For the Al: John Lasseter

November 1, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Deserve the Al Copeland Award? John Lasseter practically is the Al Copeland Award.

Improve the human condition? This man has not only reinvented movie animation technology, not to mention Hollywood’s business model. He has proven the superior power of the transcendent – the good, the true and the beautiful – in the marketplace of culture. He beat the purveyors of schlock, and he did it in the only way that really counts – by putting more asses in seats than they could. He didn’t defeat the schlockmeisters by shaming them, but by selling so many tickets that he ran them out of the marketplace. He proved that edifying culture can sell, which is another way of saying it can survive and sustain itself. He and the circle of people clustered around him are almost the only people left in Hollywood who know how to tell an edifying story, and they are literally the only people left who can tell an edifying story that appeals to everyone across all our cultural boundaries.

As I recently argued at some length, they are in the process of saving American civilization.


Courtesy of the Onion

There are basically two kinds of Al winners – inventor/entrepreneurs and champions of unpopular causes. They’re either David going up against Goliath, or they’re Elijah calling down fire on the lonely altar. Lasseter is both.

Inventor/entrepreneur? Lasseter dreamed for all his boyhood of working for Disney, and by some miracle he got himself chained to a drafting table deep in the bowels of the Disney dungeon, slaving away as the tenth assistant drawer of left pinkies . . . and then promptly got himself fired from his dream job for taking an interest in computer animation just at a moment when (unbeknownst to him) one of his superiors had decided the future lay elsewhere.

Perhaps because computers would eliminate people like him and elevate people like Lasseter? Can’t have that! Just like any good Al winner, John Lasseter saw the future, and he didn’t care whose cushy job was threatened by it.

So, cast out of the only company he ever wanted to work for, Lasseter chased down the future and seized it by the throat, and made it sing so loud and so beautifully that twenty years later, Disney came crawling back to him and begged him not just to come back, but to take over all their animated movie making, oversee design of all their theme park rides, and direct a good chunk of their other stuff to boot.


Mr. Incredible, second from the right, poses with some less impressive heroes

Now, all that would be Al-worthy if Lasseter’s innovations were merely technical. And it is hard, now, to remember that back in 1995 the thing that everyone thought was revolutionary about Toy Story was the technology.

But Lasseter’s innovation is as much the way his movie studio runs. He has figured out how to run a team of creative people in such a way that it not only produces material that is simultaneously artisitcally and commercially successful, but does so with sufficient regularity and reliability that you can pitch it to investors. He has taken the Muses to the bank.

And they really are the Muses. Lasseter and his people are not just “artistically and commercially successful.” They are bringing the transcendent things – the good, the true and the beautiful – back into the center of American culture.

Lasseter is as much a deserving Al winner as the champion of unpopular causes as he is so as an inventor/entrepreneur.

And what causes they are! If some have won the Al by standing up for this or that cause which is unpopular, but is nonetheless one of the keys to maintaining our justice, virtue and freedom as a people, Lasseter has stood up for just about all of the causes that are unpopular, but necessary for our justice, virtue and freedom:

  • Do not make your own happiness the aim of your life (Inside Out)
  • Love means putting other people’s needs ahead of yours (Frozen)
  • Accept your mortality (Toy Story 2)
  • Honor the superiority of exceptional talent (The Incredibles)
  • Manhood involves fatherhood (UP)
  • Womanhood involves motherhood (Brave)
  • Let your children take risks and grow up (Finding Nemo)
  • Don’t envy your brother (Toy Story)
  • Legitimate government rests on justice and popular consent (Toy Story 3)
  • Those who live for nothing but pleasure are fit for nothing but slavery (WALL-E)
  • Work your ass off, and be content with a family and your daily bread (Princess and the Frog)
  • Beauty transcends both nature and custom (Ratatouille)
  • Technology is for solving problems, not imposing your will on others (Big Hero 6)

No one else teaches these things and is listened to receptively by all sectors of society. Without this man, what hope would there be for these values in the long term? No, seriously, tell me. I’ll wait.

Two more Al-worthy accomplishments:

Lasseter is almost single-handedly responsible for the English language translation of the beautiful works of Hayao Miyazaki, who was practically unknown over here until Lasseter introduced us to him.


And Lasseter would be, if he won, the first Al winner to outdo the award’s illustrious namesake in tasteful shirts.


Lasseter owns over 1,000 Hawaiian shirts and wears one every day.

You can’t ask for a clearer avatar of the Spirit of Al Copeland!

Malcolm McLean for the Al

October 12, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

You may have never heard of American entrepreneur Malcolm Purcel McClean, but you have greatly benefited from his work.  The son of a North Carolina farmer, McLean went into the trucking business. One day watching the process of loading a shipment of cotton from trucks to a ship, he had a rather brilliant but simple idea:

I had to wait most of the day to deliver the bales, sitting there in my truck, watching stevedores load other cargo. It struck me that I was looking at a lot of wasted time and money. I watched them take each crate off a truck and slip it into a sling, which would then lift the crate into the hold of the ship. Once there, every sling had to be unloaded, and the cargo stowed properly. The thought occurred to me, as I waited around that day, that it would be easier to lift my trailer up and, without any of its contents being touched, put it on the ship.

Eventually this idea evolved into simply taking the box rather than the entire truck and box onto a ship. In 1955 McLean rolled the entrepreneurial dice, buying  two WWII era oil tankers and securing a loan to purchase $42 million worth of docking, shipbuilding, and repair facilities. He refitted the ships and designed trailers to go both below or on the decks of the ships. In April  26th, 1956 his first loaded ship successfully set forth from Port Newark, New Jersey, headed for Houston, Texas.

You knew there would be a Texas angle in this story right? In any case that date is now regarded as a historical marker in maritime history. When McLean passed away in 2001, his obituary noted that the sea transport of goods had not changed much between the time of the Phoenicians and 1956. McLean’s shipping containers enormously decreased the labor and the cost of shipping goods by sea. In 1956 it cost $5.86 per ton for longshoremen to load cargo- McLean’s technique reduced that cost to 16 cents per ton.

Memo to the Bernie Sanders/Pat Buchanan anti-trade Axis of Ignorance: an academic evaluation teased out the impact of containerization on the increase in world trade from that of tariff reductions. Containerization had a larger impact than free trade agreements, which means McLean deserves some of the credit for things like:





Like many successful entrepreneurs, the progress McLean brought determined enemies- especially among unionized dock workers. Oh if we could only forego all of this progress, especially for the poor, so that we could go back to having more dock workers, more expensive goods and more global poverty! In 1980 the United States Supreme Court ruled against dock worker unions who were exploiting antiquated provisions to get paid for work that no longer needed doing.

McLean died a successful but publicity shy man who made the world a much better place while making a fortune for himself that captured only the smallest fraction of the prosperity unleashed by his innovation.

Bonus- innovators in construction have begun using shipping containers to make buildings like:





Comptroller Declares Victory for Capitalism and Texas over Saudis in WSJ

September 1, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Glenn Hegar took to the pages of the WSJ to declare The Saudis Gambled and Texas Won:

What the Saudis and the naysayers closer to home seem to have forgotten is that the free market is the greatest incubator of technological innovation. Energy producers in this country have gauged the challenges of lower prices, are working to tackle them, and it’s paying off.

The technology behind shale production is advancing rapidly, and its costs are falling. Today the industry can tap multiple separate oil pools from a single vertical hole, drilling horizontally through miles of rock with computer-guided, steerable drill bits. Some of these “octopus” wells can feature as many as 18 horizontal shafts.

OPEC’s gamble to kill American innovation was a short-term strategy without an endgame, and no appreciation of how the strategy would spur greater efficiencies and innovation in the U.S. Call this a gentle reminder: It is never wise to bet against capitalism, especially in Texas.

George P. Mitchell continues to beat price fixers and klepto/petrocrats. This has the potential to be the biggest beat down since Herbert Dow drop kicked the European chemical cartel.

Now I have a Machine Gun Ho Ho Ho

April 27, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Must read article in the Financial Times The US Shale Revolution (how it changed the world and why nothing will ever be the same again). The Saudi attempt to wring excess supply from the market is not working in America, in large part because it simply has provided a powerful incentive for efficiency.

Oil producers praying for relief from low prices might take heart from the lost jobs and idled rigs in the US. But the American strengths that made the boom — entrepreneurial culture, depth of knowledge in oil and gas, innovation and supportive capital markets — are now being deployed to keep it alive. Recent history suggests it would be rash to bet against them.

“Look how far we’ve come since 2006,” says Russell Rankin of Statoil. “It’s incredible. So for us to think that we’re through with the technology . . . to say that that’s over is kind of idiotic . . . We’ll always come up with a solution.”

Thus far the U.S. rig count is down but production continues to climb as good ole fashioned American ingenuity extracts more oil from fewer drilling sites.  American drillers have been reportedly putting in new supply but not tapping it yet, waiting for a rebound in prices. Oh and then there is this little problem for OPEC:

Do you really think you have a chance against us Mr. Cowboy?

February 8, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The late great George P. Mitchell, winner of the Al Coleman Humanitarian Award among various lesser honors has joined the great rodeo in the sky but those who have taken up his legacy have a very interesting fight on their hands.

First of all, you may have noticed that gasoline prices have collapsed. The vast new supply of oil unleashed by Mitchell had a great deal to do with that, although the immediate precipitating event was a decision by OPEC not to attempt to restrict supply in order to keep up the price. By all accounts, the Saudis drove this decision, and explained it as desire to preserve their market share.

The OPEC cartel has had profound difficulties in the past in actually having members keep to their production targets. When the price of oil increases, so too does the incentive for members to cheat by producing over the caps. Historically Saudi Arabia has had vast production and relatively low extraction costs, giving it the role of swing producer.  In the mid 1980s depending upon which story you believe the Saudis tired of making up for the cheating of other OPEC members or wanted to bankrupt the Soviet Union or perhaps both. In any event, the oil market flooded, the price dropped to $9 a barrel. Stateside the Savings and Loan debacle unfolded and oil-producing states like Texas crashed Icarus-like to earth.

The price of oil tumbled after the OPEC decision, inspiring various theories. The Russians think that the Saudis are out to get them, the Iranians think the Saudis are out to get them, and the frackers also think the Saudis are out to get them.  Note however that these things are not mutually exclusive, and the Iranian theory seems more plausible than others to me. In any case, the general thinking was that all three of these competitors needed prices over $100 a barrel, and with their low extraction costs the Saudis were well situated to wring “excess supply” out of the market.

Good ole fashioned American innovation however thus far is winning the day.

No that is not a shot put, but rather a disintegrating frac ball, made of “electrolytic metallic nanoconstructed material.” It eliminates a step in the fracking process, and it was only one of a number of new drilling technologies discussed at a recent conference in the Woodlands in Houston (probably not coincidentally a property development project of George P. Mitchell). The article linked above discusses how American drillers are busy figuring out how to get more oil and gas out of already drilled wells. The number of new wells drilled in the United States has declined, but total production of oil and gas has not followed suit. Other interesting developments include the development of techniques without water, substituting CO2.

Now to be sure there are going to be some highly leveraged American oil firms who are going to go bust because of the decline in prices. Many of them have been through bankruptcy before, and you can expect them to see them back out in the fields soon. Anyone want to bet on OPEC welfare states displaying this same level of flexibility?

Place your bets- I’m all in on the high-tech wildcatters. Yippie kai yay!


Peter DeComo for Al Copeland Humanitarian

October 30, 2014


Jon David Sacker and Peter DeComo

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In the storied tradition of Herbert Dow and the inventors of the heatball, I am proud to nominate Peter DeComo for this year’s Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year.

DeComo is the chairman and CEO of ALung Technologies, which produces cutting-edge innovative medical technologies that save lives when lungs fail. Get this – ALung makes a gizmo called the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System, which can keep you alive without using your lungs long enough for doctors to perform a double lung transplant, including the time needed for your body to accept the new lungs and start using them.

Pretty awesome, huh? In a perfect world, that alone would be enough to qualify DeComo for public honors.

But we don’t live in a perfect world, and few people have seen that illustrated as starkly as Peter DeComo.

You see, the Hemolung is in active use, saving lives across Europe and Canada – but not in America, the land of its birth. This lifesaving device was invented here, but apparently “for export only,” as Mark Steyn put it. It’s not approved for use in the U.S.

But that didn’t stop Peter DeComo.

This February, Jon David Sacker was rushed to the University of Pittsburgh hospital after his body rejected the transplanted lungs he’d received two years earlier. The Hemolung was his only hope of survival. It was the Hemolung or the hearse for Sacker.

Pittsburgh happens to be the city where ALung manufactures the Hemolung. The University of Pittsburgh is the medical school where the Hemolung was invented. And there were no Hemolungs at the university hospital.

But that didn’t stop Peter DeComo.

The closest Hemolung fit for actual use was in a Canadian town on Lake Ontario. DeComo hopped in the car and personally drove north to the border crossing. He made the trip in the middle of the night, having gotten the first phone call at 11pm. He was met by Murray Beaton from the Canadian hospital, who had popped the device into his car and driven south to meet DeComo. They met and handed off the device in the dark on a tiny dirt road just north of the crossing, and DeComo headed back toward Pittsburgh and the desperately ill Sacker.

Whereupon the border guard informed DeComo that he was not allowed to bring the Hemolung into the U.S., because it was not approved for use there.

DeComo told him that a man’s life was at stake. No dice. Apparently the people who rule our country are perfectly willing to take “someone’s life is at stake” as a reason to actively help terrorists commit more murders and destroy our freedom, but not as a reason to let Jon David Sacker go on breathing.

But that didn’t stop Peter DeComo.

DeComo’s brilliant split-second thinking saved Sacker’s life. The Toronto Star relates the key moment:

Then he changed tactics. He said that he wasn’t really importing the device. Since it was an ALung product and he was ALung CEO, the Hemolung was his property and he was simply retrieving it.

“He closed his little cabin door,” DeComo said. “He made a call and he came out and said, ‘Okay you can go.’”

God bless Peter DeComo.

Are you ready for the kicker? Here it is:

Before they sped off, the border guard shouted out one last comment.

As DeComo recalls, he said: “Hey, let me tell you something. I would recommend that you keep some of that (expletive) on your shelves and next time, you won’t have to make that drive.”

I’m sure he’d love to. In the meantime, since I can’t give him a sane world, I will give him the next best thing: a nomination for Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year.

Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen for the Al

October 16, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So Scholasch and Payen are Frenchmen who are well on their way to revolutionizing the art of making wine, and perhaps agriculture more broadly. They however have faced years of reactionary opposition and general inertia in the wine making community. No good deed goes unpunished in this wicked world, but I for one hope that these two guys become incredibly wealthy and give their skeptics something to cry about through the best sort of revenge- living well.

Wired profiled Scholasch and Payen in 2012 in an article titled the Vine Nerds. Scholasch and Payen are French ex-pats who met in California. Scholasch had worked in vineyards in Napa, France and Chile and came to feel like a scientist trapped in a profession of artists. Scholasch had an unusual desire to improve the process of making wine, which apparently verges on the blasphemous in some circles. Techniques developed in 12th Century France represent the apex of agricultural technology you see, and anyone trying to update them is something of a public menace. A mutual friend introduced Scholasch to Payen, another French ex-pat. Payen holds a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley. As a graduate student Payen designed a novel micro-biosensor. They teamed up to form the Fruition Sciences company, which installs sap sensors to provide real-time data on crops, in this case grapes. The technology allows wine makers to give their vines just the right amount of water precisely when needed- a substantial improvement over tasting dirt, spitting it out, and irrigating fields early and (too) often.

You can read their bios here and how the process works here. Basically their process allows wine makers to make better wine while using only a fraction of the water typically employed.

Some wine makers gave Scholasch and Payen a shot, and became believers. From the Vine Nerds:

Austin Peterson, is one of Fruition’s most vocal supporters and attests to changes the sensor arrays can produce. ‘Before, irrigation management was basically done by our vineyard foreman looking at next week’s weather forecast and at leaves that were starting to fold or tendrils that were drying,’ Peterson says. ‘But visual cues can be misleading. As we started to see the data, it started to explain some things.’

Before becoming a convert, Peterson needed to see proof. In 2007 he divided Ovid’s 15-acre property in half, using the visual method on one side, sensors on the other. Following traditional visual cues led to a regimen of shallow irrigations, which required more water and resulted in unintended side effects, like shriveled grapes and elevated alcohol levels. It also may have helped slow the ripening process and delay the harvest, which is always risky in Northern California, where early autumn rains can destroy a crop in a matter of days. Meanwhile, data gathered from the sensors dictated a near-opposite approach: fewer, deeper irrigations, primarily later in the season. After two years, the result was substantial water savings and earlier harvests. For Peterson, the experiment shed light on how profoundly irrigation affects fruit quality as well as a wine’s flavors and bouquet. ‘It was like going from having an undergraduate degree in something to a PhD, where you have a deep understanding of why vines behave the way they do’ Peterson says. ‘As a winemaker, you understand different flavors. But now you start to understand why the differences exist.’

So it turns out that wine makers have been over-irrigating their vineyards in Napa for decades and producing lower rated wine as a result. One client interviewed by Wired stated that they had dropped their water use from 36-64 gallons per vine to 0-10 gallons. They reckoned this would save them 5.8 million gallons of water and produce better wine in the process. Project that out across California, and it gets to something like a potential savings of 9.1 billion gallons of water per growing season.

Did I mention that the Southwest United States is experiencing a huge drought? It looks something like this (color = bad, dark = worse):

Agricultural technologies that help you get by with less water might come in handy about now, especially in California. So you make much better use of an increasingly scarce resource to produce a better product. Better still, this technology is branching out beyond wine to increase the productivity of other sectors of agriculture. Scholasch and Payen are just two of the most recent entrepreneurs in a long line that have repeatedly thwarted Malthusians and neo-Malthusians through the driving force of voluntary exchange.

The process of updating agriculture sounds almost as frustrating as education reform. After an enthusiastic embrace of the technology by an expert in rice cultivation, Wired noted Scholasch’s reaction:

Scholasch lowers his eyes and shakes his head. ‘The first sap-flow sensors were tested in the ’80s. What we have in place was usable in the early ’90s—and look, it’s taken 20 years to start using it,’ he says, then gives a quick smile, betraying a glimmer of hope. ‘But it’s very rewarding to get recognition from peers you respect. It’s an accreditation.’

Hang in there guys- and remember the motto of the Economist “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” No one ever said it would be easy, but the difficulty of your struggle will only make your eventual triumph all the more flavorful- like your wine, it will get better with age.




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