Non Enim Pertinet Ad Lauden Artificis, Inquantum Artifex Est, Qua Voluntate Opus Faciat, Sed Quale Sit Opus Quod Facit

While reading a translation of Umberto Eco’s The Aesthetics Of Thomas Aquinas, on page 185 of the work I came across the following quote from the writings of Thomas Aquinas on the praiseworthiness of creativity:  “Non enim pertinet ad lauden artificis, inquantum artifex est, aua voluntate opus faciat, sed quale sit opus quod facit.”  This was translated in the book as follows:  “An artist as such is not commendable for the will with which he makes a work, but for its quality.”  That is to say, according to Thomas Aquinas (at least as translated), it is not creativity for which an artist is to be praised, but for the fruits or results or quality of that creation.  That is to say, creativity as such is not praiseworthy, but the worth of creations determines the worth of anyone’s creativity in particular.  I happen to wholeheartedly agree with this statement, but it does suggest something of the ambivalence by which the medieval world held towards creativity and some of the ways in which contemporary society has neglected the qualitative role of creation and praised the will of artists without looking closely enough into the moral value (or lack thereof) of their creations.

Why is it important to be clear about the grounds on which we praise creativity?  To the extent that we have artistic judgments that reflect on the morality of creative works, we will find much to be censorious about when we examine the creations around us, or even our own works.  The quality of a given work can be judged by a variety of criteria.  For example, we may reflect on the quality of a work as reflecting the artist’s mastery (or lack thereof) of the proper techniques that are necessary to create a successful work.  Does an artist have mastery of perspective or brush and color technique?  Does a writer grasp the genre one is writing in have a firm grasp of structure and content?  Does a movie demonstrate sound direction as well as editing, lighting, score, screenwriting, as well as quality acting performances?  And so on and so forth.  Different people bring different standards of judgment to the table when it comes to looking at the quality of a work.  And, as previously mentioned, the quality of a work may not merely reflect the competence of an artist in one’s craft but also the moral quality of that work as well, which would tend to lead one to have negative views of those works which adopt a verismo perspective of seeking to deal with the more sordid and corrupt aspects of human existence.  Likewise we may appreciate the skill of a painting but view it as lacking morality because of its Hellenistic fondness for nudity or the use of prostitutes as models for virtuous biblical females or heathen mythological content in the painting itself.  Such examples can, of course, be multiplied ad infinitum.

Post-Nietzscheit has become customary in the analysis of contemporary creativity to praise the will of the human creator that brings forth some kind of artistic or technological novelty on those grounds alone, without considering other aspects of that creativity.  This praise of the will separate from any moral judgments about the value of the creation or any discussions about the ramifications and consequences of that creation amounts to a rebellion against the predominant role of morality in determining the worth of human endeavors.  Admittedly, it is all too easy for human beings to be prejudiced against the novel simply because of a native temperamental conservatism that dislikes change and novelty on those grounds alone, and simply seeks to justify this dislike of the novel by attributing it to morality as opposed to an inveterate tendency to resist change.  Nevertheless, if we must be careful to properly understand ourselves and our own attitude towards change as such, there are still legitimate grounds for the consideration of moral questions as being fundamental to any judgment about the worth and value of a given creation.  Even if we approve of creativity and novelty in general, to the extent that we are concerned with the preservation of humanity and dignity, we will be inclined to limit the possible uses and applications of a given novel art form or technology to keep its operation within boundaries of propriety and decency so that it does not cause harm to other people.

If we look at the will as opposed to the quality of works from a broader perspective we may better understand why it is unwise to praise the will in absence of other considerations.  When we are confronted with bratty children or toddlers throwing tantrums, we are present to the stirrings of the will in little beings who are not often aware of what is in their best interests and not inclined to respond kindly to restrictions placed upon acting according to their wishes and desires.  While we may praise someone’s obstinacy for the cause of righteousness in the face of hostility, we should make it clear to ourselves and to others that it is not the will in itself that we are praising, but rather the will to act according to what is right and proper, even if it comes at some expense to our peace of mind and to our ability to get along with others.  We praise resistance to tyranny and to evil, but we do not praise resistance as such, since we would condemn those who resist what is right and good in defense of evil.  Likewise, we praise the quality of art and the moral worth of artistic and technological novelty, and seek to channel them towards moral ends, and do not praise the will that leads someone to create as such, since people may have the will to create a lot of filth and garbage, and such a will is not worthy of praise.

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Book Review: Weird Ideas That Work

Weird Ideas That Work:  11 1/2 Practices For Promoting, Managing, And Sustaining Innovation, by Robert I. Sutton

This book is an exhibit in something that does not often receive enough attention, and that is the way that in order to cultivate innovation, we often have to do things that are not comfortable for us.  Innovation is, after all, all about encouraging change and growth, and these things are painful and unpleasant to us.  Even if there are some areas where we relish growth, there are likely to be a great many more areas where changing things does not come easily and where those who push us to change or grow will not be people we necessarily enjoy being around.  Furthermore, as this author does not sugarcoat, a great deal of innovations are in fact not very worthwhile or successful, but that in order to cultivate innovation in general, in the hope of finding a few new ideas that can be developed into very worthwhile new approaches or technologies, one has to put up with a lot of very bad ideas.  Knowing this and accepting this is certainly an important part of being able to encourage innovation.  And if one does not wish to do so, it is at least good to understand why it is that innovative and creative people do tend to make others feel uneasy with their complacency.

This book of about 200 pages is divided into three parts and 15 fairly short chapters.  The author begins with two chapters on why the book’s weird ideas work (I), namely why they work but seem weird (1) and a definition of creativity (2).  The second part of the book, which takes up most of the book’s material, examines the weird ideas in turn (II), specifically:  hiring those who learn the organizational code slowly, if at all (3), hiring people who make one uncomfortable (4), hiring people one doesn’t need (5), using job interviews to get ideas and insight, not to screen candidates (6), encouraging people to ignore and defy peers and superiors (7), finding happy people and getting them to fight (8), rewarding success and failure and punishing inaction (9), deciding to do something that will probably fail and then convince everyone that it will certainly succeed (10), thinking of some ridiculous things to do and then planning to do them (11), avoiding, distracting, and boring customers, critics, and anyone who only wants to talk about money (12), not trying to learn anything from those who have solved one’s problems (13), and forgetting the past, especially past successes (14).  After this the author closes with a chapter on putting weird ideas to work (III), namely building companies where innovation is a way of life (15), after which there are acknowledgments, notes, and an index.

Why is it that these ideas work, and what do we know about institutions where these weird ideas are anathema?  Well, to take the second question first, it is useful to note that these ideas are precisely the opposite behavior of what a conservative church would do, and it is fairly obvious why, because in some areas of life innovation is not only not particularly appreciated, but it is particularly and strongly disliked.  This then leads into the obvious question of why these weird ideas work in the first place.  Innovation and change require someone who thinks differently than others do, and who is capable of envisioning a different world than that which now exists.  Such people are not likely to be the most charming or socially adept, because their internal drummer will be far stronger than their interest in and ability to conform with others.  This lack of conformity makes others uncomfortable and can create issues with others, and cultivating eccentric people who march to the beat of their own drummer and have a variety of odd or wacky ideas, most of which are bad but some of which are very good is not a very comfortable or easy thing to do.  The question is, do we value innovation in a particular area?  And if we do, we are going to have to do some unconventional and uncomfortable things in order to cultivate change and creativity, since it will not come in packages and ways that we will be familiar with or immediately fond of.

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Book Review: The Design Of Business

The Design Of Business:  Why Design Thinking Is The Next Competitive Advantage, by Roger Martin

It must be admitted that a book like this has a bit of an uphill climb.  The author seeks to promote a sort of thinking that runs counter to the quantitative spirit of the times and points out the sort of systemic biases in favor of reliability over validity that make it hard for people in many contemporary businesses to justify the high-risk, high-reward efforts at creative thinking that make it possible to provide genuine and long-lasting competitive advantages in a world where most businesses are content to seek to exploit existing insights and run businesses into the ground.  The author captures an understanding of the uncertainty that makes it both hard to turn some fields (like songwriting) into algorithms, although many try, and also points out that looking for new messy fields to draw insights from can be a very profitable and useful way for companies to prosper, and also points out that many companies can be a victim of their own success by ditching the habits that led them to be creative in the past but where complacency and a rentier mentality has made creativity a harder sell given its inherent messiness in the present.

This book is a short one of less than 200 pages and is a pretty quick read.  After some acknowledgements the author begins with a discussion of the knowledge funnel and how it is that discovery takes shape as messy reality is first sorted into heuristics and then turned into handy and effective algorithms (1).  This leads to a discussion of the reliability bias that privileges ways that are already known to work and makes it hard for knowledge to progress because of the temperamental conservatism of people and institutions (2).  After that the author introduces the subject of design thinking and how it can provide a competitive advantage for businesses (3), as well as a discussion of how adopting this way of thinking can transform companies that are struggling to survive in the midst of difficult times, as was the case for Proctor & Gamble (4).  A discussion of the balancing act that must take place between reliability and validity follows (5), as does a look at how cutting-edge companies are world-class explorers (6) in a world generally content to exploit.  Finally, the book closes with a discussion on how the reader can develop oneself as a design thinker (7), along with notes, an index, and some information about the author.

At its core, this book is an appeal for the reader to develop and to appreciate abductive thinking, where one first observes messy reality and then seeks the most elegant explanation for these observations.  Admittedly, this is not a style of thinking that is appreciated and encouraged in many business schools and it certainly goes against the grain of the way that people tend to think most of the time.  Yet it does allow one to think as a designer, as it is a way of inferring explanations and designs and intents from the observations we make of what is around us.  By becoming world-class noticers of our world and people who think and reflect upon what we notice, we can become far more creative people whether we are directly aiming at it or not.  I’m not sure how successful the author is in advocating this for the general public, as one would think that most of the people who read this book are likely to already be people who practice this tendency In a sense, this book is likely preaching to the choir, which means that while this book will be interesting and encouraging to those who are already practicing thinking like a designer, it is less likely to make it less uncommon to think in this fashion.

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Book Review: Cradle To Cradle

Cradle To Cradle:  Remaking The Way We Make Things, by William McDonough & Michael Braungart

There are times where writers forget the sort of audience that they are writing to with serious consequences and such is the case with this book.  This is at the heart of this book a very sensible call for businesses to change the way that they design their processes and materials for less waste and for a much higher degree of recycling (or even upcycling), but that very sensible and worthwhile message is buried beneath a lot of progressive environmentalist virtue signalling that is quite offensive to those readers who come from the right-of-center (like myself) and who have a much higher respect than these writers do for the value of industrialization and the benefits that resulted from providing mass production that met the needs of the general people rather than expensive and custom artisan production that only met the needs of the selfish elites to which the readers and their target audience belong.  It is easy when reading a book like this to be so offended at the snobbery and contempt that the readers have for mass producers and the need to build the well-being of society through addressing mass audiences that one neglects the design viewpoint that they are trying to promote, and that would be a shame.

The authors begin with an introduction that states that the book is not a tree and engage in some virtue signalling about the sort of material that was used to make this book to demonstrate their ecological bona fides to their target audience.  After that the authors look at the issue of design to note why it is that recycling is less effective than it could be based on what is or is not designed into material with plans for its full life-cycle (1).  This leads to a purist discussion that makes the best environmental practices the enemy of the good or at least less bad (2).  After that there is a chapter where the authors talk about eco-effectiveness and what that means and what sort of tradeoffs are involved in various processes (3).  After that the author talks about waste and how in well-designed processes it provides the food for further cycles of growth (4), and then some more virtue signalling about the value of diversity and hostility to monoculture (5).  Finally, the authors offer some well-meaning advice on how to put eco-effectiveness into practice (6) after which there are notes and acknowledgments, with the total being less than 200 pages.

Bless their hearts, the authors are trying really hard not to be too biased against businesses, but they really fail badly at trying to appeal to an audience outside of their narrow political worldview.  The authors come from a tradition of elite design as well as Green politics, and the results are obvious in their lack of understanding of how to appeal to those who are concerned about the state of God’s creation and the mess we often make of it but who are also bothered by the approach that the authors take to virtue signal to progressive political talking points.  There is at the core of this book some very sensible advice about how one can design for less toxic or non-toxic materials and plan for how waste from the desired item is going to be used in some productive way so as not to be waste at all in a negative sense, but something more akin to manure that becomes fertilizer for further crops in a virtuous cycle.  But one has to be a very patient and gracious reader in gathering these points.  The authors really need to improve their approach and recognize that there are people who would listen to an eco-friendly message so long as it was not packaged in an offensive and contemptuous fashion.

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On The Logistics Of The Chicken Wars

As I have made clear on several occasions, I am very fond of beefs between competing restaurants [1].  Earlier this week social media (or at least that portion of it I was paying attention to) was filled with a great deal of enthusiasm for a chicken war between Chick-Fil-A and Popyeye’s, two nationwide fast food restaurants that make millions of dollars selling chicken products.  Now, I think it must be admitted at the outset that I like both of these restaurants.  Chick-Fil-A took some heat for conservative politics and has some amazing marketing and I love their chicken strips, plain chicken sandwiches, sweet tea, and cheesecake (though sadly their Oregon locations do not have the cheesecake like the Florida ones did when I was a young adult).  On the other hand, Popeye’s has great fried chicken and biscuits, tasty cajun side dishes I really enjoy, and also has amazing sweet tea as well as tasty apple pie and other desserts.  I would say that I like both restaurants about equally although go to Popeye’s more because they offer more food for roughly the same amount of money, but I definitely enjoy both businesses.

As a relatively unbiased spectator of their attempts at drumming up sales for both restaurants, I can appreciate what both companies do when it comes to chicken.  There are, as one might imagine, many ways that chicken can be prepared that is enjoyable to eat.  One can fry it in various oils (peanut oil is a personal favorite), bake it, broil it, grill it.  One can dice it up and put it in salads, put bread crust on it, take out the bones on it, put various sauces and rubs on it, put it in thousands of tasty dishes with various spices and accoutrements.  One can even take chicken feet (which I otherwise do not like) and boil it into fantastic chicken stock for tasty soups.  One can eat chicken prepared various ways as finger food, enjoy it on salads, eat it with pasta or rice or various cooked vegetables, eat it in sandwiches or strips or nuggets or tacos or quesadillas or another other number of other packaging, and can have it breakfast, lunch, and dinner, though I tend to have it mostly for lunch and dinner.  One can put it in pot pies or eat it off of a toothpick and go on and on about the recipes it can be used in Forrest Gump-style.

Yet when one is a chicken restaurant engaged in a war with a rival company that serves tasty varieties of the same base protein, logistics are of the utmost importance.  It should go without saying–if you want to sell people chicken, you need to have chicken to sell them.  And it so happens that at least the nearest Popeye’s location, where I had dinner last night while reading some Marcus Didius Falco mysteries, failed at the very essential task of having chicken to sell.  Now, they had plenty of the chicken I was looking for–mild chicken pieces–but they were already out of chicken sandwiches by the time I arrived at the restaurant, leaving them subject to some mocking and ridicule by their customers as they unsuccessfully dealt with large crowds of people eating, and they (perhaps more difficult to forgive) quickly ran out of sweet tea as well.  If one is making an advertising campaign based on the quality of one’s chicken sandwich, it behooves a restaurant to have enough of said chicken sandwiches for one’s customers by the time that dinner rolls around.  This sort of logistical concern is pretty basic.

And such logistics seem to be difficult for companies to deal with.  When one uses marketing to drive up demand for a particular item, it is not always easy to ensure that restaurants have enough of said items to deal with the increased demand that comes their way, not least in a day and age where just-in-time processes limit the amount of spare inventory that can be devoted to handling demand spikes.  This can be particularly unforgiving when it comes to the restaurant business, where people want to eat and want to eat right then, no matter if one is not going to have enough chicken sandwiches for a day or two when the next shipments come in.  “I’m hungry now, and you promised me the best chicken sandwiches around and don’t have them,” does not tend to lead to happy interactions between businesses and potential customers.  And here Popeye’s is at a bit of a disadvantage relative to its competitor in the chicken wars because it offers bone in chicken as well as chicken strips and sandwiches, has mixed dishes of chicken and various types of unclean seafood, and has its bone-in chicken in both mild and spicy varieties (I go for mild myself).  Meanwhile, Chick-Fil-A has a more limited menu that has chicken strips of a couple varieties as well as chicken sandwiches of limited types.  The fact that Popeye’s must make more chicken of more varieties does put it at a bit of a disadvantage when one of those items is particularly popular, which makes one wonder why they picked this fight in the first place without having the logistics to handle it.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Consider The Fork

Consider The Fork:  A History Of How We Cook And Eat, by Bee Wilson

I must admit that I liked this book a great deal, since it tends to look at items we take for granted and ways of eating that we may take for granted and looks at it from the point of view of the history of technology.  The author has clearly done a lot of reading and other research into the history of food and its creation, and has some very intriguing insights about how this has changed over time and how many fads were signals of larger issues that might not be resolved either.  The author points to some cases where people were early adopters of food technologies or food ways that were not necessarily ideal at first, while others have fallen behind and have been resistant to food ways for one reason or another.  The author reminds us that as is the case in so many other areas of life, the way that we prepare food is based on a variety of factors and that it has implications on the way we cook.  Too many resources tends to make for lazy cooking methods (see, the English), while some ways of cooking are immensely dependent on cooling and on high-tech devices (see, the Americans).  All of this makes for fascinating reading.

This book of about 300 pages is divided into eight pretty long chapters with smaller sections at the end that look at specific food technologies.  After introducing the subject, the author discusses pots and pans and how it is that these have been developed over time, with a note on the rice cooker at the end (1).  The author then looks at the knife and how it transformed cooking very early in human history, with the mazzaluna at the end (2).  The third chapter discusses fire and how it made it possible for us to digest more food than before, with the toaster and its late development at the end (3).  The fourth chapter looks at measuring, noting that Americans measure in cups while other cultures tend to measure more in weight, closed with the egg timer (4).  The author then looks at grinding and food processing with a discussion of the nutmeg grater at the end (5).  The author then turns to her attention to how we eat with a discussion of tongs and their handiness at the end (6).  This leads to a discussion of ice and various cooling technologies that closes with a brief discussion of jelly molds (7).  The final chapter then discusses the design of kitchens over time with a closing discussion of coffee (8), after which there are acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Among the more interesting insights of this book are the following.  There are always trade-offs in the technologies we have.  That which works well for some purposes will not work well for others, so we must have either a variety of specialized utensils or pans or food processors (or at least different add-ons for them) or we must have fewer items that may do more things but do them less well.  Likewise, there are trade-offs involved in the sort of availability of fuel and power.  Those cultures where fuel was common (England) developed massively fuel-intensive ways of cooking that hindered the development of doing more with less that was the case in cultures where resources were under greater constraints (like France), and some ways of cooking were only possible with refrigerators and freezers of the kind that are so commonly relied upon in the United States, whose ways are puzzling to the rest of the world sometimes.  Likewise, it was intriguing to see the way that some cooks like to virtue signal their refusal to use certain devices as a way of maintaining their hipster credibility, demonstrating that cooking and eating has always been a politically act, even when it comes to the design of spoons.

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Book Review: Death In The Pot

Death In The Pot:  The Impact Of Food Poisoning On History, by Morton Satin

There is a surprisingly large amount of importance that food poisoning has on the course of history, and this author demonstrates that there is a highly significant relationship between the problems of logistics, and a wide variety of health problems including chronic conditions as well as sudden death.  Whether we are dealing with poisoned mushrooms and the truism that there are bold mushroom hunters and old mushroom hunters but no bold and old mushroom hunters or the effects of lead on gout as well as Franklin’s ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition, the author demonstrates that food and illnesses that result from food poisoning have had an important impact on history and continue to do so to this day.  Given our fondness for food and the vulnerability of our food supply to adulteration, it is likely that food poisoning will consider to have a powerful impact on history whether we become ill because of negligence or active malice on the part of those who make, transport, prepare, or corrupt our food.  This has been going on for a long time and it will likely go on for a long time in the future, and so this book is not only an exciting read but is likely to remain relevant.

This book of about 250 pages begins with acknowledgements, a foreword, a preface, and an introduction where the author defends his desire to write about food poisoning and its role in history, as well as a creative example of what food poisoning would have looked like in prehistory, with a discussion of evidence of food-borne diseases in antiquity, evidence in bones and teeth as well as mummies and bog bodies, and even the massive of evidence of food poisoning that exists in historical accounts.  The first part of the book covers food poisoning in ancient history in two chapters, the first dealing with the Egyptians and Hebrews, including a lot of evidence from the Bible, and the second examining the problem of food poisoning for the Greeks and Romans.  After that a single chapter covers food poisoning in the Middle Ages, including St. Anthony’s Fire (3).  Then there is a chapter that discusses food poisoning in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, including the Salem Witch Trial (4).  Finally, the book concludes with a discussion of food poisoning during the industrial revolution (5) as well as modern times (6), after which there is an epilogue and an index.

Food poisoning is a reality that affects a lot of people in the contemporary world.  When companies bottle rapeseed oil and label it as extra virgin olive oil, when unsanitary practices make e.coli rage through the harvesting of spinach and sprouts, when companies undercook meat and when private canning efforts and the risks of raw milk lead to sickness on the part of even those people who wish to take responsibility for their own, it is clear that food poisoning hits us all regardless of what food choices we make.  Should we grow our own food or seek to buy from sources that are not adulterated, we face the dangers that have always stalked humanity when it comes to our food supply, and should we trust to industrial food processes we will suffer food poisoning from other directions.  This book does a good job at reminding us that there are always risks when it comes to food and that we can be poisoned by food in a variety of different ways.  Given that it is all too easy to only blame one side and not the other when it comes to various food wars in our time that are likely to continue so long as our health is threatened by what people are doing with our food, which is likely to be an ongoing problem.

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Book Review: The Graves Are Walking

The Graves Are Walking:  The Great Famine And The Saga Of The Irish People, by John Kelly

I am not sure whether the historian of this book deserves blame, but when reading a book I felt rather exasperated at the Irish people (especially their political class) and rather sympathetic about the wrongful abuse that the English government has suffered for generations because of the Irish desire to blame someone else rather than accept responsibility for what happened in the Irish famine.  I know the author probably intended the reader to feel compassion for the poor suffering Irish masses, but in view of their laziness and corruption and in their refusal to buy food even as they purchased weapons and their preference for destroying property and rising up in rebellion as opposed to working for their survival, the Irish in this book came off as generally unsympathetic to me.  Even more to the point, the author’s desire to blame the English for seeking to use the Irish potato famine to support necessary cultural change struck me as disingenuous because the English, for all of their flaws, were far more right than the author and indeed the Irish and their corrupt political leadership.  And that is a great shame.

This particular book of more than 300 pages is told as a narrative history in sixteen chapters.  The author begins with an introduction and then discusses the activities of three Englishmen in Ireland (1).  The beginning of the famines and the bad news about the failure of the 1846 crop then follows (2), along with a discussion of how the Irish can live on anything (3).  This leads to the want that began to afflict the island (4) and then the hanging of one Bryan Serry (5) and the discussion of religious motivations for England’s behavior (6).  After that corrupt Irish politicians argue about politics (7) while the starvation of Ireland is viewed as a threat to the legitimacy of England’s rule (8).  The author then discusses moralizing (9) and the cold of the winter of 1846-1847 (10) as well as more arguments in England about what could be done for Ireland (11).  After that there is a discussion of the illnesses that struck the famished Irish masses (12) and more questions about sin and atonement and what could be done for the Irish (13).  Finally, the book concludes with chapters about the flight of the Irish for other lands, especially the United States (14), the process by which they were Americanized (15), and the catastrophe and its consolations (16), as well as an afterword, notes, acknowledgments, and an index.

This book has at its core a fateful internal contradiction, which does not make the book less interesting as a narrative history but certainly less authoritative in its perspective.  The author is constantly insulting the English leaders of the time for their insistence that any solution to the Irish famine problem involve questions of political economy, but the book itself reveals the importance of questions of political economy to the well-being of the Irish.  Their continual efforts at fraud when it came to preferred forms of the dole and their lack of a worth ethic are at the core of the sufferings of the Irish people, and their refusal to work for food until it was too late to prevent mass suffering and the refusal of the political class of the Irish to provide employment, relief, or even paying of their taxes to help pay for aid for the Irish also demonstrate that the famine was not so much a problem merely due to the potato blight but due to the failures of the Irish people themselves.  All of the blaming of the English for seeking to use a crisis to encourage the moral development of the Irish people does not change the fact that the English were perfectly right to do so, and that the Irish were responsible for a great deal of the suffering that befell their nation during the 1840’s.  All of the sympathy for poor, starving Irish masses does not erase the fact that they would have been less poor and starving had they been more virtuous and industrious before and even during the famine itself.

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It Could Happen To You

I’d like to admit at the outset that I have gotten a certain amount malicious enjoyment out of roasting Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren for her claims of having Cherokee ancestry [1] when DNA tests have indicated pretty clearly that she does not have enough to qualify as a member of the tribe, regardless of how much she tries to pander to the tribal vote with promises of greater autonomy and more federal money going their way.  It is not my intention today to talk about my antipathy to Warren’s politics, serious as it is, or my thoughts about the various problems that hinder economic development in tribal lands, some of which can be placed on the failures of tribal authorities themselves to act in the best interests of the residents of reservations and some of which can be placed on various structural failures with regards to the security of private property rights within reservations.  No, what I would like to talk about is an area where I can actually empathize with Elizabeth Warren, but I suspect the same thing happened to her that happened to me.  And if it happened to such different people as Warren and myself, it could happen to you too.

In the summer of 2003, I visited my father’s family farm during part of the summer.  It was a terrible summer for the farm, raining every day with gloomy weather that made it impossible to harvest hay in square bales throughout the entirety of June and July, seriously endangering the food supply of our family’s then-healthy set of dairy cattle for the upcoming winter.  During the course of that gloomy summer my father and I, along with my grandmother, visited my great-aunt and her daughter who lived in nearby Irwin.  While we ate at a casual dining place in town, my great-aunt expressed her thoughts that her mother had a great deal of Cherokee ancestry and expressed the fears she had of being deported by the government.  She happened to be a very loyal and somewhat elite member of the Democratic party in Westmoreland county (her late husband had been involved in the party structure somehow) but she was convinced that she had enough Cherokee blood to endanger her safety and property rights, an example of the sort of paranoia that I inherited from that side of the family when it comes to tyrannical government behavior.

Yet my own research about my great-grandmother [2] suggested that rather than dangerous levels of exogamy through marriage between German farmers and local freely ranging Cherokee, that her heritage had a surprisingly high level of endogamy with three of her grandparents’ lines converging on the same small set of Linderman ancestors.  And my own DNA results and that of a first-cousin of mine both show large amounts of German ancestral DNA but not a single whiff of DNA from various indigenous tribes.  I have no doubt that my late great-aunt was sincerely paranoid and sincerely thought that she had large amounts of Cherokee ancestry, but she was also apparently sincerely very wrong.  I suspect Warren probably heard similar stories from her family members and was inclined to believe them, not least when it became woke to claim native ancestry and to receive a large amount of benefits for oneself and one’s institutions for doing so.  The DNA evidence doesn’t lie, and even though it is possible that DNA segments once thought English or German could be revised and found to be Cherokee, it is unlikely that this will happen to a degree sufficient to make the claims of Warren or my great-aunt valid when it comes to the amount of Cherokee ancestry that they claimed for themselves.  Instead of being clandestine possible members of tribes that had been able to successfully pass into white society while also still seeking to claim the benefits of tribal affiliation, we were simply fairly ordinary Americans of northern and western European ancestry.

Why did such family stories exist in the first place, though?  At least speaking for my great aunt, she did not draw any sort of benefits that I could tell from her reputed Cherokee ancestry (unlike Warren, it should be noted).  She did not use that ancestry to claim a status as a possible member of a tribe as a way of profiting from the intersectionality of diversity in hiring.  She was an elderly widow living in a small town in Western Pennsylvania who seemed quite terrified of the possible implications of her ancestry.  And yet she had a story of family ancestry that was not in line with the DNA that was passed down through to her relatives.  Having come across a great many people who claim various native ancestral heritage (and do so frequently in error), I have pondered what it is that people seek when they claim such ancestry, especially when it comes at some cost to their credibility with other people as trustworthy people and when it opens them to ridicule as well as creates hostility with tribes who do not want such such people to receive such benefits of tribal affiliation as currently exist.

The most obvious answer I can come up with that explains the various cases of apparently false claims of ancestral heritage with members of various indigenous peoples is that there is a strong desire on the part of many white Americans, particularly those who are of the woke variety, to seek some sort of deep and personal tie with the original inhabitants of the land.  My own ancestors mostly came to the United States during the colonial period and were part of that gradual westward push of white folk into sparsely populated tribal grounds were fur trapping and hunting were replaced by the placement of towns and the settlement of farmers with an incurable desire for land.  In certain circles there is a high degree of guilt for the fraud and coercion that tribes suffered over the course of centuries so that our ancestors could find a haven from oppressive governments and obtain the land that allowed them to secure a better life for themselves and their descendants.  We still benefit today from the fact that we are descended from freeholding settler colonists rather than Rhenish or British peasantry eking out bare survival generation after generation.  Yet along with those benefits we also recognize that our gain involved a great deal of loss for other people who faced exile from their own homeland in the face of massive demographic pressures coupled with massive amounts of land speculation.  In such circumstances it is all too easy to claim an ancestral heritage that includes the original inhabitants of the land, even where that is not the case, because it makes us feel more legitimate, that we truly belong where we are, with a claim to our land and our place in society that does not depend on force or fraud.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

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Book Review: Rare

Rare:  The High-Stakes Race To Satisfy Our Need For The Scarcest Metals On Earth, by Keith Veronese

Admittedly, I would not consider myself to be as knowledgeable about the state of conflict metals or the current Chinese domination of the global trade in rare earth metals as I probably should be, but this book certainly provides plenty of insight about those subjects.  It so happens that rare earth metals are in some particularly interesting areas for some interesting reasons, and while there is a lot of speculation that exists about why this is the case, the fact that Greenland, Congo, and China (as well as the United States) are places where a lot of rare earth metals happen to be has a great deal of significance in the world, as it provides some play for geopolitics in how these resources are traded and developed.  It is clear that the author has spent a great deal of time reflecting on how materials are mined and the way they are put to use and how it is that scarcity and value and industrial use are all interrelated in strange ways.  If you have an interest in these matters then you will likely find much to appreciate in this book as well.

This particular book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into sixteen chapters.  The author begins by looking at the history between man and metal, going back a long time (1) before then looking at what makes rare earth metals rare (2).  This leads to a discussion about the way that China played the long game in order to ensure a dominance in the contemporary market for these metals (3) while also taking a look at what can be found in a single rock that makes rare earth metals such a fuel for conflict in Congo (4).  After that the author looks at the importance of the rare earth metals in the Cold War (5) as well as the way that some of them are created in nuclear reactors (6) in the process of controlled fission.  After that the author discusses the way that gold can be counterfeited (7) in clever ways and how some rare metals have been used to kill people in extremely unpleasant ways (8).  There is a discussion about the relationship between golf clubs, iphones, and tribal wars (9) as well as a look at the question of the concentration of these metals and what causes it (10).  The question of dirty recycling in poorer countries is the subject the author discusses next (11) and then the author discusses the way that rare earth metals could provide prosperity for Afghanistan if they were properly handled (12).  The author discusses platinum and its importance to the contemporary world (13) and then discusses what the next precious metals are likely to be (14).  Finally, the author discusses what happens when rare earth metals become too rare for contemporary industrial use (15) and how to make such matters more sustainable for the future (16), after which there is an epilogue, acknowledgements, and notes.

Rare earth metals are certainly quite rare, but for some reasons they are concentrated in certain areas of the globe.  The author notes that these metals are largely nondescript and obscure but that they have some important uses that became important when they were found in large enough quantities to be commercially viable.  Unfortunately, that commercial viability depends on China at present, and it would take years or some dramatic efforts for other areas to ramp up their supply of the metals in commercially useful form, since ores have to be mined and then refined.  At any rate, this author has a wide knowledge of where rare earth metals come from, how they are used, and what trade and conflicts result from their existence in certain parts of the world.  This sort of knowledge is, no pun intended, quite rare, and it is the sort of knowledge that people who want to understand at least part of the danger of contemporary geopolitics and the dangerous items that are required for our level of technology would do well to read this book or others like it.

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