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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


Review: Debian 9 "Stretch" MATE

It has been about 2 months since the support cycle for Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" ended. Since then, I haven't been able to update Mozilla Firefox or Adobe Flash, and concurrently, I haven't been able to use the latest versions of Google Hangouts or Skype, the former of which I already cannot use to the fullest extent, and the latter of which I am still somehow able to use but am counting the days when that will end too. Given that, it is urgent that I upgrade the Linux distribution that I use soon, so today, I am trying Debian.

Debian is a rather old distribution, being among the first to use the Linux kernel. It is known for its very conservative release policy for distribution and package versions, as well as its strict policies regarding free versus proprietary software; as such, it is known to be a stable base (and has been the original base for Ubuntu and its derivatives) for desktop and server environments, though while it is not supposed to be a piece of cake to configure and use, it does come with decently-configured generic DEs and other software to start. I figure that I have accumulated a bit of experience with testing and configuring Linux distributions, so that I may be able to install and configure things to my liking even if they aren't present by default.

I tested the 64-bit edition on a live USB made from a live ISO file using the command "cp", which Debian recommends. Additionally, it is worth noting that this is the first review that I'm doing on a new SanDisk Cruzer 8 GB flash drive (as my previous SanDisk Cruzer Micro 8 GB flash drive, which I got 8 years ago, seems to have stopped working reliably, which is why I haven't used it for reviews in the last few months, and the flash drive that I had been using in the meantime, a generic 4 GB unit which I got for free from a career fair several years ago, stopped working after a "dd" command failed). Follow the jump to see what it's like. (Also, I apologize that there are no pictures; I stupidly forgot to upload them, and by the time I exited the live session and restarted my computer, it was too late.)


Book Review: "The Big Short" by Michael Lewis

I was recently able to read The Big Short by Michael Lewis. Even though there were quite a few details that went over my head, it's an interesting, compelling story about a few specific people who essentially shorted (in other words, bet against) the entire US financial system and ended up "winning" in the 2008 financial crisis. I knew the basic details of how mortgage-backed securities were packaged and repackaged to get high ratings from well-known agencies, even though the underlying instruments were high-risk mortgages given unscrupulously to poor people who were likely to default; that said, I found incredible just how much fraud was being perpetrated, like laundering credit scores based on essentially nothing, or ripping off low-income people with false or misleading interest rates. Also, many financial models seemed to assume no underlying information and total lack of correlation among various investments, assets, or liabilities, even this was obviously untrue: subprime mortgages bundled into financial instruments were highly correlated by underlying economic indicators, and companies' fortunes could often be predicted much more accurately even with publicly-available information (like with Capital One's fortunes depending on regulatory judgments against it), yet these models often still naïvely and nonsensically assumed Gaussian distributions for such events.

Coupled with that ignorance of information in financial modeling seemed to be an intentional lack of transparency in the market for these complex securities and other financial instruments. Typically, enlarging a risk pool would seem to produce better outcomes throughout the market, but here, the mirror image of that was happening: more and more people were being exposed to risk, and that risk was being multiplied based off of essentially nothing tangible (often simply camouflaged through clever names as comprising diversified assets), yet large Wall Street firms were making money off of that for years before the whole system collapsed. On a related note, some people have claimed that short-sellers are beneficial to the market by signaling that certain trading practices should stop as they are too risky, yet as far as I can tell, this only works in an idealized world where information and people's decisions are transparent to everyone, whereas the whole point is that the short-sellers and those selling risky financial instruments were all trying to one-up each other in a cloud of opacity and obfuscation so that they could make their big money (which is what really happened).

Overall, the book is quite engaging and well-written. As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of subtleties, nuances, and jargon that went over my head, but the narrative and salient points are clear enough to a layperson; if anything, the technicalities simply add to the authentic feel of what one of those short-sellers must have been thinking during those years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. It is important to note that the focus of this book is the financial crisis and the years leading up to it, from the perspective of the finance industry/Wall Street; it does not really touch upon the broader economic trends in the US leading up to that point (except for specific trends that tie into the discussions of specific mortgage-backed financial instruments), and it does not discuss the recession per se. With that in mind, I'd recommend this to anyone who is interested in the subject.


Second Paper: "Unifying Microscopic and Continuum Treatments of van der Waals and Casimir Interactions"

My second paper has been published! It is in volume 118, issue 26 of Physical Review Letters, and an older preprint of it is available too for those who don't have access to academic journals (it has all of the same figures and ideas, though it is missing a few sentences of further explanation as well as a couple of new citations that were inserted for the final publication). As with my first paper, in the interest of explaining these ideas in a way that is easy to understand, I am using the ten hundred most used words in English (except for the two lines that came before this one), as put together from the XKCD Simple Writer. I will use numbers sometimes without completely writing them out, use words for certain names of things without explaining further, and explain less used words when they come up. Keep reading to see what comes next.


Book Review: "Cosmopolitanism" by Kwame Anthony Appiah

I've recently been able to read Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah. When I first picked it up, I thought it might be an interesting take on the issues of multiculturalism and immigration that Western societies have had to deal with over the last 2 decades (considering that this book was published in 2006). It actually turned out to be a bit different than I expected, being instead a more abstract philosophical work that lays out the arguments for a certain sort of cosmopolitan worldview and manner of engaging with other people, with these arguments being based on somewhat more abstract discussions of the histories of nations, cultures, and peoples. In particular, the author discusses how cultures have diffused throughout space and time and how people are capable of engaging with different issues and other people from across the world in an intelligent and active manner, so the framing of issues like cultural imperialism/theft or charity for the poorest around the world may end up being counterproductive in the long-term; additionally, the aim of conversation and engagement with strangers should be to reach a mutual understanding and (ideally, though this depends somewhat on the topic at hand) respect for different culture-specific values, because persuasion of people to change such culture-specific values is typically [though not always] a fool's errand. I realize this brief summary doesn't really do the book justice, because it is a rather dense book (at least for a layperson like myself) with so many different issues discussed at varying lengths and levels of abstraction.

Overall, there are a lot of arguments that seem disconnected, especially the anecdotes of his family or his childhood in Ghana (though those were nice to read), and there seem to be a lot of philosophical subtleties that may well have gone over my head, but while each chapter is a nice self-contained explanation of an aspect of cosmopolitanism, the overarching message seems rather muddled (especially comparing the last chapter to everything before it). There are other issues that I have with the book that I'll detail after the jump, but more broadly, I was somewhat disappointed by the ease with which I could use the author's own terms and arguments against the book. That said, I do agree with one main theme, and that is of respectfully engaging with strangers by critically examining "thick" beliefs on their own terms and as they arise from other "thick" & "thin" beliefs (to be explained after the jump), in order to find common ground while also understanding and respecting where differences arise; this is similar to what I learned from the last student-led discussion I attended at the Day of Action on campus in March. I suppose people who are interested in this sort of thing would be drawn to this book anyway, but I wouldn't really recommend this otherwise. Follow the jump to see more of my thoughts on this book.