The Forgotten Founding Father

I just finished reading The Forgotten Founding Father, Joshua Kendall’s biography of Noah Webster.

Preceding President Trump’s “America First” campaign by some 230 years, Webster was an adamant supporter of breaking from European influence and promoting development of resources within the United States:

At dinner, [George] Washington happened to mention that he was looking to hire a young man to tutor his two step-grandchildren—Nelly and Wash Custis, then living at Mount Vernon. He told Webster that he had asked a colleague in Scotland to offer recommendations. A stunned Webster shot back, “What would European nations think of this country if, after the exhibition of great talents and achievements in the war for independence, we should send to Europe for men to teach the first rudiments of learning?” Immediately grasping Webster’s point, a humbled Washington asked, “What shall I do?” But even before he had finished his question, the General himself knew the answer. Out of respect for the emerging new nation, he would restrict his job search to Americans.

If we are ever tempted to look at the current state of United States politics and pine for the good old days of the 1830s, we might remember that Webster was pretty distraught back then too:

He detested President Andrew Jackson as the second coming of Jefferson. In the 1832 election, he supported the third-party candidate William Wirt, as he no longer wanted anything to do with either of the major political parties. By 1836 … he also looked down on his fellow Americans: “I would, if necessary, become a troglodyte, and live in a cave in winter rather than be under the tyranny of our degenerate rulers. But I have not long to witness the evils of the unchecked democracy, the worst of the tyrannies. . . . We deserve all our public evils. We are a degenerate and wicked people.”

The impact of humans on the environment was also a popular topic in Webster’s time:

Ever since the Revolution, numerous writers had taken the position that American winters were becoming milder. These advocates for the eighteenth-century version of “global warming” included Thomas Jefferson, who had addressed the question in his Notes on Virginia; Benjamin Rush; and Samuel Williams, a Harvard historian. The man-made cause was allegedly the rapid deforestation of states such as Vermont. Webster challenged his predecessors on the basis of their lack of evidence. Noting Jefferson’s reliance on personal testimony rather than hard data, Webster wrote disparagingly, “Mr. Jefferson seems to have no authority for his opinions but the observations of elderly and middle-aged people.” Though Williams, in contrast, did engage in some statistical analysis, Webster convincingly argued that he had misconstrued the facts at hand. While Webster acknowledged that winter conditions had become more variable, he maintained the America’s climate had essentially remained stable….

The work of compiling his American English dictionary apparently demanded intense concentration. In one house, “to make sure that he wouldn’t be disturbed by the children, he packed the walls of his second-floor study with sand.” In another house, the construction of which he personally oversaw, “Webster had double walls installed in his second-floor study.” Adding mass to the wall and constructing two layers of walls both remain recommended tactics for sound isolation today.

The story of Webster’s life itself was fascinating to learn about, but perhaps just as interesting are the various side remarks about the people and places he encountered. In this book we learn bits of history about New England states; the founders of familiar cities and organizations; and details about Revolutionary-era battles, pamphleteering, and government development from a more personal perspective than usual.

What about the implication of the book’s title? Was Noah Webster a founding father of the United States? Others certainly appear more instrumental in initiating and developing the foundations of the country, but Webster clearly played a major role in supporting the new republic through a prolific number of articles and numerous speeches. Webster’s role may have been more supportive than creative, but that does not diminish his importance.

As usual, I read a paperback edition, but as the cover became worn from being stuffed into the back of the seat in front of me on several airplane trips, I thought a digital edition might have been nice too, at least for reading as a travel passenger.

Lower East Side Memories

Yonah Schimmel's Knish BakeryA little bit late, but Happy New Year! I just finished reading Hasia Diner’s book Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place In America. For several decades around the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, many Jewish people from immigrated from Europe to the United States, with many of those living either temporarily or permanently in a Manhattan neighborhood subsequently known as the Lower East Side. Not all of the Jewish immigrants lived in the Lower East Side, and not all of the Lower East Side immigrant residents were Jewish at all. But that particular subset of immigrants created a culture in that neighborhood which formed a primary basis for Jewish culture throughout the country.

Many Jewish immigrants ended up in Boston, and in Chicago, and in St. Louis, and in Los Angeles, and in other cities across the country, and even in other parts of New York City. But a clear majority ended up staying in the Lower East Side, filling cramped apartments with so many people that Jewish culture flourished, and was easily found not just in the privacy of individual homes, but openly on the streets, in shops, in restaurants… And with such overcrowded housing, there was little privacy anyway, leading to characteristically private conversations happening in larger groups, spreading and sharing cultural ideas even further.

In this atmosphere of open exchange, many artifacts of historical and cultural record were created. Factual accounts were written. Journalistic photographs were taken. Novels and plays and poems and songs were authored, all in much greater abundance than what happened in other Jewish communities.

That wealth of history about, and emanating from, the Lower East Side surely would have been significant in its own right, but after the 1940s it became even more significant. Through the Holocaust events of World War II, huge amounts of European Jewish culture and history were destroyed. Many people were killed, yes, but on top of that, houses and businesses and religious institutions were wiped out. Italian immigrants still had Italy. Irish immigrants still had Ireland. But the Jewish people who had left their “old world” homeland for the “new world” in the United States no longer had an “old world” to correspond with or to ever return to, even for a visit.

As such, the Lower East Side took on a new level of importance in Jewish-American culture: it became their new “old world”. Whether if they ever actually lived there or not, through historical accounts and stories and other media created in or about the neighborhood, Jewish people all over the country began to see it as a common ancestral home. They started to travel to the neighborhood, take tours, sample food, and learn more about what “real” Jewish-American life was like.

More: read the book.

Hanukkah in America

Over the recent holiday season, I read Dianne Ashton’s Hanukkah in America, which chronicles the history and development of Hanukkah (mainly in the United States) from its origins over 2000 years ago up through nearly present day.

For most of that time, Hanukkah was a fairly minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, perhaps not celebrated at all. Two catalysts worked together to encourage Jewish immigrants in the United States to make a bigger deal out of Hanukkah than their European ancestors had: their desire to retain and promote their own religious and cultural values; and Christmas.

Christmas also had not always been the major gift-giving, family-oriented holiday that we know today, but through the 1800s into the early 1900s it grew, for various reasons, including corporations turning it into a commercial event (as Charlie Brown might be all too familiar with!), and for the benefit of U.S. soldiers, either being sent Christmas care packages when abroad, or having more substantial family events when home.

As the appeal of Christmas events grew, and especially as the wonder of Christmastime grew in the eyes of children, Jewish children longed for something similar. They found what Christian families enjoyed in midst of winter to be enticing.

Many Jewish holidays have strict guidelines regarding what to do; if the holiday is traditionally observed, there is little or no room to modify how it is celebrated. Not so with Hanukkah, which was hardly celebrated at all. Thus there was room for Jews in the U.S. to adapt Hanukkah to meet their present-day needs, including more appeal to children.

Besides the appeal of Christmas, many Jewish people were feeling distant from their religious and social traditions, and their overall Jewish identity began to wane in the new homeland. This ended up being another opportunity for Hanukkah to grow, not only for children, but as a holiday for Jews of all ages to reflect on who they were as a people, and to strengthen family bonds.

A delightful read! Also available in electronic form.

The Art of the Deal

19700004Wanting to learn more about our new president, I just finished reading The Art of the Deal.

The book recounts stories of several business projects he had worked on from the 1970s into the mid-1980s, ranging from low-income housing in Ohio to extremely-high-income housing in Manhattan, to renovating hotels, to building casinos, to finishing civic projects on the behalf of the city, to running a major sports team. There is little directly actionable advice for would-be business people in this book, but readers can pick up on the author’s attitude of success. Some takeaway points that I got include:

  • You can get help from someone else to finance a business project. It will be easiest if you can make a strong case for why your project will succeed, and what it will give back to the community, in the form of new jobs, increased sales for other area businesses, increased demand for housing, etc. It is best, then, if your project really will improve the community, and not just be a vehicle for you to do something fun. (Although nothing at all wrong with enjoying it too!)
  • You can get help from someone else to plan and to implement a business project. If you have a general idea for something that you think would be worth doing (see first point), but don’t know how to fully plan it, you should learn from experts in that field, or even better, find an expert that you get along with and have them help you plan it. Likewise, don’t feel compelled to do all of the implementation work yourself; hire the best people you can find to do part or all of the work for you.
  • Why seek the best experts and best implementers? One problem that routinely causes business ventures to fail is going exuberantly past budget and schedule. Working with people who have done similar things in the past, and who have done them well, significantly increases the possibility of completing work on budget and on schedule.
  • Don’t waste money. If you’re building a 1000-room hotel and can, without any structural or safety problems, save $10 on a widget that is used in every room, then you can save $10,000.
  • Don’t waste time. There’s nothing wrong with relaxing, but cultivate a lifestyle of productivity. Eating lunch at your desk (or as the author suggests, just a can of tomato juice) instead of going out for lunch can easily save a good chunk of time to be devoted to more useful things.

In light of recent current events, I found the last page or so of the book especially poignant:

I’ve spent the first twenty years of my working life building, accumulating, and accomplishing things that many said could not be done. The biggest challenge I see over the next twenty years is to figure out some creative ways to give back some of what I’ve gotten.

I don’t just mean money, although that’s part of it. It’s easy to be generous when you’ve got a lot, and anyone who does, should be. But what I admire most are people who put themselves directly on the line. I’ve never been terribly interested in why people give, because their motivation is rarely what it seems to be, and it’s almost never pure altruism. To me, what matters most is the doing, and giving time is far more valuable than just giving money.

In my life, there are two things I’ve found I’m very good at: overcoming obstacles and motivating good people to do their best work. One of the challenges ahead is how to use those skills successfully in the service of others as I’ve done, up to now, on my own behalf.

In the pages of this book, I saw someone extremely motivated to succeed, but not greedy. He seems genuinely interested in the well-being of others, and builds great things not so much for his own personal gain, but to enhance the lives of everyone around him.

Inside of a Dog

19700025I just finished reading Alexandra Horowitz’s book, Inside of a Dog, an easy-going look at what behavioral and cognitive psychology can tell us about how dogs perceive the world. Many questions I had about the behavior of my own dog — including some that I hadn’t bothered to form very precisely because I wasn’t really expecting to ever find out — are answered here as convincingly as I could hope for.

Do dogs see in color? Despite longstanding myth to the contrary, dogs do see in color, but while humans generally see across a spectrum of red, green, and blue (with colors in between), dogs only see across green and blue. Different shades of red (or orange or yellow or other reddish colors) may appear distinct to them, but not as blatantly distinct as they do to us. Asking your dog to distinguish between an orange ball and a yellow ball could be more challenging than you might expect!

Can dogs see television? They can, but they probably aren’t very interested in it. While dog vision is in some ways less precise than ours (such as with color spectrum), they can perceive movement at a higher frame rate, if you will. We are convinced of seeing movement on a television or film projector if the pictures are changing at 30 frames per second, or even a little slower. Dogs, though, aren’t fooled, and instead can see the lack of continuous motion. It would take something more like 60 frames per second to look believable to a dog, so they would still be unimpressed even with some recent movies

But while we tend to be predominantly dependent upon vision to perceive the world around us, dogs predominantly exercise their sense of smell, which is vastly more advanced than our own. Dogs can smell where you’ve been; what you’ve eaten; who you’ve been with. They can perceive the intensity of odors such that if you were in the room five minutes ago, that smells different to them than if you were in the room an hour ago, or are in the room right now.

With our eyes, we see what is happening right now; with their nose, dogs smell what is happening right now, what has happened in the past, and, to a degree, what is about to happen in the future. When taking your dog on a walk, the author admonishes, don’t presume to drag him away from smelling something irrelevant to you. Those smells communicate knowledge to your dog! [I admit that I have been guilty of doing exactly that, but am lingering to let my dog smell more on walks now.]

(Their reliance on smelling probably also comes into play if they express disinterest at watching television; no smells are projected on the screen to accompany what they are supposed to believe they are seeing!)

It is well-known that dogs can hear much higher pitches than we can; thus, the inaudible-to-humans dog whistle. Considering the sonic world from the perspective of a dog requires us to take into account this wide spectrum of high pitches. Some common machines, even common lighting fixtures, make sounds which we are blissfully unaware of, but which dogs are constantly enduring. [I have wondered myself if my dog’s aversion to being photographed has any connection to the ultrasonic focusing mechanism in modern camera lenses?]

Dogs are believed to be unusually intelligent. The author shows disappointing intelligence test results, but suggests that dogs convey great intelligence in one regard in particular:

Dogs … see us as fine general-purpose tools, … useful for protection, acquiring food, providing companionship. We solve the puzzles of closed doors and empty water dishes. In the folk psychology of dogs, we humans are brilliant enough to extract hopelessly tangled leashes from around trees; we can magically transport them to higher or lower heights as needed; we can conjure up an endless bounty of foodstuffs and things to chew. How savvy we are in dogs’ eyes! It’s a clever strategy to turn to us after all. The question of the cognitive abilities of dogs is thereby transformed: dogs are terrific at using humans to solve problems, but not as good at solving problems when we’re not around.

Which is not to say that dogs do not also express aptitude for intelligence on their own, for they do. Even more remarkably, they exhibit, at least in measure, a theory of mind. They look at both humans and at other dogs as individuals with their own minds and their own intentions and behaviors. They express surprise when they witness things which appear to defy their sense of logical expectations. When they play with other dogs, they communicate with them that play is about to commence (and thus any nipping should be taken in fun, not as an attack), and more powerful dogs deliberately handicap themselves when roughhousing with less powerful dogs, so as to level the playing field of their game.

After reading this book, I see my own dog differently now. I am more conscious of how she must see me, and how she must see other people, and other dogs, and the world around her. The author shows us that dogs are, among all animals, those best suited to be with humans: to live with us, to be companions with us, and that they and us both are better off for it.