The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker


The Secret Life of Pronouns

We spend our lives communicating. In the last fifty years, we’ve zoomed through radically different forms of communication, from typewriters to tablet computers, text messages to tweets. We generate more and more words with each passing day. Hiding in that deluge of language are amazing insights into who we are, how we think, and what we feel.

In The Secret Life of Pronouns, social psychologist and language expert James W. Pennebaker uses his groundbreaking research in computational linguistics-in essence, counting the frequency of words we use-to show that our language carries secrets about our feelings, our self-concept, and our social intelligence. Our most forgettable words, such as pronouns and prepositions, can be the most revealing: their patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints. 

Using innovative analytic techniques, Pennebaker X-rays everything from Craigslist advertisements to the Federalist Papers-or your own writing, in quizzes you can take yourself-to yield unexpected insights. Who would have predicted that the high school student who uses too many verbs in her college admissions essay is likely to make lower grades in college? Or that a world leader’s use of pronouns could reliably presage whether he led his country into war? You’ll learn why it’s bad when politicians use “we” instead of “I,” what Lady Gaga and William Butler Yeats have in common, and how Ebenezer Scrooge’s syntax hints at his self-deception and repressed emotion. Barack Obama, Sylvia Plath, and King Lear are among the figures who make cameo appearances in this sprightly, surprising tour of what our words are saying-whether we mean them to or not.

My Thoughts

I thought this was a mildly interesting book explaining how people’s use of language reveals a lot about their personality and mental condition.

For instance, when speaking to a superior, people tend to use more personal pronouns, but when speaking to a person under their authority, they tend to use far fewer pronouns. This is an unconscious behavior that happens even within minutes of meeting a stranger.

However, the book didn’t seem especially practical. Many times the author reiterated that we don’t pick up on differences in pronoun usage and must rely on word-counting software to analyze text and find patterns. Because word usage is a symptom, not the cause of our behavior, changing our speech patterns won’t have much effect. Rather, it opens a window into what’s going on internally in a person’s thoughts and emotions.

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon Meacham

The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels by Jon MeachamWritten partially in response to the 2017 white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, this 416-page book examines a number of critical turning points in American history:

  • The Civil War, Reconstruction, and the birth of the Lost Cause
  • The backlash against immigrants in the First World War and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s
  • The fight for women’s rights
  • The demagoguery of Huey Long and Father Coughlin and the isolationist work of America First in the years before World War II
  • The anti-Communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy
  • Lyndon Johnson’s crusade against Jim Crow

In each of these crises, author Jon Meacham contrasts the difference between reactionary fear holding us back and hope for a better future leading us to make positive change:

“Fear is about limits; hope is about growth. … Fear points at others, assigning blame; hope points ahead, working for a common good. Fear pushes away; hope pulls others closer. Fear divides; hope unifies.”—p16

I believe the thesis is in line with 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” We must not allow fear to be our motivating factor when making political—or any—choices.

While not an exhaustive history, Meacham emphasizes a number of presidents and other historical figures to illustrate his point:

  • Presidents
    • Abraham Lincoln
    • Ulysses S. Grant
    • Theodore Roosevelt
    • Woodrow Wilson
    • Franklin D. Roosevelt
    • Harry S. Truman
    • Dwight Eisenhower
    • Lyndon B. Johnson
  • Other figures
    • Martin Luther King, Jr.
    • Early suffragettes Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt
    • Civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks and John Lewis
    • First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt
    • Army-McCarthy hearings lawyer Joseph N. Welch


On How We Treat Our Fellow Humans

“When the unreconstructed Southerner is the late nineteenth century or the anti-Semite of the twentieth believed—or the nativist of the globalized world believes—others to be less human, then the protocols of politics and the checks and balances of the Madisonian system of governance face formidable tests.”—p17 (emphasis in original)

I’m personally noticing this in the past couple of years: change (and fear of change) can motivate us to dehumanize others, allowing us to blame and punish them for what we fear.

“W.E.B. Du Bois understood what was happening. ‘In 1918, in order to win the war, we had to make Germans into Huns,’ he wrote. ‘In order to win [the Civil War], the South had to make Negroes into thieves, monsters, and idiots. Tomorrow, we must make Latins, South-eastern Europeans, Turks, and other Asiatics into actual “lesser breeds without the law”’—a quotation from Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 imperial poem ‘Recessional.’”—p116–117

Recent rhetoric, particularly against immigration, has this same theme of dehumanizing others not like us. By lumping them all into categories like rapists, murderers, and violent criminals, we justify treating them in ways we wouldn’t dream of treating our neighbors, friends, and loved ones.

On Private vs. Public Sector

“The American ideal of what Henry Clay had called ‘self-made men’ in 1832 is so central to the national mythology that there’s often a missing character in the story Americans like to tell about American prosperity: government, which frequently helped create the conditions for the making of those men.

“Many Americans have never liked acknowledging that the public sector has always been integral to making the private sector successful. We often approve of government’s role when we benefit from it and disapprove when others seem to be getting something we aren’t. Given the American Revolution’s origins as a rebellion against taxation and distant authority, such skepticism is understandable, even if it’s not well-founded. We have long proved ourselves quite capable of living with this contradiction, using Hamiltonian means (centralized decision-making) while speaking in Jeffersonian rhetorical terms (that government is best which governs least).”—p180

Too often we forget how much the free market depends on services provided by government, particularly for infrastructure: roads, utilities, funding for the invention and development of the internet, etc.

On Political Life

“McCarthy, though, was something new in modern political life: a freelance performer who grasped what many ordinary Americans feared and who had direct access to the media of the day. He exploited the privileges of power and prominence without regard to its responsibilities; to him politics was not about the substantive but the sensational. The country feared Communism, and McCarthy knew it, and he fed those fears with years of headlines and hearings. A master of false charges, of conspiracy-tinged rhetoric, and of calculated disrespect for conventional figures (from Truman and Eisenhower to Marshall), McCarthy could distract the public, play the press, and change the subject—all while keeping himself at center stage.”—p185

Sound familiar? Replace McCarthy’s name with Trump, change “Communism” to “immigration”, and remove the specific people mentioned, and it would remain an accurate description.


This book is a good reminder that fear is restrictive, holding us back from making any real improvement. We must look ahead with hope and work for the common good, not just for what will improve our own situation. It’s also an encouragement that as a nation, we have been through many dark times and ultimately moved past them.

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The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by Yuval Levin

The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by Yuval LevinDescription

Americans today are anxious—about the economy, about politics, about our government. The institutions that once dominated our culture have become smaller, more diverse, and personalized. Individualism has come at the cost of dwindling solidarity. No wonder, then, that voters and politicians alike are nostalgic for a time of social cohesion and economic success.

But the policies of the past are inadequate to the America of today. Both parties are stuck presenting old solutions to new problems. In The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin details his innovative answers to the dysfunctions of our fragmented national life. By embracing subsidiarity and diversity and rejecting extremism and nostalgia, he believes we can revive the middle layers of society and enable an American revival.

My Summary

Though only 272 pages long, this book took me more than a month to read, partly due to remodeling and other side projects, but mostly because it’s a “thinking” book. Hardly a page went by without causing a new realization, making a pointed reminder, or bringing up an excellent suggestion.

I cannot recommend this book enough: it gives a framework for understanding much of our current political climate without specifically assigning blame, and offers convincing suggestions for remedying it.

The first half of the book looks at some history from the 1950s through the present, pointing out specific different areas that those on the Left and Right embrace and would like to bring back, and the second half makes a number of suggestions for moving forward.

Below is a basic outline of the book, along with a number of quotes and thoughts that really stuck out to me.

Part I: Out of One, Many

Chapter 1: Blinded by Nostalgia

The Left and Right both long for specific time periods from the past half century and strive to return to the benefits they see from those times: “Democrats talk about public policy as though it were always 1965 and the model of the Great Society welfare state will answer our every concern. And Republicans talk as though it were always 1981 and a repetition of the Reagan Revolution is the cure for what ails us.” (page 15).

This nostalgia blinds us to many of the changes that have taken place in our country and culture during this time period.

He also thinks that we see these years as if we were looking at the life of a person in the Baby Boomer generation:

  • 1950s: wholesome and innocent (childhood)
  • 1960s: idealistic and rebellious (teenage years)
  • 1970s: anxious (college, starting in the workforce)
  • 1980s: more stable footing (early adulthood, family and career growth)
  • 1990s: comfortable and confident (mid-life success)
  • 2000s and 2010s: more fearful and disoriented (older age)

This chapter alone is worth getting the book just for understanding the context of current political viewpoints, discussions, and goals.

Chapter 2: The Age of Conformity (1950s)

As the US came out of World War II, we were a strong, unified, consolidated country—partly due to rationing and the clear moral struggle we perceived between democracy and Nazism/fascism. However, Levin argues, it was a unique “bridge” between two Americas: the increasingly unified and centralized society and government in the first half of the century, and the increasingly diverse culture in the second half.

In the 1950s, much of the country was still relatively consolidated economically due to necessary regulation during the war years, and it was also a low point for immigration as well: by 1950, the percentage of US residents who had been born abroad was 7% (down from 15% in 1910) and down to just 4.7% in 1970.

Progressives tried to “alleviate the plight of industrial workers” by opposing the consolidated government and company ownership with consolidated workers’ unions, democratic political power, and popular cultural power.

“The Left was fighting the cultural constriction while reveling in the economic consensus; the Right was fighting the economic constrictions while reveling in the cultural consensus.” (page 53).

Chapter 3: The Age of Frenzy (1960s–70s)

The 1960s–70s saw many changes and liberalization of culture, economy, etc., with more focus on individualism and a growing distrust of big government, labor unions, and consolidated power.

In the 1970s, Republicans and New Democrats realized that liberalization was not to be resisted and they should instead work with the diffusion and fracturing.

In the 1980s and especially the 1990s, rising inequality and diversity moved people away from large cultural institutions and networks and into smaller more niche networks.

Chapter 4: The Age of Anxiety (1980s–present)

The combination of women and more immigrants expanding the workforce and new technologies driving big productivity gains resulted in a major cultural shift: (page 83)

  • The weakening of our established institutions
  • A growing detachment from the traditional sources of order and structure in American life
  • An intensifying bifurcation of ways of living

American life continued to be concentrated, but at both ends of the spectrum (in ways that pull us apart) instead of in the middle (in ways that bring us together).

  • Economically: both big and small businesses grew, but medium-sized did not
  • Politically: people became more “polarized” on the extreme ends of the spectrum
  • Institutionally: “increasingly, society consists of individuals and a national state, while the mediating institutions—family, community, churches, unions, and others—fade and falter” (page 89).

Not surprisingly, the Left and Right have different explanations for the societal fracturing; the Left blames it on economic equality, while the Right pins it on cultural disintegration and polarization.

Essentially, the Left sees economic change as the root of many of our current issues, while Right sees cultural change as the cause, and both tend to overlook or deny the diffusion and decentralization of society in the past half century.

A couple more pointed reminders from this chapter include these:

  • Midcentury nostalgia cannot provide a guide for today’s society.
  • The constitutional system is adaptable; the 1930s–1960s-style welfare state is not.
  • Those on the Left must realize that consolidated power and programs are not an effective solution, and that giving more options instead of fewer is likely to work.
  • The Right has it a little bit easier since they tend to emphasize mediating institutions—church, community, clubs, etc.—which offer more promise of bringing us together and making improvements, but they should not emphasize radical individualism as much as they do.

Part II: The Next America

Chapter 5: The Unbundled Market

“The Left distorts or exaggerates America’s economic problems and the Right discounts or ignores them. So what are they missing? What are those problems? …The core of what our bipartisan nostalgia obscures has to do with the effects of persistent diffusion and diversification—which in this case involves especially the effects of an intensifying specialization in our economic life.” (page 113).

Several major structural transformations have impacted society:

  1. Globalization
    • Attempts at restraint (protectionism, tariffs, special incentives, etc.) aren’t effective because the benefits of globalization are too great.
  2. Automation
    • The hollowing-out of the middle hurts those at the bottom more than those in the middle, because the “rungs” on the ladder to the “top” are fewer and further apart.
  3. Immigration
    • Immigrants tend to be either highly-skilled (seeking more opportunities for advancement) or low-skilled (seeking any improvement), so immigration tends to increase economic specialization.
  4. Consumerization
    • As workers, we want better pay and options, while as consumers, we want lower-cost goods and services.
    • Employers used to mediate the tension, because the needs of workers took priority over the needs of consumers.
    • Increasingly, we view ourselves as consumers rather than workers, and the shift in mindset has caused companies to shift and prioritize consumers’ needs over employees’ needs.

Some potential solutions:

  1. Address income inequality.
    • Don’t mistake it for a cause as much as an effect of other causes.
    • Make it easier to earn a decent living wage by improving the tax/regulatory system, making healthcare more competitive and affordable, reducing cronyism, and reducing bottlenecks (requirement for college education to get a job, etc.).
    • “If the Left is to help America modernize, and lift up those Americans made most vulnerable by the trends we have been following, it will need to free itself from the anachronism of social democracy.” (page 130).
  2. Re-evaluate social democracy.
    • The welfare bureaucracy is a relic of a bygone age of consolidation. Instead, we need alternatives that help integrate those who need help into society and those mediating institutions of family, church, community, etc.
    • To those on the Right: don’t fight to roll back or shrink liberal welfare state, but seek to “replac[e] their centralized administrative forms with decentralized mechanisms of knowledge discovery at the margins” (page 141).
    • To those on the Left: “advocate for public provision as an option in the resulting competitive markets to restrain the excesses of market provision and serve the unmet needs of the most vulnerable” (page 141).
  3. Decentralize social and economic policy.
    • If we strengthen the markets, we should also strengthen those subsidiary/mediating institutions that help counteract the negative effects of markets.

Chapter 6: Subculture Wars

As “expressive individualism” leads to more specific cultural niches, the centralized mainstream institutions are giving way to more specialized self-selected networks.

Social conservatives for a long time “could plausibly believe that their views about the ideal firms and norms of society were in fact very widely shared” (page 156), while recognizing that many people failed to live up to them. They could see themselves as a “‘moral majority,’ overtly opposed only by a small if influential sliver of radical cultural elites.” (page 157). Increasingly they must—and have—realized that they cannot expect the political system to fit their views.

“Convictional believers” numbers have not changed much, but nominal Christians are becoming unaffiliated. “Many have ceased to view religious traditionalism as an ideal with which to nominally identify and have come instead to see it as an option to reject.” (page 159).

Religious traditionalists no longer speak for the majority or set the standard, and are out of practice defending it. They tend to lament what has been lost more than what might be gained.

The Left looks ahead and sees economic collapse; the Right, moral collapse.

“All sides in our culture wars would be wise to focus less attention than they have been on dominating our core cultural institutions, and more in building thriving subcultures.” (page 165).

Religious liberty has become the “chief rallying cry” for conservatives and is essential, but not sufficient.

  1. It is an “almost exclusively defensive posture”, asking to be protected and left alone rather than selling others on their vision.
  2. It “risks further distorting the larger public’s understanding of what is at stake in the culture wars,” tending to focus predominantly on sexuality, partly because that is mainly what the Left has been attacking.
  3. It “gives social liberals far too much credit and leaves social conservatives far too despairing” (pages 170–172).

“Expressive individualism, if taken all the way to its logical conclusions, points toward moral chaos, and moral traditionalists are therefore its natural critics and opponents.” (page 172).

“In our time, the greatest threats facing social conservatives come not from the profusion of moral practices and views in American life, but from the efforts of some on the radical Left to use liberal-dominated institutions (from the federal bureaucracy to universities, the mainstream media, and much of the popular culture) to suppress and exclude traditionalist practices and views.” (page 173)

The best method to fight back is to build genuine, caring communities, rebuilding the mediating institutions and “keeping things at the human scale.” (page 176).

“Those seeking to reach Americans with an unfamiliar moral message must find them where they are, and increasingly, that means traditionalists must make their case not by planting themselves at the center of society, as large institutions, but by dispersing themselves to the peripheries as small outposts.” (page 178).

Centralized national policies cannot fix the diffuse issues and problems in society. Genuine human connections and community (and the Gospel) can address individual needs, and perhaps we need to grow a new national identity from the bottom up.

Chapter 7: One Nation, After All

This nostalgia for mid-century America blinds us to its bad effects, causes us to keep trying the same formulas, and hinders us from seeing solutions to the very different conditions we have now.

We should use the multiplicity of our society rather than seeing only two binary options of consolidation and individualism. “As a centralized government [the favored solution of the Left] draws power out of the mediating institutions of society, it leaves individuals more isolated; and as individualism [the favored solution of the Right] further erodes the bonds that hold civil society together, people conclude that only a central authority can pick up the slack. That dangerous feedback loop keeps us from seeing the possibility of other sorts of solutions to the problems we face.” (pages 186–87).

“[T]he distinctive political failures of our era are functions of increasingly centralized administration in an increasingly decentralized society.” (page 187)

  • Left: defends centralizing government
  • Right: defends radical individualism

“Their arguments are, in effect, about whether our government should do more or less of the same, and it is not hard to see why the public often finds these debates pointless.”—p187

“[I]nstead of applying their increasingly distinct worldviews to contemporary problems, each party has tended to understand its own increased coherence as an argument for persisting in old policy ideas—for completing the inherited checklists of the Right or Left. Each party so powerfully identifies its political objective with a particular moment in the past that neither is inclined to apply its insights to today’s different circumstances. The name of this problem is nostalgia or anachronism, not polarization.” (page 189; emphasis mine).

The past half-century has seen a growth in personal liberty, as defined by the Left: “the individual’s freedom from coercion and restraint—in essence, the freedom to shape one’s life as one chooses” (page 199), with these limits:

  • Material/economic: the rich have more options than the poor; they try to address that by redistributing wealth.
  • Social/traditional: there has been a huge shift from traditional values to individual ideas of family, sexuality, and culture; they try to address this by promoting pluralism.
  • Political: powerful interests abuse the weak, enforcing their views on moral dissenters; they try to address this by limiting power of those on top (campaign finance reform, free speech, etc.)

The Right’s definition of liberty “is mediated by the concept of rights, and especially property rights.” (page 201).

  • “Government redistribution of property can directly impinge on our rights of ownership, and so can easily be seen as unjust.” (page 201)
  • The “highly individualist conservative idea of liberty is less concerned with giving different people equal power to make their choices matter, and more concerned with letting every individual do what he wishes with what he has—provided he does not take from others. This is an ethic of protection rather than provision.” (page 201, emphasis mine)

Both definitions take for granted the idea of the free human person; the free human informed and capable of using their freedom well is a great achievement socially and has not been seen much throughout world history.

“The liberty we can truly recognize as liberty is achieved by the emancipation of the individual not just from coercion by others but also from the tyranny of his unrestrained desires.” (page 203) This requires moral formation by those middle institutions which are pulled apart from above and below:

  • Family: teaches fulfillment of responsibilities and expectations
  • Work: provides material needs but also “buttresses dignity, inculcates responsibility, encourages energy and industry, and rewards reliability.” (page 204)
  • Education: can form our souls by granting glimpses of artistic genius
  • Civic engagement: helps us realize limits
  • Religious institutions: the “ultimate soul-forming institutions” teach responsibility, sympathy, lawfulness, righteousness

Not everybody has access to these institutions, and reinforcing, sustaining, and “especially putting them within the reach of as many of our fellow citizens as possible must be among our highest and most pressing civic callings.” (page 205)

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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.


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


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.


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


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


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.


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


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


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:


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


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.”

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).


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.


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


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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