2017-12-04

Book Review: "Narconomics" by Tom Wainwright

I've recently read the book Narconomics by Tom Wainwright. It's an exposition into the economics of Latin American drug cartels, looking at them as businesses rather than mysterious criminal entities. In particular, it considers the competition versus monopolistic/monopsonistic behavior on the demand- & supply-sides, issues of global operations and outsourcing, diversification in products, cartel hierarchies versus franchising, public relations versus employee incompetence, and so on. Of course, as the drugs discussed in this book are illegal for the most part, there are other issues of dealing with the police and the government, whether through hiding, bribery, or warfare, and with enforcing things like non-compete agreements and franchise territories through violent means in the absence of legal recognition (where a court system could otherwise peacefully mediate such disputes). The aim of this book is to step back from the emotionally charged rhetoric of the "war on drugs" by seeing them in terms similar to legitimate businesses, and in doing so defeat the scourges of the illegal drug trade in the long-run through economically-minded legislation rather than ineffective brute force.

The book is not too long, quite accessible, well-written, and engaging to anyone with a high school-level understanding of microeconomics and an interest in issues surrounding illegal drugs. There are a few issues I have with the book though. One is that while the focus is clearly on Latin America, I would have liked to see at least some parallel discussion about the flow of drugs from Central/South Asia (particularly Afghanistan) to Europe and the economics therein, as that is mentioned a few times without further details. Another is that the last numbered chapter discusses legalization exclusively in the context of marijuana/cannabis, even though there is a discussion about the much narrower margin between safe and fatal doses for other drugs (especially heroin) compared to cannabis, which then raises questions about whether the legalization of marijuana is really meant to be a model for legalization/regulation of other currently illegal harder drugs; the epilogue addresses this point adequately with more nuance, but the structure of the final chapter still seems subpar for that reason. Finally, my biggest issue regards the discussions of how the operations of drug cartels in Latin America are influenced by how they can compete with the governmental "monopoly" on force due to unresponsive, complicit, corrupt, or ineffectual governments, and how cartels can compete with other economic opportunities through wages, protection, and other benefits. In particular, my concern is that the book acknowledges how legalization of drugs often economically incentivizes supply-side consolidation (as being outlawed necessarily limits how large drug operations can grow before attracting government attention), but in conjunction with other trends like offshoring of drug production too, it isn't clear how people in poorer Central American countries will further benefit; while the reduction in violence that would almost surely accompany restricted legalization of drugs is certainly a laudable goal, it is unclear whether the resulting economic opportunities, given the continuing poor governance and paucity of other good economic opportunities there, will really work to better the lives of those people, or whether the situation will devolve into large drug companies bullying small countries as in the banana republics of several decades ago (as discussed in the book) or tobacco or fast food companies doing the same to such countries today. In light of that, while the suggestions made in the book for improving outcomes of drug policy do seem like they would certainly help to some extent, I can't help but feel that the title of the epilogue, that economists make the best police officers, smacks of hubris. Apart from those issues, I'd recommend this to anyone interested in the subject.

2017-11-29

Sexual Harassment, Power Dynamics, and Institutions

I've been thinking (read: armchair philosophizing without necessarily going into much depth) lately a bit about the notion of individuals shaping the interactions they have with other people versus the other way around, and the related notion of how individuals shape institutions versus the other way around. This idea has stuck in my mind especially in the context of sexual harassment committed by a professor against a student in my department (for a broad overview, see this article by Alanna Vagianos in HuffPost, and for a more detailed account, see this article by Allie Spensley in The Daily Princetonian; disclaimer: I know the student but not the professor), because of the complicated way that power imbalances between faculty and students intertwine with institutional tensions at large research universities like Princeton University. Follow the jump to see more blather from me about this.

2017-10-09

On the Nobel Prize for Gravitational Waves

This is a short post about the news from last week, that the Nobel Prize in Physics went to 3 of the founders of the LIGO project that first observed gravitational waves. I was quite happy to see the news, for several reasons. One of the PIs, Rainer Weiss, is an emeritus professor from MIT, so there was the alma mater pride factor there; plus, that professor, along with the two other co-laureates, are all quite old, and it would have been a real shame if they hadn't survived to be recognized by the Nobel Prize committee for this incredible work, so it really was time for them to be recognized as such. From an applied science perspective, the amount of high-precision science and engineering they had to do, building laser systems, mirrors, and large-scale interferometers to measure atomic-scale and smaller displacements where quantum effects are important, has been amazing and will undoubtedly influence future technological development in those areas, even as gravitational waves themselves are at energy scales that are far too small to be useful in the near future (though people used to say that about quantum mechanics, and then transistors came about, so it's always better to be open to the possibility, while being mindful that this particular possibility is more remote).

Mostly, though, I'm thrilled to see this discovery being recognized from the perspective of fundamental science. My research is in fluctuational electrodynamics, which means that I deal with the propagation and scattering of electromagnetic fields at small length scales as they originate from quantum or thermal fluctuating atomic or electronic sources. Thus, all I think about on a daily basis is really electromagnetic interactions (and occasionally quantum exchange effects). But then, most physicists, with the exception of high-energy physicists (who study very short-ranged weak & strong interactions anyway), tend to make use of electromagnetism almost exclusively in their research, especially on the experimental side, as any spectroscopy, interferometry, and so on, would necessarily involve the propagation and scattering of light. In fact, if I think about how humans sense the world around them, vision is of course electromagnetic in nature, but so are hearing (detection of pressure waves caused by scattering of atoms and molecules in the air via short-range electromagnetic repulsion from atoms and molecules in the ear) and touch (short-range electromagnetic forces between atoms and molecules on the skin and a given surface), while electrical signals travel through neurons in the body by virtue of electromagnetic forces. Thus, in the context of sensing and understanding the world around us through truly long-range interactions, gravitational waves are fundamentally different, and it's weird to think that the interaction that keeps us on this planet can also be used in such a different way (i.e. propagating waves) to get information about faraway astronomical objects that wouldn't be available through purely electromagnetic means.

2017-09-27

Starting as a TA

I figured I might post a short update on progress through my PhD. Through the summer and the start of the fall, I've been learning more about how to consistently incorporate molecular vibrations into descriptions of fluctuational phenomena, including van der Waals interactions and radiative heat transfer. It's been a very fun and interesting process, learning more about such fluctuational phenomena, revisiting and expanding on what I've learned in linear algebra and numerical analysis, and gaining a better understanding of the broader impacts that my work could have.
Also, two days ago marked my first day as a TA: I'm a TA for the graduate-level class ELE 511 — Quantum Mechanics with Applications. The discussions I've had with people during TA training and with the lecturer for this class, along with the preparation that I've had to do on my own and the questions that I've encountered from students so far, have really made me appreciate how much work it takes to prepare for teaching such classes and to be ready for students' questions, whatever they may be; plus, I've come to realize how annoying I must have been for TAs when I was a student, expecting them to be ready for literally any question, no matter how tangential to the material, and expecting them to be completely perfect in grading assignments, et cetera. To those TAs whose classes I took, I now have a better understanding of what your jobs were really like, and I thank you for putting up with me. I've enjoyed what I've been able to do so far as a TA, and I intend, with more time and practice, to become better at these variegated aspects of teaching as the semester progresses.

2017-08-14

Book Review: "Genius at Play" by Siobhan Roberts

I've recently been able to read the book Genius at Play by Siobhan Roberts. It is a biography of John Conway from his high school days onward, covering a lot of his work on group theory, symmetries, number theory, and other fields; it does discuss the Game of Life but goes deeper into drawing out the evolution of his response to being solely associated with it, from joy to despair to resigned ambivalence. It also goes through various episodes in his personal life, and frequently switches between narrating recollections of past events and narrating the current events surrounding those recollections themselves. It shows what a whimsical, joyful, carefree, and gregarious man he has been when it comes to math, but while much of the middle section of the book makes this seem like his core personality, the beginning parts about him reinventing his personality after high school, the middle parts about others' (particularly Stephen Wolfram's) characterizations of him, and the end parts about his own feelings about it now (as an older man) make clear that the carefree part of his nature has been more of a facade to cope with his own ego & attendant insecurities.

I really enjoyed this book's progression through his life. It allowed me to once again experience the joys of seeing seemingly inconsequential math ideas that are easy to introduce but hard to truly explain to broad lay audiences, like I did in middle school with my fascination with numbers like pi and the golden ratio and the really random places they pop up. Plus, that juvenile whimsy combined with the human interest in reading about John Conway as a person, as well as my more mature recent interest in deeper philosophical questions, like the physical reality of mathematical theorems (whether they are invented by humans or discovered from the course of nature), or the nature of free will at the human versus subatomic quantum scales. The writing of this book really seemed reflective of John Conway's whimsical and sometimes scattered personality as well as of the people and environment surrounding him, painting a vivid picture of the man in context; I appreciated this to the same extent that I did Robert Kanigel doing the same for Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity, though in the latter case, Ramanujan seemed to be a rather shy person for whom information had to be gleaned from other sources (also because Kanigel wrote that biography many decades after Ramanujan's death), so Kanigel successfully painted the picture of the people and environment in India and the UK that shaped Ramanujan's personality and the course of his life. Overall, this was a really enjoyable book that went by quickly despite its length. Perhaps people who are slightly more acquainted with the basics of higher-level mathematics may enjoy it more than laypeople (and I would probably enjoy it more if I knew more math); nevertheless, I think the storytelling is quite engaging and accessible to a broad audience. Follow the jump to see a couple other brief thoughts.

2017-08-07

Book Review: "Our Declaration" by Danielle Allen

I recently got to read Our Declaration by Danielle Allen. It's a book that carefully goes through every word, sentence, and passage of the US Declaration of Independence from 1776 to argue that the broad notion of equality of all people, not just of white landowning males, was embedded in the text even then (and are not simply hopeful modern reinterpretations), and that such a notion of equality is a precursor, rather than subjugate, to liberty (the latter point being more commonly found in today's political culture).

The first few chapters seem rather distracting, because while it's nice to hear about the author's own passion for and history with this subject, those plus the next few chapters obscure the structure of the argument of the book; only when the author starts to analyze the text of the Declaration starting from the beginning of the first sentence does the book really pick up and the structure of the argument of the book actually become self-evidently clear (which is in some sense appropriate, given that the author herself took time to conclude that this methodical and structured reading of the Declaration is the correct one, so it would likely take others quite a bit of time to reach the same conclusion too). Most of the book is structured as a detailed, slow, careful, methodical exegesis of the text of the Declaration in the service of a defense of equality as a companion, not subjugate, to liberty; its drawing forth philosophical arguments and examples through only the text and the immediate history surrounding the drafting of the text, rather than focusing too much on the broader events surrounding that time, makes this a compelling alternative view of the Declaration, and seems carefully crafted to essentially be a liberal form of the originalism and textualism espoused by conservative jurists today (of the mould of Antonin Scalia), so for these reasons, I rather enjoyed the argumentative style of the book. While there are some parts of the book that may seem repetitive, given that the Declaration is covered from start to finish in order, the structure of the Declaration is almost like a fractal, and I appreciated the author making this structure evident: at many different scales (whether within a sentence or over the entire text itself), arguments emerge like that of people having the right to good government, that bad government does not respect those rights, and that people therefore have the right to alter their government in such cases.

There are a few main criticisms I have of this book. Throughout the book, the author argues that the essence of democratic government is that everyone has a qualitatively equal capability of judging their own happiness and considering their past and present to then judge their own futures, and that these come together through communication, giving the example of how the drafting of the Declaration required the revolutionary framers to rely not only on their own judgment but mostly upon the experiences of ordinary people from all of the American colonies. While the author presents this as a model of democratic information-collection going into democratic writing, I think the confirmation bias inherent in this approach is actually the main flaw of the book: the author tries to be too clever in separating qualitative from quantitative statements of equality, forcing her to sweep under the rug the issues of demagoguery & mob mentality overwhelming critical thinking (especially in conjunction with lack of education among large groups of people), as well as of different marginalized groups (whether poor white people, black slaves, or native peoples) perhaps feeling differently about continued British rule than those who were more willing to share negative feelings therein — these issues of mob rule, factionalism, and guaranteed rights would be fleshed out more in the Constitution, but they are not so self-evident in the Declaration as the author seems to suggest. Furthermore, the author argues that the dissonance between the lofty ideals of equality in the Declaration and the brutality of chattel slavery and genocide committed upon black and native peoples, respectively, is only due to the lack of willpower and desire at that time to bring those lofty ideals into concrete action applicable to black and native peoples, and that would come later; while that may be empirically true in a historical sense, from a philosophical standpoint it seems strange to give the revolutionaries such a pass on those issues given that the author argues in the same passage that the Confederacy was founded in the Civil War using words that made explicit the opposition to notions of equality in the Declaration (thus justifying a more expansive reading of equality from the Declaration even in those days), and given that the author takes care to point out the many drafts of the Declaration that explicitly speak out against chattel slavery and brutality in war. Additionally, people complain about those who say one thing and do another, exactly because those who put forth a call to action can be reasonably be expected to be most likely to take such action, so such dissonance makes one wonder whether such action is really feasible at all, or whether those calling upon others to act in some way but themselves act differently are trying to exploit a loophole (like dehumanizing black people to justify their continued enslavement as being consistent with the notion of human equality). Moreover, while the author does point to several drafts denouncing slavery to mitigate the reality of slavery in the face of the ideals of the Declaration, there seems to be no such argument with respect to women or native peoples, and the latter is especially troublesome given that the Declaration does make a few extremely negative references to native peoples (appropriating land, or fighting "savages").

Overall, while my criticisms do make me feel a little less certain about some of the specific arguments promulgated in the book, I did rather enjoy the methodical textual analysis with only the most relevant external information injected when appropriate. I should admit that I read through this book perhaps a little faster than the author wants readers to read it, but having gotten a new view of the Declaration, I'd be more inclined to reread both the Declaration and this book at a more deliberate pace at a later date. The arguments are interesting and clear, so I'd recommend this to anyone who's interested in the subject, especially those who may be feeling a bit down on the notion that the US is a country for them too. Follow the jump to see a few more of my specific thoughts about this book.

2017-07-26

Book Review: "All the President's Men" by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

I recently got to read All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward; although I had seen the movie many years ago, I hadn't gotten the opportunity to read the book until now, and I figured that with the current political situation in the US which so many are calling "Nixonian", it would be good to revisit one of the definitive works about a pivotal political scandal in that era. It's a documentation, from the perspective of the Washington Post reporters (the authors of the book), of the events and investigative journalism starting from the reports of the Watergate Hotel burglary and ensuing arrests all the way to the implication of President Richard Nixon and his top aides in engaging in illegal dirty campaign tactics to harm political enemies and subsequent illegal coverup tactics. It's a moderately long book, yet the smooth writing and structure of the details keep the narrative moving quickly. Although it has been a while, from what I remember, the movie focuses more on Bob Woodward's meetings with Deep Throat (the deep background informant who worked for the government), so it was nice for me to see the fuller picture of events from many other angles, showing that the meetings with Deep Throat, while important, were not necessarily the primary focus of any reporting events.

From the standpoint of this being a documentation of historical events, more than anything else, I was fascinated to see the (usually clever, sometimes questionable) extent to which reporters like Woodward and Bernstein would cajole agreements to meet and then share information on the phone, in person, or in writing with various people; it was like a miniature course in human psychology in the framework of various competing institutions with different power structures, and this was evident not just in the conduct of the interview subjects but also in Woodward and Bernstein themselves. That said, there were a few instances were their conduct went beyond the point of being questionable, becoming sleazy or even straddling the line of legality, and while these instances were discussed, they weren't given the same gravity as the corrupt behavior of government officials that they were uncovering; from their perspective, it makes sense as they would of course cast themselves in their own story as sympathetic protagonist reporters going up against a corrupt and vile group of people in a powerful institutions, but I would have liked to see more of this (though maybe other accounts from this era from other reporters would go further in depth). Overall, I really enjoyed reading this, and would recommend this to anyone interested in the political situation then or now. Follow the jump to see a few more brief thoughts about this book in the context of the current political situation in the US.

2017-07-24

Long-Term Review: Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE

Installed System: Main Screen + Xed
A little over two weeks ago, I made the decision on what Linux distribution to install and use full-time on my personal laptop. I chose Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE, because I felt that while it could do a bit better for total newbies in terms of usability (as some usability features have regressed since a couple of years ago), it has been a reliable and known quantity for me, and I figured that if I could generally use the live session without much hassle, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch (no pun intended) to imagine that the installed session would likely be workable. As I've covered most of the experiences of installing and using programs and getting around the desktop in my review of the live session, this post will be relatively short, covering only the salient points of the installation and some of the changes I made after the installation. Follow the jump to see more.

2017-07-17

Featured Comments: Week of 2017 July 9

I meant to write and post this yesterday, as I typically do this on Sundays. However, I was rather tired yesterday and forgot about it until today. Anyway, this past week, there were two posts that got comments, so I'll post four selected comments from one, and the single comment from the other.

Review: Debian 9 "Stretch" MATE

Reader Isaac Ji Kuo said, "Sluggishness is due to being a USB install. USB is far slower than a hard drive. LiveCD install partially compensates for this by using file system compression, but this still inevitably means sluggish delays due to decompression time. If you want to just see whether or not Debian is functional, a LiveCD is good. If you want to have some idea of its performance for a hard drive install, LiveCD will give you no idea. Flash works in Debian 9. I don't know precisely how it works, but every web site I've tried works with both Firefox and Google Chrome (normally I use Google Chrome, but it's not available in 32 bit so I was forced to try Firefox to use Netflix on my 32 bit computers). Anyway, I think it has to do with the PepperFlashPlayer." (Most of the comments were along these lines, with varying degrees of detail and civility.)
An anonymous commenter had this to say: "Testing live image from USB/DVD and complaining about sluggish delays is bit silly. Unless you test some Puppy/Puppy like distro that loads in ram. Debian live images are used for only one purpose, to see what it can offer with different desktop environments. It is not even recommended to install from those live images, even if that option exists. As for flash, no it does not work out of the box with Debian. And package for flash in Debian is unusable, its maintainer is missing in action. On google chrome flash comes integrated with browser. For Firefox it can be installed easily by downloading it from adobe site, unpacking it and moving libflashplayer.so to the /usr/lib/mozilla/plugins/. Downside of that is that you must manually repeat procedure whenever adobe updates flash."
Reader CFWhitman shared, "In my experience Debian is faster in regular use than any version of Ubuntu or Mint. When you have lots of resources, it's just as fast as Lubuntu or LXDE. When you start to run short, it tends to be faster, at least as long as you are running the same desktop environment. When I have hardware that's too weak for even Lubuntu to run well on it, I switch to Debian. I run Debian 9 on a ten year old netbook with an Atom N270 32 bit processor and 1 GB of RAM. If you had problems with speed I have a lot of trouble believing it's a problem with Debian 9. Your USB drive would seem a more likely culprit."
Another anonymous commenter had the following tips: "Other distributions optimise for the liveCD demo, but Debian optimises for long-term use ;-) For a Debian distribution that uses the Mate Desktop and is optimised for liveCD use I'd give Parrot Security OS a try. And yes, I will read your review! That said, I'm about ready give give up on reading "reviews" that are in effect clickbait...eg: just a liveCD demo that is not of what it's like to use for a week or two. LiveCD/USB/etc should be in the title of the page imho. To be fair, sometimes the installed system can be slower than the live one due to background processes like file indexing daemons. ex: Nepomuk and aKonadi. How a distribution configures such things in an actual installation says more about the experience of using it and more about the values of the project than any liveCD."

Review: Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE

Reader Steve said, "Please give Debian the benefit of the doubt. It has a huge ecosystem and is ported to dozens of different architectures and envirionments. The Debian developers and maintainers do an amazing job of keeping the various versions to have the same look and feel as much as possible. I used to think that two years was an awfully long time to prepare a new version, until I researched the Debian web sites to see what had to be done." (This was more in response to the previous review, as I had referenced it in this review.)

Thanks to all of those people for those comments. I don't have anything particularly planned for this week. However, I did end up installing Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE on my laptop's hard drive, and have been using it for over a week now. Given that, I'll probably have a short post with some notes about installing and using it next week. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!

2017-07-12

Review: Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE

Main Screen + Linux Mint Menu
The quest for a replacement Linux distribution for Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" Xfce continues. With this post comes a review of the latest MATE edition of Linux Mint. Especially for regular readers of this blog, Linux Mint needs no introduction. I will just say that with the latest point release, it seems like the developers have put more polish into the distribution, including their new set of "X-apps" meant to work across MATE, Cinnamon, Xfce, and GNOME, avoiding the pitfalls of more DE-specific applications. I want to see what has changed since my last review and to see whether this would be suitable for installation and daily use on my laptop. To that end, I made a live USB system (again, on my new SanDisk Cruzer USB flash drive) using the "dd" command. Follow the jump to see what it's like. Note that I'll frequently reference that previous review, noting only changes and overall important points as needed.