Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us

Paul Tough explores the current world of college education and finds flaws all around. The story of the "welder" who gets a high paying job without going to college? Well, there are some high paying jobs around in big cities. But most of welding jobs are not in the "Super high paying" realm. The jobs also require going to school to become a welder. What about the worry that under-qualified low-income minorities are taking all the good college seats away? Colleges would love to have more low-income minorities. However, the primary "under-qualified" admits are of the "rich and white" variety. While admissions scandals brought attention to people paying thousands to get their kids into college via phony sports resumes, hey were just people trying to do it on the cheap. Many colleges have spots waiting for anybody waiting to donate a few million dollars.
He also debunks plenty of College Board propaganda. Standardized tests tend to benefit the wealthy that are willing to pay for expensive test preparation. Even the free SAT-prep offered by the college board is primarily used by those who need it the least.
Is college worth it? That also depends. The most prestigious colleges tend to lead to the best paying jobs. Even among the ivy league schools, there is a hierarchy of "the best" with the likes of Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale up top. Employers use the caliber of school as a proxy of the best students. (Thus school admissions officers end up making decisions.) Extra circulars are also analyzed, though this often favors the wealthy. Lacrosse is preferable to football.
Even the minority students at elite schools are a mirage. Many of the ethnic minorities are the children of wealthy executives and immigrants. Poor students are likely to be those that attended elite prep schools on scholarship. Schools also work to manipulate the numbers. Students that just qualify for Pell grants are much more likely to be admitted than students that just miss the cut off.
The anecdotes are also enlightening. A student wanted to go to Penn or maybe Princeton as a backup. She got rejected by both. However, she ended up getting into Stanford - a school with a much lower acceptance rate. A master test prep consultant charges $400 per hour, and spends most of the time chatting with the students. He helps them to de-stress and minimize the importance of the test. He also teaches a few tips and tricks - and produces great results. The super-elite colleges spend a lot more per student on education, however, most of this comes from the endowment. The mid-tier schools need tuition money to survive. They play a complicated quantitative game of admissions. They must get the right mix of students that will generate income, while also having enough high-quality students. They dangle enough scholarship money to entice acceptance (and the tuition money that comes with it.) There was also the study that showed that letting poor students know about colleges led to more attending elite colleges that matched their scores. However, when the college board tried to repeat it, nothing much happened. There are other factors (such as family) that prevent poor students from attending the most elite colleges. However, the poor would benefit the most. The quality of college is strongly correlated with lifetime income. Across all incoming income levels, those that attend more elite schools will earn more. Those that come in wealthy will have some advantage, but those that come in poor will see the biggest increase in income. The logical path is to attend to best school you can get in to. However, high-performing poor are more likely to go to a nearby community college or state school (even if they could get a free ride to an ivy)
The college system could be a great equalizer. Instead, it just helps out the haves. What can we do about it?

Friday, February 21, 2020

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present

Medical Apartheid was written with a few purposes in mind. Primarily it presents an anecdotal history of medical experimentation on blacks. During the time of slavery, blacks slaves were viewed as subhuman. They were the properties of their owners and had few rights of their own. They were also believed to have a high tolerance for pain. Doctors would test procedures out on the slaves. They might lose a few in the process. These early stories are truly frightening. As time progresses, the anecdotal nature fails the argument. The author describes studies where blacks were treated poorly. Some of these were due to lack of informed consent. Other cases they thought they were getting therapy, but were actually being experimented upon. The author posits that they were singled out because they were black. In most of the studies mentioned, there were a disproportionate number of black people impacted. However, since this is anecdotal, we don't know if they were just random bad studies that happened to impact blacks, or if there was something worse involved. Alas, thus actually helps the author's final argument that blacks should trust the medical establishment more. She seems to have to dig more and more to find negativity towards blacks as time progresses. (There does not seem to be grave robbing for cadavers going on like it used to.) However, there are still relaxed standards in Africa. How can we test the efficacy of new medicines without a willing audience of guinea pigs? How can we ensure everyone benefits? Who will pay? And the big one - does western medicine even make sense?

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Ranger's Apprentice, Book 8: Kings of Clonmel

In the 8th Ranger's Apprentice book, Will finally sees other apprentices that look up to him as a "real" ranger who has done amazing things. We also discover Holt's long lost royal family. Horrace defeats somebody else in single combat. There is a good amount of violence. The primary story line centers around a religious cult. The charismatic leader of the cult has aspirations on control of Hiberia (seems like Ireland). He controls a band of thugs that raids and destroys villages. Then who shows up and prays to his god to protect some major cities from the same thugs he controls. It is very convincing. However, the rangers see right through it and save the day. I thought we might have Holt permanently take the throne, but that was not to be.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

So You Want to Talk About Race

So You Want to Talk About Race was written by somebody from Seattle, who sees everything through a racial privilege lens. The book hits all the Seattle terminology and grievances. I just don't care for these arguments. I'd much rather have the efforts spent on combating oppression and car-centric transportation.
In the argument, the world is divided into two groups "straight neurotypical cis etc. white male oppressors" and "everyone else", where everyone else is primarily "people of color". Racism is defined to only be possible when coming from people in power. Thus, only "white people" can be racist, because they have the power. Though, how do you define power? In Chicago, the mayor is a LGBTQ black woman and "people of color" hold the majority of the city council seats. I doubt that this would be used to argue that white people in Chicago can't be racist. Perhaps you could argue that the big companies are still dominated by whites. Perhaps Silicon Valley in Northern California would be a better example. There are many cities run by Asians, with companies also run by Asians with an Asian-majority workforce. There are whites finally exempt from being racist? Or perhaps we need to carry it out to the world. Since European culture dominates the world, only Europeans can be racist. What about places like Malaysia that give preference to Malays over Chinese? It just makes for a confusing argument.
She gives some of the typically arguments that "people of color" are universally oppressed due to their race. She acknowledges that there are many other groups that are discriminated against, but sees race as the most important. She argues that she lives in a white supremacist world where she suffers from endless microagressions and discrimination. However, she fails to acknowledge that she comes from a huge position of privilege that lets her make her arguments and seek for some sort of non-oppression. She groups people as "people of color" and "white people". She had an "Obama" upbringing, raised by a white mother with an absent African father, however, identifies exclusively with "blackness". She does acknowledge that even in her "people of color" community, they excluded other people that were not "elite" like her. From there, she assumes to speak for all non-white people.
The author spends time discussing "intersectionality". The social justice movement wants to make sure that all "intersections" of groups are properly covered. (Of course this is only groups that the movements have acknowledged.) It thus makes for confusion as they attempt to "speak" for many other people (while at the same time excluding others because they are "oppressors." It all just sounds very Seattle.
One thing she seems to get right is that "racism" is a way that people make themselves feel better. If there is somebody lower than them, they will feel better about themselves. Similarly, if there is somebody "higher" than them, they will feel upset - especially if they feel they should be able to aspire to that position. If we erase all concept of race, people will still find a way to separate themselves. The case of European immigrants is an interesting study. There was originally heavy segregation based on different countries of origin. British were at the top. Southern Europeans and slavs were down near the bottom. Post-famine Irish were the dregs. These days, they are all just "white", even though there are various ranges of physical features. The offspring of a Brit and an Italian don't become "Italian". However, any African ancestry trumps all to make somebody "black". Why is this so?
The author throws in a discussion on Asians. They are both a model minority and oppressed. It all comes down to group definition. (Alas, the same is not done for whites, which are just used as a homogeneous foil.)
The cultural appropriation discussion is also rife with conflicts. An African-themed bar is considered bad. (Ok, I'll buy that. I'd much rather have good Ethiopian food than burgers.) Wearing sacred Native American headdress is also bad. (No problem there.) However, artists such as white rappers are viewed negatively because they have "appropriated" an art form that originated in West African chanting. That seems to be stretching things a bit. Should we argue black appropriation of McDonalds? (oh wait, it is fine to appropriate form the "dominate" race.) The author also tries to appropriate the legacy of slavery to her experience. Yet, she did not claim any slave ancestry. Why should she appropriate some culture but others not?
There are issues with race in America. However, separating out the "us vs. them" does not help things. There will always be differentiation. Some groups will be better at different things. Perhaps the biggest problem is that we have a culture that expresses value in a certain types of achievement. People that cannot achieve feel discouraged and look to sidestep the system. This leads to more discouragement and continued problems. Yelling at others for being racist just adds to the fire. The book ends by describing a fight against a police station in Seattle. It just happened to be near an area known for criminal activity. There were also a large number of people of color (including many African immigrants) in the area who were eager to have the station built. However, many residents (primarily in other parts of the city) fought against it due to some of the amenities (like a Yoga room.) Instead, some of the money was spent on public housing. This may show another symptom of the crime. Huge efforts are spent to get crumbs of money that only help a small number of people of color. At the same time, zoning and building codes present so many challenges to building housing, that most new housing built is "luxury". Why not fight to eliminate these regulations so that more housing appropriate for the community can be built? And calling out a "school to prison pipeline" doesn't help education. Instead, we need to rethink the whole structure. There is a tendency brewing now to implement a "lowest common denominator". Seeing a disparity in opportunities for different racial groups, the "special" ones that whites use are dismantled to give everyone an equal opportunity. Why not instead focus on differing educational experiences. Some people have time and resources to complete advanced education. Others need to work as soon as possible. What about co-op vocational opportunities? And what about practical coursework like personal finance, cooking and household skills. The children of professors will have distinct advantages over the children of a poor single-mom who did not finish high school. Often children will have an educational experience similar to their parents. As a society, we would do well by nudging the least educated up a bit, without hurting the top. Some racial groups tend to occupy the bottom. Racism may be part of the problem. However, there are many other factors involved.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Me, Me, Me Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World

Me, Me, Me continues on with many of the same points of the author's previous book. The goal is to empower children to make good decisions that help them and society in the long run. To enable this, the parent needs to start be spending time with the child ("mind body and soul time"). Then there must be clear boundaries, together with plenty of opportunity for children to make good decisions for themselves.
She spends time analyzing "privilege". People are concerned about having benefits that were not due to their own work. She even thinks she got privilege from her degree - even though she spent great effort to obtain it. This is again, a modern liberal view. The "disadvantages" focus on certain "key" areas, but ignore other things. Why should we even try for equality? The diversity of genetics make people differently equipped for different tasks. (Short people are inherently disadvantaged as basketball stars.) Upbringing also is an important benefit. Historically, wealth and position were passed down through generations. Even without that, the upbringing lets people have more experience and training in certain areas. Denying this can limit the possible growth of society.
For money, the book advocates a "no strings attached" allowance is a way to encourage kids to manage money. The book advocates encouragement rather than praise and encourages empathy. It also encourages empathy with kids. They need to have intrinsic motivation to do what is right. They also benefit greatly by having the opportunity to fail while they are young rather than when they get older.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Magician: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, Book 2

The Magician continues on the pseudo-historical adventures of the alchemist. Most of the characters are "real" ones from history. John Dee and Niccolo Machiavelli are the bad guys. Joan of Arc is a new good person here. There are also demons and supernatural events. The bad cause have caused many of the calamitous events (such as the San Francisco earthquake and volcanoes.) Monster sightings and supernatural events are actually "real". The conspiracy theorists have it right. People just use science to cover things up.
In this book, the adventures are primarily in Paris. The twins and their companions are chased. The twins get separated. The boy feels drawn to the "bad guy" through his talk. HE eventually chooses to get awoken by Mars, much to the chagrin of others. Luckily, they come to help out of the problems. There is real conflict over who is good and bad. Each side tells parts of story, but leaves the opening for the other side to communicate their part. Oh, and there is also plenty of action and mayhem which gets conveniently explained away.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How It Is Revolutionizing Our World

George Gilder believes that most economists miss the point. Economics is all about the unknown. Entrepreneurs are the most important part of the economic system. They take risk. The success or failure is unknown. If we prevent them from having the chance of big gains, we prevent the societal benefits that they will provide. (Ironically, the vast riches often come when the companies move to a static turf-defense stage.) Qualcomm seemed to violate the laws of physics with CDMA. It was less efficient for voice communication. But much better for transmitting data.
Gilder is a strong supply slide economist that enjoys remembering the glory years of the Reagan era. His has very right wing views, yet he dishes out criticism (and compliments) to those on both sides of the aisle. Information Theory provides a basis for economic thought. We already know what we know. It is what we don't know that will provide value. Government regulation usually fails because it attempts to but rules in place based on what we know. This ends up stifling some of the entrepreneurial growth. It also leads to significant energy spent "working around the rules." Huge numbers of people are employed to pay taxes (and uncover legal loopholes to avoid paying taxes.) When taxes are high, income will often "disappear"
When he gets to specifics, Gilder can sometimes run into trouble. He is strongly in favor of fossil fuels. He believes that "clean energy" policy is a waste and distracts us from optimizing fossil fuel use. This is partially correct. A lot of the "renewable" mandates are more expensive and can have negative environmental costs. However, there is already a body of regulation and subsidies to favor fossil fuel use. We should acknowledge this and spend efforts to remove the encouragement to use the "old system", in order to allow the new to flourish. Electric cars provide an interesting case. Subsidies and regulations had been put in place to encourage electric car development. Alas, there was very little uptake. Then Tesla comes along and creates the must-have electric car. The entrepreneur took advantage of some of the subsidies, but actually succeeded where the big companies had failed.
Things that are undervalued will be abused. He correctly points out cases like health care, where free coverage almost always ends up more costly as people turn hypochondriac and get unneeded healthcare. However, he fails to see that problem in other areas like energy and the environment. If we are free to shift pollution in a way that may hurt us or somebody in the future, it makes economic sense. We even have perverse cases such where people suffer from diseases of abundance and depression, only to spend resources on treating it. They are not better off. However, they have contributed to the economy. (He argues about other "manipulations of GDP", but misses out on these "negative" consumptions.)
At the core, Gilder argues that we need a predictable system that allows the unpredictable to thrive. We can't force the innovation to occur. Instead, we must ensure that the innovators get their proper rewards. This sounds great. However, it doesn't provide for the transition from "entrepreneurial risk taker" to "giant rent seeker". People are upset with the wealthy that have obscene amounts of money. However, they also take advantage of the innovations of these entrepreneurs. (I'm reminded of a Seattle city councilor constantly attacked Amazon - yet her office ordered supplies from Amazon.) How do we ensure that the innovation is encouraged without upsetting amounts of wealth. Does it make any sense for copyrights to last for decades after the death of a creator? This benefits the rent seekers rather than the creators. We also need to acknowledge that there are plenty of people that can't (or won't) make the plunge to innovate and would need some form of societal care. Who takes care of this?

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Eragon: Inheratince

Eragon is the rare fantasy book that is easily digestible. Eragon is a an orphan who has been raised by a friendly "uncle". He discovers a small stone that he tries to use to buy meat. The butcher wont take it. That is for the good as it ends up being a dragon egg. He bonds with the dragon, and eventually leaves town with a storyteller who has dragon experience. Dragon riders had been nearly extinct as the evil king had subsumed their power. There is also magic, some large beasts, half-human magical creates and other typical fantasy creations. However, they are easy to tell apart. Eventually, Eragon discovers his magic and helps the good guys win a battle. In the middle of the book, he swaps travel partners. Things also get a bit confusing at the end. However, the book remains engaging, and is long, but not too long.

Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power (The Lamar Series in Western History)

Lakota America narrates the history of the Lokata people from early 15th century until today, with a strong emphasis on the century from the birth of the US in 1776 until the battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. The terminology can get confusing, in part because people were confused in how they identified each other. They were part of the Sioux, but they were also their own. They reinvented themselves to thrive in remote lands as buffalo hunters. They were a fairly strong nation, and may have had their own country if not for the hunger of white America to settle the lands and build the railroads. They defended their rights both with word and dead. Custer's Last Stand was both their crowning achievement and the end of the line. After their grand victory, the government could now use them as the "evil" to fight against. They ended up confined to a reservation like other native groups. Could the colonist have peacefully coexisted with the native groups? Or was the land grab just too appealing. Perhaps things would have been different if disease and guns didn't have such a strong impact. (Ironically, disease actually helped the Lakota as they would often have greater immunity than other tribes.) What allowed the tribes we have today to survive as long as they did?

Monday, February 03, 2020

The Russian Revolution: A New History

The Russian Revolution was full of contradictions. There were also many "lucky events" that occurred to lead things one way or the other. The author sees the experience as an overall negative for the people. The revolution broke out during World War II. St Petersburg was a cosmopolitan city at the time. However, there was a sharp divide between rich and poor. People were also unhappy with the Czar and the influence of the healer Rasputin. He had a bad reputation and people really wanted him out of there. They finally plotted to kill him. Then they decided the czar must go also. This lead to the February revolution. There was plenty of happenstance and a great deal of incompetence the provisional government. They let the communists infiltrate and thus enabled the communist revolution. The communists came into power and realized they needed money. However, the bank workers went on strike. They thus had to break the strike to try to secure money. They also needed food. So they demanded it from the peasants, killing them if they didn't provide sufficiently. It all makes from a great start for a "peasant workers party". The communists were also against the death penalty and exile - until they needed both to enforce their way. They were strongly anti-war, but then needed further war to cement their power. They advocated nations' right of self-determination. However, that didn't apply when the nations like Ukraine didn't want to be part of the communist confederation. Later, the communists realized there was a great source of wealth in the churches. They thus strongly advocated official state atheism and taking of all the stored wealth from the churches. (Of course this didn't go to the people, but to the central communist organization.) Even communism was sometimes de-emphasized in favor of capitalism when needed. The communists also got some lucky breaks when western bowers decided to stop supporting the opposing groups and gave recognition to the Bolsheviks. (Only to later regret the move.)
Russia has bounced from Czars to Communists to modern day president and oligarchs. It seems that regardless of what the system is, there is a small group in power and a large group on the lower rung. The Russian communist government was primarily concerned with staying in power. The leaders tended to be another "elite" class. Marxism was the window dressing to help them stay in power.
The author ends with a warning to those today who advocate Marxism. The many countries that have tried it have found they drifted far from the utopian principles and often ended up with a dictatorship. (Ironically the modern European welfare state is probably looking much more like Marxism than the Russian experiment.)