Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

<em>Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson</em> by Gordon S. WoodThis 511-page book by Gordon S. Wood is what I call a “comparative biography”: a comparison and contrast of two contemporaries.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could hardly have been from more different backgrounds: Adams was a relatively poor New Englander from the “common” class and rose to prominence due to his law practice and writings, while Jefferson was born into the wealthy Virginian society and owned slaves his entire life.

Despite their drastically different beginnings, they both served as emissaries to France, served under Washington during his presidency, and served as President themselves.

They held opposing viewpoints on how the government should act (Adams favored monarchist traditions, while Jefferson adamantly believed in democratic methods) and attacked each other in the press so much that for a period of years, they stopped communicating altogether. After Jefferson’s presidency, a mutual friend (Dr. Benjamin Rush) convinced them that they should mend their relationship, and they continued writing to each other for the rest of their lives, finding much where they could agree.

One of my favorite things about this book is how it delves into explanations of the current political situation. For instance, it explained the English political system and the tension between the king and Parliament for sovereignty.

It also discussed Adams’ and Jefferson’s viewpoints on the strength of representative bodies vs. the executive, and Adams’ increasingly-peculiar views on representation and monarchy.

The book ends with a comparison and contrast of the two statesmen’s legacies, specifically how their overall beliefs have impacted how we view them today.

America is not a nation based on ethnicity, but rather based on ideas, specifically the principle that “all men are created equal.” In 1858, Lincoln observed  that “half the American people…had no direct blood connection to the Founders of the nation.” But Americans—both native-born and immigrants—do have a “set of beliefs that through the generations have supplied a bond that holds together the most diverse nation that history has ever known.…To be an American is not to be something, but to believe in something. And that something is what Jefferson declared.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it, both for the biographical content and the explanation of the politics in the formative days of our country. It definitely helps explain why Adams is the “forgotten” founding father.

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Thinking With Type by Ellen Lupton

Thinking with Type coverFor Christmas this past year, my wife gave me a copy of Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, and Students (2nd revised and expanded edition) by Ellen Lupton. I just finished it and very much enjoyed reading it. I’ll definitely be using it as a reference.

These days, I generally prefer to read Kindle books on my Kindle Paperwhite, but this book is definitely better as a physical book.

Description

This is a great introduction to and reference on typography. It’s divided into three main sections—Letter, Text, Grid—plus an appendix.

Letter

Explains some of the history of letterforms and the printing process, explaining why certain aspects of typography are tied to mechanical processes. Goes into details about type families, punctuation, numeral styles, typefaces on screen, and more.

Text

Discusses legibility in the context of large blocks of text including kerning, tracking, alignment, and more.

Grid

Talks about page formatting, the golden ratio, and more specific details about laying out text on a page.

Appendix

Includes more details on proofreading, editing, and some free advice.

My Thoughts

Much of this information I was already familiar with, partly due to my dad working in the printing industry and teaching us some of the terminology and concepts. A number of the concepts have also been covered by various blog posts and other publications that I’ve read through my career.

This guide includes examples on nearly every page (some created for the book and some from historical sources), either illustrating the point or depicting a “type crime” where type was mis-used.

Thinking with Type: capitals and line spacing
Capitals and line spacing
Thinking with Type: type family optical sizes
Type families and optical sizes

You can read the description of the book on Amazon for more information or take a look at the companion website for exercises and some more details.

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Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon MeachamAuthor of the Declaration of Independence, Virginia state legislator and governor, member of Congress, minister to France, Secretary of State under Washington, Vice President under Adams, and ultimately President himself, Thomas Jefferson was no stranger to power.

This 800-page volume was a good book, but I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t as biographical as I had initially hoped.

Influence

I hadn’t realized how much influence he had on other presidents:

“For thirty-six of the forty years between 1800 and 1840, either Jefferson or a self-described adherent of his served as president of the United States: James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren.32 (John Quincy Adams, a one-term president, was the single exception.) This unofficial and little-noted Jeffersonian dynasty is unmatched in American history.”
—Kindle location 192

Politics

Jefferson and Hamilton were openly opposed to each other’s politics and their disagreements ultimately became the basis of the two major parties at the time. Hamilton wanted a stronger, more centralized government which emphasized trade and commerce, while Jefferson despised those who worked with their heads instead of their hands—he wanted a rural, agrarian society. Thankfully, Hamilton had President Washington’s ear and the country headed that direction rather than remaining a simple farming culture.

Jefferson was a republican through and through:

“The Jefferson of the cabinet, of the vice presidency, and of the presidency can be best understood by recalling that his passion for the people and his regard for republicanism belonged to a man who believed that there were forces afoot—forces visible and invisible, domestic and foreign—that sought to undermine the rights of man by reestablishing the rule of priests and nobles and kings. His opposition to John Adams and to Alexander Hamilton, to the British and to financial speculators, grew out of this fundamental concern.”
—Kindle location 5171

Conclusion

This biography did cover major events in his personal life, but it seemed to shift a bit around the time he became President and began to read more like a philosophical discussion on how his seemingly-contradictory decisions fit into his framework of wielding executive power to fit his purposes.

It’s definitely worth reading and will give you a perspective on how he made decisions, but personally, I would look elsewhere if you are reading just one book about him for a good biography. That said, it does have a 4.5 star rating (with 1464 reviews) on Amazon, so many other people definitely enjoyed it.

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John Adams by David McCullough

John Adams by David McCulloughFinally…back to the actual presidents. John Adams by David MucCullough was my pick for our second president, partly because we owned a copy of the book already, and partly because it’s one of the most-acclaimed biographies of this lesser-known founding father.

I took almost a year to finish this 752-page book. At times it seemed a bit slow, but I did keep getting sidetracked with other unrelated books, so it’s not this volume’s fault.

Overall, it was a good biography; I didn’t feel like McCullough tried to gloss over Adams’ foibles and character deficiencies. It seemed an accurate portrayal of an intelligent, sometimes-cranky politician who was self-aware enough to know that he was too ambitious.

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The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

I recently finished reading The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee and it left me with quite a bit to think about.

The premise of the book is that while the first machine age used the “forces of energy trapped in chemical bonds” to release us from the limits of muscle power, the technologies we have as part of the second machine age are doing the same for mental power.

Comparison between the Machine Ages

The first machine age was all about mechanization: discovering how to use (primarily) chemical reactions to produce mechanical power, freeing us from the limits imposed by muscle power (both human and animal). This greatly expanded our boundaries of time and space, allowing us to travel much further and faster that was previously possible, as well as increasing our production capability.

The second machine age is about knowledge and information: using electronic methods to extend our communication and mental capabilities. Computers with their essentially-infinite storage capacity and near-instantaneous communication speeds allow us to “remember” anything at any time without actually storing it in our brains, and we can easily communicate with other people at different geographic or temporal locations.

Dangers of the Digital Age

While modern technology absolutely brings benefits, we should beware of its dangers as well. The authors noted “The Industrial Revolution was accompanied by soot-filled London skies and horrific exploitation of child labor. What will be their modern equivalent? Rapid and accelerating digitization is likely to bring economic rather than environmental disruption. … Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead. … Over time, the people of England and other countries concluded that some aspects of the Industrial Revolution were unacceptable and took steps to end them (democratic government and technological progress both helped with this).” (pages 10–11).

Characteristics of the Digital Age

A few key characteristics of technological progress include these:

Exponential

Moore’s Law and similar software improvement capabilities illustrate how the speed of change is accelerating.

Digital

Digital information is “non-rival” (not “used up” when accessed) and has a near-zero cost of reproduction (it’s extremely cheap to make another copy).

Combinatorial

General-purpose technologies (like a typical computer, general command-line utilities, etc.) have become pervasive and enable a huge number of new inventions when combined in new and interesting ways.

Wealth and Production

The authors note that in the first machine age, the wealthiest individuals were those who owned and controlled tangible assets—such as factories and means of production—while the less-skilled workers (those who actually did the work) did not fare as well.

They believe that production in the second machine age depends on these four intangible assets:

  • Intellectual property (patents, copyrights, research and development, etc.)
  • Organization capital (business practices, business models, etc.)
  • User-generated content (Facebook posts, etc.)
  • Human capital (skilled employees, etc.)

They draw the conclusion that as in the first machine age, those who control the capital will become increasingly more wealthy and powerful.

Economics

The authors discuss the trend of first-to-market and/or top-quality sellers capturing a huge share of the market (a much larger market share than is typical in physical product markets), mostly due to the non-rival and marginal reproductive cost characteristics of digital products. A power law distribution graph (long tail) illustrates this, compared to a normal distribution (bell curve) that previously was typical in markets—both goods markets and labor markets.

Power Law distribution
Power Law (long tail) distribution
Normal distribution
Normal (bell curve) distribution

They believe the characteristics of the digital age will tend to hollow out the middle class for these reasons:

  • There is no large bump in the middle of a power distribution graph; power and wealth is highly concentrated at one end.
  • There is no “average” or “typical” in a power distribution graph.

Where to Go from Here

The authors conclude by examining how humans and computers are likely to interact with each other in the future (spoiler alert: computers and humans are most effective when computers complement or augment humans, rather than replacing them).

They offer several recommendations for individuals:

  • “Improve the skills of ideation/creativity, large-frame pattern recognition, and complex communication” (page 197)
  • “Take advantage of self-organizing learning environments” (page 197)

They also offer a number of policy and long-term recommendations, but you’ll have to read the book for those.

Conclusion

I would definitely recommend anyone in the technical industry especially to read this book, as well as anyone in the position to influence public and education policy.

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It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the Politics of Extremism by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein

It’s Even Worse than It LooksThis 240-page volume by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein seeks to examine the causes for hyper-partisanship, deadlocked Congress, and refusal of the major parties to compromise to accomplish anything significant.

Honestly, this book sounded like it had been written during the 2016 election season rather than in 2012. They did release a second edition in 2016 with some updated information.

Problems

Adversarial Mindset

First, the authors point out that the Republican and Democrat parties have increasingly pointed at each other as adversaries, acting as if it’s “better to have an issue than a bill, to shape the party’s brand name and highlight party differences.” (p51). While undoubtedly this tactic does help win elections, it also limits the ability to accomplish anything.

“The single-minded focus on scoring political points over solving problems, escalating over the last several decades, has reached a level of such intensity and bitterness that the government seems incapable of taking and sustaining public decisions responsive to the existential challenges facing the country.”
—p101

Asymmetric Polarization

The authors coined this term to describe their conclusion that though politics are more polarized than in recent decades, they have not both moved the same distance from center. They argue that the Republican party has moved further to the right and become “more idealogically extreme;… scornful of compromise…; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government.” (p102). They don’t hold the Democratic party up as a “paragon of civic virtue” either, but contend that it is more “idealogically centered and diverse,… open to incremental changes in policy fashioned through bargaining with the Republicans, and less disposed to or adept at take-no-prisoners conflict between the parties.” (p102).

Suggestions

To address the hyper-polarized state of current politics, the authors seek parties that are “less idealogically polarized, more accepting of each other’s legitimacy, and more open to genuine deliberation and bargaining on issues of fundamental importance to the future of the country.” (p132, emphasis mine).

Expand the Electorate

Higher voter turnout would bring more moderate voters to the polls, reducing the extreme partisanship shown especially in primary elections.

Reduce Presumed Bias Against Moderates

Reducing gerrymandering, making primaries open or semi-closed instead of completely closed, and instant-runoff voting (ranking candidates in order of preference, rather than picking just one) may help reduce polarization.

Change Campaign Funding and Spending Rules and Practices

Requiring the disclosure of donors and prohibiting contributions from lobbyists and others receiving government money would help make candidates more transparent.

Others

They include several chapters with more suggestions for reducing hyper-polarization and improving honest deliberation and debate, both among citizens and government officials.

Conclusion

No matter your political leanings, you will find something here you do not like, probably because the authors managed to put a finger on something you do not like to acknowledge.

These authors were remarkably prescient; writing in 2012, they made some predictions of what would happen if a Republican government was elected in 2012. In 2017, nearly all of these have taken place already, with more on the horizon:

  • Dismantling health reform
  • Gutting financial regulation
  • Cutting taxes even more
  • Making deep cuts in domestic spending
  • Strong temptation on Mitch McConnell’s part to act unilaterally to erase the filibuster to take advantage of this rare chance to achieve revolutionary change
  • Steep reductions in Medicaid through block grants to the states
  • Partial privatization of Social Security
  • Massive deregulation in finance and environmental policy
  • More than half of the citizens would likely strongly oppose these moves and be jolted by their implementation

(pages 199–200)

I wholeheartedly recommend reading this book and considering what you can do to improve genuine deliberation and debate rather than name-calling, adversarial positions, and blind partisanship.

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Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton by Ron ChernowAnother tangent from my presidential biographies series…but learning about contemporaries is so interesting!

This 832-page biography goes into great detail about Hamilton’s life and legacy and was the inspiration for the hit Broadway show.

Before reading the book, I knew Hamilton had been the Treasury secretary, but I didn’t realize how much he was actually involved in our country’s formative years. From the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to commerce, the Coast Guard, and support for a strong executive, he managed to influence nearly every aspect of the government.

If you’re interested in US history or early politics, I definitely recommend reading this biography, as it goes into great detail about Hamilton, his politics, contemporaries, and relationships to other founding fathers.

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Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America by Stephen F. Knott

Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged AmericaA slight tangent from my presidential biographies series, this 352-page volume by Stephen F. Knott examines how Washington and Hamilton worked together and ultimately laid the foundation for banking and commercial success of the United States.

Jefferson’s view that the country should remain primarily an agrarian society stood in direct opposition to Hamilton’s dream of a robust national bank and thriving trade. Probably partly due to Hamilton’s service during the Revolutionary War as Washington’s secretary, and partly due to his prolific writing, he usually managed to get his ideas approved.

Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

Weak vs. Strong Federal Government

Jefferson, to give him his due, was primarily devoted to liberty, which he believed was best preserved in a simple republic in which the citizenry were truly self-sufficient, and many of Hamilton’s schemes threatened to erode that self-sufficiency. Washington and Hamilton were devoted to liberty but believed that this could be best achieved if Americans thought continentally, moving beyond the parochial and developing more of an attachment to a traditional nation-state.
—Kindle book location 4134

Washington and Hamilton looked at more conventional forms of national power as the surest bulwark of liberty, while Jefferson believed that the character of the citizenry, fostered in an environment of unencumbered liberty, would best protect the American experiment.
—Kindle book location 4140

Results of Washington and Hamilton’s Teamwork

Americans should put aside the caricatured account of their early history that pits the supposed “champions of the people” (Jefferson, Madison, and their party) against the “forces of privilege and authoritarianism” (Washington, Hamilton, and the Federalists). If they do so, they will discover that due to the exertions of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, the American people began to “think continentally” and created a strong union that decades and then centuries later helped defeat fascism and communism, explored the universe, produced endless scientific and technological breakthroughs, and perhaps most importantly abolished slavery and Jim Crow, thereby securing the blessings of liberty for all of their fellow citizens.
—Kindle book location 4251

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Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Washington: A Life by Ron ChernowI’ve started a new personal reading project: I plan to read a major biography about each of the US Presidents.

Obviously, the first is George Washington.

Washington: A Life written by Ron Chernow is a 930-page volume that thoroughly covers Washington’s life. There were a few things that surprised me a bit—they aren’t part of the typical “Founding Father” narrative in general history books or popular knowledge.

Federalist Leanings

One realization was the extent that Washington’s administration ended up leaning toward the Federalist side. He started out trying to limit executive power and stay within the bounds and intent of the Constitution as written, leaving as much power as possible to the states, but eventually realized the need for a stronger Federal government and took more control.

The author previously wrote a major biography on Alexander Hamilton (who was the definition of Federalist), so perhaps he interpreted some of Washington’s actions from that viewpoint, but Washington was heavily influenced by Hamilton.

Second-Term Attacks

Throughout his first term, the majority of the country practically adored their hero. During his second term, however, the press—especially Phillip Freneau (the National Gazette) and Benjamin Franklin Bache (the Aurora)—fiercely criticized him, even questioning his integrity, motivation for power, and military reputation. At least in my experience of popular history, this has largely been forgotten.

Summary

I highly recommend this book as both a good historical biography and as providing insight into Washington’s character and personality.

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