2017-06-05

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.

2017-06-01

Book Review: "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley

I generally don't read works of fiction, as I don't have as much interest in them as I do in well-crafted nonfiction works, but Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is one of the classics of dystopic science fiction; in particular, many comparisons have been made to Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, with the latter surging in popularity in the last few months in the context of the current political climate in the US, so I figured I might give this one a read instead. This book is set in a time where society is explicitly stratified into castes and everyone is conditioned, through physical, chemical, and psychological means from [artificial] fertilization through death at age 60, to behave in ways that would never lead them to question their roles in society; this is further helped by the omnipresence of a pleasurable drug called soma and by the omnipresence of this very conditioning, such that social ostracism is feared perhaps above all else. With that in mind, the main story primarily involves two characters, one named Bernard Marx who is born and raised in this society but finds himself dissatisfied with the society and his role in it, the other named John the savage who is born to a woman (named Linda) outside of this society and becomes repulsed after understanding the superficiality of the existence of members of that society.

The initial parts of the story seem to drag a little bit as it isn't initially clear to which character the reader's attention should primarily be drawn, but after the introduction of Bernard Marx, it becomes much clearer that the initial parts paint the setting of this world to make it clear why Bernard Marx is out of place. Additionally, in terms of movement of the narrative, the extended dialogue between John the savage and the controller Mustapha Mond drags a little, but it provides a fascinating glimpse into the author's true view of such a futuristic world. What I found most interesting is that both Bernard Marx and John the savage keep trying but failing to escape the oppressive social confines of their world, though the issues at play are different. Bernard Marx feels socially isolated due to his short height relative to his upper caste and due to his (perhaps related) desires to have time from himself, away from the rest of society. However, his psychosocial conditioning is fairly thorough, such that even when he visits the tribe of savages and has a chance to live a simple and isolated life among them, he chooses instead to bring John the savage as well as Linda back to the main society in London so that he can gain credibility in that society that he finds hard to come by; when John the savage rejects further gawking visitors (which reflects poorly on Bernard Marx, being the custodian of John the savage), rather than joining John the savage in solitude, Bernard Marx becomes despondent about his renewed feelings of alienation and ostracism from society at large. This deepens near the end of the book, when he is exiled to Iceland; his thoroughly conditioned worry about social alienation overcomes any excitement he may have felt at realizing that he would be among high-caste misfits like himself instead of in the superficial society for which he ostensibly does not care so much. Likewise, John the savage is initially delighted by what he sees after traveling from his tribe to London, but having been raised and conditioned outside of that society, he is disgusted by the superficiality, free love (though that may have more to do with his early childhood trauma of seeing his mother, who was brought up in the society, attempt to practice free love with the men of the tribe, consequently leading to his and his mother's ostracism from the tribe by the women and children of the tribe, respectively), and inability to find solitude in the main society. Yet at the end of the book, when he attempts to escape and live an ascetic penitent life outside of the city, the other members of society relentlessly hound him as an exhibition for their amusement; even at the very end, when he takes his own life, his limp hanging body is seen as another cheap spectacle, so even in death, his earthly remains cannot escape the superficiality of that society. Overall, I'd recommend this book for anyone interested in this sort of thing. Follow the jump to see more discussion of my thoughts about how this relates to today's society in the US (disclaimer: this is coming from a lay observer of American politics and society, so don't take anything too seriously; moreover, I'm sure that many of these observations have been made in the past by various people at different times).

2017-05-22

Book Review: "Red Notice" by Bill Browder

Recently, I was able to read the book Red Notice by Bill Browder. It is a detailed exposition of his career in finance, specifically his interests and investments in Russia (as well as other parts of Eastern Europe earlier in his career). He discusses how he and his business partners were able to find so many amazing investment opportunities in Eastern Europe after the fall of the USSR just because few other people had seriously considered those countries for investment. This leads to his company being the victim of fraud perpetrated by corrupt government officials and oligarchs in Russia, and once his business partners and lawyers come under threat from governmental and extrajudicial shakedowns, he turns his focus away from his investment company and toward the broader issue of human rights abuses in Russia, thereby going from a friend to an enemy of Vladimir Putin.

The book, though it may seem long due to the page count, is a fast-paced, gripping tale of intrigue and suspense, reading so much like a James Bond-esque spy thriller novel that it is easy to forget that this is all a true story. It was also enjoyable for me to read this because I hadn't really given much thought to the issues of economic inequality, oligarchy, and investment in Russia after the Cold War, and I certainly hadn't considered it from the perspective of a financier who could make both friends and enemies in high places.

What's more interesting to me is to consider that at the beginning of his career (as the story is mostly a chronological account of his career), his actions are essentially amoral, being driven primarily by greed; his exposure of the fraudulent practices of corrupt government officials and oligarchs in Russia was driven not by high-minded morality but by his desire to ensure the success of his company and to do right by his investors/business partners who were counting on him. In a sense, there may have been a weird tribal morality that one could associate with his close kinship with his business partners and his initial desire to push forward with exposing such corruption despite the high personal and business risks of doing so. This is further justified by considering that his focus turns away from his company and toward broader issues of human rights abuses when his business partners and lawyers start becoming targets of extrajudicial shakedowns, most notably including Sergei Magnitsky, whose cruel and inhuman torture and neglect before even going to trial (which culminated in the insane posthumous show-trial of Magnitsky in Russia) made him a cause célèbre in the US and EU, leading to the passing of laws recognizing his work and financially sanctioning those in Russia involved in his torture and murder.

That said, he shows himself throughout the book as believing in the ideals of the rule of law and justice while simultaneously understanding that these are hard to come by in Russia, and as a result, he portrays himself as having some moral core that overrides business and personal considerations as his friends come in danger; it is only his initial naïveté about Putin that makes him initially think of Putin as an ally in the crusade against the oligarchs, and these illusions are shattered quickly enough when Putin co-opts the remaining oligarchs and enriches himself in the process. By contrast, he shows the oligarchs to be thoroughly corrupt in their quest for material enrichment and their ability to shamelessly lie, cheat, steal, and hurt people to that end; they operate at a totally different level of amorality. Of course, this depiction is his own, so it's not surprising that it would elevate his own moral standing, potentially at the expense of others, and the same can be applied, for example, to his rather negative portrayal of John Kerry as desperate to hang onto as well as enhance his existing power; with that in mind, his story seems somewhat more credible to me given the independent validation by all of the different people and news organizations of his accounts of Russia. It's worth noting too that the verb "corrupt" comes from the Latin word meaning "break from within", and can also mean "rot" or "spoil". In this case, the oligarchs may have some thin veneer of seeming morality (if that), but this is quickly eaten away by having a lot of money and power, revealing only the atavistic amoral lizard brain at the inner core; by contrast, the author seems to maintain some moral core throughout the story, and while he is initially motivated by amoral greed at a surface level, once things hit him in a deeply personal level, that surface is stripped off (though again, it is necessary to bear in mind that this portrayal is the author's own). Overall, this book is a very interesting and intriguing read, and I'd recommend it to pretty much anyone.

2017-05-08

Nuanced Déjà Vu in Microsoft's Desktop Monopoly

When I was in late high school, which was in the early days of this blog, I had recently switched to Linux and was essentially an evangelist, singing its praises and loudly cursing the misdeeds of Microsoft with respect to the desktop market; many of my blog posts at that time were in that vein. In the nearly 8 years since then, I, my blog, Linux, Microsoft, and the consumer device market have all evolved and matured: I've become less evangelistic and more realistic about many things (or so I'd like to think), my blog has correspondingly shifted focus in various ways, Linux distributions have become less of a "wild west" than they were 8 years ago and have gained more support for popular things like proprietary video drivers and game platforms like Steam, Microsoft has been more open about supporting free and open-source software initiatives, and the consumer device market has shifted much more toward mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets which are very different from the desktops, laptops, and netbooks of 8 years ago (the latter of which doesn't really exist anymore as it once did). That said, I recently read a post on Slashdot (original article by Brian Fagioli of Betanews) about how Microsoft is locking the configuration settings for changing the default browser (Microsoft Edge) and search engine (Bing) choices in Windows 10 S, which is its version of Microsoft Windows 10 designed for lower-end hardware used in schools. For the sake of old times, I thought it might be nice to post about it, but hopefully with a bit more nuance than what I was capable of 8 years ago (and with the benefit of having seen the last 8 years of intervening technological development). Follow the jump to see more.

2017-04-23

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!

2017-04-18

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.

2017-04-16

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!

2017-04-12

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.

2017-04-10

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.

2017-04-09

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!