Finally finished the book, Code Warriors

This book came out in 2016, and we picked it up cheap at a JeffCo Public Library Whale of a Book Sale. In short, the author, Stephen Budiansky, wrote a fascinating tome concerning the history of code breaking in the United States. If you want to know more about the background of the creation of the NSA, this is for you. It also covers many other federal agencies that are engaged in military intelligence and counter-intelligence.

Well, I read another book on college costs – It is Wealth, Cost, and Price in American Higher Education

In the course of finding the previous book, I also had a citation to this new one published this year. I got this one from Interlibrary Loan, since it was not available in Colorado.

Bruce Kimball is in the Department of Education Studies at The Ohio State University. Co-author Sarah M. Iler got her Ph.D. from OSU, and she is currently teaching at Columbus State Community College.

In the preface, they note that several foundations declined to give them grants to support the research, since the foundations thought it should be written by economists, instead of historians of the american education system. They showed them. They were able to get research funding from a variety of sources.

The book essentially covers the years 1869 to the present. That is roughly when colleges began the work of building up an endowment, but the term didn’t become regularized until about 1920. Between 1870 and 1920, a college might consider buildings, equipment, property, trusts, and other financial holdings to be part of an endowment, but those items may or may not be considered endowment today.

The Ivy League schools plus other high prestige private universities (such as the U of Chicago, JHU, MIT) discovered the benefits of the “Free-Money Strategy” as covered in chapter 2. Charles W. Eliot popularized the idea with his annual reports to colleges in the late 1800s to the early 1900s. His father lost a family fortune in the panic of 1857, so that taught Charles the importance of saving money with sound financial strategies.

I skimmed most of the book, since it dealt with the history of how elite colleges developed their endowments with alumni drives, annual fund drives, and ways to influence politicians to give people tax breaks when they donate to colleges. I wanted to read chapters 9 through 11, since they looked at the college cost situation from 1980 to the present. Much of the chapters discussed two theories. One called “cost-disease theory” and another called “revenue-cost theory.” The revenue-cost theory seems to have won the day to explain the spiraling costs of colleges these days.

The conclusion of the book provided a nice overview. I liked the line on pages 274-275 where it was noted that rich universities “are acting like they exist to protect their endowments, instead of the other way around.” (From a law professor, Paul Campos, who stated this in a NY Times article in 2020.) Yes, this does seem to be the case. Colleges work very hard to build up a huge endowment, but to what end. Where should our higher ed spending go? Would a dollar be better spent going to Harvard to add to their 40+ Billion dollar endowment, or would that dollar be better spend helping an HBCU or to a community college scholarship for a first generation college student?

This book has me thinking that if I give to colleges in the future, I should have that money go to less wealthy institutions.

Finished the book, Poison Ivy, by Evan Mandery

I needed to finish reading this one, since it is due back to the library. As someone who had briefly attended an elite University (endowment of over $10B), who used to work at a place that claims to be elite (Endowment slightly over $1B), currently works at a public school/college/university that aspires to be elite and is leaning that way (endowment of around $300M), this book made lots and lots of sense. The full title of the book is Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us.

I should also note that the author had extensively talked about the work of another author (Sara Goldrick-Rab) in Chapter 17 (pages 227-242) concerning another book that I had read, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. I read that book about a year ago, but I forgot to blog about it, so this is a good reason to talk about both books at the same time here.

Let me start with the book by Dr. Goldrick-Rab. She wrote about how the state of Wisconsin created a scholarship or grant system to encourage more students from lower-income families to attend college in Wisconsin. Dr. Goldrick-Rab was able to use data from that system and she interviewed about 50 students to see how it impacted them, and to see if it met the goals of the program. In short, I remember reading many of the stories of students and their financial difficulties getting through college. The grants helped some of the students finish their degrees, but it did not help lift as many students out of lower income situations as I would have thought.

Now on to the book that I just finished by Prof. Evan Mandery. He is a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice which is in the CUNY system of colleges. He had attended Harvard College and Harvard Law for his undergraduate degree and a Law degree, so he knows the Harvard system. But, he grew up in a middle class family where his dad was a teacher, and he lived in a working class/middle class neighborhood near New York City on Long Island called East Meadow (then Manhasset), NY. See chapter 8.

I felt an affinity for the author, since it seems like he came from a similar background as me, and we both graduated from HS and college in the exact same years, the mid to late 1980s. (How could I not, since he is also has an interest in Gwen Stefani.) But, both of his parents had college degrees from CUNY, while neither of my parents attended college. He was interested in the class distinctions between the kinds of students that Harvard accepts compared to the low- and middle-income students that attend John Jay College. He was able to interview many of those students in his classes. He wanted to know how some of his best students ended up at John Jay instead of at some other elite institutions. The stories of those students make the book a great read.

This book covers more than just the stories of his students; he explains the power system of the elite colleges and why they are filled with mostly rich white students. He interviewed many college administrators and faculty members who had ideas on how to address the power gaps in the system. Some of the power lies with financial donors to colleges, rich families that can pay the full tuition bill, students who play sports dominated by white students (crew, lacrosse, etc.), college admissions staff, companies that publish tests like the SAT and ACT, and administrators who want to keep the status quo.

Part of the status quo problem involves the colleges’ HUGE endowments. While they spend some of their endowments each years, they continue to grow and grow and grow, and their hoarding of wealth is a problem. They don’t use that money to help more of the less privileged kids acclimate to academic life at those elite schools.

Administrators at Harvard and Yale might say that they are just a mirror of society, and that they look the way they do, because America is that way. There is social stratification, and the schools just happen to reflect that problem. He raises the question, what if they have it backwards. “What if America looks the way it does because of Harvard and Yale?” (Page 275.) He then offers a challenge to elite schools to make significant changes in the way they accept and treat students from less privileged backgrounds.

At the very end of the book, he calls on the reader to become an agent of change. As a librarian at the Colorado School of Mines, I try to help all students with their studies regardless of their financial means. I have been working to try to make more content open access, since that makes it easier for people to view and read articles. But, what can I do to change the admission system at Mines? I don’t know. Maybe I should talk to the admissions folk at Mines to get their take on the problem.

It would be easier for me to volunteer my services to help students who are less privileged to understand and navigate the admissions process of more elite schools. I could also help them understand tests like the SAT and how to do better on the math portion of that test. I can think of a lot of ways that I can effect greater change in the unfair system.

Time Travel by James Gleick

I was hoping this book would discuss more of the science concerning the possibility (and unpossibility) of time travel, but he covered more of the older science fiction that discussed time travel.

It all starts with a discussion of the H. G. Wells book, The Time Machine, that was published in 1895. That seems to be the impetus for much/most /all? of the time travelling science fiction that follows in his footsteps. I’ve not had the pleasure of reading the Time Machine, but now that I know it exists, I will give that a read.

He then goes on to talk about and explain how other science fiction authors address the concept of time travel in new, different, and unique ways.

The two chapters that cover more of the science and philosophy of time travel are Chapter 11 on Paradoxes, and Chapter 12 on What is Time. The main paradox that is discussed concerning time travel back in time, is the problem that one could kill their grandfather. Personally, I don’t think that one could circle back in time to affect the present. Time operates like a function on a graph. For every point in time along the x axis, there can only be one y answer. Like a mathematical function, time is not allowed to backtrack.

But, it may be possible to jump to the future. All one needs to do is travel at the speed of light, or nearly the speed of light, and one can essentially travel into the future while aging very little. The main problem is that it takes a huge amount of energy to get a mass of any weight close to the speed of light. This was mentioned, but it was not talked about all that much.

If you want to get an overview of the science fiction of time travel, this is your book. If you want a scientific overview, this will have pieces and parts, but that is not the focus of it.

For a more in depth look at the concept of time, the Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli, may be better. I read that book a couple years back, but I found it to be a little obtuse. I seem to agree with many of the people who gave that book 3 stars.

Is God a Mathematician? – The book doesn’t answer that question

I recently read the book, Is God a Mathematician by Mario Livio. I picked it up at the JeffCo Libraries Whale of a Book Sale. I figured the book would not answer the question posed by the title, but I thought it would talk a little bit more about logical proofs for or against an all powerful being. In a way, I am glad that it did not do that. It was mostly on the question, is mathematics invented, or is it discovered?

My favorite chapter was probably chapter 5 on statistics and probability. I learned a little bit more about how games of chance helped influence mathematical thought. They discussed games of chance on pages 138-140, but it was involving dice. I thought that card games influenced mathematical thinkers more when it came to chance and probability of winning various hands of cards. That didn’t seem to come up in the book.

I guess I am on the side of the fence for mathematics being discovered. I think that prime numbers and the number pi exist with or without human involvement. It is just up to us to find them in the world of mathematics. But, math is more than just numbers, it also involves concepts such as functions, and algebraic concepts of unkowns in formulas. There is a lot of math in physical concepts such as waves of light or the Navier-Stokes equations in fluid dynamics. That math would still exist even if we did not find them. Other intelligent life forms would probably also know about pi, prime numbers, the speed of light in a vacuum, E = mc2, and the Navier-Stokes equations.

However, we can invent different ways to communicate the concepts of mathematics, just as calculus can be communicated using different terminology. So, the way to communicate mathematics can be invented.

Anyway, it was a good book. It was not earthshaking, and it did not answer the main question in the title, but it was an interesting read.

The Big Ones book

I recently read The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them). It was very good. The author covered 11 past disasters, and one future disaster that is most likely going to happen.

The 12 events are discussed chronologically. They are: Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius back in the year 79, the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, the Laki volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783-84, California central valley flooding in 1861-62, the Tokyo and Yokohama earthquake of 1923, Mississippi flooding in 1927, Multiple earthquakes in China in the 1970s, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, L’Aquila Italy earthquake of 2009, The 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami that affected the Fukushima nuclear plant, and lastly, she talks about the earthquake that will eventually hit the Los Angeles area along the San Andreas fault some year in the future.

The Earth really does want to kill us. It has many ways that it tries to kill the animals living on the surface.

She does a great job of discussing how humans react to natural disasters (both rationally and irrationally), and ways that scientists can talk to the public to plan for such events. She recommends staying away from statistics and probabilities, since people don’t understand statistics very well. (For example, with 100 year floods, some people think that they occur once every 100 years, but that is not really the case. Each year, there is a 1% chance of a 100 year flood occurring, so 100 year floods can occur close to each other chronologically.) She has also worked with politicians and policy makers on how to frame the discussion so that governments can be better prepared to deal with natural disasters and catastrophes.

I already knew about most of the disasters, but I think I learned the most about the Laki volcano in Iceland, and on the great flood in central California.

If you are interested in science communication, in human behavior, or on natural disasters in general, this book is highly recommended.

Read the book — What are the Chances by Barbara Blatchley

It took me a while to finish the book, but I am glad that I happened upon it (by random chance?) at the local public library. I think I might buy this book for my dad, who has given himself an unofficial middle name of “Lucky”.

Overall, I found the topic fascinating. The author covered the topic from a neurological perspective, since she wanted to figure out what humans (and other animals) think are lucky events or unlucky events. She delved into determining what areas of the brain think about luck, and how that affects our behavior. In general, if humans paid more attention to their environment, they could make better predictions about what will happen in the future. By making better predictions, those people may feel luckier than those who do not pay as much attention to their environment. Thus, some might see luckiness as a learned skill.

A section on page 188 does a good job or providing a summary. I have bulletized some of the text in a paragraph.

  • There is nothing wrong with believing in luck.
  • Believing in and counting on luck can give you a feeling of control that you would otherwise be without.
  • Feeling in control can lead to “better performance, more success, and more favorable outcomes.”
  • It may lead to a stronger belief in luck the next time you are in a jam.
  • “Nothing succeeds like success.”
  • We have a strong tendency to repeat what has worked in the past.

While it is a little bit academic, the average person can just ignore the occasional scholarly references, but some people will enjoy digging deeper into the subject.

Small review of the book Ms. Adventure by Jess Phoenix

The full title of the book is Ms. Adventure: My Wild Explorations in Science, Lava, and Life.

She really did have some wild explorations. She does a great job of writing stories and weaving in pertinent details. I just wish she didn’t go to the state of Sinaloa in Mexico when she did. She tracked down a lost rock hammer by following a drug cartel vehicle to retrieve the item when it was probably extremely dangerous to do so.

She had some great adventures in Death Valley, at the volcanoes of Hawaii, a submerged volcano in the ocean near Hawaii, in Mexico, Peru, and Ecuador. This review at Amazon does a better job than I am doing right now.

I do wish she would have written more about her run for a House of Representative seat. Maybe she didn’t write about that because that didn’t have much action, and it didn’t work out for her.

I know several people who would enjoy this book, and I can’t recommend it enough if you enjoy travel and adventure books.

Short review of the book, The Discovery of the Universe, by Carolyn Collins Peterson

I was able to see a presentation by Dr. Peterson when she spoke at a meeting of the Denver Astronomical Club, November 2020. Since her book is not in any Colorado libraries, I ordered it for myself.

I found the book to be a great source of information concerning observatories all over the world. She provides a lot of information about the instruments and history of how and why they were constructed, what sorts of things the instruments were designed to observe, how much data they are gathering or plan to gather, and more.

I liked the chapter 7 on Observatories of the Future. It was a little more readable than the other chapters. As a Denver person, I am glad that she mentioned two DU observatories. They were historic Chamberlin Observatory on page 107 and the Meyer-Womble Observatory on page 213. She misspelled Chamberlin as Chamberlain.

She did have several other typos, such as confusing Purdue University using the word Perdue instead. I also feel that the book really could have used an index. For example, if I wanted to see what sections of the book covered observatories in Chile, I would have to search the whole book. If it had an index, I would be able to see what pages covered the large number of observatories in Chile.

Overall, I really liked the book. Now I may have to find some of the other books that she has written.

Two mini book reviews on comets, asteroids, and astrophysics

I’ve been reading a lot more books than usual this year, for some reason. I don’t read a lot, so it has been nice to get back into reading more books.

Catching Stardust: Comets, Asteroids and the Birth of the Solar System was really good. I really liked chapter 8 on the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. I find it fascinating how the little Philae lander bounced around the comet before coming to rest in a low section. It was still able to do good and unique science on the way there.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry was written by Neil deGrasse Tyson back in 2017. I had been meaning to read it for a while, and it was a good quick read. My favorite chapter was the last one on the Cosmic Perspective. I liked this line:

The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another. (Page 206.)