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Thursday, March 31, 2022

Review: Who Gets In And Why - A Year Inside College Admissions

 Who Gets In And Why is a book about the perennial topic of interest amongst Asian parents - college admissions. It takes a pragmatic, market-oriented approach to college, and basically divides colleges into Buyers and Sellers.

Sellers are the brand name colleges that everybody knows the names of, with big endowments and no problem getting students who are accepted to enroll. What this means is that those colleges do not have to discount their tuitions, and even if you got in, the price tag might be higher than you expect from all the marketing you hear about "Need-Blind" admissions:

the euphoria of Wellesley’s acceptance was followed by the disappointment of its financial aid offer. Grace didn’t receive a dime. In my terms, Wellesley is a seller. Nearly half of the students who are accepted end up enrolling. It’s prestigious enough and desirable enough that four out of every ten undergraduates pay its $75,000 annual price tag. As a result, financial aid from its $2.1 billion endowment is based mostly on need. (kindle loc 3664)

Buyers, on the other hand, can't count on a high number of accepts attending, and don't have huge endowments:

 Compare, for example, two private universities in upstate New York. Colgate University, with a sticker price of $72,000 per year, accepts just over one-quarter of applicants and spends less than 1 percent of its financial aid on merit-based discounts. Colgate is a seller. But just up the road in Troy, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, with a nearly identical sticker price, spends one-quarter of its institutional aid budget on merit-based aid. Yet both schools attract top-tier students with average ACT scores of 32...Buyer institutions don’t “craft” an incoming class the way sellers do. Buyers “make” their class by enticing students to apply, usually through an application process that is as simple as posting to Instagram. Then they enroll students by offering hefty discounts on their sticker price using what are euphemistically called merit scholarships. One of the schools at the fair, Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, hit their enrollment target of 640 incoming students in 2019 only by offering discounts that averaged around 70 percent. With that coupon, the typical freshman paid around $14,000 of Susquehanna’s advertised $48,000 sticker price for tuition. (kindle loc 840-849)

 Effectively, the entire college game in the USA is rigged in favor of the elite colleges. Of course, what that means is that the entire process is as opaque as possible, with some schools trying to become sellers by trying to reject more applicants. As a result, you get more students applying to more colleges, and that drives down admission rates:

Several urban universities, including New York University, Boston University, and the University of Southern California, also transformed themselves from locally focused commuter schools to international brands. This re-sorting is largely why today’s admissions process seems so intensely competitive and anxiety-ridden to parents who went to college in the 1980s. It’s not that there are so many more top-notch students applying to college; it’s that the top ones from Los Angeles and Chicago and Atlanta and Buffalo are now all applying to the same selective schools. And they’re applying to way more of them. (kindle loc 652)

 Selingo, of course, can't break out of his own American-centric and cultural blinders. For instance, he claims:

When the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans in 2019 about eight admissions criteria colleges should consider, grades and test scores topped the list, by far, well above athletic ability, race, or first-generation and legacy status. The reality is that by using only those two measures there are simply many more qualified applicants than there are spots at any selective school. Think about this: of the 26,000 domestic applicants for admission to the Class of 2019 at Harvard, 8,200 had perfect grade-point averages in high school, 3,500 had perfect SAT math scores, and 2,700 had perfect verbal scores. But Harvard had only about 1,700 spots to offer. (kindle loc 1379)

But of course, that's completely artificial: an examination of the way other countries' university system does admits, for instance, would indicate that the problem  is with the lack of nation-wide standardized testing that's rigorous. Few parents in China or India (or even Canada or Germany) would complain about their admissions process the way Americans complain about theirs. Their examination standards are high, and hardly anyone ever scores a perfect score on their exams. In fact, at the end of the book Selingo finally admits that the US system is inferior in both social equity and in the social goal of actually education all students who can contribute to society with the benefit of a college education:

In the United States, prestige in higher education is measured by how many students a university rejects. While the philosophy on Wall Street is that growth is good, within higher education the prevailing wisdom is that increased size comes at the expense of academic quality and reputation. But that philosophy isn’t shared across the globe. In Canada, for instance, the three most-prominent universities—the University of Toronto, McGill University, and the University of British Columbia—enroll nearly 150,000 undergraduates. That’s more students than the top twenty-five U.S. universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings combined. Even as the number of full-time undergraduates at U.S. colleges and universities has grown, enrollment at the nation’s most-selective and elite institutions has barely grown at all. There have been a few, modest exceptions. Stanford enlarged its freshman class in 2016 by about a hundred students. Yale expanded the class entering in 2017 by about two hundred students, the first expansion at Yale in forty years. They should expand the size of their incoming classes even more, and so too should the rest of the Ivy League and other top universities. (Kindle Loc 3993)

 There's a lot of detail in this book, some of which has also been leaked in recent years especially about legacy admits, the Asian penalty, and why athletic admissions are much more of a sure thing than regular applications:

For athletes, getting into a selective school is a matching game played with coaches rather than a lottery played with the admissions office. Athletes and coaches must first find each other and be a good match. Once that happens, the coach becomes the applicant’s guide and advocate, assisting him through the admissions process...Georgetown allocates about 158 slots out of 1,600 in its first-year class to coaches in twenty-two sports. Bucknell holds 170 slots out of about 970 seats in the class. The University of Virginia earmarks 180 slots out of 3,700 spaces in the class...At Amherst, another 60 to 90 admissions spots go to “coded” athletes with top academic qualifications, but who the report noted are “admitted at a much higher rate than the general admission rate” for nonathletes with similar qualifications. In all, that means Amherst dedicates somewhere around 157 admissions spots to athletes a year—when the total incoming class is only about 490 students. By making room for so many athletes, Amherst makes it so much harder for everyone else to get in. It rejects nearly 9,000 students from a pool of 10,000 applications. Like most elite colleges, Amherst is trying to become more racially and socioeconomically diverse. But its athletic teams are largely white and hook was stronger in assisting the prospect of an applicant than athletics. The study revealed that minority and legacy applicants got a thumb on the scale, while athletes received a whole fist. If the average applicant had a 40 percent chance of admission to one of the schools based solely on test scores and other variables, that student’s probability for getting in skyrocketed to 70 percent if he was an athlete. In other words, an athlete was about 30 percentage points more likely to be admitted than a nonathlete with the same academic record. (kindle loc 2377-2447)

And for those who're eyeing this approach, Selingo notes:

 The fastest growing high school sports for boys are fencing, volleyball, and lacrosse; for girls, it’s lacrosse, fencing, and rifle. (kindle loc 2437)

 All I can say is with this amount of insanity in the process, it's astonishing that US colleges still have the reputation they do, rather than becoming denigrated as the cesspool of corruption and outright bribery that they actually are.

In any case, the book was great and if you have kids who might attend college, it provides good tips and interesting insights.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Review: The Sandman Audible Audiobook

 I was skeptical of Amazon producing The Sandman as an audio book. Graphic novels are notoriously visual mediums if well written, and eliminating the visuals would be crippling, I thought. I expected a pale shadow of the original book, with much of the story abridged.

I was never so glad to be wrong. The soundscape presented is lush, and the story is completely unabridged, matching my memory of the graphic novels, and eliminating none of the kitschy DC Superhero references and cameos. The voice actors are great, and Gaiman himself serves as the narrator. The audio production was so good that I found myself saving episodes for the early hours of the morning so I could plug both earbuds in to get the full experience, rather than trying to listen to it in the car. Given that I treat most audio productions as multi-tasking fodder, this is high praise indeed.

The first act is a great deal, covering the first 20 issues of the graphic novels (the first 3 books as originally published as paperbacks). Gaiman wrote additional description of scenes that were provided as pure visuals. What's great is that unlike a comic book, where your eyes might slide over important details in the picture on first reading, Gaiman's additional descriptive narration ensures that you cannot miss details that he considered important.

I have friends who cannot read comics either because they're visually impaired, or because the skills required to read comic books is something you can't easily pick up as an adult for many. (It astonished me when people told me that they couldn't figure out which panel came next on a page) To those people, I can recommend The Sandman audible edition as an excellent production worthy of its runtime.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Review: The Comeback

 The Comeback is a biography of Greg LeMond, the only American to win the Tour de France (all subsequent American winners having been disqualified for doping). I was familiar with parts of the story, but found the book compelling in its centering of the story around the 1989 Tour, which was won by LeMond by 8 seconds, the closest margin in tour history.

The story covers both LeMond and Fignon, but covers LeMond's childhood and rise in American cycling in much more detail, and of course his hunting accident which nearly cost him his life and ended with a few pellets of shotgun shots in his heart. It's clear that so much of unenhanced performance cycling is reliant on genetics - while LeMond was a kid winning races, his father, despite only taking up cycling because of his son, also won races as a senior, keeping up with and placing high amongst men in his 20s while he was in his 30s.

The book described with attention and detail the tenseness in LeMond's first victory in 1986, when Hinault was favored to win:

That night the Tour director, Jacques Goddet, walked up to Greg and his family at the dinner table. He congratulated Greg and said how happy he was to see an American win the Tour. Then his eyes darkened. “Be careful,” he said. “There are many who do not want you to win.” Goddet told Greg he would do all he could to protect him; but he could do only so much. “Watch your bottles,” he said. “Watch everything.” (Kindle Loc 2544)

No story of LeMond's victories would be complete without describing the rise of EPO, which made the Peloton's speed faster and faster. Daniel de Vise, the author, claims that this accounts for LeMond having won his final two victories without having won a single stage in one case. Of course, maybe his getting shot full of shotgun shells might have more to do with it --- LeMond so genetically gifted that his VO2 Max was an astounding 93, while Lance Armstrong's was 79:

Still seeking a medical explanation for his maladies, Greg consulted with one doctor after another. Finally he saw a sports doctor who was well acquainted with the peloton. “Greg, there’s nothing wrong with you,” the doctor said, according to Greg. He gave Greg the name of a prominent European colleague, a name synonymous with doping. “You need to contact him,” the doctor explained, “because if you’re not on EPO, you don’t have a chance.” (kindle loc 4475)

Doping does affect race results --- people's bodies are affected by doping differently, so the winners would be different if doping was legalized. But the story of occasional professional cyclists who died in their prime (because racers were still learning how to dope safely) probably meant that some died who wouldn't have if doping was legal and had to be done in the open, subject to safety standards. Of course, that means that the sport would no longer be the same, and people wouldn't consider sporting winners to be heroes, but I've always considered that a dumb thing to do.

Regardless, the book was compelling reading and full of great stories. Recommended.


Monday, March 21, 2022

Review: Eternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita

 After watching The Eternals, I decided to read Neil Gaiman's reboot of the original Jack Kirby comics. Lots of people worship Jack Kirby, but I could never get over his rendering of human beings (or in this case, humanoids). All his characters have a blocky look, and his women all look like the same person.

It's not surprising that Gaiman's plot is a lot more sophisticated than the Disney movie. He takes the Sprite character and takes him to its logical conclusion, and drives the entire story against the backdrop of the Eternals all having lost their memories. Some of it, of course, might have been Gaiman reprising Alan Moore's run on Miracleman (Gaiman would later go on to a final run of Miracleman), but at least it doesn't insult our intelligence.

The big nit I have is that the powers exhibited by The Eternals (with the exception of Sersi) is nowhere close to being interesting or unique. But that comes from the source material, not Gaiman.

Usually, the book is more interesting than the movie, but in this case, I'd say that the movie is quite a bit better than even Gaiman's interpretation of the source material.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Review: A Natural History of the Future

 A Natural History of The Future is an ecologist's view of the world, and it's the best introduction to ecological thinking that I've read. The idea that Rob Dunn has, is to introduce the reader to laws of the natural world (that are patterned after the laws in physics) that describe certainties about the biological/ecological world that enable us to predict what will happen over time.

The introduction is great, pointing out that the first research done into organism classification and thinking happened in Sweden. Sweden was unusual in that the diversity of life was actually very low, and the very human bias made the original ecologists focus on things that they cared about, like plants and animals, when much of the biomass of the planet actually exists in the form of insects and micro-organisms. The result was that when Terry Erwin visited the rainforest and collected specimens, he found 1200 new species living in just one type of tree. This blew people's mind, basically noting that the number of unclassified species far out-number the classified species on the planet.

The rest of the book covers these laws, such as the law of escape, which is that when an organism escapes its natural predators and parasites, it will multiply and thrive. He points out that humanity in the temperate zones effectively escaped their predators such as malaria, hook worms, and other parasites, and ominously notes that our warming of the global environment is expanding the range of those parasites and their agents (mosquitoes). The liberal in me notes that in the USA the first places to suffer the re-emergence of those agents are Texas and Florida.

There's the law of evolution, with the most prominent example being antibiotic resistance amongst microbes. Here, the prognosis for humanity isn't as bad as you might imagine. It turned out that the agricultural companies producing transgenic crops have a solution: plant the transgenic crops next to sacrificial non-transgenic crops. The pests and parasites that prey on the crop would preferentially feed on the non-transgenic crops, diluting the gene pool of any transgenic-resistant crops and preventing the rise of widespread transgenic resistance. Of course, capitalistic farmers would not heed those prescriptions and within a few generations those transgenic crop pastures would turn into hotbeds of transgenic resistance. 

All in all, the book is full of great concepts, new ideas, and a very good perspective that no matter what humanity does, we might well remove ourselves and our mammalian friends from the planet, but life on the planet will not be wiped out. He points out that there are already microbes that thrive in extremely hot, acidic, and salty conditions and cannot wait to take over the planet once humanity has made the atmosphere and ecosystem more friendly to them.

Very sobering and well worth your time. Recommended.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Review: When We Cease to Understand the World

When I was an undergraduate, I attended Kathy Yelick's "Denotational Semantics" graduate student seminar. There was a section discussion when people puzzled over the Y-combinator. On that day, I explained it as follows: when you want to write a recursive function, write it as though you had recursion as a native construct, and then at the end, wrap it with a Y. That's how you use it. (The lazy evaluation would expand on it as necessary when supplied with a concrete argument) One of the graduate students, not sure he understood what it meant, raised his hands and said, "Is that understanding sufficient to get us through the final exam?" Concrete manipulation vs intuitive understanding has always been a part of science and mathematics --- once you have a tool, it doesn't matter whether you understand how it was made as long as you know how to manipulate it. But of course, many people would disagree, and claim that if you don't understand how the tool works you don't know it. That's what this book is about.

When We Cease to Understand the World is a fictional account of various scientists and mathematicians: Karl Schwarzchild Fritz Haber, Alexander Grothendieck, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrodinger. It also includes mentions of Albert Einstein. While the mathematical theories are real, the events are made up, though how much I did not do the research on.

The book covers not mostly the mathematics and the science (though there's some explication and exposition), but the idea of what it must be like making a discovery that did not make sense at that time. It's also a reflection of the scientific and mathematical enterprise:

it’s not just regular folks; even scientists no longer comprehend the world. Take quantum mechanics, the crown jewel of our species, the most accurate, far-ranging and beautiful of all our physical theories. It lies behind the supremacy of our smartphones, behind the Internet, behind the coming promise of godlike computing power. It has completely reshaped our world. We know how to use it, it works as if by some strange miracle, and yet there is not a human soul, alive or dead, who actually gets it. (pg. 187)

Of course, I vehemently disagree with the book's premise and conclusions. Being able to exploit a quantum property means you do understand it.  That's the way science and engineering works. Just because you cannot manipulate the technology without tools (i.e., have an intuition about a system) doesn't mean you don't understand it. This sort of approach to thinking, science and technology is why we continue to have science denialists, and lots of people suffering from Dunning-Krueger.

The book showed up on a lot of "best of the year" series, but I'm afraid I cannot condone it for its conclusions. Get your science from the non-fiction section of the library or bookstore please!

Monday, March 07, 2022

Review: The Science of Sci-Fi

 I came to The Science of Sci-Fi with high hopes. I'm a science geek and I enjoy science fiction, so putting them together sounds great. The first two episodes start off with a refresh on typical physics topics like relativity and gravity, so I thought it was a good start. But when the science fiction dissections happened I found them kinda obvious. You don't really need a "great courses" lecture series to go over what Erin MacDonald talked about. And she didn't cover really good science fiction.

I thought Physics of the Impossible was a much better read.

Thursday, March 03, 2022

Review: This is your mind on plants

 This is your mind on plants is Michael Pollan's second book about his experiments with drugs. Two of the drugs, opium/opiates and mescaline aren't drugs I've ever used, and one of them, caffeine, is of course popular and easy to get, and even legal.

The first article about opium isn't actually very much about opium. It's about how he grew poppies, and then discovered that even the act of growing poppies is subject to legal problems. Fortunately, his publisher (Harper's) indemnified him against legal action, but most of this section of the book that I can remember is about how much trouble you can get simply by publishing an article about how to grow poppies, extract the seed pods, and then brew an opium-infused tea with it. The tea does give you a sense of satisfaction and elimination of pain, and apparently can be addictive.

The section on Caffeine is nothing you haven't heard about. Pollan makes a big deal out of quitting coffee, and then digresses into the history of caffeine, and attributing the rise of caffeinated drinks like coffee or tea as changing Western civilization. I can believe it, since the drink of choice before that was alcohol (not covered in the book), but I think he made way too much of a big deal out of it. I've quit coffee a few times and it was never a big deal. As an addictive substance it's pretty mild.

The last section is about mescaline/peyote, a cactus flower that's used in native American rituals. This drug sounds intriguing, as what it does is produce a hyper-awareness of yourself and your surroundings for up to 12 hours. I've had moments like at (during crucial interviews or other high intensity events), but I can imagine that if you don't regularly put yourself in those situations it would be a novelty.

I enjoyed the book. I found it much more readable than How to Change Your Mind, which I bounced right off of.