2017-01-09

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.

2017-01-03

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.

2016-12-19

Book Review: "Identity and Violence" by Amartya Sen

I've recently been able to read the book Identity and Violence by Amartya Sen. It's a relatively shorter book, taking me ~3 hours to finish. The author focuses broadly on how personal identity is neither singular nor static, but is multifaceted, context-dependent, and dynamically evolving over time based on the choices people make. He further argues that a lot of sectarian strife (whatever identity the sect may encompass) occurs because people can be led to make one facet of their identity encompass their entire identity and to then act in destructive ways based on that. Additionally, he provides numerous examples of how facets that tend to be associated with individual cultures (whether ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other), with such shoehorning leading to detrimental stereotyping and unsupportable cultural fatalism, have in fact emerged over many such cultures across continents at various points in time, sometimes independently, while other times due to cultural contact and diffusion. With this, he suggests that a lot of the well-meaning efforts to integrate religious minorities into Western society, as well as efforts to reconcile religious or ethnic factions that have been at war in other countries, are misguided due to their single-minded focus on the same sorts of categorization that have led to such conflicts in the first place, and that instead, such efforts should appeal to the broad variety of identities that people hold dear to them and that make them feel whole.

Overall, I generally agree with the thrust of this book (further justifying the notion that Amartya Sen seems to capture my lay ideas about economics and society in a systematic and scholarly manner), and the numerous historical examples of cultural interaction, cultural diffusion, and the development of ideas such as democratic political participation and the protection of human rights across continents and across time periods of course jibes with things that I've learned in history classes in school and elsewhere. The book is a pretty solid read (despite a couple of minor typos that can easily be overlooked), and it brings forth many interesting ideas. I'm glad that I read it recently, given that issues of privilege, identity politics, and communal violence have been in the news lately; I would perhaps like to think that the author may have articulated ideas of privilege and "intersectionality" before those terms came into vogue in the last few years for people interested in social justice, but something the book makes clear is that these ideas of intersectionality, if not the particular jargon, are probably much older than just a few decades. Despite all of that, I do feel like there may be a few things missing in the discussion, and my question about those issues come after the jump.

2016-12-18

Featured Comments: Week of 2016 December 11

There was one post this past week that got a few comments, so I'll post all of those here.

Review: MX Linux MX-15


An anonymous reader said, "It's simply preposterous that a distro for newer Linux users stops booting at an obscure command-line prompt and that an inexperienced user is required to know or guess or somehow find out that pressing Tab will reveal a list of commands that will enable the boot to continue one way or another (although my guess is that the less-experienced users may also need to guess or somehow find out what those commands actually do). People who are enamored of the command line shouldn't try to produce a graphical OS for newer users."
Following up on that, commenter Unknown had this to say: "that particular problem at boot of the liveUSB is with unetbootin and syslinux. the newer syslinux boot system that mx uses is not installed on all other linux platforms, and as such unetbootin doesn't always work right when using the linux version, depending on the actual host linux system. interestingly, the windows version of unetbootin works just fine. as does dd (command provided on the download site), which doesn't give you the persistence options off the live-usb but will get you a proper live environment to install it."
Reader Jerry3904 countered, "Late to the party here, since this OS is now a year old and MX-16 is being released today. For whatever reason, this diverges from all other reviews we have seen: https://www.mxlinux.org/reviews".

Thanks to all those readers for commenting on that post. In the next couple of weeks, I will have at least one more book review out, and by next month, I will probably have another Linux review of some sort out. In any case, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!

2016-12-12

Review: MX Linux MX-15

Originally, this review was going to be of Bodhi Linux, based on a suggestion from a comment in a recent review. However, when I tried it, while it was able to connect to the Internet, it could not connect to its package repositories for me to install any packages, and I figured that there wouldn't be much point in writing a review given that. Then, I thought of trying the latest version openSUSE on the recommendation of a friend of mine, especially given that I haven't tried openSUSE in quite a while; that turned out to only be available in the form of an installation DVD, as no live image is available yet (though I hope to try it when that does become available). After that, I saw some reviews of MX Linux, and thought it might be interesting to try. (Spoiler alert: this review exists because there's enough material for me to write about it.)

Main Screen + Xfce Whisker Menu
MX Linux is an effective merger between the former MEPIS and antiX Linux distributions. It aims to provide a desktop experience that is easy and efficient, with an emphasis on reliability. Its focus is on the Xfce desktop environment, and it uses Debian as its base, along with a lot of the code from the erstwhile antiX and MEPIS. I tried it as a live USB made with UnetBootin, which appears to be the recommended method; in fact, MX Linux discusses many different options for different levels of data persistence from one boot to another in a live USB (though that may also refer to live USB systems made with different tools). Follow the jump to see what it's like.

2016-11-28

Book Review: "The Marketplace of Ideas" by Louis Menand

The book that I have been able to read most recently is The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand. The author generally discusses the current state of the liberal arts and humanities in higher education in a historical context, focusing on the tensions that have pervaded it for many decades, including the distinctions between the useful/practical versus learning for its own sake, disciplinarity versus interdisciplinarity, generally teaching the liberal arts to all students via a distribution versus core curriculum model, et cetera. The author further discusses how political issues have shaped academic discourse in the liberal arts, as well as how certain features of academia that are perceived to be new are actually logical extensions of features that were in place long ago, and vice versa. Overall, the author argues that much of academic work in the liberal arts, as it is conducted today, is structurally bound by how things were more than a century ago, even as the objects of study have themselves evolved quite a bit over that time.

Having completed my undergraduate education at a technical institution, I expected to see a bit more about the simultaneous evolution of science, engineering, and humanities curricula, given that the author does discuss the shifts in emphasis from teaching to research at major universities, and given the rather broad title and description of the book. Instead, the author admits fairly early on that because he is a history professor by training, his focus is almost exclusively on the liberal arts and humanities. That focus is understandable, yet I feel like by essentially ignoring simultaneous developments in science and engineering in academia, the discussion of the developments in the liberal arts and humanities in academia seems strangely divorced from the historical events surrounding those developments. Moreover, I feel that the author is somewhat siloed in his own view of disciplinarity versus interdisciplinarity in academia by focusing only on the liberal arts and humanities and ignoring how interdisciplinary research has evolved among the various branches of natural science and engineering, which is ironic considering his arguments that interdisciplinarity in the liberal arts and humanities has actually reinforced disciplinary rigidity in those fields; perhaps the author would have been better served by more extensively consulting (or coauthoring) with someone who is familiar with STEM fields in academia, but if he felt that such interactions would only reinforce rigid disciplinary boundaries and would not help mutual understanding across fields, then that may be more reflective of his own siloed experiences and resulting biases than of anything else. Additionally, the author has an occasional tendency to slip into technical philosophical and literary jargon; while the context makes the meaning of such jargon clear enough, it would have been nicer for the author to use more broadly accessible terminology, given that the book seems to be marketed toward a general audience (in line with some of the ideas discussed in the book itself). With all that said, I do appreciate seeing this aspect of academia that I otherwise would not have really seen, given my undergraduate education in physics at a technical education followed by my current status as a graduate student in electrical engineering. While it is short on prescriptions, it is long on context, which is its aim in any case. Finally, the book itself is generally clear and concise, and it is a short, quick read.

2016-11-15

Featured Comments: Week of 2016 November 6

There was one post from last week that got 3 comments, so I'll repost all of those. (This post should have happened two days ago, but I was traveling.)

Review: Manjaro Linux 16.10 "Fringilla" Cinnamon

An anonymous reader wrote, "Manjaro repositories exist since 2014 (more or less). 'free' it's an alias for 'free -h', look at '.bashrc', also 'ls' and maybe 'grep' are often aliases. Note: Manjaro Cinnamon is a Community Edition, I think this clarification is needed."
Another anonymous commenter suggested, "perhaps it is time for a Bodhi linux review?"
Reader Bernard Victor had this suggestion: "You should review Antgeros, a much better Arch based distro than Manjaro. It is much closer to pure Arch, in fact some people call it just an Arch installer."

Thanks to all of those readers for commenting on that post. In the rest of the month, I hope to have at least one more post (unrelated to Linux reviews) put out. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!

2016-11-07

Review: Manjaro Linux 16.10 "Fringilla" Cinnamon

Main Screen + Cinnamon Menu
I was going to make this post a review of the SpaceFM file manager (RAS syndrome, I know) upon recommendation by a commenter in a previous post. Then I checked it out for a bit, and realized that while it has a lot of potential for graphical customization, I still wouldn't feel particularly compelled to write a full review about that one application. Instead, I'm reviewing the Cinnamon edition of the latest version of Manjaro Linux. Last year, when I reviewed it, it was still relatively tied to Arch Linux. Since then, it has become much more independent, using its own repositories and maintaining a semi-rolling release model (though maintaining ties via the Arch User Repository (AUR)). Given that, I figured it might be time for a new review to see what has changed. I tried it using a live USB made with UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

2016-10-31

Book Review: "Why Information Grows" by Cesar Hidalgo

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you may be wondering why book reviews have made a return after a 6-year absence. The simple reason is that during my undergraduate and beginning graduate studies, most of my time was consumed with classes, and I didn't have many opportunities to sit down and read books that I enjoyed for great lengths of time. Now that I have passed my general examination and am doing research full-time, though, my weekends are much more free, so I can read and review for pleasure again. Some of these books are from collections/series (like the previous few that I have reviewed here, from the Issues of Our Time series edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), while others (like this one) are from the reading list of Zach Weinersmith (author of the webcomic SMBC, which I read frequently).

The latest book that I have read is Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo. It basically goes into an easy-to-understand version of the technical (statistical) definition of information, illustrating with many examples how "information" does not imply "meaning", but that information is a much more fundamental physical concept than simply the ideas of which people can conceive (i.e. metacognition), emerging at many different levels in nature. Information requires energy to occur, solids to be preserved, and computation to propagate and have an influence on its environment, and it is a fundamentally out-of-equilibrium phenomenon. The author then applies this understanding of information to further understand how information occurs in human societies, and how the primary distinction between humans and other animals (or, in other words, "what makes us human") is that we can consciously crystallize and realize information into physical objects instead of simply reacting to the world around us. That said, humans need to form networks at various levels to be able to transmit knowledge and knowhow and thereby realize more complex forms of information, and this transmission is imperfect and not always as efficient as might be assumed from classic textbook models of market dynamics; this can explain a lot of the economic inequalities seen on a global scale.

The book itself is decently written; I think the writing becomes better and more engaging toward the middle and end, whereas the beginning seems rather trite. Additionally, some mention is made of how bureaucratic institutions are far less efficient than markets or networked structures built on trust, yet I would have liked to see a fuller discussion of the similarities and differences of the network structures of bureaucracies versus markets to better contextualize why they operate differently. Finally, I did like the quantitative analysis near the end of the text (along with numerous references to the author's more quantitative The Atlas of Economic Complexity, coauthored with several others) with regard to the correlations between the complexity of a country's economy and its level of economic development, but I would have liked to see a discussion of whether this model of economic complexity is more predictive than more traditional economic explanations. Overall, I do appreciate the pulling together of ideas from fields that used to be disparate, and I think that most of the book is written at a level that an interested layperson can appreciate.

2016-10-19

Book Reviews: "Modern Liberty" by Charles Fried & "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen

I recently finished reading the books Modern Liberty by Charles Fried, and Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen. The first was part of the "Issues of Our Time" series, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., of which Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele (which I recently reviewed) is also a part; the second was one I chose as a comparison book mentioned in a review for the first on Amazon. Both deal with liberty and freedom, but in rather different ways. Below are my brief, decidedly nonspecialist thoughts on these books (content and style). After the jump will be some musings about issues related to these books. I am not a philosopher, nor am I an economist or sociologist, so many of the things that I say will probably be wrong or inconsistent; please feel free to point out issues in the comments below.

The book by Fried is a detailed defense of what appears (to my untrained eye) to be a centrist libertarian conception of liberty. The author essentially posits that human actions, and therefore the liberty to do so, are essentially individual in origin, so individual liberty should be held paramount, and can be taken to exist even in the absence of the state. He acknowledges the legitimacy of the state to tax and spend (even when the taxation is progressive), but argues that people should keep in mind that the state can simultaneously be the best friend and worst enemy of liberty. Additionally, he argues for equal application of the law as much as possible, and for the state to not interfere with people's choices when such interference would reduce choices that they would otherwise have no problem making, especially when those choices do not directly harm others in a criminal manner, focusing on three examples in particular throughout the book. With this in mind, he argues that the state should discourage certain behaviors through taxation rather than through heavy-handed direct intervention, and that stability in the laws and tax systems enforced is the least bad thing that the state can do with respect to liberty. Though I've focused specifically in pointing out things related to the state, he focuses on more abstract philosophical notions of liberty while simultaneously bringing the reader's attention to more mundane matters such as work, market transactions, and even sexual intercourse to better illustrate these points.

The book itself is fairly short, and moves along reasonably quickly (though I admit that I did get lost in some of the finer philosophical points). When introducing each justification for its conception of liberty, it also introduces each common criticism of that justification, and tackles almost every criticism head-on, without fear. There are quite a few things that I don't agree with about the ideas in the book. The overarching difference that I have is that this conception of liberty focuses on its origin within individuals, whereas I see the manifestation of liberty as being more dependent on societal contexts. An example of this would be in his contention that things like language, music, and culture originate within individuals; I would posit that these things would be meaningless for a single human in vacuum without any human contact, and it is only contact (and the history of such contact) with other humans that gives these things meaning. This is what I see as further leading to the author's general neglect of the consequences of liberty, choosing only to talk about the origins and processes of liberty; while I can see that this is philosophically consistent with the axiomatic treatment of the individual origin of liberty (and this also seems to be consistent with the desire for a static, predictable state due to its focus only on the unchanging processes of liberty, though I wouldn't agree with that either), the biggest issue that I have is that the author brings up the problem of the homeless person who has liberty but cannot make use of it if all property in that person's area is privately owned (and would therefore lead to the homeless person being kicked off of that property), but dances around this issue without really addressing it in a satisfactory way. With all of that said, I did enjoy reading this book overall, as it got me to think about the fundamental origins and processes of liberty in a new way, because before that, I was really only thinking about its manifestations/consequences.

The book by Sen is a longer exposition into how economic and political freedoms have to go hand-in-hand if they are to both be meaningful, and how human development is part and parcel of both. The author goes into how while utilitarian consequential formulations and libertarian process formulations of liberty are both important, both must be taken together instead of taking one or the other for liberty to be meaningful in the context of economics or politics. He further discusses how measures of economic development based solely on income or GDP/GNP per capita are quite flawed, so more nuanced, granular metrics are required, based on how different people's "functions" and "capabilities" operate, are fulfilled, and can be altered. Ultimately, he demonstrates that free markets and economic liberty, in conjunction with institutional corrections for certain glaring inequalities in capabilities, would allow the greatest human development leading to the greatest freedom.

Reading this book made me realize that I had intuitions for many ideas that the author clearly put into words (so I guess for now my lay economic views have a lot in common with those of Amartya Sen); in particular, I was already thinking about how Fried's neglect of the consequences of liberty made his treatment somewhat incomplete, and how humans being social animals means that the circumstances of one's political and economic existence cannot be ignored when considering the meaning of liberty, even before picking up Sen's book. However, there are a couple of issues that I have with this book. One is that there are several times where he repeats a point overly much. I don't mean that he just just repeats few words over the course of the book: I mean that he sometimes repeats entire multi-paragraph passages for no good reason, so the book could be a lot more terse and concise than it is. The other is that he argues that loss of income can affect a person mentally and physiologically in more lasting ways than simply by loss of purchasing power, especially if that person is ill, disabled, or so on, so he argues that specific institutional safety nets (presumably like social security, food stamps, and so on) and not simply lump-sum transfers of money (or increases in income) are necessary for countering poverty and promoting human development. I'd argue instead that if he can say that loss of income (and not just low income) is enough to push people into that downward spiral, then it would stand to reason that providing a strong enough guaranteed safety net through a simple money transfer (essentially, a minimum income, which I will discuss farther below) should be sufficient to prevent that, while simultaneously giving people the choice as independent agents to spend it as they like. Finally, at vary points, he promises to discuss how lessons from development in underdeveloped countries can be applied to the development of marginalized groups in more developed countries, yet as far as I could tell, that promise was never satisfactorily fulfilled. (Also, as a minor quibble: he makes reference to Madhavacharya having catalogued various schools of "Hindu" thought, including Buddhism, Jainism, and various atheist schools of thought, while calling him a Vaishnavite. A simple Wikipedia search shows that this Madhavacharya was a follower of Advaita philosophy, and was a separate person who was born only in the last few years of the life of the Dvaita founder Madhvacharya. It seems odd that Sen, who seems familiar with the "atheistic schools of Hinduism" catalogued by the later Madhavacharya, would make this error, so perhaps this was an oversight by the editor, or maybe the distinction between the two only became clear with scholarship after the publication of this book.)

In the Amazon review that I read, it seemed like these two books would oppose each other, but I would instead posit that they complement each other nicely. That brings me to the end of the review. Follow the jump to see some further thoughts on minimum income and related things that have been bouncing around in my head of late.