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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

American Creation, Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the American Republic; The Magician King; Imagine; and Honeymoon in Tehran

Joseph J. Ellis.  ©2007   American Creation, Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the American Republic.  For a guy who majored in history and continued to read off and on for the next 58 years, there weren’t likely to be a lot of new facts here, but there are always new interpretations.  Ellis starts off by mentioning Henry Adams conclusion that if you consider all the presidents from his time back to Washington, it looks like Darwin got it backwards.  If one asks why the American experiment was so successful, there are two main factors: (1) The Founders benefitted from two centuries of European thinking, which we now call the Enlightenment and (2) The incredible potential wealth of North America.  A country could be launched and developed with few taxes because almost all necessary revenue could be collected from the sale of western lands.  Ellis mentions John Adams concept of multiple sovereignties in America as opposed to England which had only one.  This too was an advantage.   He mentions Adams’s contention that the real Declaration of Independence was the Lee Resolution of May 15, 1776, which advised the states to form governments.  Adams wrote the preamble to the resolution and considered it the “real” declaration, but he did write to Abigail that July 2 would be the day we would always celebrate our independence.  Those words from Jefferson, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal…” seemed a mere rhetorical flourish at the time but later became the basis for abolition, women’s right, civil rights and are really the essence of what America is all about.  Lincoln may have been the first to recognize this in an eloquent statement of his own based on Jefferson’s words.  At Valley Forge, Washington realized that time and space were his allies and that the only way to lose the war was to try to win it, i.e. to confront the British.  Nevertheless, after Valley Forge Washington and the other generals wanted to attack Philadelphia and New York and it was only a French engineer who advised a defensive war.  There was no way an invading army could force a decisive battle, when Washington had so much territory in which to move about.  Britain learned from its mistakes in North America, and managed the most successful empire in history in the 19th C.  There were many things that moved Madison to propose a constitutional convention, but perhaps the primary one was John Jay’s motion in the Continental Congress to propose to Spain that the colonies would cede navigation rights on the Mississippi for 25 years in return for an advantageous commercial treaty.  This would have been fine for the northeastern states but threatened Virginia and other states with western interests.  Madison realized that there had to be a balancing of interests and that the way to go was a constitution that was a work of the people, not a pact among the states.  Madison one-upped the moderates in the convention by arriving with “the Virginia plan” which contained all of the elements of the final product of the Convention, the Constitution.  Perhaps he could only pull this off because he had Washington there presiding and giving his plan legitimacy.  The great compromise which had Senators appointed by the states and representatives in the House allotted proportionally left the question of sovereignty unresolved.  Madison’s debate with Patrick Henry to get Virginia to ratify the Constitution revolved around the idea of mixed sovereignty and was resolved by the Bill of Rights, which reserved to the States all powers not specifically granted to the national government.  There is a long section on the problem of “Indian removal.”  These involved long negotiations with Alexander McGillivray, chief of the Creek Indians.  It’s a fascinating story that was new to me.  The Republican Party really began during Jefferson and Madison’s botanical expedition up the Hudson and into New England in 1791 and it came to life in the Election of 1796.  From then on we had the party system and the President became the representative of his party, not of the whole people.  On the evening before Adams’ inauguration in March 1797, Jefferson and Adams took leave of each other and never spoke to each other again about “any measure of government.’  The Louisiana Purchase was the best deal ever made.  It almost fell through and a French army was headed for New Orleans via Haiti.  The Haitians destroyed it.  Then we sort of took West Florida from Spain.  Two interesting points about the Louisiana Purchase:  (1) At first Jefferson treated the area as a colony and the people did not have the same rights as US citizens.  (2)  It was thought that large areas just west of the Mississippi would be used for removal of the Indian tribes east of the river.  This book was a pleasure to read and I may read it again.  November 2013
Lev Grossman.  The Magician King.  ©2011  I didn’t get very far into this.  I couldn’t decide if it was Harry Potter light or Harry Potter dark.  I don’t know how the story developed, but there was lots of magic on disk 1.  November 2013
Jonah Lehrer.  Imagine.  ©2012  If you decide to read this, especially if you listen on CDs, expect to be bombarded by facts, opinions and amazing anecdotes.  Lehrer’s reading is a little distracting at times because he goes so fast that he is unable to handle contractions.  “Couldn’t” comes out “koont” and “didn’t” is “dint.”  Nevertheless what he has to say about imagination and creativity is worth the trip.  I have pages of notes, but my last review was way too long, so I'm just going to list some things.  The right brain handles generalities and metaphors; the left brain handles the specific and literal.  This is insight vs. analysis.  The chance of insight favors the prepared brain – that’s left and right working together.  Working memory accounts for 60% of I.Q.  In 1965 Bob Dylan gave up singing, playing and song writing because he thought he didn’t have anything more to say.  He jumped on his motorcycle and headed off to a cabin in Woodstock to vegetate.  Once away from the grind of the tour, he had a flash of inspiration which came out as “Like a Rolling Stone,” and then a flood of new songs that revolutionized rock n roll.  In the 1920s Dick Drew was selling sand paper for 3M.  Sitting in a body shop he watched painters struggling to create divisions between colors.  Over the objections of 3M, this salesman experimented and invented masking tape.  Now 3M has 55,000 employees and about 55,000 products.  The same sort of thing happened at Proctor and Gamble when they couldn’t invent a better way to clean kitchen floors.  They had a huge number of scientists on their staff, but they went outside to a consulting company.  The consultants went out and watched women clean floors.  Eventually they saw a woman put a wet paper towel on the end of a broom.  The Swiffer was born.  Companies were beginning to realize that innovation could come from anywhere and that sometimes the best informed person on a subject was the worst person to solve a problem in that area because all that knowledge operated as a barrier to creativity.  If you know you can’t do it, you can’t do it.  Blue walls stimulate creativity.  Drawing is a way to see things more clearly.  Daydreaming is good, and innovative companies encourage it.  The trick is to keep the left brain involved enough so that it can recognize a good idea when it comes along in the right brain. Depression is bad for creativity but good for finishing a complex  project like a novel.  Creativity tends to peak early before one knows too much.  People who are creative throughout their lives do this by exploring new fields where they are not constrained by “knowing too much.”  Creativity is even more productive when it’s a group effort.  When Steve Jobs bought Pixar, he housed it in a huge warehouse with at atrium in the middle.  The cafeterias, conference rooms and rest rooms and some bars for after hours were all located in the atrium.  This meant that people doing all sorts of different jobs on different projects were constantly encountering each other in the atrium.  Obviously it worked.  At the end Lehrer asks why we produce so many truly outstanding athletes and not so many exceptional people in other fields.  The answer is obvious.  How many parents go to their kids’ baseball games, and how many go to science fairs.  Our whole educational and motivational system is skewed toward promoting athletic excellence.  November 2013
Azadeh Moaveni.  Honeymoon in Tehran.  ©2009  Another non-starter.  Ms.Moaveni went to Tehran for two weeks for Time, fell in love and stayed two years.  After a disk or two I didn’t think I was going to run across anything new.  November 2013

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