But What For?

Because Anything Can Be Interesting


Writing about anything,

but what for?

For a break from the urgent

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

Latest stories

The Man in the Arena: Theodore Roosevelt’s Citizenship In A Republic


It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride of slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength.

Planning the Attack on Pearl Harbor


 The successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor  brought the United States into the war, but prevailing wisdom in Japan at the time said that the entrance was an inevitable eventuality. Many feared that a full-on attack by the United States had the potential to hobble Japanese war efforts elsewhere and even bring about a Japanese defeat. Thus, the attack was more of a desperate gamble to buy Japan time to secure a larger geography from which to extract natural resources and defend itself.

Japan’s strategy in the lead up to the December 7th attack was as impressive as the attack itself, providing a reminder that underestimating what you are up against, as the United States did with Japan at the time, can give the other side an advantage over you.

John Law and the Mississippi Bubble


People in Paris were getting rich — and they were getting rich fast. In fact, it was so hard to describe how rich everyone was becoming that a new word was needed and the term  “millionaire” was coined in 1719 .

The people of France could thank a Scotsman with a penchant for gambling, the printing of new paper money, and all the vast riches that surely would be found in the New World for their sudden wealth.

The Scotsman was John Law and his paper money and stories of the New World brought France much prosperity, for a time.

Born in 1671, Law grew up in Edinburgh in a well-to-do family, his father being a goldsmith with enough money  to buy a castle that the family would never live in  just to say that he had one. His father was also a financier/private banker, and at the age of 14, Law joined his father’s business. An innate aptitude for mathematics and an interest in studying economics led to him quickly picking up the principles of banking before his father died three years later. His mother took control over the business, and being a wealthy young man…

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?