2013-12-09

Review: openSUSE 13.1 GNOME

 GNOME Activities Overview
I haven't been able to write up any reviews recently because of the confluence of classes, UROP, and graduate school applications. Now my classes are sort of wrapping up, in that my last problem sets were due yesterday (the publication date is after the date of writing), so I have a little time to relax and do some reviews. The first is openSUSE 13.1 GNOME. I've reviewed openSUSE before a number of times, so I won't try to introduce it again. I tried the live version of the GNOME edition on a live USB made with MultiSystem. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

2013-11-28

Classes, UROP, and Applications Galore

I know I haven't posted here in a while. That's because this is around the time that a lot of graduate school applications are due, so I've been busy getting those done. At the same time, my UROP has been getting busier as I'm trying to wind down my current project, and classes are of course ever-present in the background. Anyway, my applications and classes will be done in about 3 weeks, so at that time I should have more time to write here. Meanwhile, happy Thanksgiving!

2013-10-24

Business Insider and Women in Physics

I wasn't planning on posting anything else in particular this week, but a friend of mine shared this, and it really got my goat. I'd actually ask you not to click on it, because this article appears to be more like clickbait than anything else (and thats the shameful part for a site as well respected as Business Insider); essentially its premise is that women will be more welcome on Wall Street if some really "sexy" female physicists were to stop doing physics and enter finance.
Why? Do you really need to trash the self-confidence of a woman wanting to enter male-dominated fields like physics or finance by telling her that she needs to be "sexy" to be well-respected? Do you really need to make women who want to get into physics insecure about their career choices by saying that they're "pretty" so they should leave physics and get into finance? While I'm generally OK (more specifically, I have mixed feelings) with finance organizations trying to convince up-and-coming physicists to enter finance, these are clearly not up-and-coming physicists but are very well-established in their fields, so they likely aren't going to leave anytime soon. It takes some chutzpah to try to draw these women into finance, and it is doubly insulting to suggest they do so because they are "sexy". The first sentence of the article says, "Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the lack of high ranking women at top firms." Hmm...I wonder why that is...oh wait, maybe groups like Business Insider are part of the problem.

2013-10-21

Economics and Empiricism

I know it has been a while since I've posted anything here. That's because I had been busy until the end of last month with studying for the Physics GRE. Since then, my life has been dominated by a combination of classes, my UROP, and graduate school applications. That also means that for the next several weeks, posts here will once again be fairly infrequent. That said, I read an article today in the New York Times by economist Raj Chetty, who would like to convince readers that economics is a science like any of the natural sciences. Having seen such arguments poorly presented in my economics textbooks, I figured this would make for a nice quick rant. But then as I thought about it more, I realized that this issue is actually a lot more subtle than I originally imagined.

As a physics student, I don't know if I can ever shake the gut feeling that economics somehow will always be "mushier" in some way compared to the natural sciences. But I need to make sure that there is solid grounding for that feeling, or else I should be casting away that feeling as well. So why do I feel that economics is "mushier"?

Let's take the following sentence: "I’m troubled by the sense among skeptics that disagreements about the answers to certain questions suggest that economics is a confused discipline, a fake science whose findings cannot be a useful basis for making policy decisions." I'm sure there are people who believe that having multiple opinions and interpretations of even raw empirical data alone makes economics untrustworthy. I'm sure this thought may have crossed my mind at various points as well, but I realize this isn't why I feel economics is mushy. As I think about, I realize for example that after electroweak symmetry breaking (i.e. the reason why electromagnetic and weak interactions become identical at certain energy scales, but why at the scales we usually observe the photon is massless while the W and Z bosons are massive) was discovered, a few different explanations were posited for the underlying cause. One was the Higgs boson, and the other was technicolor. After the discoveries of the past two years, of course, it is safe to say the Higgs boson is a much more likely candidate than technicolor, but there was a decades-long gap between the theory and experiment. Clearly this is an instance in physics where before further experiments could be performed, two competing explanations were jockeying for attention in the physics community. So I can't say that economics is mushy because there are disagreements among economists in their interpretations and explanations of the same sets of data. So why do I feel that it is mushy?

It's likely because of what happened with Reinhart/Rogoff. From what I understand, Reinhart and Rogoff published an influential paper which posited that a country whose debt-to-GDP ratio pushes above 90% will quickly be plunged from economic growth into a recession (or worse if the starting conditions are worse). As it turns out, a graduate student found an error in the calculations that led to this conclusion and showed that in fact no such debt-to-GDP threshold ratio causing a sharp reversal of macroeconomic fortunes exists. As far as I can tell, rather than backing down, Reinhart and Rogoff have been pushing their findings harder than ever. So I may think economics is mushy because there seems to be little drive at the upper echelons to maintain scientific skepticism and admit errors as they happen, especially when it comes to macroeconomics. Granted, it took a long time after the first cosmic microwave background measurements came in for the steady-state theory to be cast out of cosmology, but it seems like especially in macroeconomics, this is a more prevalent problem than in the natural sciences.

In fact, the author of the article briefly touches on this, but proceeds to pretend that this is not the reason why people don't believe that economics is a science. Yes, the article does go through in pretty good detail what advances have been made in empirical microeconomics and econometrics that should earn economics the respect given to other sciences. And after having taken the class 14.03 — Microeconomic Theory and Public Policy and having learned there a little about empirical microeconomics and econometrics, I'm actually rather inclined to agree (as I actually learned some of the details of some of the examples in this article).

The issue is that when most news articles quote economists, it's usually in the context of macroeconomics, as macroeconomic activity will by definition affect the largest segment of the readership, as opposed to microeconomic moves taken by certain firms, labor groups, or municipalities. Macroeconomics is a very young field with not a whole lot of data as yet. Additionally, there is a lot of disagreement among macroeconomic theorists about how to interpret macroeconomic events/trends, and too many of them are acting more for political gain than for the sake of advancing the field (see: Reinhart/Rogoff). It's really cool when the LHC performs experiments to further probe the Higgs boson (i.e. science), but honestly, people will care a lot more if their federal income taxes change (i.e. macroeconomics), and such a change cannot be effected in a controlled environment (in relative contrast to the Higgs boson experiments). Regarding that last point, macroeconomic models are too unreliable compared to scientific models of macroscopic systems that economists would love to emulate, because they very frequently fail to predict the outcomes of certain economic events or enacted policies. So it's the combination of the fact that macroeconomics is unreliable and that its scholars have the very real power to personally gain from their models being correct potentially at the expense of other people's livelihoods (where I've emphasized that last point in contrast to natural sciences) that makes myself want to push economics away from the natural sciences.

But this isn't fair to microeconomics. So what's the solution? I would personally split microeconomics and macroeconomics much more. In any case, the author says that more and more research that even affects macroeconomic decisions is coming from empirical microeconomics. In that case, I would say that news outlets should devote more space to highlighting empirical research done in microeconomics that clearly affects people's lives, such as those highlighted in the article. And maybe farther in the future, all economics will basically be microeconomics, and macroeconomics will become what classical thermodynamics has become in relation to statistical mechanics: a bulk limit that is only obtainable under very specific conditions.

2013-09-15

Featured Comments: Week of 2013 September 8

There was one post that got one comment this past week, so I'll repost that one.

Featured Comments: Week of 2013 September 1

Reader Kaf Shiel said, "I tried Luna 2 last night but the desktop is dead (no point in clicking it at all) and the configuration of everything is not available (unless you really want to waste a few hours) also Planck is of no use at all as it is, since is just too basic and you can't configure anything on this OS without resorting to dConf and tons of work that don't really pay off... As for the comment that 'spend less time making it look and feel like i want to' i'm sorry but i like to do that, i like it personal... Distraction free? Nope! A dead desktop and a flintstones dock are bound to distract you a lot... It kinda gets in your nerves! Sorry but this one i have to "86" (cuisine chefs code). Best regards, Kaf".

Thanks to that commenter for that comment. This coming week, as with last week, I don't have any particular posts planned because of the business of the semester. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!

2013-09-08

Featured Comments: Week of 2013 September 1

There was one post this week that got two comments, so I'll repost both of those.

Review: Elementary OS 2 "Luna"

Reader sgreen said, "and we need Elementary for ??. I know the developer just wants to keep busy. If there's anything that will ruin Linux it's this kind of crap. How many are in its user-base??"
An anonymous commenter disagreed: "I think the Elementary team are doing a great job. I find eOS to be very distraction-free. I spend less time in making it look and feel like I want to, because the developers have done that for me. Keep it up, guys! =)"

Thanks to both of those people for commenting on that post. As the semester has started and as I start to worry about graduate school applications, my frequency of writing new posts will generally go down, but I hope to have something written here from time to time. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!

2013-09-03

Seventh Semester at College

How did I become a senior? It doesn't feel like orientation and freshman year happened that long ago.
Tomorrow is the first day of class for the 2013 fall semester. I'll be taking 8.07 — Electromagnetism II, 8.09 — Classical Mechanics III, 8.333 — Statistical Mechanics I (a graduate class), and 14.12 — Economic Applications of Game Theory. I'm looking forward to all of these classes along with continuing my UROP (which may transition sooner or later into a new project as I wrap up my current one). The bigger things I have to deal with though are graduate school applications and the Physics GRE. The latter will be over in a few weeks. The former will be going on until around the beginning of December, but I hope to be done a while before that. Hopefully this semester goes well. Good luck to everyone else for the start of their school year/job/whatever else!

2013-09-02

Review: Elementary OS 2 "Luna"

 Main Screen + Slingshot Menu
About 9 months ago, I checked out the first beta release of Elementary OS 2 "Luna". Since then, the final release has been put out for everyone to see and try, so I am trying it now. I tested this as a live USB made with UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see what it's like. Also note that I will not go over all the same things as I did last time, but I will take note of any changes.

2013-08-27

Particles in the Continuous Quantum Field

The last thing I discussed in the last post was about the energy eigenstates of the continuous field. The ground state $|0\rangle$ classically corresponds to there being no displacement in the chain at any spatial index $x$ and quantum mechanically corresponds to each oscillator for each normal mode index $k$ being in its ground state, while the first excited state $|k\rangle = a^{\dagger} (k)|0\rangle$ for a given $k$ classically corresponds to a traveling plane wave normal mode of wavevector $k$ and quantum mechanically corresponds to only the oscillator at the given normal mode index $k$ being in its first excited state (and all others being in their ground states). The excited state $|k\rangle$ has energy $E = \hbar v|k|$ above the ground state and overall momentum $p = \hbar k$ above the ground state. This post will discuss what the second and higher excited states are. Follow the jump to see more.

2013-08-26

Operators and States of the Continuous Quantum Field

In my last post about intuiting and visualizing quantum field theory, I discussed the diagonalization of the Hamiltonian and overall momentum and how they become operators. In this post I'm going to discuss more the meanings of the operators and associated quantum states of this field. Follow the jump to see more.