But What For?

Writing about anything, as long as it's interesting


Writing about anything,

but what for?

For a break from the urgent

Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.

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Israel & Palestine: A Fairly Recent History (Part 2)


As was to be expected, the British immigration quotas were not viewed popularly by the Jewish population in Palestine. True to Rothschild’s warning above, Jewish refugees from Europe needed a place to escape, and while Britain did make some exceptions, the majority were cut off from immigration to Palestine.

This dynamic gave rise to anti-British movements and paramilitary/terrorist groups — such as the  Lehi, a group that spun out of one of the main Jewish militaries in Palestine (the  Haganah, which eventually became Israel’s military today, and the  Irgun were the two largest groups). More broadly, however, Palestine's Jews did their best to support Britain during the war, with  David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s future first Prime Minister, saying that the population must " assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and resist the White Paper as if there were no war ”. In fact, many Palestinian Jews served in the British army, especially in campaigns in Africa.

Meanwhile, the Arab populations in Palestine seemed to be split on whether or not to support the Allied or Axis Powers. While some Arabs also joined British forces, one of the key Palestinian Arab leaders, Amin al-Husayni, became close to the Nazis in Germany. Husayni went on to serve in the Nazi military in Bosnia and Yugoslavia, and he secured promises that the Nazis would eliminate the Jewish people in Palestine following an Axis victory.

Israel & Palestine: A Fairly Recent History (Part 1)


When I started this newsletter, I decided to stay away from current events.

There are enough sources of news that I thought focusing on historical stories that most people would never come across would be best. However, sometimes what is happening today could use historical context — and that is not always readily available.

For example - what should be done around the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? This is being widely debated. As I started to listen to impassioned speakers debate right and wrong, I found that I was often too ignorant to follow their logic, let alone provide any viewpoints of my own. I would be asked to voice an opinion — and all I could do was repeat the headline rhetoric I learned growing up in the central United States. These lines were almost entirely pro-Israel — and maybe that was fine, but I couldn’t tell you why it was right, if it was right.

We Only Ever Talk About the Third Attack on Pearl Harbor


It was a winter Sunday morning and the island of Oahu was asleep — its military at Pearl Harbor less alert than they might have been any other day of the week.

The winter trade winds blow steadily from the northeast against the Hawaiian island, rushing along and then up and over the 3,000-foot Koolau Range, with the moisture they carry being wrung out along the way. That moisture often forms into towering clouds, creating a dark wall of rain and weather.

An admiral intent on catching the U.S. military base unprepared was aware of this meteorological phenomenon. After all, it was the perfect natural cover in which attacking ships and planes could approach the island with little fear of being detected in time for a proper defense to be mounted.

Frederick Taylor Gates – Uncommon Common Sense


Gates was born in New York in 1853 and grew up neither poor nor rich. The son of a Baptist minister, he followed in his father's footsteps, completing seminary at Rochester University in 1880. From the ages of 27 to 34, he served as a pastor in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to a small congregation of “those made to feel unwelcome” at the larger churches of the city.

He was a hard-working and earnest man - known for his work ethic as much as for his devoted adherence to Baptist teachings. Innately, he was also an uncommonly curious individual, spending his free time reading about education, economics, finance, political science, and medicine through self-directed study. Thus, his small Baptist congregation was fortunate to have a well-educated, good-natured head of the church.

People noticed and would seek his advice from time to time. George Pillsbury - the patriarch of a wealthy local family - came to him with a rather large problem. Pillsbury was dying, and it had always been his intention to set up a Baptist institution of higher learning. He had just written into his will a gift of $200,000 (late-1800’s dollars) for such purposes, but he feared that the endowment would be misused and wasted. Could Gates think of a way to structure the gift to ensure success?

Simple Sabotage Field Manual – How to Destroy Your Organizations


Sabotage varies from highly technical coup de main acts that require detailed planning and the use of specially trained operatives, to innumnerable simple acts which the ordinary individual citizen-saboteur can perform. This paper is primarily concerned with the latter type….

Simple sabotage requires no destructive tools whatsoever and produces physical damage, if any, by highly indirect means. It is based on universal opportunities to make faulty decisions, to adopt a non-cooperative attitude, and to induce others to follow suit. Making a faulty decision may be simply a matter of placing tools in one spot instead of another. A non-cooperative attitude may involve nothing more than creating an unpleasant situation among one’s fellow workers, engaging in bickerings, or displaying surliness and stupidity.

This type of activity, sometimes referred to as the “human element," is frequently responsible for accidents, delays, and general obstruction even under normal conditions. The potential saboteur should discover what types of faulty decisions and cooperation are normally found in this kind of work and should then devise his sabotage so as to enlarge that “margin for error."

America’s Tradition of Murder Ballads & the Story of Omie Wise


Omie (actually, Naomi) Wise and her song-stated murderer, John Lewis, were actual people that lived in the early 1800s in and around Randolph Country, North Carolina - which was settled in the 1740s as immigrants moving south from Pennsylvania and west from the coast found themselves in what is now the heart of North Carolina. It was said that the County was made up of “on the one hand, men who distinguished themselves for vice, rapine and the most villainous of crimes; on the other hand, men who displayed the noblest virtues and highest patriotism.”

John Lewis’ grandfather, David Lewis, was one of the earliest settlers in Randolph County, and served as the patriarch of a line of “tall, broad, muscular and very powerful men… [that] sought occasions of quarrel as a Yankee does gold dust in California.” Richard, one of David’s sons, fled to a nearby county after killing his own brother, Stephen,  following a far too complicated story involving home invasions, a fleeing wife , and an odd court ruling stating that, despite the fact that Richard had snuck into Stephen’s home while he was in bed and shot him, Richard had acted in self-defense. It was in this nearby county that John Lewis was born.

Legend states that Noami was an orphan in Randolph County, bound as a child to Mr. and Mrs. Adams to work in their kitchen and garden. The Adams’ were said to be fond of the girl, who at the time of the story had just passed the age of 18. Accounts from the day point to an industrious, happy, and noticeably pretty young Naomi. As young people are wont to do, the two fell head-over-heels for each other.

Joseph Brodsky: Speech at the Stadium


Life is a game with many rules but no referee. One learns how to play it more by watching it than by consulting any book, including the Holy Book. Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose.

I am not totally oblivious to the pressures the so-called modern world exerts upon the young, I feel nostalgic for those who sat in your chairs a dozen or so years ago, because some of them at least could cite the Ten Commandments and still others even remembered the names of the Seven Deadly Sins. As to what they’ve done with that precious knowledge of theirs afterward, as to how they fared in the game, I have no idea. All I can hope for is that in the long run one is better off being guided by rules and taboos laid down by someone totally impalpable than by the penal code alone.

Since your run is most likely to be fairly long, and since being better off and having a decent world around you is what you presumably are after, you could do worse than to acquaint yourselves with those commandments and that list of sins. … But I am not here to extol the virtues of any particular creed or philosophy, nor do I relish, as so many seem to, the opportunity to snipe at the modern system of education or at you, its alleged victims. To begin with, I don’t perceive you as such. After all, in certain fields your knowledge is immeasurably superior to mine or anyone’s of my generation. I regard you as a bunch of young, reasonably egotistical souls on the eve of a very long journey. I shudder to contemplate its length, and I ask myself in what way I could possibly be of use to you. Do I know something about life that could be of help or consequence to you, and if I do, is there a way to pass this information on to you?

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O: Shel Silverstein’s Lesson on Self Reliance & Mentorship


For her first Christmas, my parents got my niece Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (apparently expectations are high for the six-month mark). I grew up reading its collection of poems, over and over. I even - to the horror of some of my readers, I am sure - used colored pencils (because I didn’t yet appreciate the waxy beauty of crayons) to color in some of Silverstein’s famous illustrations.

The gift sent me down memory lane. Re-reading a selection of those poems from all those years ago, I was struck by just how much more there is to much of Silverstein’s writing than his characteristic style and funny words.

Take the namesake of that book - Where the Sidewalk Ends - for example. As a child, reading the poem brought to me images of running out into a grassy field somewhere. And that is what Silverstein is writing about.

Charlie Munger: December 2020 CalTech Interview & Transcript


What happened was there were things I didn’t like about law practice, but I had an army of children to support and no family money or anything to start with. So I had to make my way in life for this army of children.

It was going to be a little difficult and there were things about law practice I saw that were quite limiting. And what happened was, my pitifully, small earnings as a young man, I kept underspending them. I kept investing fairly boldly and fairly smartly.

At the end of my first 13 years of practice, I had more liquid investments made than I’d made in all those years of law practice, pre-tax. I had done that in my spare time with these little, tiny sums. So it was natural for me, partly prompted by Warren Buffett’s success, to think I should just start working for myself instead of for other people. If I could do that in my spare time, I thought, well, what will happen if I do it full time?

David Foster Wallace: This is Water


Greetings parents and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches - the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.