Nick Steinsberger for the “Al”

October 8, 2020

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Nick Steinsberger was a subordinate of previous “Al” winner George Mitchell, but after having read Gregory Zuckerman’s excellent book The Frackers it is clear that Steinsberger is worthy of an Al of his own. Mitchell was a driving force behind America’s energy revolution, but the lesser known Steinsberger actually made it happen.Although you may be hearing of Nick Steinsberger for the first time, he fundamentally changed the course of the world. As a young petroleum engineer working for Mitchell Energy in the 1990s, Steinsberger drew what was regarded as the dead-end assignment of working on George Mitchell’s obsession of drilling shale formations. The project had gone nowhere for years, the company was in deep financial trouble and it wasn’t a great time for the oil and gas industry generally. Mitchell considered selling the energy side of the business, but didn’t find much of a market for the company. Mitchell’s chosen successor and the board of the company were restless, and Steinsberger found himself in charge of the least profitable division of a not terribly profitable company in a not currently profitable industry nursing a decades long obsession of an aging and increasingly cantankereous founder. From this grim spot, Nick Steinsberger made the discovery that changed the world.

The technique being used combined horizontal drilling and fracking- blast liquid and sand into a formation in the hopes of releasing hydrocarbons. Mitchell’s obsession was to combine these techniques in order to get at the vast amounts of oil/gas contained in shale formations. Rather than giant collected resevoirs, shale formations contain small amounts of hydrocarbons spread throughout a large underground rock formation. The oil industry had knows about shale oil and gas for years but had large since written it off because it could not be extracted economically. The techniques being overseen by Steinsberger were extracting gas in the Barnett shale- just not nearly enough for Mitchell Energy to remain solvent.

One Steinsberger noticed that a fracking well he was supervising didn’t mix the fluid properly. The normal mix of fluids was thicker than Jell-O, but in this faulty mix the fluid was more like liquid. Strangely enough, the well with the faulty mix produced a surprising amount of gas. Some of Steinsberger’s colleagues thought it was a fluke, but Steinsberger began to suspect that maybe water and sand minus all those expensive chemicals might work just as well.

A few weeks later over beer and bbq at a Texas Rangers baseball game, Steinsberger learned from a friend of a technique used in Kansas called a “river frac.” Almost entirely water and sand, this technique had been used to break up dense rock. Given that Mitchell Energy was in deep financial trouble and that Steinsberger was running what was viewed as a quixotic vanity project, Nick decided to trim chemical expenses on more wells. What did he have to lose?

Many of his coworkers thought Nick was out of his mind. By their understanding of the geology of shale, this technique which had worked on Kansas sand-stone had no chance working in shale. Shale clay would absorb the water, swell up and jam up the fractures. That’s what the chemicals were for after all. One superior allegedly promised to eat his diploma if the technique worked. “It’s a stupid idea,” he was told. “It’s not going to work.”

Despite a great deal of opposition, Steinsberger got the chance to experiment, if only because the company couldn’t afford the chemicals. Steinsberger was acting on a hunch- he thought a mix with few chemicals and less sand would create multiple micro-fissures rather than a single large passageway to the surface.

“The idea was crazy at the time. He had guts, no one else would have thought of doing it,” a company executive later recalled. “If the oil business had a gonads on the anvil award, he’d win.”

In August of 1997, with an anxious wife with two young children making contingency plans regarding a possibly soon to be unemployed husband, Steinsberger anxiously monitored the performance of Barnett wells, three of which had used his new mixture. The initial production from the three wells was nothing special, but then Steinsberger’s luck changed. Fracked wells involve a quick spurt of product followed by a sharp decline. The three Steinsberger wells trailed off at a slower rate.

This was just promising enough to save Nick’s hide and to allow him to experiment further. He altered the sand flow, put more horsepower on the pumps, made adjustments. By the summer of 1998, a Mitchell Energy started producing one and a half million feet of gas per day with the revised techniques, and instead of tailing off, it just kept going, and going. Other wells began to do the same. The slick water frack wasn’t just cheaper, it was also better.

Mitchell, a patron of the arts and many charities, was rewarded for his obsession and saved from personal financial ruin was hardly a moment to spare. The global implications of this innovation however were far more significant. Natural gas became abundant and cheap in the United States, abundant and cheap enough to greatly diminish the use of coal, reducing carbon emissions. Companies converted massive gas import facilities being built in American ports into export facilities. The technique worked on oil, and the United States reversed decades of decline in production and then, incredibly, began to export millions of barrels per day. The economic and political ramifications of this change have yet to fully play out, but they are already profound.

Nick did not become incredibly wealthy as a result of his innovation. Today he is still working as the COO of an energy firm. His influence on the global century however will remain long after the wealth of lesser figures has faded away. Nick’s example contains important lessons about innovation- human progress vitally depends on allowing people to follow hunches, to take gambles and to try new things. The urge require and deny permission, to standardize practice and to avoid risk has a largely hidden but staggeringly large potential cost- you likely never know what you missed out on. A world in which Nick was required to seek permission for each new technique he tried would be both poorer and dirtier. Red tape has been strangling American educators from the local, state and federal levels for decades. We could use more gonads on the anvil wildcatters like Nick Steinsberger.


For the Al: Mildred Day

October 31, 2019

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Food is one of the most basic human experiences, so improving food has huge leverage for serving humanity. Even the act of eating, while it can be done alone, is better when done together – expressing the same basic harmony of human flourishing reflected in The Al’s commitment to the idea that one can benefit oneself and others at the same time.

The very first person ever nominated for The Al after Copeland himself was Steve Henson, inventor of ranch dressing. In the ten years since then, we’ve nominated people who invented ways to make wine more efficiently, invented ways to experience the magic of great food and great movies together, and invented ways to protect kids who sell lemonade. Yet somehow, we have never again nominated another person who invented a food item – which would seem to be a pretty basic prerequisite for all the other stuff.

Why not give The Al to the woman who invented the single greatest food of all time?

Rice Krispies were introduced in 1928. But the apotheosis of the Rice Krispie – the apotheosis of food itself – did not emerge for over ten years. Then in 1939, Mildred Day (with an assist from Kellogg’s coworker Malitta Jensen) cooked up the enchanted confection now known as Rice Krispie Treats.


Day first worked at Pillsbury under noted chef Mary Ellis Ames (in the picture of Ames’ kitchen above, Day is the woman standing on the left). Day was then employed by Kellogg’s as a recipe tester (doesn’t that sound like a nice gig?) and a traveling cooking instructor who trained chefs in Kellogg’s kitchens as well as giving demonstrations to customers. She and Jensen cooked up the idea in the mad science lab of the Kellogg’s mothership (I’m picturing lots of oddly colored liquids bubbling in cauldrons and test tubes).

Curiously, the invention of Rice Krispies was not the main contributing factor in the invention of Rice Krispies Treats. Earlier recipes for similar kinds of treat squares had used puffed rice or puffed wheat. But they had never used marshmallow, relying instead on other sticky confections such as molasses. Day’s main contribution was to realize that marshmallow would work much better.

Six months after the first treats were baked (“Live! Live, my creation!” I envision Day crying out, as a bolt of lightning activates the oven), Day got a request from a Camp Fire Girls chapter in Kansas City looking for a baking idea for a fundraiser. Day headed to Kansas City, and thus the greatest food ever known to humanity became . . . known to humanity.


Newspaper ad, 1941; newspaper recipe, 1940

Kellogg’s did not sell premade treats until the 1990s, but that doesn’t mean Kellogg’s didn’t profit hugely from Day’s invention. They hawked the dickens out of the recipe from the beginning, offering the irresistible Krispie Treats as a primary selling point for the cereal. The recipe first appeared on boxes of Rice Krispies in 1941. Back in those days, cooking the magic confections at home was part of the charm.

Well, it was for most people. Day herself never made them for her daughter Sandra; Sandra didn’t even find out about Rice Krispie Treats until she was an adult. She asked her mother why (I mean, wouldn’t you?) and Day replied: “If you’d made them for two weeks from 6:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night, you wouldn’t want to make them again, either!”

Okay, that’s fair enough. Day’s contribution can’t be contested.


Newspaper ads, 1942 & 1941

For contributing the greatest treat, and therefore the greatest food, ever invented by human ingenuity, while making untold millions for Kellogg’s, I nominate Mildred Day for Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year.

Image HTs: Mildred Day images, Des Moines Register; Krispie Treat image, Kellogg’s; newspaper images, Cook’s Info.

Bob Fletcher for Al Copeland Humanitarian

October 25, 2019


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Al is no stranger to grape-growers, having nominated innovative winemakers Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen in 2014. But Bob Fletcher grew grapes in a way more reminiscent of Wim Nottroth or Roddie Edmonds.

A lot of Japanese-Americans in California during World War II were farmers. Most of them lost their farms to foreclosure when they found themselves interned in camps in 1942 because Franklin Roosevelt was a bonkers-racist-pseudoscience-freakazoid-weirdo who thought Japanese people were inherently violent because of the shape of their skulls. (“The president wrote back asking whether the ‘Japanese problem’ could be solved through mass interbreeding.”)

Bill Taketa’s mother had paid off 85% of the mortgage on her 32-acre farm, and lost it all. “She didn’t have anywhere to come back to because they took it,” he recalls.

Bill Taketa even joined the U.S. Army and served in the Pacific theater, fighting Japanese forces on behalf of the stars and stripes. But that didn’t get him his family farm back.

Bill’s wife Doris Taketa, however, can tell a better story. She was 12 when she was shipped off to a camp in Arkansas with her parents and two sisters. But when she came back, the farm was still there for them. And two other families in her hometown of Florin, California had farms waiting for them, too.

Thanks to Bob Fletcher.

Fletcher, himself the only child of a walnut-farming family, watched the disastrous injustices being inflicted on California’s Japanese-American farm owners from his perch as a state agricultural inspector. He knew from the start that the whole thing was crazy, and that Japanese-Americans “were the same as everybody else – it was obvious they had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor.”

So he decided not to remain a California agricultural inspector. The time had come to try his hand at grape-growing.


Fletcher quit his job and took over operating three grape farms – a total of 90 acres of Tokay grapes – belonging to three interned families in danger of foreclosure: the Tsukamotos, Okamotos and Nittas. For three years, he was able to do just enough work to keep up the mortgage payments on all three farms. By agreement with the families, after paying the mortgage bills he kept half the remaining farm income to live off of, and stored the other half away to hand over to the families when they returned.

“I was born on that land. He took really good care of it,” Doris Taketa would later say.

Many Florin residents were less appreciative. He was jeered in Florin, and called a “Jap lover.” At one point some fine specimen of American bravery actually came out and shot a gun at Fletcher while he was working the Tsukamotos’ property.

There were about 2,000 Japanese-Americans living around Florin before the war. Doris Taketa estimates about 80% of them chose not to return. And who can blame them?

“Few people in history exemplify the best ideals the way that Bob did,” said Marielle Tsukamoto, who was five when she was interned. “He was honest and hard working and had integrity. Whenever you asked him about it, he just said, ‘It was the right thing to do.’ ”

After returning, Doris said to Fletcher: “We owe you everything.”

The rest of us owe him a debt as well. In partial repayment, I’m proud to nominate Bob Fletcher for 2019 Al Copeland Humanitarian of the Year.

Photo HTs: Top photo, Florin, Ca. historical society, via the California Sun; middle photo, AARP.

Nominations Solicited for the 2019 Al Copeland Humanitarian Award

October 14, 2019


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

It! Is! That Time!

Time once again for us to solicit nominations for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, that is! The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded, so by immemorial custom it is time to begin considering which non-Nobel-esque humanitarian we will honor.

As our thoughts turn Al-ward this October, recall that this has been a banner year for fast-food chicken joints bringing joy to the world. Scott Lincicome elegantly captured the moment back in August:

There’s a full-on chicken sandwich war underway, yet some lunatics still question capitalism.

Words for the ages, Scott. America has problems, many and serious. But lack of an economic system that delivers goods and services to the people who need and want them is not one of them – thanks to heroes like Al Copeland.

In September, a local KFC tried to top everyone by giving a free car to a single-mom worker who had walked to work for a year. Josh Jordan suggested Popeye’s could do KFC one better by giving that mom the last of their new chicken sandwiches!

But you want to hear about The Al. Nominations can be submitted by emailing a draft of a blog post advocating for your nominee. If Jay likes it, he will post it with your name attached. A winner will be announced after Halloween.

The criteria of the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award can be summarized by quoting our original blog post in which we sang the praises of Al Copeland and all that he did for humanity:

Al Copeland may not have done the most to benefit humanity, but he certainly did more than many people who receive such awards.  Chicago gave Bill Ayers their Citizen of the Year award in 1997.  And the Nobel Peace Prize has too often gone to a motley crew including unrepentant terrorist, Yassir Arafat, and fictional autobiography writer, Rigoberta Menchu.   Local humanitarian awards tend to go to hack politicians or community activists.  From all these award recipients you might think that a humanitarian was someone who stopped throwing bombs… or who you hoped would picket, tax, regulate, or imprison someone else.

Al Copeland never threatened to bomb, picket, tax, regulate, or imprison anyone.  By that standard alone he would be much more of a humanitarian.  But Al Copeland did even more — he gave us spicy chicken.

The 2018 winner of The Al was Joy Morton. Like Al Copeland, Morton promoted good by doing well. It was known that small amounts of iodine could prevent goiters, but no one was doing anything about this until Morton saw a way to gain a competitive advantage for his salt company: adding iodine to salt, and advertising its health benefits. The bumper crop of nominees in 2018 also included Elizabeth VandiverLeo Moracchiloli, Richard Garfield, Eric LundgrenAdam Butler and Autumn Thomasson and George Henry Thomas.

The 2017 winner of The Al was Stanislav Petrov, who literally saved the world from nuclear destruction by refusing to follow Soviet orders to retaliate against what he suspected (as was later confirmed) was a false warning of a US strike. It’s not quite spicy chicken, but it’s close. Petrov was selected from an excellent set of nominees, including Whittaker ChambersJustin Roiland and Dan Harmon and Russ Roberts.

The 2016 winner of The Al was Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, who prevailed over a very competitive field of nominees, including Tim and Karrie LeagueRemy Munasifi, and Yair Rosenberg.  Edmonds stood up against fascists at considerable risk to himself by declaring that he and all of his fellow prisoners of war were Jews to foil the Nazis’ effort to separate Jewish prisoners.  It is this type of courage in the face of illiberalism that we need more of in these times.

The 2015 winner of The Al was internet humorist Ken M.  Ken M did more to improve the human condition than just make us laugh by making idiotic comments on social media (although that would have been enough).  His humor reveals the ridiculousness of people trying to change the world by arguing with people on the internet.  Given how much time ed reformers waste on social media, especially Twitter, Ken M’s humor is a useful reminder that many of the people reading your posts are probably not much swifter or influential than the Ken M persona.  Ken M beat a set of strong nominees, including Malcolm McLeanGary Gygax, and John Lasseter.

The 2014 winner was Peter DeComo, the inventor of the Hemolung Respiratory Assist System.  To save a life, DeComo tricked border control officials to bring a model of his artificial lung machine into the US from Canada, because the device had not yet been fully approved by the FDA.  DeComo won over a worthy field, including Marcus Persson, the inventor of Minecraft, Ira Goldman, the developer of the “Knee Defender,”  Thomas J. Barratt, the father of modern advertising, and Thibaut Scholasch and Sébastien Payen, wine-makers who improved irrigation methods.

The 2013 winner of The Al was Weird Al Yankovic. Weird Al beat an impressive set of nominees, including Penn and TellerKickstarter, and Bill Knudsen.

The 2012 winner of The Al was George P. Mitchell, a pioneer in the use of fracking to obtain more, cheap and clean natural gas. Mitchell won over a group of other worthy nominees: BanksyRansom E. OldsStan Honey, and Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes.

In 2011, The Al went to Earle Haas, the inventor of the modern tampon. Thanks to Anna for nominating him and recognizing that advances in equal opportunity for women had as much or more to do with entrepreneurs than government mandates. Haas beat his fellow nominees:  Charles Montesquieu, the political philosopher, David Einhorn, the short-seller, and Steve Wynn, the casino mogul.

The 2010 winner of The Al was Wim Nottroth, the man who resisted Rotterdam police efforts to destroy a mural that read “Thou Shall Not Kill” following the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist. He beat out The Most Interesting Man in the World, the fictional spokesman for Dos Equis and model of masculine virtue, Stan Honey, the inventor of the yellow first down line in TV football broadcasts, Herbert Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical and subverter of a German chemicals cartel, and Marion Donovan and Victor Mills, the developers of the disposable diaper.

The 2009 winner of The Al – in the first year the award bore that name – was Debrilla M. Ratchford, who significantly improved the human condition by inventing the rollerbag.  She won over Steve Henson, who gave us ranch dressing, Fasi Zaka, who ridiculed the Taliban, Ralph Teetor, who invented cruise control, and Mary Quant, who popularized the miniskirt.

Also noteworthy from 2009: history’s greatest monster, William Higinbotham, was declared permanently ineligible to receive The Al. He remains the only individual thus disqualified. In (dis)honor of Higinbotham, The Higgy award has been bestowed on (un)worthy candidates annually since 2012.

Al Copeland himself was honored in 2008 as the official humanitarian of the year of Jay P. Greene’s Blog. The award was renamed in his honor the following year.

Happy nominating and good luck!

Nominated for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award: Joy Morton

October 30, 2018

Image result for iodized morton salt

(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)

Has any charity done more good in America than Joy Morton did as an entrepreneur? He was the founder of Morton Salt Company in Chicago.  One simple innovation – iodized salt – positioned his company to be the dominant salt brand in America for a century. And that very same product changed the destinies of millions upon millions of people.

Joy Morton was a Midwest businessman. By all accounts he was a decent, upstanding member of his community, an honest man. He was a philanthropist. But his greatest contribution to mankind is in the millions of tons of salt he sold.

Morton was an entrepreneur, a money maker. He didn’t give away his salt. His job was to sell it. And like all entrepreneurs, he needed an edge, a way to stay ahead of the competition. Plenty of other companies were making cheap table salt. And of all things, a goiter epidemic and emerging medical science gave Morton the edge he was looking for.

Rewind to 1920. Morton Salt Company was based in Chicago – squarely in the middle of a region plagued by goiters. If you don’t know what a goiter is, check out a few images on Google. “An enlargement of the thyroid gland,” the medical definition doesn’t do goiters justice. They can be nasty, painful, even debilitating. There’s a chance you’ve never seen a goiter with your bare eyes. But in the early 20th century goiters were so common in the American heartland that the region was called the “goiter belt.”

We know now that the cause was iodine deficiency. In the early 1920s the people of the Midwest fed mainly on iodine-poor food. In coastal regions, where fish and other iodine-rich foods formed core parts of the diet, goiters were extremely rare. A person travelling west from Boston to Chicago needn’t have been a doctor to notice the sudden and widespread appearance of goiters on children.  From an excellent, short article published in Nutrition, “History of U.S. Iodine Fortification and Supplementation.”

Prior to the 1920s, endemic iodine deficiency was prevalent in the Great Lakes, Appalachians, and Northwestern regions of the U.S., a geographic area known as the “goiter belt”, where 26%–70% of children had clinically apparent goiter. During the draft for World War I, a Michigan physician, Simon Levin, observed that 30.3% of 583 registrants had thyromegaly (including both toxic and nontoxic goiters), many of which were large enough to disqualify them from the military, in accordance with U.S. Selective Service regulations

Joy Morton solved the problem. By the 1920s, fifty years of science had slowly established the connection between iodine deficiency and goiters. Experiments were showing that iodine treatments could effectively eliminate the condition. The research on iodine was there for the world to see. But aside from a few scientists and physicians, next to no one read it or understood it – almost no one. The Morton Salt Company saw it and saw profit.

In 1924 Morton Salt began selling iodized salt. A massive marketing campaign followed. “Keep Your Family Goiter Free!” Can you imagine? Morton sold tons of salt and made tons of money at it, and in the process improved millions of lives. The goiter epidemic disappeared seemingly overnight and Morton Salt has been America’s favorite salt brand ever since. This accomplishment alone is worthy of the Al, but it turned out the effect of iodine intake reached far beyond curing goiters.

Iodine is vital for brain development. The World Health Organization today states plainly, “Iodine deficiency is the main cause of brain damage in childhood.” This was not known during Joy Morton’s time.

The impact of Morton’s Iodized Salt strains the imagination. The sudden, widespread introduction of iodine into the diets of millions of Americans created a natural research experiment. From a 2013 paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research:

Salt was iodized over a very short period of time beginning in 1924. We use military data collected during WWI and WWII to compare outcomes of cohorts born before and after iodization, in localities that were naturally poor and rich in iodine. We find that for the one quarter of the population most deficient in iodine this intervention raised IQ by approximately one standard deviation. Our results can explain roughly one decade’s worth of the upward trend in IQ in the US (the Flynn Effect).

One. Standard. Deviation. Countless foundations have invested countless dollars to achieve impacts a fraction of that size in [a] tiny fraction of the population – and most have failed. Morton accomplished it all with table salt.

The benefits of Morton’s salt extended even to children in the womb. From another excellent paper from NBER, released earlier this year:

In 1924, The Morton Salt Company began nationwide distribution of iodine-fortified salt. Access to iodine, a key determinant of cognitive ability, rose sharply. We compare outcomes for cohorts exposed in utero with those of slightly older, unexposed cohorts, across states with high versus low baseline iodine deficiency. Income increased by 11%; labor force participation rose 0.68 percentage points; and full-time work went up 0.9 percentage points due to increased iodine availability. These impacts were largely driven by changes in the economic outcomes of young women. In later adulthood, both men and women had higher family incomes due to iodization.

As a philanthropist, Joy Morton went on to do wonderful things with his fortune. But none of those things were as wonderful as what he did for people when he started selling iodized salt. And that’s why he deserves the Al.

Collin Hitt is an assistant professor in the department of medical education at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

For The Al: The Rock of Chickamauga, George Henry Thomas

October 25, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As the prospect of civil war loomed in 1860, southern partisans in the U.S. Army began shuffling commands around, to put all the southern-born officers together. That way, they could work and train together, forming relationships, cohesion and teamwork that they could take with them together in the event of secession. And when the break did come, half those southern-born officers did in fact leave together.

Among those who did not was the man with three first names: George Henry Thomas.

Here’s a Civil War story you don’t know and need to: Over 100,000 white southerners, known as Southern Unionists or Southern Loyalists (as well as Yankees, Scalawags and Tories among their detractors, alongside less printable names) served in the Union army during the Civil War. Every southern state except South Carolina contributed at least a full battalion to the Union. Tennessee alone produced 42,000 loyal men to fight for the Stars and Stripes.

If there is ever going to be healing for the still-festering wounds of the Civil War, it will come when we who hail from the South are ready to admit that the Cause was wrong. That will be a hard pill to swallow; clearly we are not yet ready to swallow it. One thing that will make it much easier will be if we learn to tell the stories of the many thousands of southerners who knew better than to be taken in by the Cause.

If you asked the Southern Unionists why they were fighting for the North, they’d have told you they weren’t fighting for the North. They were fighting for the Union.

Among that roll of honor, Major General George Henry Thomas – son of Virginia – stands head and shoulders above the rest. “Old George H. Thomas is in command of the cavalry of the enemy,” wrote J.E.B. Stuart to his wife. “I would like to hang, hang him as a traitor to his native state.” The two had studied together at West Point.


Why does Thomas deserve The Al? Let me count the ways:

1. Thomas brought the Union’s disastrous early losing streak to a close by winning its first strategically significant victory, at Mill Springs, Ky. on January 18, 1862. He was in a position to do so because his prowess and natural leadership (his men identified with him as a fellow “soldier’s soldier” yet also looked up to him as “Pap Thomas”) were so much in evidence that between April and August of 1861 he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel, then colonel, then brigadier general. At Mill Springs, he broke the Confederate hold on Kentucky, and – probably even more important in the long run – delivered a much-needed morale boost. It’s hard to overstate how shocking the loss at First Bull Run and the series of subsequent defeats were for the Union. It became an open question whether the Union might make terms and quit. Mill Springs shored up political support to see the war through.

2. At the Battle of Chickamauga, September 18-20, 1863, commanding Union general William Rosecrans – whose commission had been backdated so he could fake seniority and get promoted to that command ahead of Thomas – committed a major tactical blunder, and Union lines collapsed. Confederate troops charged in, and the defeat threatened to turn into a rout from which the campaign might not recover. Thomas held his ground, inspiring his troops to stay and bear the brunt of the attack, in order to provide cover for the rest of the Union forces at Chickamauga to organize a retreat. A message runner (future U.S. President James Garfield) informed Rosecrans that Thomas was “standing like a rock.” The Army of the Cumberland was saved, and Rosecrans was removed from command in favor of Thomas. He led the Cumberland to a dramatic reversal of fortunes, culminating in a decisive Union victory in November in the Chattanooga Campaign. (Ironically, the climactic battle was won in part by dumb luck.) The Union gained permanent control of Tennessee and strategic dominance of the entire western theater, as well as the staging point from which Sherman’s Atlanta campaign would be launched and supported the next year. Thomas was known forever after as The Rock of Chickamauga.

3. After the Chattanooga Campaign, a chaplain asked Thomas if the Confederate dead should be buried separately by state. “No, mix ’em up,” said Thomas. “I’m tired of states’ rights.”


Special $5 Treasury note honoring Thomas, 1890

4. When John Hood found he could not directly stop Sherman’s march to Atlanta, he turned around what was left of his Army of Tennessee and tried to cut off Sherman’s lines of communication to the Union stronghold in Chattanooga, hoping to draw Sherman off to fight him. But when Hood got to Tennessee, he found The Rock of Chickamauga – who was once his teacher at West Point – waiting for him. Thomas smashed the Army of Tennessee so hard that it ceased to exist; its few remaining men dispersed and joined themselves to other Confederate forces. Thomas earned yet another nickname, The Sledge of Nashville, and a very-long-overdue promotion to major general. (“I suppose it is better late than never,” he commented. “I earned this at Chickamauga.”)

5. After the war, with much of the South in desperate, starvation-level poverty, Thomas sent generous financial assistance to his two sisters living there. They sent the money back, declaring that it must have been sent to them by mistake, as they had no brother.

6. One of the main reasons the wounds of the war have not healed is the vast superiority of southerners as storytellers. Our national memory of the war has been disproportionately shaped by the way the South has told its own story, for the simple reason that northerners, in general, can’t tell a story worth a nickel. Thomas saw what was happening early on; he sounded the alarm in 1868:

The greatest efforts made by the defeated insurgents since the close of the war have been to promulgate the idea that the cause of liberty, justice, humanity, equality and all the calendar of the virtues of freedom, suffered violence and wrong when the effort for southern independence failed. This is, of course, intended as a species of political cant, whereby the crime of treason might be covered with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government, thus wiping out with their own hands their own stains; a species of self-forgiveness amazing in its effrontery, when it is considered that life and property—justly forfeited by the laws of the country, of war and of nations—through the magnanimity of the government and people was not exacted from them.

Alas, that was one battle with the Confederacy he was destined to lose.

7. Thomas spent the postwar years overseeing the military government of various regions of the South under Reconstruction, and in particular suppressing the Klan. He set up military courts that would enforce labor contracts for black citizens who couldn’t get redress in civilian courts.

8. He retired to upstate New York and was buried there. None of his blood relatives attended his funeral.

For the honor of the Union and the South: The Rock of Chickamauga for The Al.

Image HTs – color, b/w, T-note

For The Al: Adam Butler and Autumn Thomasson

October 24, 2018

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Those of us interested in markets often use the childhood experience of running a lemonade stand to illustrate how business can be a school of virtue. In recent years, unfortunately, we have been more likely to point to the shutting down of lemonade stands as an example of how overbearing regulation is stifling the entrepreneurial spirit in our culture, destroying this and other traditional rites of passage like teenage summer jobs.

This summer, though, we got a delightful surprise. Under the leadership of Adam Butler, general manager of beverages and nuts for Kraft Heinz, Country Time Lemonade introduced the awesomeness of “Legal-Ade.” It’s a system of financial and legal support, covering permits and fines up to $300, to help kids like Autumn Thomasson keep their lemonade stands open over the summer. They also donated to Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, which helps kids and families run lemonade stands to raise money for cancer research.

It’s also the rockingest advertisement I have seen in a long time. “TASTES LIKE JUSTICE!” Wish I knew that actor’s name, I’d add him to the nomination.

Is it even legal for corporations to get this creative and take a risk standing up to the regulatory state for their customers? Aren’t they required to run to the corner and cower in fear, promising to do whatever the state demands?

Because if they’re not . . . our big corporations are run by cowards.

And they’re probably leaving a lot of money on the table, too. You think this aid program paid for itself in increased sales for Country Time? I’d bet you more than a glass of lemonade it did.

Why do I think so? Here’s one reason. Adam Butler says: “Legal-Ade will be back next year, helping support kids’ rights to run lemonade stands! We look forward to kicking off year two of the program and helping more kids next year.”

Watch out, lemon protection rackets. Autumn has backup.

For bringing lemonade to the world, having a ton of fun mocking PLDD lemon thugs, and making an honest buck doing it all, I nominate Adam Butler and Autumn Thomasson for The Al.

For The Al: Eric Lundgren

October 23, 2018


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Since June 15, Eric Lundgren has been in prison. His crime: Downloading software onto computer disks for his customers instead of making them do it themselves – which many of them couldn’t do, leading to unnecessary abandonment of perfectly good computers (filled with delightful chemicals) into our landfills. His sentence: 15 months in prison.

In the spirit of honoring noble scofflaws like Al winner Wim Nottroth and UX (who played Valjean to Higgy winner Pascal Monnet’s Javert), I nominate Eric Lundgren for The Al.

This is not Lundgren’s first run-in with the powers. His first arrest was at age 14, when he panicked and fled from a police cruiser trying to pull him over for driving a not-entirely-street-legal go kart he had made with a lawn mower motor and a boombox.

Since then he’s put his ability to repurpose parts to more productive use. He became a millionaire tech entrepreneur finding a variety of ways to reuse electronic devices and components rather than let them rot. Some of these have been lucrative, some charitable, and some both at the same time. He launched the first “electronic hybrid recycling” facility in the United States, turning old cell phones and stuff back into useable devices. This serves the poor (who can get devices cheaper), saves the environment (chemicals in phone batteries are nothing to mess with) and, hey, put a buck into Lundgren’s pocket, too.

He once built an electronic car out of discarded parts that out-distanced Tesla’s car on a single charge. And don’t forget the troops – his company once donated 14,000 cell phones to military personnel deployed overseas, where I bet they were grateful to be able to make a call home.

His trouble with the law – this time – springs from his having manufactured a “restore disk” that you could use to restore your software after a crash. One thing he provided on the disk was a copy of Microsoft software to re-install. He found that many customers either were, or felt (which amounts to the same thing) unable to restore this software themselves, and perfectly restorable computers were being thrown out in favor of new purchases because customers couldn’t get their old ones to work.

Now, let’s be clear about four indisputable facts:

  1. Lundgren was not authorized to download the software, so he did break the law – as he admitted by pleading guilty (though he appealed the jail sentence as excessive).
  2. The disks could not be used on a computer that did not already have a paid-up license for the software, and anyone with a paid-up license is allowed to re-download the software for free, so Lundgren didn’t cost Microsoft a single thin dime that it was ethically entitled to.
  3. Microsoft wanted this case prosecuted because they wanted to collect sales revenue by getting people to dump perfectly good computers in our landfills so they’d have to buy new computers with new software.
  4. Only a coward or idiot of a prosecutor would charge a case like this.

There’s nothing wrong with making a buck as you do good for the world. But there is something wrong with making a buck by not doing good for the world. And there is a whole lot wrong with sending a man to jail for 15 months so a company can make a buck off actively harming its own customers.

I’m proud to nominate Eric Lundgren for The Al.

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Nominated for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award: Elizabeth Vandiver

October 22, 2018

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Two of our children attended and later worked at a summer camp in northern Georgia. Getting to and from camp from Northwest Arkansas was particularly costly and inconvenient by airplane, so for more than a decade we drove more than 13 hours each way.

All of this driving, year after year, may sound like a giant pain but actually it was quite wonderful.  Criss-crossing the US reminded us of what a big and beautiful country we live in.  And the forced togetherness provided plenty of opportunity for us to talk and really get to know each other.  I loved it.

But one of the most special things about spending dozens of hours in the car together was being able to listen to Elizabeth Vandiver’s lectures on Classical Mythology.  Before we left for each trip we’d go to Fayetteville’s wonderful public library and check out a bunch of audio books.  I happened to stumble upon Prof. Vandiver’s lectures, which are part of the Great Courses series.  I think the first one we heard was her course on the Odyssey, which consists of two dozen 30 minute talks.  We later listened to her courses on the Iliad, Greek Tragedy, the Aeneid, and her overview of Classical Mythology.  In total that is about 60 hours of Vandiver’s lectures.  Mind you, this was spread over a decade in which we drove for more than 260 hours, but listening to Elizabeth Vandiver was a big part of our annual road trips.

I didn’t force these lectures on our kids.  I didn’t have to.  They were captivated by her extremely well-organized and clear discussion of Greek and Roman Mythology.  These are really great stories and Vandiver describes and explains them wonderfully.  Our youngest loved the lectures so much that he jokingly called Vandiver his “girlfriend,” never having seen a photo of her and just from the sound of her voice. Not surprisingly, he is now double-majoring in Classics and Drama, having just completed reading the Aeneid in Latin.

Elizabeth Vandiver is worthy of “The Al” for much more than contributing to our beloved family memories.  Vandiver has made a significant improvement to the human condition by giving lectures that help us understand that condition.  The fact that these stories remain completely recognizable and relevant to us despite the passage of nearly 3,000 years, teaches us something about the enduring qualities of human experience.

We are not, as some of my Progressive colleagues imagine, simply able to use reason and science to re-construct our world with each new generation.  Human beings are not perfectly malleable clay waiting to be shaped by forward-thinking educators and social engineers.  Humans have a certain nature, which classical mythology shows us has remained unchanged.  We would be wise to understand and consider that nature when thinking about building and sustaining the institutions that steer people for good or for ill.  Rather than telling us who they think we should be, as modern educators and pundits seem inclined to do, Vandiver teaches us who we are.  And she does so with a crispness and clarity that makes even young children want to seek out the original materials to learn from them directly.

Of course, Vandiver has been recognized for her excellence as a teacher.  She has won awards from Northwestern and University of Georgia, where she has previously taught, as well as Whitman College, where she is currently a professor.  But those university teaching awards do not have the status and broad recognition that The Al does.  So, for all that Elizabeth Vandiver has done to improve the human condition by teaching countless people about the human condition, I nominate her for the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award.

If you’d like to see some of her fantastic lectures, I’ve found her entire Classical Mythology course on YouTube,  Here is one segment:

Richard Garfield for the “Al”

October 19, 2018

(Guest Post by Ben Ladner)

Editors note: Ben Ladner is a Senior at the Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix.

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a nerdy, socially confused teenager looking for a place he can fit in discovers community in a game and the fellow people who are obsessed with it.  I suspect you all know the story – more than one of the regulars here grew up on Dungeons and Dragons.  But while I’ve raided a few bandit hideouts in my time, my story is about a different but no less revolutionary game: Magic: the Gathering.

In the early 1990s, Richard Garfield was an unkempt mathematics post-grad who designed games in his spare time.  He and a friend pitched a board game to Peter Adkison, CEO of Wizards of the Coast, a small gaming company looking for an innovation to sell, but it was too complex for Adkison’s scrappy firm to handle.   Adkison wanted something smaller and simpler, that could be played quickly between rounds at larger conventions.  Garfield told Adkison that he might have something, what he returned with was nothing short of a revolution.

Magic: the Gathering, released in 1993, is a combination of baseball cards and chess.  Cards representing various high-fantasy monsters, arcane spells, and powerful magic items can be collected and traded, but each has play value in a strategic, intellect-based game that pits players and their decks of cards against each other.  Players use their collections to fine-tune their decks in a game world that is ever-changing as regular expansions add new cards to the mix.

Magic was the first game to combine the two previously unrelated concepts, and it has become no less of a paradigm shift in the gaming world than D&D was a generation earlier.  Trading card games are everywhere now, and Magic is still going strong with over 20 million fans.  Its rise coincided with that of the internet, leading to a strong presence there among the players.  Some have become celebrities of sorts, leading the way in the world of e-sports as they compete in professional-level, livestreamed tournaments.  I, for one, care much more about the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour than I do about any mainstream sport.

I am a nerd.  I lead a robotics club at my school, unabashedly cosplay for no reason, and have a map of the Klingon Empire pinned up in my bedroom.  For most teens, this would be a social death sentence, but Magic saved me.  I play in local tournaments whenever I can, and the community of people I have met at these events is no less nerdy or obsessed that I am.  I feel comfortable being me when I’m there.  Among the older players are people I would look up to as mentors and examples.  I, and millions of others, owe Magic an unpayable debt.  It has given us an outlet for our creative energy, a community, and a common bond.

As for Garfield, he pocketed 100 million dollars when the wildly successful Wizards of the Coast was bought by toy giant Hasbro, and moved on with his life.  While he continues to design games, he understands and accepts that he will forever exist in the shadow of his creation.  In his words; “Pretty early on, I realized that trying to make the next Magic only going to make me unhappy.”  Garfield’s later projects, which have seen some success, are made with the same obsessive passion that brought forth Magic, not in some futile attempt to measure up.  That’s not to say Garfield is above continuing to tinker with Magic.  He returns to the game from time to time, and the expansions he helps create, such as 2005’s Ravnica: City of Guilds, the gothic-horror themed Innistrad, released in 2011, and most recently Dominaria this year, are among the most innovative and best-loved by players.

Richard Garfield created something that has made life better for millions of nerds like me.  And he did it because he is just as much a nerd as we are.  He wasn’t in it for money or recognition, though he has received much of both.  He just wanted to make something cool.  For that, he is worthy of the title “humanitarian of the year.”

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