Monthly Archives: October 2016

Book review: The Bank War- Andrew Jackson, Nicholas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance (Paul Kahan 2016)

Rating: 5/5

Paul Kahan’s The Bank War is about President Andrew Jackson’s (1829-1837) battle to destroy the Second Bank of the United States. The First Bank of the US was founded in 1791  under Alexander Hamilton’s guidance and dissolved in 1811. The second was chartered in 1816. The banks were founded to try to stabilize currency and establish a good fiscal reputation for the fledgling US with other countries. The banks’ opponents, including Jackson, thought they were an overreach of federal power.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I have no particular interest in banking or finance. I chose to read The Bank War out of curiosity about the era and the fact that Bank War was recently published. After the recent discussions about whether Jackson should be removed from the $20, I knew a little about Jackson’s animosity to the bank—just enough to be curious. (Personally, a century of depiction on currency seems like plenty. We have such a rich history, but always the same five-or-so dudes on our money.)

THE GOOD

The Bank War details the battle between President Andrew Jackson and the president of the US Bank, Nicholas Biddle. It did what good non-fiction should do: it introduces the reader to the people and the era with enough background but not too much. Nonfiction, especially about topics like policy and finance, can be long and intimidating, and this book is neither. It’s academic but approachable.

The Bank War has some evaluations of Jackson’s and Biddle’s characters, but these evaluations arise from specific events and discussion of other historians evaluations. Jackson was and remains controversial. A lack of commentary on his tempestuousness would stand out. This is the man that drove the creation of the two political parties during his presidency as basically For Jackson and Against Jackson. I found him fascinating and repulsive.

This book distilled unfamiliar and complex topics into a compelling narrative. In 160 concise pages, I learned about the early monetary policy of the country (without too much jargon), about Jackson, about the development of a two party system, and more.  The early history of paper money was great and surprising. Having read about metallism policy such as in the election of 1896 with William Jennings Bryan, I had believed that our money was based on bullion until the 20th century.

THE BAD

Two small criticisms:

  • A few times, the brevity of the book is a little unsatisfying, for example where Kahan introduces the faction of the Democrats called the locofocos without any explanation as to the meaning of the name (a self-lighting cigar, wikipedia informs me). What a charming detail to omit!
  • The introduction details his motivation to write the book— the financial crisis of 2008 bringing attention to the role of the Federal Reserve. I hoped the epilogue would contain some synthesis of the two topics but it did not. Perhaps as a historian he left that to others but I would have been curious as to his views, seeing as it was his motivation.

The Art of the Park

I’ve posted many times before about my love for WPA-era travel posters and some of my own tribute work. I have a wall of stylized postcards that I have collected along my travels. Like the parks passport stamps I described a few months ago, the WPA postcards became an exciting item to collect. Every time I have a visitor in my home, we talk about the parks. Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, county open spaces, state parks, they are all wonders of the west and worthy of a place on the wall. Not all of these places have postcards, which I am slowly working to remedy. But today’s post is about the great parks’ art that I have accrued and slathered upon my walls.

Below I include a few of my favorites from the wall. Some of the cards I like the depiction of the specific piece of scenery, others I like the color palette or the stylization. We all have stories about our visits to parks. These cards tell stories; the stories of these cards have augmented my stories. They let me dream for weeks and months after a trip about the animals, the scenery, the history, and the cultures of the parks I visited.

New Mexico has 14 National Monuments, extensive Bureau of Land Management sites,  wildlife reserves, open spaces, state parks, and more. In a future post, I’ll talk about my work to create posters for the New Mexican sites that lack them today.

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Fractal Art

Here in Albuquerque, mathematical art adorns the schools. We are the Fractal Capital of the World. Fractals are a kind of math that considers the multi-scale aspects of nature. In school, we learn about rectangles, circles, and triangles, but which of these shapes best represents the coastline of Great Britain?

And even if learning fractal math isn’t your path, you probably appreciate what others have done with it.  This documentary describes how lava in Star Wars was simulated using fractal approaches. Many natural objects have fractal aspects, and CGI versions of these objects utilize this approach.

I do research in nonlinear dynamics, which is a cousin to chaos theory and fractal math. Fractal math first emerged as a visual wonder with Benoit Mandelbrot; as a scientist and artist, fractals inspire me in multiple ways. I hope my forays into fractals might inspire, too!

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Pop-ups: Water Polo

I recently resumed my fascination with pop-up art. It’s fun to abstract the world to a system of interacting planes. I’ve created cats at play, architecture, and hot air balloons. It was inevitable that my play would turn to water polo, and so it has. I wondered how I would depict a goalie blocking a ball or a player swimming down the pool. I cannibalized some poster designs from a few months ago and was off to the races.

Below is my water polo pop-up book! I’m already scheming on new ideas, but I’m very proud of my first foray.

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Western Skies: Sunsets

After a year in New Mexico, some things grow familiar. Red or green chile goes with everything, in the morning there’s probably a hot air balloon somewhere, and at night I will hear people gunning their engines on Route 66. But the New Mexican sky still amazes me. Whether its the stars at night, the distant rain, or the views of mountains for miles, it’s so different than the skies I have lived under for the rest of my life. In Missouri and Virginia, the sky was overhead. In New Mexico, it wrap around you like a bowl, a massive semi-spherical window into the universe.

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