Featured Comments: Week of 2017 April 16

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

Book Review: "Weapons of Math Destruction" by Cathy O'Neil

An anonymous reader said, "I had one question. Since algorithms may have access to the internet, (not controlled by the government or any particular single body), I imagine it would be extremely difficult to minimize their abuse or misuse. I hope precautionary measures such as new government or private bodies or maybe benign algorithms will deal with this issue in the future. Does the author talk about such measures ? Also, it seems that there is a lot of unrest regarding AIs these days. People like to imagine situations where an AI designed with a rather innocent goal of calculating 'pi' with a significant precision exterminates human race, sets on a conquest of the entire galaxy just to calculate 'pi' but for reasons unfathomable. Does the author talk about misuse of algorithms by AIs ? Although I am asking about the book, I would be more interested to know your personal views on these. :) Thank you."

Thanks to that reader for that comment. I don't have anything particularly planned on this blog for this week, but I may have a distribution review next week. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!


Book Review: "Weapons of Math Destruction" by Cathy O'Neil

I've recently read Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil. It is a short but dense exposition into the various ways that computer algorithms can determine the courses of people's lives and exacerbate existing societal inequities and biases/prejudices, in areas like education, civic engagement, education, health at the workplace, and many others. It argues that while many algorithms used in big data can be used for good, many instead widen inequalities and reinforce various cycles of poverty because of their opacity, lack of accountability, poor use of statistics, and lack of critical examination by those in charge (who instead use results and predictions generated by such algorithms to fire workers, deny opportunities to potential employees, financially prey on poor people, and so on, making such predictions self-fulfilling prophecies as only confirmatory data is fed back in); in particular, many of these algorithms and models use questionable proxies to predict certain attributes or behaviors (especially when the desired attributes are hard to quantify but the proxies are easy), these models are rarely transparent in what inputs are collected and how they are manipulated to produce outputs, and further research and fine-tuning are rarely performed to correct models that most humans would recognize produce incorrect results (but which computers would miss). It concludes that extensions of existing regulations on use of health and financial data are needed to curtail the misuse of such algorithms, and that simultaneously data scientists need to be scrupulous about the ways that their work is used and developed.

I rather enjoyed reading this book: it's pretty fast-paced, yet gives many detailed examples of the abuse of these algorithms to form a compelling narrative. Additionally, it in many ways follows the book The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu (which I have previously reviewed), because as that book shows the various ways that companies collect and sell customer data, this book shows the various ways that data can be used for the benefit of those companies (even if that works against some of those customers). There are only two issues that I have with this book. One is that the few times that politics comes up, the author's political bias (in favor of liberals in the US) is obvious; perhaps this is just due to the nature of the author's passionate crusade against abuse of algorithms and for institutional action uplifting poor and marginalized people, as that would necessitate regulation of such mathematical instruments, which would be (and has been) loudly opposed by large corporations maintaining their short-term profits and long-term status quo through these algorithms as well as the conservative politicians that they support. The other is that there aren't too many examples of big data and related algorithms truly working toward greater socioeconomic equity, especially when such algorithms are finding patterns that wouldn't be found by humans; while I get that the author is trying to build a brief but dense narrative warning against the excesses and abuses of such algorithms (as she professes herself to not be a big data evangelist), I would have liked to see more nuanced examples of proper uses of big data, because as this book stands, it seems just as one-sided/polemical as uncritical big data evangelism. Overall, I certainly feel like I got a better sense of the potential dangers of unchecked and uncritical use of algorithms to shape the economy and society. Plus, now that I'm about halfway through my PhD, I've started to think more about the sorts of jobs that I'd like to take after I finish. I've decided that I don't want to go into finance because (as mentioned in this book too) I'm not comfortable with playing with other people's money, as it is too easy to be seduced by mathematical simplicity and elegance into doing questionable things. That said, one thing (among the many) that has caught my fancy has been studies of policy problems (especially as related to STEM fields, but as they affect ordinary people); however, the story in this book about the role of the Mathematica Policy Research company in developing the arbitrary and statistically unsound metrics for evaluating teachers in DC public schools has made me realize that I'll need to make sure if I end up joining a policy research organization/consultancy/think tank that the organization that I join is responsible and transparent about the data that it collects and processes as much as possible.


Featured Comments: Week of 2017 April 9

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

Review: Manjaro Linux 17.0.1 "Gellivara" Xfce

An anonymous reader said, "Manjaro is quite a bit more stable than other rolling-release distros, as they delay packages from Arch for a couple weeks to test them for stability/compatibility before updating the Manjaro repos."

Thanks to that reader for that comment. This coming week, I will have another book review out. I was hoping to do a Linux distribution review, but I had trouble booting it, so I'll have to wait until next week to review a different distribution (which will hopefully provide more success). Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!


Review: Manjaro Linux 17.0.1 "Gellivara" Xfce

This is the next installment of my series of reviews to determine which Linux distribution I can use to replace my current installation of Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" Xfce on my personal laptop. The (not strict) criteria that I am considering are that the distributions should be well-known, which is reflected to some degree in DistroWatch rankings, as this implies that the distribution may have official or strong community support for popular proprietary packages; additionally, the distributions I consider should preferably have MATE or Xfce editions (though I'm open to other DEs as well), and should have a long (more than 3 years from now) support cycle or use a rolling-release support model.

Main Screen + Xfce Whisker Menu
The current distribution I am trying is the latest Xfce edition of Manjaro Linux. It is a rolling-release distribution that was formerly based on Arch Linux, though it still uses the Arch User Repositories (AUR) for many packages that the distribution maintainers do not officially test. It also has an official KDE edition, as well as community-supported editions for other DEs. I tested the 64-bit version (though a 32-bit version is available too) on a live USB made through the "dd" command. (This time, I used a USB stick that I have never used before, to avoid the issues seen in my recent review of openSUSE with my previous aging USB stick that I have been using for reviews for the last 8 years.) Follow the jump to see what it's like.


Book Review: "Atomic Accidents" by James Mahaffey

I've recently read Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey. It's a fairly long and detailed exposition into accidents involving civilian nuclear power or military nuclear weapons in the US, UK, [former] USSR, Japan, and elsewhere. The author goes into quite granular detail with respect to the history of a certain weapon or civilian site, the timeline of the accident, and the aftermath; with each, he summarizes the lessons that were learned (or should have been learned but were not). After an introduction showing how nuclear accidents are quite similar in many respect to railroad accidents, the first few chapters go into the development of nuclear technology through WWII and the accidents along the way. The middle section of the book goes into knowledge gained about the occupational hazards of employees at power plants, the risks of transporting nuclear material by airplane, and related ideas. The last few chapters are about more recent accidents in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, ending with an assessment of the current state of nuclear power.

As a layperson with respect to the field of nuclear engineering, I think this book may be best suited for experts and other people with a serious interest in the field; for laypeople, the first few and last chapters are interesting, but reading through the middle sections became somewhat tiresome, as the technical details and jargon were a bit hard to follow, and the structure of the stories of the accidents became rather repetitive. The author does discuss issues of fear/hysteria in the general public with respect to nuclear accidents, yet the [seemingly contradictory] combination of the overall discussion of nuclear accidents in gritty detail along with some relatively cursory words of support for the safety and efficacy of nuclear power at the end means that this really is for experts who rationally understand the full historical & current contexts underlying nuclear power. Additionally, as a side note, the author briefly mentions India's nuclear program twice, noting that the Indian government broke a promise to Canada to not turn an imported reactor design toward weapons development, and that nuclear power plants there have had spotty safety records; while I am all for calling out entities that are cavalier about these issues, I found the author's word choice to be unnecessarily condescending toward India in a manner reminiscent of British imperialists justifying the subjugation of India in order to "civilize" the "savages". That aside, as noted earlier, I would recommend this book to those with a serious interest in this subject.


Featured Comments: Week of 2017 April 2

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

Review: openSUSE Tumbleweed GNOME Snapshot 20170329

Reader msian_tux_lover said, "I think you missed the point and objectives of Tumbleweed - it isn't meant for beginners and more for tinkerers and hobbyists i.e. people with average or higher know-how of Linux like yourself for instance; that is why Tumbleweed is a rolling distro with newest/er versions of packages rather than a more fixed/controlled versions of most packages like LTS versions of your favourite Ubuntu/Mint platform. I have to agree that openSUSE Tumbleweed needs to be more polished (I am thiking of a similar edgy distro like Fedora but then again they aren't a rolling distro, although you 'could' upgrade the distro using fedup - a bit of a hit and miss there), but that is what openSUSE Leap is doing - a hybrid distro with core stuff from SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE) with community userland apps. Tumbleweed can be rough round the edges - but it is running fine on my low end Acer notebook."

Thanks to that reader for that comment. Now that I'm done with my conference and the pace of work has settled back to normal, I can post more in this blog. This week, I will have another Linux distribution review as well as another book review out. More Linux distribution reviews are to come through this month and next month as I continue to search for a replacement for the distribution currently on my laptop. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue to subscribe and comment!


Review: openSUSE Tumbleweed GNOME Snapshot 20170329

For the last 5 years, I have been running Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" Xfce as my main OS on my laptop. Its support cycle is only 5 years long, so its end-of-life is fast approaching (within a month). This has spurred me to seriously start looking into replacements/upgrades. In the interest of having an open mind, I don't necessarily want to lock myself into sticking with Linux Mint; while I may still be biased toward the Ubuntu/Linux Mint family, the collection of minor issues in the latest releases of Linux Mint may actually make me more open to other alternatives. However, I'm probably not going to go with some small one-person distribution, especially if the community around that distribution is small and it doesn't have officially-supported packages. My criteria for considering a distribution are that it should have either official support for Skype and Google Talk (both of which I use regularly) or it should have a large enough community to make unofficial support viable (through the implication that the distribution will last a long time); related to the last point, I expect the support cycle to be as long as possible, and in particular, to be more than 3 years. Additionally, while I am not completely opposed to KDE, my most recent interactions (in my most recent distribution reviews) with KDE 5 have left me somewhat less than impressed, so when possible, I will try to stick to MATE/Xfce when possible, thanks to my familiarity and confidence with their tools, ability to recognize peripheral devices, et cetera. Additionally, because I'm seriously trying to test aspects of these distributions for my daily use, I'm going to touch upon a few other things beyond what I might write for a typical distribution review.

With that in mind, my first test subject is openSUSE Tumbleweed GNOME. I've tried openSUSE before, but it has been a while since the last time. Additionally, its support cycle is only 3 years, but it does have a rolling-release version called Tumbleweed, so I figured I might try that. I created a live USB of the 64-bit ISO using the "dd" command, as recommended on the website. Follow the jump to see what it's like.


My Time at the 2017 APS March Meeting

This is just a quick update from my graduate studies. In the middle of March, I was able to attend the 2017 APS March Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana; this is the first conference that I have attended in any capacity. I had a ton of fun being able to travel there and meet with old friends, collaborators whom I had not yet met in person, and other people that I didn't know but who have been working on similar things to me; it was great being able to discuss interesting potential project ideas with them. Going to many talks was also cool, giving me a good sense of the state of my field and the sort of work that other people are doing, though in many respects, I honestly feel like I learned more just from talking with people at length in more informal settings. Finally, the highlight for me was getting to present my own work and seeing the interest that many people took in it: I was presenting a semiclassical electromagnetics approach to van der Waals interactions between molecules and larger bodies in a session dominated by density functional and atomistic long-range many-body approaches to van der Waals interactions solely in [large] molecular systems, so I was truly gratified to see that members of the audience saw value and significance in what I've been doing, especially given how different my talk was from those that came before and after it in that session. Overall, I had an amazing time, and I hope to be able to attend other conferences, both similar to this as well as more specific to my research, during my remaining time in graduate school.


Book Review: "How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything" by Rosa Brooks

I've recently read How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything by Rosa Brooks. It's a moderately long book about the institutional culture of the military, the historical and present perceptions of the military and its relationship with peacetime society, the evolving notions of war & peace, and the issues facing the military in today's domestic politics and international uncertainty. The thesis of the book is that while societies have historically tried to neatly separate war & peace spatially as well as temporally, such a dichotomy is rarely clear in practice, and the state of low-grade perpetual war in which the US is currently engaged, especially with regard to the adversaries we face, is in many ways surprisingly similar to the history of wars before the emergence of well-defined nation-states in Europe; moreover, issues like mission creep and a shifting political & financial emphasis away from civilian foreign engagement toward military engagement, in conjunction with adversaries having access to technologies and the fruits of globalization that allow them to attack the US from afar with unprecedented ease, has caused the military to take on roles for which it was not built (in the form in which it exists now), further blurring the lines between civilian versus military roles and war versus peace.

I really enjoyed reading this book overall. Although it's a little longer, the writing is clear and accessible, and the stories & anecdotes interwoven with more formal reports & studies make the progression of the book engaging. Additionally, I feel like the author's background of having grown up in an anti-war family and still retaining a somewhat skeptical eye with respect to military action/growth while also having worked in the Pentagon and in similar roles at other institutions for as long as she did lends her credibility when discussing the subtleties & nuances of the US military, its foreign policy, and its institutional culture. Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in current US affairs; follow the jump to see a few other thoughts about this book.


Book Review: "The Victorian Internet" by Tom Standage

I recently read The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage. It's a brief history about the technical development of the telegraph, developments in telegraph operations, its uses, its rise, and its eventual decline. It particularly goes into the various ways that optical and then electrical telegraph systems were developed by different independent inventors, the difficulties in laying cables for long-distance telegraphy, and the ramifications of the telegraph for business, politics, military actions, newspapers, and day-to-day communications among ordinary people (despite the usual hype of that time about how instant communication would bring people together and effect world peace), comparing these issues to the issues people care about with regard to the Internet, given their similar network structures (though do note that this book was written in the late 1990s, so the author couldn't have even imagined things like Google, Facebook, or Twitter at that time). It's a short book that is a fairly engaging and fast-paced read throughout, so I'd recommend it; my only minor complaint is that the discussion of messaging through pneumatic tubes, while certainly relevant to the chronological history of the telegraph, seems to be a bit of a distraction from the main point of how relatable the 19th century telegraph system would be to users of today's Internet. Follow the jump to see a few more points about the book.


Review: KDE neon 5.9.1

It has been a while since I've done a review of a Linux distribution. Lately, I've seen a few reviews of KDE neon (the second word being intentionally written in lowercase), and some of them have praised it as being much better than Kubuntu (the traditionally KDE spin of Ubuntu). That got my attention, so I figured I should check it out.

Main Screen + Kickoff Menu
KDE neon is essentially a showcase of the latest and greatest version of KDE, packaged atop the most recent LTS release of Ubuntu. It specifically does not officially support any other DEs (though of course users can try as they like), and it is meant to provide the stability of the Ubuntu LTS base in conjunction with the newest features from KDE. It has several versions available, depending on how adventurous one feels in using new software; some of the versions claim to be made for "everyday users", which I take to include Linux newbies, so as usual, I will evaluate this distribution from that perspective. In particular, I downloaded the User Edition (not the User LTS Edition, which features the latest LTS version of KDE, though all editions feature the latest Ubuntu LTS base) and wrote it to a USB via UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see what it's like.


Book Review: "The Attention Merchants" by Tim Wu

Originally, this post was supposed to come out a week ago, as a Linux comparison test between BunsenLabs Linux and CrunchBang++ ("#!++"), two quasi-official successors to the now-defunct CrunchBang ("#!") Linux distribution. Unfortunately, neither of them booted in a live USB. For that reason, this post is now a book review of The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu. It is a relatively long and detailed book about the history of advertising and other ways that people have tried to get into our heads and sell us on either commercial goods or ideas. It has a fairly extensive discussion of the development of advertising in newspapers, city posters, and radios, as well as further developments through TV and the Internet. Additionally, it goes through the cycles of development and backlash with respect to each medium of communication, noting how the backlashes are fairly similar to one another in many respects throughout history.

The book is quite interesting, and despite its longer length, it generally reads easily enough that this length is less noticeable. There are many examples given through each period of history and with respect to each medium of communication showing how advertising techniques further developed, and each of them is quite compelling on its own. I even learned a few interesting bits of trivia that I take for granted on a daily basis: "propaganda" was originally a straightforward (not derogatory) term for "propagation of [religious] faith", "broadcast" was originally an agricultural term (for spreading seeds through a field) that later got co-opted in advertising, and drive-in movies originated from the British government displaying war propaganda films from vans on large exterior walls in WWI. The only issue that I have is that the latter parts of the book become a little tiresome to read; part of that is because I have read from other places about the issues surrounding Internet tracking and advertising, while part of it is because the author could have better connected developments in Internet advertising to prior developments in newspapers/radio, so the repetition of key points without those deeper connections being made explicit (or only being made partway) felt a bit wearisome. Overall, though, I recommend this book for anyone who'd like to learn more about the history of advertising, how people have tried to fight back, and how the cycle continues. Follow the jump to see more details, as well as further scattered thoughts and questions I have about this book.


Book Review: "More Than Just Race" by William Julius Wilson

The book that I've been able to read most recently has been More Than Just Race by William Julius Wilson. It is essentially a collection of 3 essays (each as a chapter) concerning various issues of the black experience (especially in cities) in the US, separately considering the conditions of black ghettos, the socioeconomic problems of poor black males, and the breakdown of poor black familial structures. These chapters are bookended by introductory and concluding chapters summarizing and further expounding on these issues. The main purpose of the book is to analyze, through various studies from the social sciences, the complementary roles of structure and culture in explaining why blacks in the US, especially in inner cities, are worse of by many metrics than their suburban counterparts and than people of other races/ethnicities in the US.

It is a relatively recent book (2009), but it isn't recent enough to have touched upon issues of police brutality and exploitation in urban black communities or issues of socioeconomic decay in poor white communities in cities as well as in rural areas (characterized by structural joblessness, opioid addiction, et cetera). The book itself is short, but the main three essays themselves are a bit dry. In particular, the essays are essentially separate from each other and can be read as such, but there aren't many attempts to form an overarching narrative (beyond the idea that structure and culture combine to explain the issues that many black Americans face), and the few attempts that do exist feel somewhat forced; perhaps the issue is that these issues are simply too nuanced to be described in a single broad brushstroke, but while that is clear from the details of the book, it would have been nice to see such a thesis made a little more explicit. Additionally, there are a few arguments that get rather muddled, and some ideas that aren't touched upon much after their introduction, perhaps because they don't fit the local narrative quite as well; I'll discuss these and other issues after the jump. Overall, while the discussion of structural issues seemed to be in line with a lot of what I've read in articles in newspapers and magazines in the last few years (probably because the author is an academic heavyweight in these areas anyway), the discussion of which cultural factors seem more (or less) plausible is relatively new to me, and their combination is much more nuanced than any of the broad stereotypes of individuals or institutions that I have seen previously; I rather appreciate this book for providing that perspective.


Book Review: "Gang Leader for a Day" by Sudhir Venkatesh

Happy new year 2017! My latest book review is of Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. The author is a sociologist who has meticulously documented his time in the 1980s as a PhD student in sociology, getting a deep, extended, first-hand look into the world of crack cocaine gangs in Chicago. He describes the progression of his relationship with the leader and close associates of a particular gang, the tenants and managers of the building that gang primarily operated in, the daily activities and quality of life of the gang members and building tenants, and even his own stint at leading the gang (in a very limited and supervised way) for a day. He further goes into the various moral quandaries that he finds himself in as he spends more time with this gang, with regard to when he should report something to the police, when he should step into a situation himself (thus inserting himself into a situation that he should be externally observing from an academic perspective), and whether his research will ultimately be essentially voyeurism writ large if he can't convince himself that publishing his findings will ever lead to measurable improvements in his subjects' lives, given the rampant corruption and cycles of poverty and crime prevalent then in Chicago.

Despite being nearly 300 pages, the book is extremely engaging, and the stories that he has documented have been masterfully crafted into a compelling narrative that flows very quickly and easily. I could really get a sense for the developments in his ability to conduct this research, his relationships with various tenants and gang members, and his comfort in such settings, going from the initial feeling of being very out of place, to the part in the middle where he still feels unsteady directly commandeering the gang (for a day, even in a limited and supervised capacity) despite his growing understanding of the gang's operations from the perspective of an outsider, to the part following that detailing his increasing comfort in seeking out broader perspectives from the community at large given his greater experience in conducting such research over time; I further liked how he ended the book by neatly wrapping up his narrative, mentioning his moves to Harvard University and then Columbia University, while still emphasizing that the story of the cycle of poverty and crime doesn't end so neatly for his research subjects, echoing what he says throughout the book. More than that, given that my upbringing as the son of immigrants from South Asia born and brought up in comfortable middle-class suburbs is quite similar to that of the author (except that he was born in India and brought with his family to this country at a very young age) and given that my family is extremely wary of me going into any situation that would remotely put me in danger (especially given my disability and skin color), this book really resonated with me. It felt thrilling for me to essentially vicariously experience this part of his life in such vivid and moving detail; I especially enjoyed reading about how a man who was fearlessly observing drive-by shootings, participating (however minimally) in gang retribution, and the like would still remain a principled vegetarian through it all, which I found deliciously ironic (and I realized that in a similar situation, I would actually probably do the same). One criticism of this book that I've seen online is that the author can be condescending and self-centered; given that this is a nonfiction book for general audiences, given that the goal is to weave his observations into a narrative, and given that he remarks throughout the book on the idea that there is no true neutrality and that he is inevitably going to be part of the story (on one side or another) that he is trying to document, I feel that anything else would have just been less honest in the end. I would highly recommend this book, and I do wonder how much relevance it could continue to have when considering the state of inner cities now, 30 years following this research, with the renewed emphasis on issues of police brutality, systemic racism from governmental institutions, and so on.