anticipated such criticism when he described himself, in the concluding words of his Reflections on the Revolution in France, as "one who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end." That did not satisfy Thomas Jefferson, who, upon reading the Reflections, remarked that "the Revolution in France does not astonish me so much as the revolution in Mr. Burke." Nor did it satisfy Thomas Paine, who opened the preface to Rights of Man by explaining that he had thought of Burke, the defender of the American Revolution, as "a friend to mankind," and, as their acquaintance had been founded on that ground, he would have found it "more agreeable .  .  . to continue in that opinion, than to change it." 

200-Year-Old Dispute Erupts Today in Battle Between Left and Right, But Beware of Burke (IRA STOLL,  December 2, 2013, NY Sun)

Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France" and his other writings also include some keepers: "What is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness..." And also: "The idea of forcing every thing to an artificial equality has something, at first view, very captivating in it."

However, "Those who attempt to level never equalize" -- the very attempt is a "monstrous fiction, which by inspiring false ideas and vain expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of laborious life serves only to aggravate and embitter that real inequality."

Americans just wanted their God-given rights as Englishmen.  The French wanted the state to force equality.  It doesn't seem that difficult to differentiate.

Posted by orrinj at 3:18 PM


Cost of Health Care Law Is Seen as Decreasing (ANNIE LOWREY, 12/03/13, NY Times)

Administration officials have pointed to falling hospital readmission rates as one strong sign that cost-control provisions in the Affordable Care Act are working. Also, they noted that a growing number of insurers and health care providers are agreeing to contracts that pay for the quality of care, rather than the quantity, another indication that the law's encouragement on that front is starting to pay dividends.

But those are responsible for only a tiny portion of the slowing rise of health care costs; other changes, like rising deductibles and copays that discourage some people from seeking extra services, play a bigger role, analysts say. Still, the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit research group, estimates that the weak economy accounts for as much as three-quarters of the slowdown in the growth of spending on health care.

But even if only about a quarter of the savings is because of noneconomic factors, said Larry Levitt, a top official at the Kaiser Family Foundation, "that's real change in the health system."

Posted by orrinj at 4:42 AM


UK revival leaves envious eurozone in shade (FT Reporters, 12/02/13, Financial Times)

The UK economic revival has taken almost everyone by surprise, confounding domestic and international forecasting groups. Having failed to predict the turn, most explain the sudden resurgence as a rebounding of confidence linked to the removal of previous impediments to growth, such as weak banks and fears of a eurozone crisis.

Some economists believe the UK will be the world's fastest growing developed economy over the next five years. This is a tempting prospect for foreign corporates and investors, but they are weighing up potential opportunities against the political uncertainty of an EU referendum, as the coalition government staggers from one populist measure to another.

In France, traditionally the third biggest source of foreign direct investment for the UK, Britain is regarded as a success story that casts an unflattering light on French malaise.

So austerity worked.

December 2, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:54 PM


Prize-nominated German scientists turn to alchemy to develop warm LED light (Deutsche-Welle, 12/02/13)

[A] German invention employing a luminescent material that imparts a warm tone to the light may now make LEDs more of a household item.

Peter Schmidt, who co-developed the invention in the labs of electronics company Philips, says the material is applied as a thin layer directly over the LED semiconductor.

"A portion of the blue light passes through this layer," says Schmidt, "but another portion is transformed into green and red light, with the help of this luminescent material."

The tone of light from the new LEDs appears to the human eye to be nearly the same as that from a conventional bulb, a halogen lamp or even a candle. But in contrast to these light sources, a LED is far more energy-efficient.

December 1, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:14 PM


Gulf widens between UK and EU nations: poll (The Local, 01 Dec 2013)

The survey showed that just 26 percent of Britons think the EU is a "good thing" overall compared with 62 percent of Poles, 55 percent of Germans and 36 percent of French.

But on the question of whether Britain is a "positive force" in the EU, only 9 percent of Germans, 15 percent of French and 33 percent of Poles agree.

Posted by orrinj at 6:26 PM


'Memories' pass between generations (James Gallagher, 12/01/13, BBC News)

Behaviour can be affected by events in previous generations which have been passed on through a form of genetic memory, animal studies suggest.

Experiments showed that a traumatic event could affect the DNA in sperm and alter the brains and behaviour of subsequent generations.

A Nature Neuroscience study shows mice trained to avoid a smell passed their aversion on to their "grandchildren".

Posted by orrinj at 2:33 PM


Israel's plan to forcibly resettle Negev Bedouins prompts global protests (Harriet Sherwood, 12/01/13, The Guardian)

Under the Prawer Plan, which is expected to pass into Israeli law by the end of the year, 35 "unrecognised" Bedouin villages will be demolished and between 40,000 and 70,000 people removed to government-designated towns. Israel says the proposal will bring benefits such as permanent housing and public services, but the majority of Bedouin says they do not want to give up their ancestral lands and way of life.

"We have been living here since before the creation of the state of Israel," Maqbul Saraya, 70, told Al Jazeera.

Posted by orrinj at 2:31 PM


OPEC Rift Emerging Over Iraq Output, Possible Return of Iran (BENOÎT FAUCON, SUMMER SAID and SARAH KENT, 11/29/13, WSJ)

Tensions are emerging within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries over which member countries should trim oil production to make room for a resurgence in Iraqi exports and the possible return of more Iranian crude to world markets if sanctions are eased.

Posted by orrinj at 2:27 PM


Which Corporate Taxation for America? (Laura Tyson, Eric Drabkin, Ken Serwin, 11/30/13, Project Syndicate)

The current US system is based on a worldwide principle: the foreign earnings of US companies are subject to US corporate tax, with the amount owed offset by a tax credit for taxes paid in foreign jurisdictions. Most other developed countries, by contrast, have adopted "territorial" systems that largely exempt their MNCs' foreign earnings from home-country taxation.

MNCs headquartered in countries that employ a worldwide tax system are at a disadvantage when they compete in third-country markets with MNCs headquartered in territorial systems. Whereas US MNCs must pay the high US corporate tax rate on profits earned by their affiliates in low-tax foreign locations, MNCs headquartered in territorial systems pay only the local tax rate on such profits.

For example, when a US firm and a firm headquartered in a territorial system compete in a country where the local tax rate is 17%, the foreign firm owes 17% of its profits in taxes to the local country, while the US firm owes 35% of its profits in taxes - 17% to the local country plus 18% to the US. That difference translates into a sizeable cost advantage that allows the foreign firm to charge lower prices and capture market share from its US counterpart.

Current US law attempts to offset this competitive disadvantage through deferral: US MNCs are allowed to defer - potentially indefinitely - payment of US corporate tax on their foreign earnings until the earnings are repatriated to their US parent firms. Not surprisingly, most US MNCs take advantage of the deferral option for at least some of their foreign earnings.

As a means of bringing back this estimated $1.7 trillion in foreign earnings, the Senate Finance Committee's draft proposals suggest the elimination of deferral. However, faced with the threat to their competitiveness that this would pose, many US MNCs would shift their headquarters to countries with lower corporate tax rates and territorial systems.

Tax consumption, not earnings.