We Will We Will FRACK You!!!

July 15, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The above gif is a 14 year time lapse, putting in tiny red dots for new oil wells (HT Mark J. Perry).  After watching this for a while, a few things spring to mind.

1. The motto of the University of Texas at Austin “We’re Texas. What Happens Here Changes the World” comes to mind.

2. Pennsylvania seems perfectly content to drill New York’s shale formation from just south of the border.  Memo to New York: fracking involves horizontal drilling, so you might want to rethink your ban.

3. Canada is just barely getting in on the action thus far, but western Canada has plenty of shale formations. So…

Hey you hosers! Don’t force us to sell our oil to China eh?

Just for the record I’d rather fill up my tank with gas refined from Canadian oil rather than line the pockets of various anti-American regimes. Pipelines please…

4. I have not heard much about Arkansas, but it looks like a boom going on in the north of the state (?)

Al Winner Al is Bringing It July 15th

June 26, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner) Amazon Prime just informed me that Al Copeland Humanitarian Award Winner Weird Al has a new cd coming out July 15th.  The internet refused to reveal the songs on the collection in a 30 second google search, but there are so many pop songs aching for parody now that Weird Al will likely be shooting fish in a barrel. Just in case no one else is going to suggest it, a Weird Al/Me First and the Gimme Gimmes team up would be totally awesome unless it was so awesome that it tore a rift in space-time, unleash cosmic parody forces beyond human comprehension or control, in which case it would be really TOTALLY AWESOME.

For the Al: Kickstarter

October 15, 2013


(Guest Post by Greg Forster)

Access to capital is essential for entrepreneurs. It doesn’t matter how good an idea you have, you can’t get it off the ground if people don’t fund it. Of course that means you have to convince investors, but persuasion is not the only variable. Legal, regulatory and financial systems have to exist that make it possible for people to invest.

On that front, things have been moving in the wrong direction for a while now. It’s harder and harder for an entrepreneur with a good idea to raise funding, because the systems are more and more choked up by regulations, exposure to frivolous litigation, and other barriers to entry.

In the spirit of one of my all-time favorite Al nominees, Herbert Dow, my nominee has found a clever way to exploit a loophole in the system and drive millions of dollars’ worth of entrepreneurial activity through it. In this particular case, the loophole is simple yet ingenious: “investment” is just about totally free if you don’t get equity in return. In four years, Kickstarter has moved $828 million from five million investors to 50,000 entrepreneurial projects.

All you have to do is call it “art.” Sure, there’s lots of legitimate art on KS – you can fund a dance performance, a film project, even a painting. But you can also fund the manufacture of ordinary products, as long as they’re just a tiny bit innovative or aesthetically pleasing. KS is drowning in desk accessories, bike accessories, clothing, you name it. There are tons of video games being made on KS, including some of the biggest creators in the business. Hobby board games are having a huge renaissance on KS – people are funding an amazing variety of new titles. Princess Bride fans should check out this officially licensed Princess Bride party game based on Indigo Montoya’s famous “you killed my father – prepare to die!” line. It’s basically an extremely clever adaptation of Apples to Apples.

But why would you want to invest in something if you don’t get equity? All kinds of reasons, actually. People aren’t motivated only by money. They have all kinds of reasons to want to see a product brought to market. I invested in Zack Braff’s new movie because I think it will be a force for cultural renewal. Other people invest in their friends’ projects or in art that they want to see produced because they enjoy it.

That having been said, most KS projects provide tangible rewards for backers. You can’t get your money back, but you can get an ROI in the form of a product. A lot of the stuff on KS is clearly just an alternative way of selling products – you pay in so much to help them manufacture widgets, and you get a widget as a reward. And if it’s not the kind of project that produces a tangible product, you can still get branded items or other swag that you might easily value at more than the cost of your investment (I’m getting a T-shirt from the Braff movie).

Take a look at UnderRepped Tees, which is using KS to fund the design and manufacture of t-shirts depicting “the forgotten people behind great ideas.” Somebody hire them to make a shirt of Al Copeland! Better yet, we could start a KS of our own and get all the JPGB readers who like The Al to kick in a few bucks to make them. Kick in enough, you get a shirt.

There are two things I really like about KS. One is that it cuts out a lot of useless middlemen who get in the way of entrepreneurs. The gatekeepers to mainstream investment can keep out anything that threatens the status quo too much. This has a particularly bad effect on cultural products like movies – the investors want to know they’ll get their money back, so every movie is now a carbon copy of every other movie. With KS, creators with unique visions can retain total control and get funded, if they can persuade people like me that it’s worth their investment.

The other thing I like about KS is that it runs on trust. In theory you can sue the people you invest in if they don’t deliver, but in practice that’s very difficult. Good! That means people have to decide whom they trust – they have the freedom to trust each other. People can prove they’re trustworthy, which they can only do if there’s no safety net. And reputations will matter.

Why give an entrepreneur The Al when we can give it to people who empower entrepreneurs?

Bill Knudsen for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award

October 7, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

For this year’s “Al” award, I nominate William S. Knudsen. Knudsen is a little known name these days, but he was not only an American success story and industrialist, but played an indispensible role in saving the world from totalitarianism.

We face our share of challenges these days, but they mostly look absurd self-made problems compared to those that previous generations stared down. In the 20th Century, totalitarianism posed an immediate existential threat to liberal democracy. One of the three greatest democracies, France, folded like a house of cards once the shooting started in the World War II. Shortly thereafter, another of the three, Great Britain, resorted to sending fishing boats to the shores of France to avoid complete annihilation of their forces.

The third great democracy, the United States, largely sat by in a self-absorbed stupor during the pre-war period, hoping not to get drawn into this conflict. Hope of course is not a plan. It is much to President Franklin Roosevelt’s credit that he began to cautiously plan for the great conflict to come in the teeth of fierce skepticism by the American public. The American military was a sad, underfunded joke at the time. Moreover, American industry was in disarray-not only due to the Great Depression but also to a series of public witch hunts against the weapon manufacturers conducted by Senator Harry Truman and others. American troops trained with cars for standing in for tanks, and many of the companies that might be capable of manufacturing real tanks had decided that it wasn’t worth the political heartburn. America’s military and supporting infrastructure, in short, was a complete mess.

As Arthur Herman lays out in his compelling history Freedom’s Forge, Bill Knudsen was the man President Roosevelt called to clean up the mess.

Knudsen was a Danish immigrant who worked his way up from the docks to become President of General Motors. Knudsen developed/perfected not one but two revolutionary improvements to the assembly line process during his automotive career, historically noteworthy in their own right-continuous mass production and flexible mass production.  Under Knudsen’s leadership, GM had decentralized production into competing product lines under the notion that decentralization would lead the way to innovation. It worked, and GM stole an ascendency in the automotive industry that it would not surrender until the late 1980s.

“Big Bill” was living the American dream when he received a call from President Roosevelt.”Knudsen? I want to see you in Washington. I want you to work on some production matters,” President Roosevelt told him. With that, Knudsen resigned from General Motors to take a position paying him $1 per year.  Knudsen had been a life-long Republican, and when his daughter asked why he decided to take the position in Washington, his answer was simple and direct “This country has been good to me. I want to pay it back.”

Big Bill could scarcely have imagined how difficult it would prove to pay his country back. In return for his enormous sacrifice in relinquishing his private sector position, Knudsen endured constant political and bureaucratic backstabbing. Roosevelt’s Washington sounds all too familiar in Herman’s telling-full of bright but overconfident people imagining that America would enormously benefit from enlightened central planning. Knudsen however understood from the outset that so great a task could only be accomplished with the willing, voluntary participation of American industry.

“Industry in the United States does more for the country in direct, or indirect, contributions to the public wealth than any other country on earth. And it will continue to do so if given the opportunity without restrictions,” Knudsen told a public audience. In private, he explained to President Roosevelt “The government can’t do it all. The more people we can get into this program, the more brains we can get into it, the better chance we will have to succeed.”

Knudsen fought hard to create voluntary participation of American industry through incentives rather than state coercion and control. The wisdom of this approach ultimately manifested itself in the greatest surge in industrial production in the history of mankind, but also in smaller ways. Along the way, for instance, American industrialists figured out that the Pentagon was too hidebound to reliably figure out what kind of weapons and material they wanted. Increasingly over time the manufacturers figured it out for themselves by competing to create the best products possible.

By the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States, Bill Knudsen had a very, very unpleasant surprise waiting for them. Knudsen had primed the industrial might and creative power of American industry to go to war against the Axis powers. Japan’s military leaders and Hitler’s Nazis obviously could have scarcely imagined what they were in for, but these regimes signed their death warrants when the decided to cross swords with the United States of America.

Bill Knudsen deserves as much credit for this remarkable turnaround as anyone, perhaps more.

The attacks Knudsen endured along the way simply made his ultimate vindication all the more sweet. Senator Truman compared his contracting out to Santa Claus leaving gifts under a Christmas tree, and Roosevelt ultimately fired Knudsen in a Machiavellian move to assuage criticism without even speaking to Knudsen in advance. It didn’t matter- Knudsen’s replacement discerned the wisdom of the Big Dane’s approach and carried on his policies, much to the chagrin of the New Dealers. Knudsen accepted a commission as a three star general in the War Department to head up purchasing-the highest rank ever granted to a civilian.

Herman wrote:

The New Dealers thought they had won. They were too late. America was indeed in production now, with 25,000 prime contractors and 120,000 subcontractors making products they had never dreamed of making, and thousands more to come. And nothing the people in Washington or the Axis could do now would stem the tide…In the first year after a production order, output was bound to triple; in the second it would jump by a factor of seven; at the end of the third year the only limits on output were material and labor-whether it was trucks or artillery pieces or bombs or planes.

Knudsen believed that American industry would generate its own spontaneous order to match the needs of wartime America, so long as the government was wise enough to create the necessary incentives. Herman notes that four days before Pearl Harbor Hitler had ordered German industry to start a program of “mass production on modern principles” (aka Knudsen principles) and put Albert Speer in charge of the effort with all of the central planning powers desired by the New Dealers, and more. Speer had the ability to decide which factory would produce what, could move labor around at will, controlled wages and prices and made extensive use of slave labor.

The result- total blowout in America’s favor. Herman explains:

What Speer lacked was Knudsen’s secret weapon: America’s prodigious industrial base built around free enterprise, which was now giving its full attention to war production…The German car industry, including the Opel factories the government had seized from General Motors, sat half-idle through the entire war. And constant meddling and changes of priorities by the German military ensured that time and energy and materials were lost in a limitless bureaucratic maze.

Meanwhile, American car manufacturers were building the war material which ensured Britain’s and then the Soviet Union’s tenuous survival against the Nazi onslaught before turning the tide completely and dispatching the “Thousand Year Reich” a few short years later. Nazis needed killing, and after that, Soviets needed containing (a second struggle for freedom in which President Truman redeemed himself) in order to make the world safe for self-determination.

Fortunately Bill Knudsen had waded through nearly brain-dead American politics at great personal sacrifice in order to equip American soldiers with everything they needed to get the job done. For this great service to humanity, the Big Dane gets not only a nomination for the Al, but also a heart-felt:


Al Winner George P. Mitchell Passes Away

July 29, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

George P. Mitchell, the Texas wildcatter who revolutionized global energy and (among other things) winner of the last Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, has died at age 94. Rest in Peace big guy- you done good.

Introducing “The Higgy”

November 28, 2012

William Higginbotham

As someone who was recognized in 2006 as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, I know a lot about the importance of awards highlighting people of significant accomplishment.  Here on JPGB we have the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, but I’ve noticed that “The Al” only recognizes people of positive accomplishment.  As Time Magazine has understood in naming Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Ayatullah Khomeini as Persons of the Year, accomplishments can be negative as well as positive.

(Then again, Time has also recognized some amazing individuals as Person of the Year, including Endangered Earth, The Computer, Twenty-Five and Under, and The Peacemakers, so I’m not sure we should be paying so much attention to what a soon-to-be-defunct magazine does.  But that’s a topic for another day when we want to talk about how schools are more likely to be named after manatees than George Washington.)

Where were we?  Oh yes.  It is important to recognize negative as well as positive accomplishment.  So I introduce “The Higgy,” an award named after William Higinbotham, as the mirror award to our well-established “Al.”

Just as Al Copeland was not without serious flaws as a person, William Higinbotham was not without his virtues.  Higinbotham did, after all  develop the first video game.  But Higinbotham dismissed the importance of that accomplishment and instead chose to be an arrogant prick by claiming that his true accomplishment was in helping found the Federation of American Scientists and working for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.  I highly doubt that the Federation or Higinbotham did a single thing that actually advanced nonproliferation, but they sure were smug about it.  Here, I think, is a video of one of their meetings:

I suspect that Al Copeland, by contrast, understood that he was a royal jerk.  And he also understood that developing a chain of spicy chicken restaurants really does improve the human condition.  Higinbotham’s failing was in mistaking self-righteous proclamations for actually making people’s lives better in a way that video games really do improve the human condition.

So, “The Higgy” will not identify the worst person in the world, just as “The Al” does not recognize the best.  Instead, “The Higgy” will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.

We will invite nominations for “The Higgy” in late March and will announce the winner, appropriately enough, on April 15.  Thanks to Greg for his suggestions in developing “The Higgy.”

The Anti-Al

November 25, 2012

We have now given 4 Al Copeland Humanitarian Awards to recognize people who have made significant contributions to improving the human condition.  I am wondering whether it is time we start giving Anti-Al Awards to recognize people who significant worsen the human condition.  Maybe shaming the bad is as important as praising the good.

The problem with an Anti-Al is that it may be too hard to narrow the field since so many people harm the human condition.  And unlike the Al, which heralds the unheralded, the likely candidates for an Anti-Al are so well known that there may be little point in recognizing them with awards.

The most obvious type of candidate for an Anti-Al would be the ruthless tyrants who rule over large portions of the globe.  But it is already widely understood that the likes of Kim Jong-un or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are awful people who, along with their armies, bureaucrats, and fellow-government thugs, crush liberty, tolerance, and prosperity.  Then again, even in civilized societies one will occasionally hear about the need to understand, engage, and work with ruthless tyrants.  These same advocates for engagement of ruthless dictators are also often the same people who find Chick-Fil-A or Walmart too morally objectionable to frequent.  Perhaps the Anti-Al is necessary to remind people to have an appropriate moral perspective.  The real threats to liberty, tolerance, and prosperity are the folks being feted at diplomatic receptions, not retailers with disputed employment practices or objectionable views.

If ruthless tyrants are too obvious for an Anti-Al, then perhaps the most likely category of candidates would be those afflicted with Petty Little Dictator Disorder.  These tiny tyrants who populate the middle levels of government agencies, think-tanks, and cocktail parties everywhere are certainly not already recognized for their corrosive effect on liberty, tolerance, and prosperity.  The greater difficulty with using an Anti-Al to highlight these detractors from the human condition would be: how could we possibly choose among them?  They are so numerous and parrot each others’ ideas so much that I can hardly tell them apart let alone choose to highlight only one of them.  They are like a herd of zebras — a blur of proposed regulations, laws, and mini-dictatorial fantasies — that the lion cannot identify one to take it down.

Maybe there are other categories of likely candidates for an Anti-Al that would not have these same difficulties.  Or maybe others have more elegant solutions to the problems I’ve raised.  So, what do folks think?  Should we start an Anti-Al?

And the Winner of the 2012 “Al” is… George P. Mitchell

October 31, 2012

We had many excellent nominations for this year’s Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.

I nominated Banksy, the graffiti artist whose works promote free speech, provide thoughtful social criticism, and beautify public spaces.  But Banksy’s influence is not widespread enough to have done the most to improve the human condition.  And I think we have already acknowledged the importance of free speech and public art by honoring Wim Nottroth.

Anna nominated the auto pioneer and believer in consumer choice, Ransom E. Olds.  Having faith in the consumer rather than central planning does improve the human condition, but as Greg noted in the comments, the essence of consumer choice is among providers, not within them.  But to his credit we can say that at least Olds was not the anti-Semite and general bigot, Henry Ford.

Collin re-nominated Stan Honey, the inventor of the yellow first down line in TV broadcasts of football games.  Collin’s post was hilarious, especially the bit about how “Stan Honey made watching football with football novices tolerable.”  But I’m afraid that Honey fell short again.  The Al isn’t just about quirky inventors of novel and useful products, even though those do improve the human condition.

And this is the same reason that Greg’s nomination of Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, the inventors of bubble wrap, doesn’t make the grade.  The Al should recognize something more transformative — like spicy chicken.

I’m proud to announce that the winner of the 2012 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award is George P. Mitchell, the natural gas entrepreneur who commercialized fracking and horizontal drilling techniques that have made cheap, clean natural gas plentiful.

A common theme in all Al honorees is how they improved the human condition through individual freedom, not government control.  Earle Haas liberated women from several days of confinement each month by developing the modern, hygienic tampon.  This expanded women’s economic and political power by given them full access to public life.  This advance in civil liberties came from a private businessperson, not from a government mandate.  And the fact that he and the Tampex Company made a fortune in the process in no way sullies the benefits they produced for women.  In fact, that profit motive made the advance possible by incentivizing them to develop and market it.  And contrary to the vaguely Marxist critique of advertising as creating false and unnecessary desires, the marketing of the tampon was an essential part of making women aware of the tampon’s benefits and helping women overcome the ignorance and stigmas that hindered widespread use of tampons.

Similarly, Wim Nottroth’s improvement to the human condition came from his embrace of individual liberty.  He stood up to an Orwellian government edict that denouncing killing was the equivalent of hate-speech against Muslims.  As I’ve argued before, the most serious threats to liberty come from small-minded government officials and their enablers surrendering our freedom in the name of promoting something good, not the big scary dictators whose threats are self-evidently menacing and more easily resisted.

And Debrilla M. Ratchford, the inventor of the rollerbag, won the first Al in recognition of how important the quirky inventor of something useful could be to improving the human condition.  But inventing knick-knacks and doo-dads is not the only, or even necessarily the most important, way to improve the human condition.

George P. Mitchell didn’t even invent the techniques that he commercialized to extract significantly more natural gas.  Mitchell’s efforts didn’t just reduce carbon emissions by making clean energy plentiful, as Matt documents in his nomination.  Mitchell demonstrated how improving the human condition, including improving the environment, is more likely to come from individual freedom and capitalism than from government coercion.

Yes, Mitchell was richly rewarded financially for his accomplishments, but we’ve already established that making money in no way undermines one’s case for having improved the human condition.  Besides, I had never heard of him before, so the recognition that comes with winning the Al is appropriate.  And yes, some people have publicly recognized the great things that fracking and horizontal drilling have done, but as far as I know Mitchell’s contribution has never been highlighted before.

And just to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, Hollywood is organizing the anti-fracking campaign with a forthcoming movie featuring Matt Damon about how fracking poisons a town.  Here’s the trailer, which really puts the capital B in subtle:

And here’s the Oscar winning moment for Damon in the film:

Mitchell’s Al beats any Oscar any day for actually recognizing something that makes our lives better.

Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes for The Al

October 30, 2012

Bubble wrap calendar

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Pop! Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes invented bubble wrap in 1957. Pop! If that doesn’t deserve The Al, I don’t know what does. Pop! Pop!

If you’re like me, reading those little pops! gave you a vicarious thrill by bringing to mind all the times you’ve popped bubble wrap and loved it. It’s a visceral joy. If you consider both quality and quantity of enjoyment, there’s not a lot out there that beats bubble wrap.

Like many Al nominees, Fielding and Chavannes benefitted humanity through a combination of innovative thinking, entrepreneurial drive, guts, and some serenedipity. Working in a New Jersey garage, they were trying to invent a new kind of wallpaper – paper on the bottom where it sticks to the wall, plastic on the top where people see it. I can’t seem to determine whether they were actually envisioning something we would describe as “bubble wrap wallpaper” or if they were just trying to get a layer of plastic on top of a layer of paper, but Wikipedia says the product they were working on was “three dimensional wallpaper,” so hey, I say that’s good enough. It was bubble wrap wallpaper.

Bubble wrap wallpaper? Hey, it was 1957. But our intrepid heroes realized – to their credit – that bird wouldn’t fly. But they realized that their process for injecting air into plastic would provide a revolutionary packaging material. They founded the Sealed Air Corporation in 1960 and the rest is history.

Let’s look at bubble wrap as a helpful product first. Bubble Wrap is actually a name brand; Sealed Air Corporation holds the trademark. The product is manufactured in 52 countries and the company reported revenue of $4.2 billion in 2009. And then of course you have to add all the copycats. I can’t find information on the total amount of “plastic bubble packaging” used in the world, but it must be enormous.

Bubble wrap helps a lot of people do a lot of things. In addition to keeping your great-grandmother’s china safe during a move, a variety of special kinds of bubble wrap serve industry (and thus all of us) in a number of ways. For example, they make a special anti-static bubble wrap for shipping computer chips.

But you don’t want to hear about any of that. I know what you want. Pop!

Just add up all the pleasure everyone has ever gotten from popping those bubbles. Just the other day my daughter got a birthday present in the mail, and we had to get her to stop popping the bubbles before she would open the present!

Here’s a good test of the value of bubble wrap. You can buy hand-held, key fob sized bubble wrap simulators. You pop the little bubbles and they reinflate. And these days, bubble wrap has gone cloud. That’s right – there’s an app for that.

What makes popping bubble wrap so fun? Is it about power – the thrill of destruction? Maybe for some, but I doubt that’s the main attraction. Is it the excitement of steadily building the pressure, not knowing when the threshold will be crossed, until suddenly pop! – essentially a hand-held roller coaster or scary movie. That’s more plausible. But people who don’t care for roller coasters or scary movies – me, for example – seem to get as much out of bubble wrap as everyone else. In the end, I think it’s a mystery. Why do lots of people like chocholate and few people like anchovies? They just do.

So in addition to sheer quality and quantity of enjoyment, there’s another reason bubble wrap embodies The Al. It’s an improvement to the human condition that no central planner or philosopher could ever have dreamed up. It reminds us that at the deepest level, the universe is the way it is simply because it is that way. That doesn’t mean the universe is irrational or amoral at its core; it means that the deepest mind and morality of the universe are what they are independent of whether we understand or approve. And so also with beauty, which is the third of the three classical Aristotelian transcendent experiences (the good, the true and the beautiful) – including the beauty of popping bubble wrap.


Nominated for the Al Copeland Award: Stan Honey

October 26, 2012

[Editor's Note -- Here is a nomination for the 2012 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award by Guest Blogger, Collin Hitt]

Stan Honey invented the yellow first down line for televised football games. His remarkable invention was in fact an improved version of his own, failed highlighted hockey puck. The company he founded and the techniques he invented are key to the electronic strike zone seen in every baseball broadcast.

I nominated Stan Honey two years ago for the Al Copland Humanitarian Award. I am renominating him for the second and final time. In the time since his first nomination, he has made my life better by making televised football impervious to distractions, something I greatly appreciated yet still underestimated two years ago; I’ve since become a father.

I’ve discovered something else in the meantime. Stan Honey changed how Americans get from place to place. But more on that later. First, I must again remind everyone of what Stan Honey did for the game of football.

Americans, of their own free will, watch sports. None is more the family sport than football. There is no cosmic necessity to watching football – plenty of countries don’t care for it, or even know about football. But making football more enjoyable is something that improves the lives of almost every American.

Football is a simple game: keep getting first downs until you score. The end zone is instantly recognizable. So are the uprights. So a touchdown or a field goal are easily noticeable, at a glance. Not so for first downs.

Most of the game is spent trying to get a first down. Games are won and lost between the chains. And yet, until Stan Honey, the first down mark was often impossible to track for those watching from home or a bar.

Football is America’s game because it is television friendly. At most, 750,000 people are watching the NFL from the stands. The rest of America is either working or watching from home. A broken play, a sack, an end-around, a nine-and-a-half yard run, a muddy junked-up field – all can leave the at-home viewer disoriented, confused about the play’s relevance to the all-important first down. In time, yes, the announcers and the referees let us know where things stood. But this is America, and we want our information now. Instant answers, Stan Honey gave us that.

With the yellow first down line, football is also now watchable at a glance. Before Stan Honey, it’s not inconceivable that I might have been reaching for a spicy chicken leg, or a clean diaper, when the ball was snapped. Yes, I knew it was 3rd and 4, but now I’d lost my frame of reference. Jay Cutler is scrambling. Where is the line of scrimmage? The first down marker? It is a big moment in the game and I’m disoriented. Thanks to Stan Honey, the feeling of frameless cluelessness is now gone.

I might miss the snap, but at a glance I know the situation. I’ll know the millisecond the play ends whether it was a failure or a success.

Moreover, the stupid questions from the peanut gallery (some people call these folks their family), have become fewer. “How far do they have to go?” “Did he get it?” “He got eight yards. That’s good right?” When is the last time you heard someone ask one of those questions? (It was before 2001.) Everyone now knows: get past the yellow line. Stan Honey made watching football with football novices tolerable. It has made distractions less distracting. It has allowed people to pour earnest effort into snacking between commercial breaks. It allows certain people to read Elle Decor while watching the game. It has made an all American sport more American.

In case you question the impact that Stan Honey has had on America, think back to the last time that the announcers said “We’re having some trouble with the yellow first down line you usually see across your screen at home.” Technology being technology, the yellow line machine breaks from time to time, and when it does, life is awful.

When I last nominated Stan Honey, I focused exclusively on his invention of the yellow first down line. I’ve still done that here. But Honey’s pioneering work in fact began in electronic navigation hardware. The Garmin or the TomTom – even the navigation software used on your smartphone – they either directly descended from or directly inspired by the Etak Navigator that Stan Honey first brought to market in 1985.

From People Magazine, in 1986.

Start up a Navigator-equipped car, and a local map appears on a computer screen mounted near the dash. A green arrow marks the car’s location. Punch in a destination, and it is displayed as a flashing star.

Now begin your drive and turn a corner. The arrow representing the car remains centered, pointing straight ahead, while the map pivots and scrolls around the arrow, matching every turn you make. Approaching a cross street, there’s no need to crane to read a street sign when a glance at the screen reveals the street name, a feature that’s doubly helpful at night. You can even touch a button and zoom to a wide view showing a whole city or shift down to the neighborhood scale, where only a few blocks appear. When the arrow on the screen meets the flashing star, you’ve arrived within 50 feet of your destination.

Over the years, Honey’s Navigator surrendered market share to other products, but that’s no matter. Invention is followed by innovation. His device and software inspired imitators and improved versions that are commonly recognizable.

This has changed your life. Think of where you’re sitting right now. Did you use a navigation device to find the place, the first time you went there? When family or others come to visit, how do they find the place? I’ll bet their quest, and yours, would have been different if not for Stan Honey.

It’s fitting to place Honey’s contributions next to those of previous winners, as well as the award’s namesake.

As I write this entry for an award named after Al Copland, I’m getting hungry for Popeye’s Chicken. My first thought – I’ll pick up a bucket for the game this Sunday. Now I’m searching on my iPhone for the nearest Popeye’s. Great. I know where I’ll go for chicken on Sunday and how I’ll get there. And when I get home, I’ll be able to keep track of the game from the dinner table, where my son and I will be twenty feet away from the TV (and our new couch). Thank you, Stan Honey.

The 2009 winner was Debrilla Ratchford, inventor of the rollerbag suitcase. The next time I fly somewhere will be before the end of the football season. I’ll pack my rollerbag and get in the car. Using my handset, I’ll find the best route to the airport. I’ll get there early. I’ll roll my bag up to the bar and watch three different games on muted televisions, which is feasible because of the yellow lines on each screen. When I reach my destination, I’ll pull out my handset and find my hotel and the restaurants nearest to it, where I again might watch a football game or two. Thank you, Stan Honey.

Wim Nottroth was the 2010 winner. He is a pacifist and an anti-terrorist. Life is sacred. Peace is a precondition for a fun and enjoyable life. Spicy chicken, the yellow first down line and the rollerbag are enjoyable only in times of peace. Sure, they are trivial in a sense. But they are things that make the good life good. And so, in their own small ways, they are proof that Peace, and Wim Nottroth, are right.

Last year’s winner is the inventor of the tampon. I’m glad I didn’t nominate Stan Honey last year.

So, in closing, we have to ask ourselves, why did Stan Honey do what he did? He invented the yellow first down line for us, but really he invented it for himself. He is now a wealthy man. He has now retired to full-time yacht-racing, a lifelong passion that inspired his interest in triangulation, the foundation of his inventions. The literature on Stan Honey is scant. Few know his name outside of yachting, where he has won multiple awards for transoceanic navigation. Self-interested yachtsmen are not models for adulation. So don’t expect him to win a medal of freedom or genius award anytime soon. Yet he made every American’s life better. And that’s why he deserves the Al.


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