Friday, May 28, 2021

Unacceptable: Privilege, Deceit & the Making of the College Admissions Scandal

Operation Varsity Blues was the codename for the investigation into Rick's Singer's college admission business. Rich clients would make "donations" to his charity. In turn, money would flow to college coaches in order to get children marked as "athletes" for preferred admission to their desired colleges. 

Singer's business started off as a somewhat legitimate college admissions coaching business. However, he had experience coaching sports and desire to "win". He realized that sports provided a great route to admissions. While popular sports, such as football and basketball are heavily scrutinized, the lesser sports often go under the radar. Most Ivy League schools do not give athletic scholarships. However, they do let coaches flag priority athletic students. Some sports, such as sailing and rowing rely heavily on students with little experience in the sport. This allows students to be claimed as athletes without actually participating in sports.

The admissions ring also included additional "doctoring" of applications. There were a number of nefarious actions undertaken for ACT and SAT tests. At one time, they would just send somebody with a fake ID to take tests in the name of a student. However, photos and other security mechanisms made this more difficult. To work around it, they would buy off proctors in certain locations to allow tests to be corrected. They would also apply for disability accommodations to give them more time to complete the test. 

Applications would be written by Singer's team. They would write essays and even include fake information stolen from newspaper accounts of others.

The scheme unraveled due to an unrelated investigation into penny stock fraud. A witness detailed the bribes paid to a coach which eventually ensnared Singer. He cooperated with the government to expose his clients. Many plead guilty to crimes, leaving many wealthy leaders spending brief time in jail.

The sting seemed to ensnare a mixture of different cupabilities. Some coaches were freely greasing their pockets with bribe money in order to grant admissions ot unqualified students. Others seems to be innocently raising money for their program. The Stanford sailing coach accepted donations to the sailing program. His sport would typically look for athletic students without prior sailing experience. Though the program received donations, none of the donations went to the coach and none of the students were actually flagged and attended Stanford.

While the bulk of the scandal focussed on the nefarious activities of the wealthy and admission counselors, the college complex itself got off relatively scott free. Even worse, most of the students that got in via Singer were kicked out of the schools. (This despite the fact that they were succeeding academically and had little knowledge of the fraud used to get them in.) 

Universities themselves are perhaps the biggest fraud. They claim to be selling one thing at a price, but are really selling something else at a different price. Elite colleges are primarily selling a luxury good. The "ivy league" diploma is a status signal and a way to open doors to lucrative careers. They hope to receive significant monetary contributions to provide a four year "retreat" for the nation's rich and famous. However, they claim to be providing an egalitarian education for all of society. To help carry out this mission, they partner with the government to provide extensive financial aid for "disadvantaged" students.

Why all the subterfuge? Why not go totally aboveboard? Perhaps they just need to be like airlines and sell the same seats for different prices. Let students apply for the admission tiers. The $5,000,000 tier may be a lot less competitive than the $5 tier. However, by doing this, the university is more likely to pocket money from the wealthy without all the shenanigans. Instead of relying on test scores, the schools can focus more on actually knowing the students. Personal interviews can come in to the mix rather than SAT stores. 

The excessive professionalization of university sports is also a big problem. Football and basketball are practically farm teams for the professional leagues. There also tends to be more scholarship money available in sports than in other academic areas. This will continue to create much conflict in the university admissions. Is it time to disconnect sports from college? Or can it be scaled back to an extent that it is a useful form of physical education rather than an all-encompassing part of school?

A Canticle for Leibowitz

There has been a great nuclear war and the world is left in ruins. People have determined that technology was the problem, so they have worked on destroying all remnants of technology. Leibowitz helped retain manuscripts describing technology in a remote abbey. The monks copied important records, storing some, while also committing much to memory. 

The many centuries of history. The world stayed away from technology for hundred of years. The monks had to go through great struggles to save some records. Eventually the world had created new technology.

This is an interesting take on religion and technology. Could past societies have advanced to an advance state, only to have all knowledge destroyed? The passed-down remnants of religion would be the one source of the ancient knowledge that still remains. However, this knowledge would be interleaved with much other details with many bits expected to be known. (there is a bit where they try to recreate some technology and acknowledge that some things were not explained because they were just expected to be known.)

The novel also covers a long period of time. There are some records that are only preserved by luck. However, much is lost. After many centuries of time, the world world starts to create technology again in a slightly different way, only to encounter similar problems. How can we learn from our mistakes and not throw out the baby with the bathwater?

Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention

"If-and-then" is the key to human innovation and domination. That point is repeated over and over in Pattern Seekers. The second half of the book dives down into the evolutionary history of homo sapiens and analyzes how humans came to dominate.

The first part of the book focussed more on the different types of people and what they excel at. Most people are near the center of the bell curve for systematizing and empathy (with women skewing more empathetic and men more systematizing) However, inventors tend to be very high on the systematizing end. Their brains are often the scientific method in action. Autism is often manifest as high systematizing with low empathy. Studies have shown that children of engineers tend to be overrepresented on the autism spectrum. There was a plan to do a detailed study of MIT graduates to see autism correlation. However, the president of MIT stopped it, for fear that it would cast the university in a bad light. The end of the book includes a short quiz to scale yourself on the two spectrums. (I came up heavily skewed towards systematizing.) 

Our current education system does a great disservice to those on the autism spectrum. The conventional general education system has moved more to the "fuzzy" instruction and away from the more concrete. This often results in very smart students struggling. (Ironically, at the same time, we are super concerned about the lack of people in STEM.)  It would be better for us to focus on the strengths of those strong in the "in-built" scientific method. These people may coast through some classes in school, but struggle greatly with the social interactions. As a society it would benefit everyone to acknowledge the different ways in which people think. Future Edisons may by languishing as we spent effort trying to make them something they are not rather than let them move the human race forward.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Master and Margarita (Dramatized)

The dramatization of Master and Margarita is a quick introduction to the story. The focus is primarily on the story of Pontius Pilate and the writer and poet. The "cat" makes a brief appearance. The short version skips over a lot of details that make the novel "weird". There is a bit of absurdity involved, but not nearly as much as in the book.

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel (The Murderbot Diaries, 5)

I'm not sure why I listened to this book. I read a murderbot novella and was not terribly engaged. The ideas seem to have some potential, but the execution is just not there. The narrator is a "murderbot". It knows it is a robot, but it is also very human. But it isn't human (as it will even acknowledge when it looks at the true meaning of expletives.) They are on a space mission. Stuff happens. Going rogue help people and the mission. Just wasn't my thing.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Close to Home: A Novel

A girl turns up missing and the detectives come in to investigate. The family attempts to be distraught, but seems reluctant to allow full access. The investigation covers lots of ground and ends up uncovering plenty of skeletons in the family's closet. This is a fast paced British thriller that ends up covering family issues, arson, child porn rings and a kidnapping and murder. We keep thinking we know what happened, only to have new twists and turns. The book also includes interludes of "social media" responses that help mirror much of the nonsense that happens in the real world. Even the wrapped up "conclusion" ends up being not as it seems.

The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi

A Jewish housewife is facing a midlife crisis. She loves to cook for her family, but wants more in life. Her husband helps arrange for job for her at a literary agency. She is upset that her daughter plans to get married and fights to stop it. The strong response leads her upset. She takes solace in the book she is reading for work. She eventually strikes up a conversation with the author. This leads to her leaving her husband and her appreciation for Sufi Mysticism. The novel intertwines the "modern story" with a story from a millenia ago. The ancient story deals with some Sufi Muslims that make sacrifices to gain enlightenment. There are parallels between the modern life and the ancient story. However, the ending feels a "cop out".

Anytime, Anywhere

Anytime, Anywhere contains a series of vignettes from John Groberg's service as a church leader. This involved him traveling at anytime, anywhere. This book is the "sequel" to the Other Side of Heaven books and greatly expands the geographical scope. The stories take place all over the world, from Mongolia to Hong Kong to Tonga, Latin America and even the southwestern United States. The focus is on the insights and spiritual experiences that occur, rather than the events themselves. In some cases, it is a seemingly minor occurrence that leads to a great insight. In other times, seemingly large traumatic events become blessings in disguise. The stories are often short and isolated. I was often left wondering what happened later down the road.

There were a few sections that did flip the script. There were many stories of Tongans that reached out to him to tell their stories. He often had only a small recollection of what to them were very life changing events. It is interesting that the long term impact can often be very different from the short term perception.

Saturday, May 22, 2021


Pavane is an alternative history set in "modern" England. However, the assassination of Queen Elizabeth led to the Spanish Armada defeating the English. From this, the Catholic church was able to reign supreme and limit innovation. Some technology has gradually permeated society. However, things like electricity are fundamentally banned (though sometimes clandestinely adopted by the wealthy.) The book consists of a number of small stories in this quasi-steam-punk environment. The end explains that limiting technology may be useful in helping to give people time to adopt to the new before they cause problems for themselves. The stories have a feudal feel to them. While I found the idea intriguing, I had a difficult time getting into the book.

The Secret to Superhuman Strength

In the Secret to Superhuman Strength, the author narrates the history of her life (and the world around her) through her athletic interests. As a young girl in the 1960s, there were limited athletic opportunities. However, there was the appeal of the comic book adds for superhuman strength. Alas, these did not pan out. However, running did prove to provide a great experience. The book continues passing through many fitness fads while also tying together the transcendentalists (especially Margaret Fuller) and the beat generation (especially Kerouac). The key historical events often happen in the background (with an occasional asterisk for "obsolete" items such as newspapers). She adopts skiing early with her family. She later moves to intense biking after being influenced by a partner. Karate and Yoga also play significant roles in her life. 

Friday, May 21, 2021

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

Doom is an interesting hodgepodge of thoughts about catastrophe. It takes as its impetus, the Covid-19 pandemic. In physical impact, covid-19 is much more similar to the 1950s Asian flu than the 1910s Spanish flu. It seemed to primarily impact the old and did not spread extremely fast or kill a large number of people. However, it was unknown. The reactions were extreme. Leaders were criticized on all sides for doing too little or too much. The author argues, however, that the leaders are primarily figureheads. Most of what takes place is controlled by the undercurrents of society.

The book goes through many previous cases of "doom". There were previous plagues and falls of empires. We tend to differentiate between "natural" pandemics and "human caused" wars. However, they are often quite similar. The natural disasters are often exacerbated by human actions. The wars and conflicts, on the other hand, are often driven by the undercurrents of society. This is the opposite of the "big important person" theory. Here the leader has some influence, but a lot of it is controlled by the movement of society. Disasters such as "famine" are almost always accompanied by government incompetence. A well functioning government can usually ensure that people are fed. There are also cases of people causing damage by working around bureaucracy. (Insurance wouldn't pay out for earthquake damage, but would for fire, so there is incentive to set fires after an earthquake.) There were a number of factors, almost all due to human actions that lead to the deadliest airplane crash (in the canary islands.)

The end off the book has an exploration of different books about disaster and post apocalyptic situations. Books from 1984 to the Three Body Problem explore various concerns that we have in our society. China and the west are engaged in a new cold war. The government institutions that exist are getting bigger and bigger, but not necessarily better at dealing with "unknowns". New unknown catastrophes will continue to occur.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021


August underwent a number of surgeries as a young child. His head has a number of deformities, especially with his ears and jaw. He has struggled to do things that others find normal. Because of this (and his numerous hospital visits), he has been homeschooled through fourth grade. In fifth grade, however, he starts attending school. He struggles with it at first. The principal does attempt to help by encouraging a few kids to help guide him around. However, they are also struggling with popularity. He does have one girl that really does want to be his friend. (Though he sometimes questions whether they are really friends.) He has a falling out with the other kids and finds himself in a position of ridicule. One friend punches another kid who is mean to August and ends up becoming the only remaining "friend". However, at a camp, his classmates rally to his defenses as August is attacked by a bully from another school. After this, the student body moves clearly to his side.

There are also side stories of others. They seem to be doing well, but have less stable home environments. Auggie's older sister has been a great help in his life. Having a deformed brother had been both a challenge and blessing for her.  Her friend had moved on to "popular" circles. However, after seeing Auggie in the audience, she gives up her starring role in the school play after seeing. (Her family is going through a messy situation, and she just remembers the great joy of the boy.

The book makes it clear that everyone will judge people by their outward appearance. It is impossible not to notice somebody with significant deformity. However, you can still get to know them for the the human they have inside.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021


Suttree is one of those characters that I don't find very interesting and don't have much of a desire to know more about. He hangs out with people that I would like to avoid. The settings are not very appealing. It takes place in Tennessee, mostly among the riff raff. It is just not a book that appeals to me. About the only thing that sticks in my mind about it is chicken fried steak and busses. I would much rather be eating a chicken fried steak than reading this book. 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness

Our modern healthcare system focuses on treating individual symptoms. However, there are many factors that impact health. Even people with the same physical condition may have very different outcomes, often influenced by their happiness and social connections. General lifestyle activities are an often neglected important part of treatment. If surgery is performed, yet the underlying bad behaviors are not addressed, the patient will likely come back with new complication.

People that live in kind, social environments will have better health. A person in lower-level stressful job is likely to have worse health than somebody in a higher level job. There is also a strong correlation between level of education and health incomes. A sense of community is also extremely valuable. In a case study of a town with a high sense of community and neighborliness, there was a much lower prevalence of negative medical conditions than would be expected. However, once people started spending more time with TV and less with their neighbors, the benefit disappeared. Places like Okinawa are known for longevity in part due to the community experiene.

The "rabbit effect" itself comes from a study in which different sets of rabbits received the same procedure, but had very different outcomes. The result was caused by the lab worker that was attending to a group of rabbits. She was very loving and friendly to her group of rabbits, thus causing them to have better outcomes.

The author is significantly concerned with the siloing of health care. Mental health and physical health are treated separately, with little effort focussed on the intersection of the two. However, in the real world, there are often strong correlations. This is especially the case in neurological conditions. People with mental illness are often more likely to be susceptible to various other medical conditions.

Epigenetics and long-term impacts are also intriguing. Children born to stressed mothers often have worse medical outcomes. These can even be extended down to their children. Furthermore, traumatic conditions in youth can lead to further bad conditions as an adult. (In one study, there was a correlation between obese patients that had trouble losing weight and childhood trauma.) Our medical system tends to focus on an isolated condition in the here and now. However, our bodies are the sum of all experiences throughout the body. A more holistic approach would be the best for long term positive outcome.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Zanna's Gift: A Life in Christmases

Zanna's older brother is a hard working teenager who seems to understand Zanna's work better than others. Unfortunately, he passes away suddenly in his sleep. Zanna later learns that she had a twin sister that died at birth. She made a picture for him for Christmas that she continues to bring out every Christmas in memory of her lost brother. The novel continues the many Christmases from the great depression to the modern times. New members join the family. Many people die of various causes, but the "gift" continues.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease

The human body has evolved in a different environment than it exists in today. We have many innovations that make our life "easier" today. However, these same innovations also take away some of the needed stresses that help our body body to properly develop and fight of ailments. 

The book starts with the origins of humans. Early hominids started to walk upright millions of years ago. This created many challenges, but also gave some advantages. (After all, they did not become extinct.) Brain size also increase. (There is still debate as to what caused what.) Eventually, homo sapien spread across the world, primarily as a hunter-gatherer society.

The human body is fairly well optimized for hunting and gathering life. This type of life required a great deal of physical exercise. It also required a lot of chewing (Which helped lead to good dental appearance.) Sweet food was prized and stored up. Humans store more fat than many other animals, giving advantages in survival. People have infrequent births, but a higher likelihood of a child living longer. Birthing is not easy. However, the wider hips allow for larger babies to be born, though they still need more attention after birth.

Our ailments today often come from "too much" or "too little". We have processed food to give us the primary energy that we crave. Our genes encourage us to stock up on this food and store it away. Alas, this lead to obesity and a number of other ailments. On the too little side, we don't move enough. Our bones and muscles are strengthened by stresses. 

Our medical system focuses on treating symptoms rather than making lifestyle changes to reduce causes. This has inadvertently resulted in some negative evolution of disease. Social evolution has a curious interaction with different conditions. (Is near-sightedness more common because of related benefits? Or is it because it has little harm and is easily fixed?) Many diseases today also appear later in life, causing little negative pressure on reproduction.  

Looking at the "long" picture provides an interesting insight into the human condition as well as some concerns about the way we are practicing medicine today.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The Callahan Chronicals

Callahan runs a "Cheers" bar that is frequented by people from our planet, as well as those from other worlds. There are regular contests about making puns and telling tall tales. Many down on their luck people have come to the bar and come up better. A ventriloquist dog makes his appearance (with a mute that he mouths words for.) A centuries-old woman appears (the fact that she is a woman is more out of the ordinary than her longevity.) There are also aliens of various types (including those running the earth as a game reserve.)

There is a bit of science fiction to the stories, but they are mostly about the people and their accepting environment. The bar has quirky ways of paying (no cash register and only dollar bills). The stories often have a plot element with a key character, then spend some time with some of the fun "contests" at the bar.

I enjoyed some of the author's discussion about the stories. He had received a lot of fan mail (along with some hate mail.) Some people wanted to know where the bar was located. Others complained that the stories were not science fiction. He struggled to respond to his mail. (And eventually shifted countries to help deal with it.) There was also a quite active usegroup at one time. It all seemed to bring back bits of nostalgia for slower paced time in the past.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

Bill Gates presents a technocratic approach to dealing with climate change. His basic supposition is that we need to get to zero carbon emissions while at the same time increasing net energy use around the world. The primary tool used is a reduction of the green premium. The carbon-free and lower carbon approaches should be equal or cheaper than the high-carbon approaches. He proposes a large selection of different approaches that should start out generally. The government should play a role in regulation and encouragement. However, we need to be careful to not be too proscriptive. The government should encourage specific desired results rather than the specific means to get there. Research should also be encouraged in both the government and private sectors.

His solutions are well thought out. My concern are the basic propositions. Is zero-carbon an appropriate goal? Is that too much or not enough? Perhaps we are so far gone that we need to rapidly scale back the greenhouse gasses. Or maybe we are approaching a cooling and we really need to have a controlled increase in greenhouse gasses. A change of a few degrees temperature could be a very significant. However, it could be harmful or beneficial. We just don't have the ability to fully model everything.  A long term target needs to be easily adjustable.

The bigger concern is the assumption that we need to keep energy consumption to maintain a high standard of living. The general focus of his approach is on "greener" energy and "scrubbing carbon." What about the energy that causes great inefficiencies and reduces are quality of life? In the transport sector, a huge amount of energy is spent just transporting the vehicles. A person is nearly a rounding error in the overall weight of a car. What if we focussed on smaller, lighter vehicles. (More efficient bicycles?) Land use and urban design causes huge wastes. Many regulations force excessive energy use in the urban layouts. A person may spend all their time in 1000 square feet of living space, yet they have a 2000 square foot house on 10000 square feet of land. They need to spend extra energy to maintain the yard and living space. They need to travel greater distances to other destinations because all their neighbors have large yards. The energy consumption requires them to spend more time and more money - just to be able to consume more energy that they do not want. 

Urban development has also had a disproportionate impact on local climatic conditions. The urban heat island can make temperatures a few degrees warmer in cities. Should we do more to combat this?

The Covid pandemic has also shown that many in-person activities can take place fine over video conference. (There do still remain many things that are better done at a distance.) 

Continued focus on research should definitely come into play. However, before enacting vast policy changes, we need to make sure the goal is really the right one.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

The Little Book of Common Sense Investing

Index mutual funds are the best way to invest for the long term. Bogle was the founder of Vanguard and a strong advocate for index funds. Using an index fund minimizes costs management costs, capital gains and the costs of "market risk". Actively managed funds may be the market at times. However, if somebody is overperforming, this comes at the expense of somebody else's underperformance. Higher fees come out of this. The more money that is paid in fees, the less is available for the investor. People also tend to invest in "hot areas", which often causes them to go in at the peak, while leaving at the nadir. 

Bogle was not very keen on ETFs. He acknowledges that they can be more tax efficient and beneficial for people that hold them for the long term. However, they also allow for frequent trading that could reduce returns.

Bogle's book presents a sound case for indexing, complete with plenty of quotes from other sources. He is open to people adding some other "fun" areas to their portfolio as long as indexing is the mainstay. 

The questions that are not discussed include what happens if everybody indexes? Is there a level of indexing where the market fails to function? And what happens if the market enters a long-term doldrum?


A 10-year old girl is shunned by her classmates due to her religious practices. A popular boy briefly holds her hand without letting others see. Then they don't see each other for two decades. The two go on with their lives, but still have a secret place in their hearts for that relationship. Finally, after they meet each other and launch on the relationship they always wish they had.

This simple "love story" goes on for over 40 hours, so there is a lot more to it. The girl goes on to be a fitness instructor and an assassin. The boy does well academically and athletically in school, but then fades after school ends. He is now teaching at a cram school. They are both connected through a strange cult. (She is engaged to assassinate the leader. He helps ghost write a fantasy novel about the "little people" and the religion with the daughter of the leader. They end up leaving the "real" world and entering a another world with two moons. Bad guys are chasing them. People have "safe" sexual relationships and don't have kids. However, the girl does get pregnant without sex.

A safety exit on an expressway ends up being a portal to the "alternate" version of 1984. This world is very close to the "normal" world. Only a limited number of people actually know that they are in this "alternate" universe. Most people are just going along with their normal life. This different universe (and the discovery of it) is a key part of the plot, yet it is not crucial to the novel. The differences are subtle. The "air chrysalis" story is "real" in the alternate universe, yet it is not critical for most. The story is discussed in significant detail, yet it may be interesting to actually see it.  

This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race

Today most everything is connected to the internet. The amount of code written is growing everyday. The amount of bugs in the code is also increasing. This creates vulnerabilities in multiple layers. It is impossible for any one person to understand everything their computer is doing. The application software, the operating system, BIOS, network routers and more each have their own code and have their source for vulnerabilities. Unpatched zero-day vulnerabilities remain out there in the wild. Hackers may be lurking in any system.

The world powers have been a source for hoarding vulnerabilities for use in offensive hacking. The US and Israel showed the power when they were able to hack Iran to disable nuclear facilities. Russia took it a step further and caused havoc in Ukraine on multiple times, temporarily shutting off power and shutting down many critical resources. With most everything connected these days, there are many chances for bad guys to infiltrate. In many cases, they already have. They may be after secrets. They me be ransomware gangs in it for money. Or most dangerous, they may be nation-states waiting for war.

The world of hacking is clouded in a lot of secrecy. Highly educated countries on the fringes of global prosperity are likely to produce more vulnerability finding hackers. With limited other prospects, the monetary rewards can be much greater than other legitimate opportunities. Some have scruples on who they sell to. Others, however, will sell to the highest bidder. These bidders will often be nation states. However, the secrecy required by these players may result in a hacker being enticed by a lesser "bug bounty" and the name recognition allowed.

Our society has an interesting dichotomy. We demand extreme openness of anything "public", yet absolute privacy for any "private" activity. However, the boundary can be murky. The public salivated at the juicy revelations in private email conversations unearthed in a Sony data breach, rather than be offended that this data was made public. 

We cannot expect anything to be totally safe. There are likely unpatched vulnerabilities that could allow anything to be shut down or any data to be stolen. Security requires "defense in depth". We must hope that all are critical infrastructure is well protected. Often the most difficult part of an attack is gaining entry. Having systems patched helps reduce the easy attack vectors. We must also worry about social engineering attacks. A carelessly clicked on email or a weak password is often the easy entry.

Social engineering can also take the form of "opinion manipulation". Foreign nations can show discord by fanning flames of differing views. Even subtle coaxing can gradually steer people to extremist views or even views not in their best interest.

We have let computers enter nearly every aspect of our lives. How do we prevent them from being our own destruction?

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

The Free Lunch

Humanity in the distant future is in a bad state. Some people travel back in time to try to fix things. They seek to give a "free lunch" to people. The people in the dreamland amusement park are dealing with them. 

This may be a better book for people who are already familiar with some of the characters.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership

The book opens with the story of a black single mother who was unable to find a place to rent. She was encouraged to buy a place instead. This ended up being a dump that should have probably been condemned. The author places the blame on the real estate professionals and the government's complicity. There is a conflict in seeing housing as a place to live and as an investment. Well-meaning intentions to expand access end up backfiring. 

Much of the book focuses on the HUD during the Nixon administration. George Romney was Nixon's in-party rival, so Nixon attempted to relegate him to the backwaters of the housing department. Romney, however, really wanted to help the poor and especially racial minorities. He had worked hard to integrate housing. He ended up working too hard. His attempts to integrate suburbs was leaked and was disbanded for political expediency. Romney ended up having a fall-out with Nixon.

In spite of Romney's intentions, all was not well with the HUD. Black employees tended to earn less than their white counterparts. There were also cases of the government signing off on poor quality housing that it insured. There were many areas of corruption throughout. Some required repairs may not be done. Some appraisers and inspectors may be doing double duty other places and have incentives that were not in the best interest of others.

The narrative of black housing ended up using color-blind rationale to continue segregation. Black homeowners were seen as not being able to maintain their housing. Minority neighborhoods were less desirable than white ones. With free choice, people would still choose to cluster. On top of these arguments, local communities argued that they should have control. Many zoning ordinances made no mention of race, but served to make things difficult for black homeowners. There ended up being a whole "throw the baby out with the bathwater" mentality. Local communities enact restrictive zoning regulations that ended up driving up the cost for everyone while also making neighborhoods more isolated, spread out and car dependent. 

In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman: Mathematics at the Limits of Computation

The traveling salesman problem is a popular computation problem that has evaded a simple solution. The goal is to travel from one point through a number of different points just once and eventually return to the starting point. There are practical applications in route planning as well as many other areas. However, the solution has evaded a simple solution. The brute force solution grows exponentially as more points are added. Some heuristics can be used to help get a "good" solution and then iterate on it until it becomes optimal.

In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman attempts to be accessible, with a great deal of the text focussed on the history and the people involved. However, it also delves deep into the math. I found myself lost with some of the numbers and optimal solutions. Why are these numbers getting bigger? How are we sure this is the optimal solution. These may have been explained earlier, but I had lost it.

Luckily, the focus is primarily on the people. Even if you get lost with the math, you can follow along with the people. Of key importance is the concept of Linear Programming introduced by George Dantzig. (He had a somewhat auspicious start, solving some "unsolved" statistics problems that he thought were homework.) I got a general idea about how linear programming worked from the text, but it does not really attempt to be a tutorial.

The end of the book presents a number of interesting uses and attempts to solve the traveling salesman problem. Some researchers have used animals grabbing food. Others have attempted to use DNA. People can do a pretty good job with a small set. However, with big sets, they bog down. Some really complex problems involve attempting to trace paths on famous paintings.

The big mystery is still P=NP. Is the salesman problem a difficult problem without an easy solution? Or is there a way that anything can be solved in a reasonable time? There is still a million dollar reward out there, so we may find out.

Monday, May 03, 2021

George Brunt: Young Pioneer of Eagle Rock

George Brunt traveled with his family to settle in Idaho Falls in the early days of the city. This book generally tries to be accurate to his history. However, it is a work of historical fiction and thus takes liberties to make a good story. The story is very optimistic. Even when bad things happen, they are only brief blips before things go well again. Life in century-ago Idaho Falls was not easy. However, people always were there to help each other out. There was a strong desire to work hard, but there was a communal need to help each other out. The biggest fault of the book is lack of maps. It would be great if there were maps showing the present and past locations described in the book.