Monday, May 20, 2024

The Real Hoosiers: Crispus Attucks High School, Oscar Robertson, and the Hidden History of Hoops (Jack McCallum)

Basketball in Indiana is often described as a religion of sorts. The state's tournament, which was a single class of all high schools for over 50 years, brought together small towns, big cities, parochial schools, public schools, and everything in-between. The tournament was opened up to private and Black high schools in the 1940's, with Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis becoming the first Black high school to win the state championship in 1955, repeating the next year.

The movie Hoosiers is largely based on Milan High School, which won the title in 1954, beating Attucks in the semifinals. However, Attucks' back-to-back state championships were largely more transformative for Indiana basketball. Jack McCallum highlights Attucks High School's basketball program in The Real Hoosiers: Crispus Attucks High School, Oscar Robertson, and the Hidden History of Hoops.

In the book, McCallum talks about the history of race in both Indianapolis and Indiana generally, where racism dominated much of the landscape. The book weaves between the rise of Attucks as a basketball powerhouse and how the state of Indiana reacted to it.

Attucks, coached by Ray Crowe, played dominant and inspired basketball, with a young Oscar Robertson leading the team in those days. Even though Robertson declined to be interviewed for the book, press accounts and stories by his fellow teammates help provide a strong narrative of Attucks breaking barriers and winning with class. 


Monday, May 13, 2024

The Pursuit of Happiness: How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America (Jeffrey Rosen)

Along with life and liberty, the Declaration of Independence mentions "the pursuit of happiness" as an unalienable right. What this phrase means has changed over time. In the early days of America, the Founding Fathers meant for the pursuit of happiness to be a pursuit of virtue -- of being good and and doing virtuous work by bettering yourself with knowledge. In The Pursuit of Happiness: How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America, author Jeffrey Rosen profiles six of American's most influential founders.

The six men profiled (Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton) all had varied lives and a tremendous impact on America's beginnings. Each valued industry, self-control, moderation, and sincerity and strove (and failed) to secure moral perfection. Jefferson and Adams kept vast diaries and piles of correspondence. Washington strove to lead a regimented, disciplined life and control a temper that only rarely got the best of him. 

The pursuit of virtue and self-betterment from our Founding Fathers was a bit hypocritical given a number of them owned slaves. While they also knew that the pursuit of virtue was incompatible with enslavement, many couldn't or wouldn't take the step to emancipate their slaves. Rosen does talk about the evolution of John Quincy Adams, John's son, in becoming a fervent abolitionist in his post-presidency as his virtuous pursuit.

Rosen effectively interweaves these stories of the pursuit of virtue and self improvement with our modern day worship of social media, influencer culture, and tweets, showing that what the Founders thought of as happiness is not how we see it today. Rosen articulates the spirit of self improvement that many early Founders strove for, despite their flaws and sins, and that they perhaps were better at maintaining a spirit of mindfulness that many of us could learn from in today's tweeting. TikToking world. The idea that we should take a step back and think before we speak, tweet, or TikTok is something that every Founder would consider a virtuous and wise move.


Monday, April 22, 2024

A World Safe for Commerce: American Foreign Policy from the Revolution to the Rise of China (Dale C. Copeland)

Dale C. Copeland's A World Safe for Commerce: American Foreign Policy from the Revolution to the Rise of China is a historical study of how American international trade and foreign policy are often interlinked. Taking the reader from pre-independent colonies through two wars with Britain, this book shows how American behavior and antagonism towards Britain were largely due to British desires to keep America's growth in check. Over the subsequent centuries, America's foreign policy would often reflect the realpolitik of trade relations with allies and "enemies" throughout the world as the country grew both geographically and economically.

Copeland's historical framing of trade and foreign policy sets up a useful final chapter where he discusses the present relationship between the United States and China, a country that itself is in a position of rising global economic and political strength. Copeland analyzes potential scenarios for how the U.S.-Chinese relationship may play out in the coming decades, drawing on China's history as well as America's current political environment to map out potential outcomes. 

A World Safe for Commerce may be a complex book to digest in some areas, particularly when economic or foreign policy theories are explained. However, the bulk of the book is a fine narrative of understanding America's economic growth and how its foreign policy was tied largely to its global position and, in recent decades, its desires to shape global economic conditions.


Monday, April 15, 2024

Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House (Jared Cohen)

The lives of former American presidents have varied tremendously since George Washington retired to his farm and then was coaxed back to ceremonially lead the United States Army in 1798. Their place in American life is unique in that they once held the most powerful position in the country, arguably even the world, and then found themselves without that elected position. While nearly forty men have lived to become former presidents, each tackled their post-presidency in different ways.

Jared Cohen's Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House shares the stories of seven former presidents, from Thomas Jefferson to George W. Bush. Each changed history and America's trajectory in their own ways. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. John Quincy Adams and William Howard Taft had second acts in Washington in different branches of government. Grover Cleveland had a second act in the White House. Herbert Hoover resumed the humanitarian work that he was famous for in the aftermath of World War I (but only after a dozen years on the sidelines). George W. Bush took up painting and made a clean break from American political life as a reminder of the days when presidents simply retired to a quiet life. And of course Jimmy Carter is known for working to advance democratic ideals and public service through volunteering to build houses.

Cohen does a wonderful job telling the stories of these seven men and how each charted their own vastly different course after their time in the White House.


Monday, April 8, 2024

Solving The Price is Right: How Mathematics Can Improve Your Decisions on and off the Set of America's Celebrated Game Show (Justin L. Bergner)

The Price is Right has been broadcast in its current format since the 1970s. The iconic American TV institution allows contestants to win cars, vacations, and cash based on having a strong knowledge of item pricing, plus some basic math skills and a dash of luck. As someone who watched the show off and on for decades, I've sensed a level of math skill and game play associated with various pricing games but wasn't sure of the science behind the games. Author Justin L. Bergner does the heavy lifting and watches two seasons of shows to document his findings in Solving The Price is Right: How Mathematics Can Improve Your Decisions on and off the Set of America's Celebrated Game Show.

This book explores the game theory and necessary math skills for getting out of Contestants' Row, playing pricing games, spinning the big wheel, and bidding on the showcases at the end of the show. Some games are easier to play and require a relatively simple level of strategy (Cliffhanger), a bit of skill (Hole in One), or general strategy on chip or shell placement (Plinko and Shell Game). Bergner reviews two seasons of show data and quantifies contestant results versus what he determines to be the best strategy for each game.

Bergner devotes an entire chapter to the showcase portion and how the first showcase, irregardless of price, is often the winning showcase no matter if the first person bids on it or passes it to their opponent. The game theory in the showcase is arguably the most interesting part of the book since the showcases are different in terms of the items presented. Solving the Price is Right as a whole is a very enjoyable discussion of the math and theory behind a very successful game show. If you're thinking of trying to get on the show and love math, this book is for you.


Friday, March 29, 2024

Yesterday: A New History of Nostalgia (Tobias Becker)

Nostalgia was first defined in the 17th Century as a "feeling of anxiety and homesickness, particularly when people were away from home." Over the past 50-75 years, that definition has evolved to a "longing for the good 'ol days," especially those positive memories of one's youth or early adulthood. Nostalgia occasionally gets a bad rap because it often obscures some of the less positive moments of the past and can be a bit of a trope. Tobias Becker, a German historian, has written about the concept of nostalgia in the West with a more nuanced, balanced view. 

Yesterday: A New History of Nostalgia tackles the evolution of the term and dives into three main themes of it in our lives. Covering politics, pop culture and preservation, Becker provides a strong, articulate argument for how nostalgia has been used in various capacities, both positive and negative, and how we have occasionally used our nostalgic moments to shape current events and thinking. Throughout the book, Becker often reminds us that nostalgia is one of the few concepts that bridges ideological and demographical divides. Both conservatives and progressives often pull out the nostalgia card to varying levels of success.

Yesterday is a well-researched look into our past and how longing for "better" times can often be helpful in shaping our future.


Monday, March 25, 2024

Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative (Jennifer Burns)

Milton Friedman was one of the foremost economists of the 20th Century whose contributions to economics and influence on global politics still reverberate to this day. Jennifer Burns has written the first full biography of Friedman in Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative.

Yes, calling this book a biography is accurate as Burns does chronicle Friedman's life from his upbringing in New Jersey to his final years in California. But the book also serves other purposes. First, it's a history of monetarism, which became the prevailing economic theory in much of the West in the late 20th Century and served as the next prevailing theory after Keynesian economics dominated in the wake of the Great Depression. Burns does an excellent job of showing the key players in the "Chicago School" of economics, including Friedman's wife, Rose, and others. 

Second, this book is also a history of conservative politics through the years of Friedman's life. Friedman was an outsized influence on both monetary policy and conservative thinking, with his influence in both fields waning in recent years as populism has taken over much of the American right.

Burns's work is very balanced and thorough but at times a bit too complimentary of some of Friedman's philosophies on social politics and, in the 1980's, deficit spending. However, Burns does provide a very authentic look at someone who was unapologetically conservative in the classical sense of believing in smaller government and effective fiscal policy to help the economy grow.