2018-01-29

Book Review: "The Death of Expertise" by Tom Nichols

I've recently read the book The Death of Expertise by Tom Wainwright. It's a polemical discussion of why large groups of people in the US, regardless of political affiliation, seem to be not merely indifferent but actively hostile to real learning and to the notion of expertise. It discusses, by chapter, the breakdown of communication between experts and the public as well as among members of the public, issues related to the commodification of the college experience and the associated rise of "safe spaces", the rising distrust of experts as fomented by talk radio and later by cable news and questionable blogs/"news" sites, the problems facing mainstream journalism in this respect, and the problems facing experts themselves in making sure to get things right and communicate expertise clearly to the public. It's not a particularly long book, and its writing style is clear & accessible. However, there are a lot of problems I have with the book, specifically revolving around many of the arguments being thinly sourced, internally hypocritical, and mutually contradictory; additionally, the author's frequent conflation of expertise in practice versus pedagogy lessens the credibility of many of his arguments. I detail these and other issues below; as a result, this post is going to be a bit longer than is typical for a book review on this blog. Also note that what I write before the jump will be my main criticisms of this book; other thoughts about the material (less about the book itself) will come after the jump.

In the early chapters, the author defines an expert as someone who professionally uses a specialized body of knowledge, but this seems to unduly discount those who amass specialized knowledge in fields for their own sake/pleasure and ascribe value in expertise only to those who are lucky enough to make money off of it; this implicitly discounts the role of luck, in turn implying that only those who can professionally use specialized knowledge deserve to do so as experts. Later in the book, the author points out that amateurs have transient interests while professionals are paid to do their work well with dispassion/disinterest even when they're not feeling "into it". That initially seems like a fair argument in favor of professionalism as a measure of expertise, but upon closer examination, this argument makes it too easy to claim that failures of expertise are isolated events that are few in number and can be overlooked in the face of the much larger number of successes in expertise, without truly grappling with the widespread societal impact of such failures (that might have led to present or future distrust of expertise), whether those are mistakes like the FDA recommendations to avoid eggs coinciding with an explosion of obesity & diabetes (as discussed in the book) or cover-ups like big oil & tobacco companies suppressing research showing their products to be directly harmful to the environment/human health (which are not discussed in the book).
The author also characterizes expertise by talent, longevity/experience in a field, acceptance by peer experts in the field, and so on, but the emphasis of the intangible quality of "talent" seems to feed into the pernicious notion of expertise being closed off to all but a predetermined few elites, rather than making clear that while developing true expertise is difficult, as it requires a long period of very hard work, it can in principle be done by anyone. (I will return to this point later in this review.)

A recurring problem through the book is that the author seems to conflate expertise in doing something with expertise in teaching to others, and while development of communication & teaching skills often goes hand-in-hand with development of the specialized knowledge & practice itself, high-level practice often does not overlap all that much with high-level pedagogy, as pedagogy requires a specialized skill set all unto its own. As I will discuss shortly, this problem is particularly prominent in the third chapter.

While the first two chapters, about communication breakdowns between experts and laypeople and among laypeople, have reasonably solid arguments and citations, the third chapter, about the issues with college education, seems shorter on citations of studies than the other chapters, and apart from the discussions of studies showing shorter and less rigorous assignments in many classes in universities across the US, the other arguments seem to be typical of modern critiques of the commodification of the university experience in the US, supported more by pieces from surveys and op-eds that seem more like opinionated reflections potentially riven by confirmation bias/cherry-picking of supporting narratives of their own. In particular, these sources, as cited in the book, do not compellingly demonstrate that these issues in colleges are really characteristic of most US college student experiences, and subliminally insinuate a causal link between the supposed infantilization of students at universities and their long-term rejection of authority without conclusively demonstrating (or even explicitly clarifying) such a causative link. Of course, I may be demonstrating my own confirmation bias in large part because I think the concerns over "safe spaces" and similar things are overblown (and the concepts themselves could, when done right, have some positive value for cultural tolerance), but even leaving that aside, I felt like the picture was rather incomplete, especially due to the overreliance on op-eds and other such pieces compared to rigorous peer-reviewed studies, relative to the other chapters.

For that reason, I initially thought that the book might be stronger without the third chapter, but reading further, the book never really recovers from this, as the following chapters are also a bit thin on rigorous citation material. Given the goals of this book, that is really the most damning thing about the book, because if it is generally thin on rigorous research for citations, or its citations themselves cite rigorous research but the author hasn't made that clear, then the author falls into exactly the trap of either spouting opinions which he is not necessarily qualified to make (by citing random op-eds with which he agrees, which he scolds members of the public for doing in their discussions with each other) or being a patronizing expert assuming that public will trust him enough to not question his lack of clarity regarding the trustworthiness of him and his citations, making this very book an exemplar of why many people distrust experts.

Also in the third chapter, the author conflates the issues that small colleges face in trying to attract talent, often dealt with by adding programs that they cannot sustainably support in order to use the term "university", with the hypothetical notion of two people with the same major claiming equivalence to each other even if one went to a more selective & prestigious university than the other. Even if one can question (as the author does) the equivocation of the two degrees on statistical grounds, ultimately the author also claims (earlier in the book) that college credentials are an imperfect measure of expertise in isolation and that expertise should be judged on the basis of individual demonstration, so the author fails that standard and falls into the trap of creating a strawman conflict between those two hypothetical people without properly assessing them as individuals. Moreover, in that same hypothetical scenario, the author claims that the accreditation of the major in both hypothetical colleges is not enough to claim that people graduating from that same major from the two colleges are equal, yet offers no further compelling justification; furthermore, this directly contradicts the author's prior use of college accreditation boards as an example of institutional peer expert approval, which damages the credibility of this line of argument through the book.

In the context of the third chapter, as I return to the author's conflation of expertise & expert teaching, the author had mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect as a symptom of a failure of metacognition (understanding how oneself thinks), yet it seems like this conflation of expertise & expert teaching and the consequent scolding of seemingly dense students is in itself a failure of metacognition on the part of experts like himself, in believing (in a Dunning-Kruger-esque manner) that expertise in a certain field automatically bestows upon such experts the right to believe that however they communicate their expertise to students must be correct and that students who question the quality of such teaching must necessarily be written off as dense & entitled. This is also reflected in the author's questioning of the value of student evaluation of college instructors, because while it may well be true that most such evaluations are meaningless as they are affected by factors irrelevant to the actual learning of the material, his lack of distinction between expertise & expert teaching (from the perspective of both experts & students) allows him to fully discount students' ability to assess teaching quality purely due to their lack of expertise in the specific subject matter, and then add further insult to injury by using the most egregious examples of irrelevant student evaluations of teaching to negatively stereotype such evaluations.

Another example of the author's mistaken conflation of expertise & expert teaching is when the author claims that many people overestimate their singing abilities, believing themselves to be good enough to appear on a nationally-televised competition like American Idol, yet these same people don't believe themselves to be good enough to be voice coaches. However, if the Dunning-Kruger effect says that people who are bad at something overestimate their abilities at that thing due to a failure of metacognition, then it seems certain that there are some people who are actually good at something (e.g. savants or child prodigies) due to some intuitive/instinctive understanding but who, through a failure of metacognition, cannot recognize or clearly communicate exactly why they have the skills that they do.

In the fifth chapter, the author discusses issues in traditional journalism, including saturation, competition & fragmentation in the market, the rise of talk radio (leading in turn to cable & online punditry) giving rise to deep distrust in expertise, and the fact that many journalists go right into major news organizations from university journalism majors instead of first interning at smaller organizations and thereby not understanding how journalism necessarily works on the ground. In the context of the latter point, the author admits to not having expertise in journalism (and admirably refrains from directly criticizing modern journalistic practice beyond pointing out well-known journalistic scandals), but defends his arguments by claiming expertise as a consumer of news, which seems to again contradict his argument that students of expert teaching cannot be trusted to properly assess said teaching. Also, the author seems to frame the story as if the number and scope of incidents of journalistic malpractice is clearly increasing, but the examples taken are from a variety of journalistic outlets, as opposed to a large number from one or two major outlets, so it would be more interesting (and convincing) to see whether such incidents of malpractice or mistakes have actually become more frequent within major outlets that have existed for many decades.

In the last chapter, the author investigates the failures of experts, from fraud & deception to overextension of expertise either into other fields or too far within a field into the realm of questionable broad predictions to innocent scientific disagreements, though the overextension of expertise too far into broad predictions often overlaps with the overextension of specialized expertise into other fields.
There were two issues that I had with that chapter that were relatively more minor in the broader context of the chapter & book but which I felt needed to be addressed. The first is the author's claim that science should only be about explanation and never prediction, which I contest because while the author's actual focus is on overly broad prediction of major phenomena in the world extrapolated from narrow technical expertise, the author gives the erroneous impression that science is never meant to make predictions (which is false, given that the whole point of science & engineering is to make and then test falsifiable predictions based on existing evidence, whether to explain the natural world or to design & test new technologies), which again seems like an example of the author making pronouncements outside his area of expertise. The second is the author's cautioning against overly broad oracular predictions by experts, accompanied by a quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb railing against experts who would make predictions over time horizons of decades if they can't predict what will happen over the next year. I dispute this because the predictability of broad trends over longer time scales can be easier due to averaging over larger short-term fluctuations. An example would be how the uncertainty in short-term weather prediction does not preclude accurate prediction of long-term climate change; this is itself a broader example of how the existence of chaos in a system implying exponential growth in the difference between two initially nearby trajectories does not imply that the exponential growth continues forever, as the trajectories themselves could be bounded through stretching & folding. By contrast, the narrow view in that quote is almost like denying the existence of physiological farsightedness by claiming that anyone who cannot see something nearby cannot possibly see things far away.

The author concludes with an epilogue reviewing recent events, like the 2016 election, Brexit, and some of the deceptions practiced in promoting the Iran deal, to point out how difficult it would be to educate people who are resistant to real education & critical thinking, while still hopefully pointing out that our society can still be saved as long as experts start to reengage with the public and laypeople actually start to critically reengage with experts and with their own civic responsibilities in turn (though I would add that this goes for experts too). My biggest issue with the epilogue is that the author warns against false equivalency, like in debates over climate change, GMOs, vaccines, and so on, yet he himself partakes in this numerous times in the book, like equating the well-documented problems with Linus Pauling pushing vitamin C with unsubstantiated assertions that Noam Chomsky's political activism is somehow wrong, which seems rather hypocritical.
There are two other broad points in the conclusion with which I disagree, though that has more to do with differences in political & pedagogical ideology. I believe the author, in believing in essentially fixed talents of people and especially in quoting Andrew Sullivan several times in claiming that democracy needs elites to save itself from its worst excesses, is unduly pessimistic about the possibility of experts and laypeople reconnecting, because I believe (having read works like Whistling Vivaldi, participated in things like the MIT-K12 Project, and so on) that such reconnection should be possible if people see the value in education & critical thinking, that anyone really can develop expertise so long as they actually put enough hard work into it and can demonstrate their value to the field at hand, and that the initial onus is on experts to start reengaging with the public not by being patronizing scolds but by actively investing time & resources into developing pedagogical skills to channel that expertise in ways that are understandable to the public; this follows my aforementioned problem with the author's definition of expertise as focusing too much on the notion of "talent" as a fixed quantity. Also, I do think a lot of this pessimism is due to the sole focus of this book on current American society, which is fine given its goals, but it feels a little incomplete as issues like the Dunning-Kruger effect, fragmentation of media, and so on, seem like they could happen anywhere, so especially in the context of Brexit, I would have liked to see discussion of how these issues may or may not have played out in countries in Europe (or Canada, for that matter, which has a fairly similar culture to ours in many ways), with appropriate discussion of what other underlying political/cultural similarities & differences may explain such phenomena. I've also read elsewhere about how a lot of prior public support for STEM & education was due to the threat of the USSR in the Cold War, so when that threat dissipated, so did such support; with that in mind, it might have been nice to see him discuss the local political & sociological aspects of the Cold War in the US given his own expertise on the Cold War, yet he instead retreads more stale pedestrian arguments

Overall, I thought the book was rather disappointing, probably in large part because in the wake of the 2016 election, I read a bunch of articles & op-eds about the topics covered in the book, including anti-intellectualism, the Dunning-Kruger effect, "safe spaces" in colleges, and so on, so I may have felt a bit overexposed to the topics in the book, and I didn't feel like I came away with anything really new. This, combined with the aforementioned numerous flaws in the book (which were not helped by the author's own frequent use of personal anecdotes aggrandizing himself in a way that started off as an obvious joke but became more grating as the flaws became more obvious), also means that while this book could in principle be a nice synthesis of these ideas for people unfamiliar with them, in practice the flaws seem to undercut the value of this book beyond simply reading similar individual articles & op-eds online as I did. It's an OK book, and in the interest of critical engagement with opposing views, I'd suggest that other people read it to form their own judgment, but with arguments that are often thinly sourced, internally hypocritical, and mutually contradictory, that engagement need not be particularly deep or sustained: the author tries so hard to convince people that he's not an old curmudgeon and that he legitimately wants people to understand how experts come to judgments on matters in their expertise, but his use of thinly sourced contradictory arguments makes his scolding less credible, especially when he scolds people for doing exactly those things.
The above paragraphs are my main criticisms of the book. Follow the jump to see a few more thoughts about the broader material at hand.

2018-01-22

Revisited: Linux Mint 18.3 "Sylvia" KDE

Main screen + KDE Main Menu
Long-time readers of the Linux distribution reviews on this blog know that I am a fan of Linux Mint, but I have had somewhat mixed experiences with KDE. When I've reviewed a new release of Linux Mint, I have occasionally reviewed its KDE edition in addition to its GNOME/MATE/Cinnamon and Xfce editions, generally finding that the KDE edition has too many minor bugs and not enough compelling features compared to the more mainstream editions. Apparently the Linux Mint developers feel similarly, as this is the last release of a KDE edition for Linux Mint; henceforth, they are only releasing MATE, Cinnamon, and Xfce editions for a tighter focus on GTK-based DEs and applications. With that in mind, I figured it was worth reviewing a KDE edition of Linux Mint one final time. I tested it on a live USB system made with the "dd" command. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

2018-01-15

Book Review: "I Contain Multitudes" by Ed Yong

I've recently read the book I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong. It is a very broad and reasonably (for a general-audience text) deep exposition of the history and recent work in microbiology and biochemistry, covering the multitude of ways that microbes originated, shaped, and continue to affect life on Earth. In particular, it covers the impact of microbes on diverse ecosystems from shallow coral reefs to island jungles, and frames analysis of human digestive and immune systems in terms of island ecosystems as well after accounting for the associated microbiomes. Its broad goal is to show just how essential microbial life is to other life (often with reference to how model animals can be bred to be sterile but consequently have health problems), to the extent that organisms cannot really be characterized to have the functions that give them their identity without their microbiomes.

This book is moderately long, but it is quite engaging and reads quickly. One of the things that I really liked about this book was that the author was careful to be nuanced about developments in the field, without dampening his obvious enthusiasm for the subject as a whole. Whether it was through descriptions of the scientific controversies over "hologenomes", accounts of the problems with probiotic dietary supplements in general consumer markets, or the subtle ways that different forms of symbiosis (mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism) exist on a sliding scale, blend into each other depending on context, and are almost always built on foundations of managed/tamed conflict & cheating (even in the case of mutualism, which is too often cast with Pollyanna-ish connotations), he didn't try to cover up such issues, yet that didn't detract from the overall narrative. One thing that did seem weird was that the author at various points cautioned against using militaristic imagery for describing the immune system given the complexities of the immune system microbiome, yet there are a few places where he falls into that trap anyway; it isn't clear whether this is by accident, or if this is an acknowledgment of how entrenched such imagery is in the popular imagination that there aren't any suitable alternatives for writing to a general audience. Another was that the author, at a few points, repeated a few sentences or a short passage at the beginning of a chapter nearly verbatim near its end, though I will say that because he didn't overdo this, it added to the narrative by underscoring key ideas rather than seeming like bad writing. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in science, nature, or human health.

2017-12-18

Book Review: "Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly

I've recently read the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. It weaves together the true stories of a few particular mathematicians, who happened to be black women (among a larger group of such female black mathematicians), who made extremely important contributions to the development of American warplanes in WWII and then spacecrafts during the 1950s and 1960s, including the crafts that took John Glenn to space and then the Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon. It highlights the skills of these women and their own personal lives, in conjunction with the broader social issues of that time.

The book is moderately long, but it is very well-written and engaging. I liked seeing the descriptions of these towns that flourished during the wartime years and the space race as bustling with life and energy, because with the trends of deindustrialization starting from a few decades ago, I haven't really been able to see descriptions such towns as much beyond shells of their former selves. This also ties in with the discussions of the military-industrial complex and how the formation of these towns during the wartime was a symptom of that phenomenon, which in turn meant that as wartime research facilities and organizations were often temporary, even if they hired black people, allowing them to economically advance to the middle class, those economic advancements became tenuous due to the temporary nature of such jobs, such that when the goal was met (whether it was winning the war or landing on the moon), those facilities would be closed and the employees there would be displaced with few, if any, alternatives available to them. Of course, pervading the book were descriptions of the explicit and implicit forms of institutionalized racism and sexism, whether at work in the form of barriers to career advancement or collegiality/free exchange of ideas, or in the context of daily life with respect to the civil rights movement, sit-ins, et cetera. Not only were those issues discussed in a broader context, but their impact on the specific protagonists of the book was detailed, showing how these women had to deal with so many struggles just to stay afloat while still trying to achieve the same goals to which any other family of any ethnicity would strive, namely, caring for spouses and children, putting food on the table, balancing work and family, and being able to raise children in a safe environment and educate them well; it really helped that the author so masterfully portrayed the mundanity of daily daily life for these women to show how stupid obstacles, like legalized segregation and institutionalized barriers to career advancement, could get in the way of the passion that these women had for STEM. It was also interesting to see that black communities like those in this book were acutely aware of how much more advanced the USSR and other communist countries were in terms of race and gender relations, and actively called out the US on its own failings in that regard (in the context of the US trying to ally with African and Asian countries that used to be European colonies), while these black women, despite being in the middle of such institutional bigotry, kept their heads held high and persevered in pursuit of their goals to contribute to STEM R&D. Related to that, it was also chilling to see how de facto segregation has persisted in education in many places through the US resulting in school facilities that in many poor places are no better than they were several decades ago, and also to see how many of the arguments for white parents sending their kids to private schools at that time were more explicitly about preserving racial segregation in education. Overall, I enjoyed this book thoroughly and would strongly recommend it to people for a clear and engaging account of how NASA and the social issues of the middle of the 20th century became intertwined.

2017-12-04

Book Review: "Narconomics" by Tom Wainwright

I've recently read the book Narconomics by Tom Wainwright. It's an exposition into the economics of Latin American drug cartels, looking at them as businesses rather than mysterious criminal entities. In particular, it considers the competition versus monopolistic/monopsonistic behavior on the demand- & supply-sides, issues of global operations and outsourcing, diversification in products, cartel hierarchies versus franchising, public relations versus employee incompetence, and so on. Of course, as the drugs discussed in this book are illegal for the most part, there are other issues of dealing with the police and the government, whether through hiding, bribery, or warfare, and with enforcing things like non-compete agreements and franchise territories through violent means in the absence of legal recognition (where a court system could otherwise peacefully mediate such disputes). The aim of this book is to step back from the emotionally charged rhetoric of the "war on drugs" by seeing them in terms similar to legitimate businesses, and in doing so defeat the scourges of the illegal drug trade in the long-run through economically-minded legislation rather than ineffective brute force.

The book is not too long, quite accessible, well-written, and engaging to anyone with a high school-level understanding of microeconomics and an interest in issues surrounding illegal drugs. There are a few issues I have with the book though. One is that while the focus is clearly on Latin America, I would have liked to see at least some parallel discussion about the flow of drugs from Central/South Asia (particularly Afghanistan) to Europe and the economics therein, as that is mentioned a few times without further details. Another is that the last numbered chapter discusses legalization exclusively in the context of marijuana/cannabis, even though there is a discussion about the much narrower margin between safe and fatal doses for other drugs (especially heroin) compared to cannabis, which then raises questions about whether the legalization of marijuana is really meant to be a model for legalization/regulation of other currently illegal harder drugs; the epilogue addresses this point adequately with more nuance, but the structure of the final chapter still seems subpar for that reason. Finally, my biggest issue regards the discussions of how the operations of drug cartels in Latin America are influenced by how they can compete with the governmental "monopoly" on force due to unresponsive, complicit, corrupt, or ineffectual governments, and how cartels can compete with other economic opportunities through wages, protection, and other benefits. In particular, my concern is that the book acknowledges how legalization of drugs often economically incentivizes supply-side consolidation (as being outlawed necessarily limits how large drug operations can grow before attracting government attention), but in conjunction with other trends like offshoring of drug production too, it isn't clear how people in poorer Central American countries will further benefit; while the reduction in violence that would almost surely accompany restricted legalization of drugs is certainly a laudable goal, it is unclear whether the resulting economic opportunities, given the continuing poor governance and paucity of other good economic opportunities there, will really work to better the lives of those people, or whether the situation will devolve into large drug companies bullying small countries as in the banana republics of several decades ago (as discussed in the book) or tobacco or fast food companies doing the same to such countries today. In light of that, while the suggestions made in the book for improving outcomes of drug policy do seem like they would certainly help to some extent, I can't help but feel that the title of the epilogue, that economists make the best police officers, smacks of hubris. Apart from those issues, I'd recommend this to anyone interested in the subject.

2017-11-29

Sexual Harassment, Power Dynamics, and Institutions

I've been thinking (read: armchair philosophizing without necessarily going into much depth) lately a bit about the notion of individuals shaping the interactions they have with other people versus the other way around, and the related notion of how individuals shape institutions versus the other way around. This idea has stuck in my mind especially in the context of sexual harassment committed by a professor against a student in my department (for a broad overview, see this article by Alanna Vagianos in HuffPost, and for a more detailed account, see this article by Allie Spensley in The Daily Princetonian; disclaimer: I know the student but not the professor), because of the complicated way that power imbalances between faculty and students intertwine with institutional tensions at large research universities like Princeton University. Follow the jump to see more blather from me about this.

2017-10-09

On the Nobel Prize for Gravitational Waves

This is a short post about the news from last week, that the Nobel Prize in Physics went to 3 of the founders of the LIGO project that first observed gravitational waves. I was quite happy to see the news, for several reasons. One of the PIs, Rainer Weiss, is an emeritus professor from MIT, so there was the alma mater pride factor there; plus, that professor, along with the two other co-laureates, are all quite old, and it would have been a real shame if they hadn't survived to be recognized by the Nobel Prize committee for this incredible work, so it really was time for them to be recognized as such. From an applied science perspective, the amount of high-precision science and engineering they had to do, building laser systems, mirrors, and large-scale interferometers to measure atomic-scale and smaller displacements where quantum effects are important, has been amazing and will undoubtedly influence future technological development in those areas, even as gravitational waves themselves are at energy scales that are far too small to be useful in the near future (though people used to say that about quantum mechanics, and then transistors came about, so it's always better to be open to the possibility, while being mindful that this particular possibility is more remote).

Mostly, though, I'm thrilled to see this discovery being recognized from the perspective of fundamental science. My research is in fluctuational electrodynamics, which means that I deal with the propagation and scattering of electromagnetic fields at small length scales as they originate from quantum or thermal fluctuating atomic or electronic sources. Thus, all I think about on a daily basis is really electromagnetic interactions (and occasionally quantum exchange effects). But then, most physicists, with the exception of high-energy physicists (who study very short-ranged weak & strong interactions anyway), tend to make use of electromagnetism almost exclusively in their research, especially on the experimental side, as any spectroscopy, interferometry, and so on, would necessarily involve the propagation and scattering of light. In fact, if I think about how humans sense the world around them, vision is of course electromagnetic in nature, but so are hearing (detection of pressure waves caused by scattering of atoms and molecules in the air via short-range electromagnetic repulsion from atoms and molecules in the ear) and touch (short-range electromagnetic forces between atoms and molecules on the skin and a given surface), while electrical signals travel through neurons in the body by virtue of electromagnetic forces. Thus, in the context of sensing and understanding the world around us through truly long-range interactions, gravitational waves are fundamentally different, and it's weird to think that the interaction that keeps us on this planet can also be used in such a different way (i.e. propagating waves) to get information about faraway astronomical objects that wouldn't be available through purely electromagnetic means.

2017-09-27

Starting as a TA

I figured I might post a short update on progress through my PhD. Through the summer and the start of the fall, I've been learning more about how to consistently incorporate molecular vibrations into descriptions of fluctuational phenomena, including van der Waals interactions and radiative heat transfer. It's been a very fun and interesting process, learning more about such fluctuational phenomena, revisiting and expanding on what I've learned in linear algebra and numerical analysis, and gaining a better understanding of the broader impacts that my work could have.
Also, two days ago marked my first day as a TA: I'm a TA for the graduate-level class ELE 511 — Quantum Mechanics with Applications. The discussions I've had with people during TA training and with the lecturer for this class, along with the preparation that I've had to do on my own and the questions that I've encountered from students so far, have really made me appreciate how much work it takes to prepare for teaching such classes and to be ready for students' questions, whatever they may be; plus, I've come to realize how annoying I must have been for TAs when I was a student, expecting them to be ready for literally any question, no matter how tangential to the material, and expecting them to be completely perfect in grading assignments, et cetera. To those TAs whose classes I took, I now have a better understanding of what your jobs were really like, and I thank you for putting up with me. I've enjoyed what I've been able to do so far as a TA, and I intend, with more time and practice, to become better at these variegated aspects of teaching as the semester progresses.

2017-08-14

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.

2017-08-07

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.