ButWhatFor? Four for Friday | 2021 Review
Pearl Harbor, Uncommon Sense, Murder Ballads, and Tyranny
Welcome to all our new subscribers! ButWhatFor? covers anything, as long as it’s interesting. Thanks for joining!
A new long read is shared at the end of every month. The Friday email is about sharing and discussing works from others. If you enjoy the newsletter, please forward it to a few friends/colleagues or click here to share on Twitter to help us grow!
ButWhatFor? Four for Friday
Least Viewed: Uncommon Common Sense
BWF’s Favorite: The Great American Murder Ballad
2021 was a fun year for But What For?, though I wish I had been a more consistent writer for you all. So far, I have kept to my promises in December, so hopefully that bodes well for 2022.
If there is anything specific you would like to see in 2022, please let me know in the comments or email me directly. I appreciate knowing what you find interesting or would like to see going forward.
In terms of fun stats, 2021 saw an article break 100,000 views for the first time. Although that number doesn’t really mean anything special for the newsletter itself, personally, it’s fun to see it. Thank you to everyone that shared and forwarded that article — it ended up being the largest source of new subscribers in 2021 as well.
Speaking of subscribers, I want to say thank you to everyone that has stayed subscribed through the fits and starts of writing on my end — and thank you to all those that joined this year.
At the end of last year, I had 233 total subscribers. Last week, subscriber count climbed above 1,500 free subscribers, and — and this blows me away — I now have 2 paying subscribers! Two people are paying me to write this newsletter, which is something I never imagined could have happened. You can subscribe here as well, if you would like.
I hope everyone has been able to enjoy the end of the year, found time to spend with your families, and is looking forward to 2022.
Take care and Happy New Year,
This story was prompted by a 1964 compilation of Reader’s Digest stories called Secrets & Spies: Behind-the-Scenes Stories of World War II. I found the book in a used bookstore while waiting for a takeout order at a Korean restaurant next door, but Amazon has a few used copies (in the link above).
I also wrote a follow-up article to this one that looks at the attack on Pearl Harbor through the eyes of the Japanese military, which you can find here: Planning the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
Views: 100k+ across Substack, butwhatfor.com, Medium, and HackerNews
The military men on the island were completely demoralized. Their vessels and military structures were covered in flour — from “flour bombs” meant to simulate the real things. There were also dead flares that needed to be cleaned up, another form of simulated aircraft-delivered explosive that had been dropped on them.
It was February 1932 - WWII was more than half a decade away - and it was the first time that Pearl Harbor lost the annual simulated military games meant to test the island’s defenses.
Rear Admiral Harry E. Yarnell of the U.S. Navy had exposed a serious weakness in their defenses and won the simulated attack. And he had done it by going against the prevailing views of military leaders across the U.S. — he believed that in the future, a country’s navy would be successful only if its air capabilities matched its seagoing strength.
I was actually quite sad that this story didn’t get much traction or any shares (hint… hint… 🧡). To me, Frederick Taylor Gates’ story is a good reminder that if you focus on doing the right thing for the right reasons, eventually it should come back to you.
Or, as Charlie Munger says: “Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Day by day, and at the end of the day — if you live long enough — like most people, you will get out of life what you deserve.”
Last Thursday I mentioned that I wanted to share a little bit about a “particularly competent and undeservedly unknown man” from the late 1800s / early 1900s. John D. Rockefeller, who, as we will discuss, eventually entrusted his philanthropic activities to him, said that this man combined “business skill and philanthropic aptitude to a higher degree than any other man I have ever known.”
Quiet the compliment from one of the most successful businessmen in history.
This man was Frederick Taylor Gates - and the University of Chicago, Rockefeller University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and America’s model of medical school education and medicine research can all be tied back to his steadfast efforts and uncommon common sense.
I had fun writing this one because I got to pretend to be Sherlock Holmes for a couple of days while digging through decades-old websites and finding scans of documents from the 1800s.
I am also a bluegrass music fan, and the Murder of Omie Wise is one of bluegrass / American folk music’s most popular songs… but, was Omie’s story fiction? Or was it true — or somewhere in between?
As might be expected, it is hard to track down the whole truth of something that happened so long ago. But there are a few clues and hints - collected by numerous people more curious and more determined than me - that we might be able to piece together - so let’s start with what we do know is (almost) certainly true…
At the time of this story, John was in his early 20s and working as a clerk at a store owned by a Benjamin Elliott, which happened to be 15 miles from his permanent home. Making this journey every weekend, John often stopped by the home of William Adams, in the northern portion of Randolph County. It is said it was at Mr. Adams’ house that Naomi first laid eyes on John.
And that is where the closest items to facts in this story end in order to make way for a folk tale to begin.
C.S. Lewis Quote
My Twitter game was not very good this year — I have to go all the way back to January 2021 for my most-liked Tweet. Twitter shares (and Facebook shares) are actually where the majority of new subscribers seem to come from, so maybe I should work on that in 2022 (hint… hint.. feel free to share this on both platforms 🧡).
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.
It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be "cured" against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.
If you made it all down here, please take a moment to share it with someone that might find it interesting — I appreciate your support greatly!
Before the CIA, there was the OSS — the Office of Strategic Services. The organization was formed in 1942 to shore up American intelligence capabilities at the request of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Before the end of WWII, the OSS eventually employed ~24,000 people and had operations across Europe and Asia. Amongst its responsibilities was frustrating the German war effort, and to that end, it wrote a short set of “best practices” — the Simple Sabotage Field Manual.
The manual carried ideas that subversive groups in Nazi-occupied territory could use to damage Germany’s efficient war machine. Interestingly, these simple sabotage guidelines seem to have worked their way into modern-day best-practice guides for bureaucracies with ideas such as:
Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate “patriotic” comments.
When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible — never less than five.
Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
Be worried about the propriety of any decision—raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.
As many of you know, I work in early-stage tech investing. As part of that, I look to the past to see if there is anything we can learn about the future. I fail at accurate predictions roughly 100% of the time, but at least it is an interesting exercise.
As people today continue to worry about a stock market bubble and an inevitable crash to come, I started digging into historical stock market bubbles and crashes. After a little searching, I got introduced to John Law from the 1700s and one of the first attempts to create a paper money system — which worked out pretty well actually, for a time.
People in Paris were getting rich — and they were getting rich fast. In fact, it was so hard to describe how rich everyone was becoming that a new word was needed and the term “millionaire” was coined in 1719.
The people of France could thank a Scotsman with a penchant for gambling, the printing of new paper money, and all the vast riches that surely would be found in the New World for their sudden wealth.
The Scotsman was John Law and his paper money and stories of the New World brought France much prosperity, for a time.
The very first article I published on my website, back before I had even made a Substack account, was a summary of James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. I think it had a grand total of 16 views or so — so I re-wrote the article in 2021 in an attempt to make it easier to read and share with new subscribers.
It’s an interesting book if you want an overview, in layman’s terms, of how habits are formed, how they function over time, and how you might be able to create new ones. I have a few new habits thanks to the book — writing these articles (with fits and starts), exercising (though, that is hit or miss), and finding time to spend with family (interesting to think of that as a habit, but it very much is).
But what is interesting about all of this is that you don’t actually have much of a choice — you have to play the habit game, so to speak.
You have a set of habits that got you to where you are today. Those are either moving you towards the future identity that you want — or they are taking you down a different path.
Which direction are you moving? Are you happy with that?
This was a follow-up to the Most Viewed article above. It looks at the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor from the perspective of the Japanese military. Ultimately, the attack was a desperate gamble by a Japanese military pinched between US embargoes on military-related supplies and ramping needs on continental Asia for those same raw materials.
Through espionage efforts and a daring military strategy, Japan surprised the world’s strongest navy and brought the western hemisphere into the second world war.
The successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war, but prevailing wisdom in Japan at the time said that the entrance was an inevitable eventuality. Many feared that a full-on attack by the United States had the potential to hobble Japanese war efforts elsewhere and even bring about a Japanese defeat. Thus, the attack was more of a desperate gamble to buy Japan time to secure a larger geography from which to extract natural resources and defend itself.
Japan’s strategy in the lead up to the December 7th attack was as impressive as the attack itself, providing a reminder that underestimating what you are up against, as the United States did with Japan at the time, can give the other side an advantage over you.
Those that have been subscribers for a while have probably picked up on my affinity for Theodore Roosevelt due to the number of quotes I pulled from his writing. One of Roosevelt’s most famous speeches was given after his presidency while he was traveling in France — and it is now known as “The Man in the Arena.”
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
Have a great weekend — and Happy New Year,
See here for a full archive of ButWhatFor? articles
If you made it all the way down here, you might want to check out Refind — it is an AI-powered article recommendation platform. Their slogan is “the essence of the web, every morning in your inbox,” and it learns what you find interesting over time.
Full disclosure — if you click on that link, I get “advertising credit” on their platform, which essentially gives me free forwards to their readers. I use Refind myself, so I don’t view this as a conflict — but if you do, you can just search their name online to find them.
But What For? Writing about anything, as long as it’s interesting