2019-04-22

Book Review: "Radical Markets" by Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl

I've recently read the book "Radical Markets" by Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl. I should disclose that I came to know of this book upon attending a talk and Q&A session on campus by the latter author about this book, and that I was able to ask a question during that time (though as I point out later, I didn't find the answer to be so satisfactory). In any case, the topic intrigued me. This book is essentially a vision for a radical reformation of society, starting in the West but ultimately spreading through the world, such that concentrations of power are systematically broken and a level playing field is quickly approached. The two key novel contributions of this work are the notion of a common ownership self-assessed tax (COST), which aims to revolutionize notions of ownership by abolishing property rights extending to perpetuity and replacing them with auctions for goods & capital, and quadratic voting (QV), which aims to replace the principle of one-person-one-vote with voting credits such that individuals can vote on issues or candidates (for or against) in proportion to their perceived importance while being prevented from unduly swinging elections. There are also other issues discussed, such as immigration, institutional investment, and the value of digital data, all in the context of concentrations of power. It is worth pointing out that though there are many arguments that extend to Canada, the UK, other European countries, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, most of the arguments are made in the context of the US.

I will leave a detailed critique after the jump, and summarize my thoughts here. I found the ideas presented in the book rather intriguing and certainly novel. However, the main flaw of the book in my view is that the authors too often like to present their ideas at a very broad conceptual (macroscopic) level while simultaneously presenting examples justifying these concepts at a very granular (microscopic) level. The missing elements are the granular implementations of their broad concepts as well as the implications of the granular examples interacting on a larger scale; as a result, particularly for the introduction of the COST ideas, the claims must be taken essentially on faith, as the authors are quite glib about the importance of implementation details to the overall path of society if their ideas were to be followed. Given this, there are many reasons to remain skeptical about these ideas. This is also evident in the writing style too, in that my need to reread parts of certain chapters multiple times, while in part because these ideas are certainly not trivial, was mostly because of these sorts of logical leaps to conclusions that were not obvious, and many times, these conclusions remained non-obvious even after multiple reads through; the writing is otherwise engaging and fun to read, but I could tell that the authors were at many points getting swept up in their own ideas at the expense of clarity for readers. Overall, I recommend this book because the ideas are intriguing and I do want to see these ideas fleshed out better, but I would not recommend this book in the sense of wanting to preach these ideas myself. Follow the jump to see more detailed discussion about this book.

2019-03-21

My Time at the 2019 APS March Meeting

This is a quick update from my trip to the 2019 APS March Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts at the beginning of March. I felt like my time overall was somewhat mixed, though positive on balance. On the negative side, my talk was lumped into a totally unrelated session on a Thursday afternoon, in which the talks weren't of interest to me and were generally not so well-delivered, the audience consisted almost entirely of the speakers who left after their own talks (and that included me after I saw what was happening, though I was grateful that some of my friends came for my talk), and the first talk which was supposed to be a 36 minute-long invited talk was canceled in the absence of the speaker, leading to a break during that time. Additionally, my advisor and I were busy preparing a paper unrelated to the work I would be presenting, and I've also been taking my time to figure out what I want to do after graduation, so I didn't prepare a schedule of talks to attend as well as I had in the previous two years. That said, on the positive side, I paced myself properly in attending talks, and I did appreciate having conversations with people from my department as well as people I knew in college about our work as well as future plans. I also had a lot of fun hanging out with friends from college as well as graduate school, and though I could have done a better job networking, I did try to reach out as much as I could. Finally, I had a great time skipping the last day of the conference and visiting MIT instead, where I got to catch up with professors from the physics department as well as other people whom I knew well in college (and met some people for the first time too); I felt like that was a far more useful & productive move. Next year, I hope to be able to present in a session more relevant to my current research interests, and to do a better job of tailoring my networking and session attendance to my future interests (which I hope will have solidified by then).

2019-02-18

Taking a Class After 3 Years of Full-Time Research

This spring semester, I'm taking a class; as the title explains, this is the first class I've taken in 3 years, during which time I've engaged in full-time research as a graduate student and have been a TA for 3 semesters. This class is in a very different field from my current area of research, as I'm exploring other fields for opportunities after graduation. After 2 weeks of class, I've been considering how taking a class now feels different than it did in high school, college, and the first two years of graduate school.

In high school and college, my main focus was on classes, and I wanted to make sure that I challenged myself as much as I felt I could and got good grades in those classes. This mentality stayed with me through the first two years of graduate school, which is why I felt like I could do pretty well in graduate classes but had a harder time initially finding my footing in research while I remained mentally so focused on classes above all else. I felt quite relieved when I finished my course requirements 3 years ago so that I could renew my focus on research. Since then, I do feel like I've been able to establish a pretty good track record with my research, and given that I'm approaching the end of the PhD program and want to explore other fields, I am comfortable taking this class with fresh eyes and without worrying about grades; in particular, I can really feel like I'm taking this class purely to satisfy my own curiosity and am willing to accept that I'll get out of it exactly what I put into it. Moreover, for the classes I took until 3 years ago, I was fairly engaged with the instructor during lectures, frequently asking questions whether for clarification or edification; now, especially because the others in my class are all undergraduate students, I feel more comfortable letting them take the reins with their own education, and will only ask questions about points that I feel need urgent clarification.

Having been a TA for 3 semesters, I now have a much greater appreciation for the amount of work even instructors whose lectures are of average quality have to do with respect to preparation and delivery of a lecture, fielding questions from students during and outside of class, and grading assignments. Concomitant with that, I especially appreciate the instructors from my past who were particularly good at clearly communicating concepts in the class to as many people in the class as possible in an engaging way, and realize that I was truly lucky to have had so many great class instructors in high school, college, and graduate school. At the same time, my patience for instructors who do a poor job is even less than it was before, because I feel like such instructors are in some sense neglecting the responsibilities to their students fundamental to their job; while I recognize that not everyone develops skills for or interest in teaching immediately, I would hope that such instructors at least put some effort into developing such skills knowing they are responsible for educating young citizens.

It'll be interesting to see how my thoughts on taking a class shift as the semester progresses, and how useful it ends up being with respect to my exploration of other fields. At the very least, I do hope to learn more about how to teach well (and how not to teach poorly) by applying what I've learned from being a TA to my observations of instruction in this class.

2019-01-07

Book Review: "The Evolution of Cooperation" by Robert Axelrod

I've recently read the book The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod. (Note: this is somewhat of a technical book, so I will dive right into the review with jargon, with more on this point at the end of the review.) It's a primer on results from that time showing how in an iterated prisoners' dilemma, tit-for-tat strategies are remarkably robust for their combination of simplicity, clarity, tendency toward cooperation and forgiveness, and prompt & effective retaliation when needed, and that such strategies can effectively propagate environments even where other strategies are in place, provided that those who play the tit-for-tat strategies can find & cluster around each other to interact often enough, and provided that the value each player places on the next round compared to a given round in an iterated game is not too small. The author also uses examples from trench warfare in World War I, biological evolution, and international trade policy to illustrate the seeming universality of the principles of the prisoners' dilemma and its iterated variant.

Although this book was written in the 1980s, making it a little dated in terms of the complexity of models that could be tested on computers and the formalism of game theory itself, it was great to see the author anticipate a lot of more recent developments by discussing the importance of clustering, stereotypes, reputation, regulations, et cetera. Additionally, while the author stresses that cooperation can take place even among egotistical (non-altruistic) or antagonistic individuals in the absence of central authority, the author does take care to convey the nuance that this is not always a good thing per se, rather than taking the utopic view of libertarian philosophy; such cooperation is detrimental to the public at large in situations like economic collusion in an oligopoly, while the incentives to cooperate or not change such that government (or other societal) intervention is needed to do things like collect taxes & deter evaders to fund public goods, correct historical (and present) racist marginalization of minority groups, mediating conflicts among heterogeneous populations in large cities, et cetera. It was also cool for me to understand that any iterated game where the players are unsure of when the game will end but others controlling the game know it will end after a finite number of rounds can be rewritten as a similar game where the players believe the repetition will be infinite but with a different discount factor. My only minor complaints are that while the author does acknowledge that changing parameters of a social interaction can change the prisoners' dilemma into a different sort of game altogether, it would have been nice to see a more nuanced discussion of the degree to which the prisoners' dilemma is really a universal feature of human interactions as opposed to being culture-specific, given its seeming universality in other domains, and that the author rather glibly claims that sequential versus simultaneous play by players in each round of an iterated prisoners' dilemma doesn't make much of a difference, which I find suspicious in the absence of further explanation/context in the book itself. Overall, I enjoyed reading this and could read it quickly because of my minor in economics in college & interest in the subjects of economics, game theory, and network science, so it may be appropriate to others with similar interests & backgrounds as myself; it is a fairly technical book, so it may not be appropriate to general readers without this background, while specialists in the fields of evolution, game theory, or complexity science may find this book to be too dated.

2018-12-03

Second Laptop: ASUS ZenBook UX331UN

I was hoping that a post from when I got my first laptop, an ASUS U30JC, would provide a template for how to review my new, second laptop. Sadly, that post was from over 8 years ago, when this blog was just a year old, I had not yet started college, and my writing was much worse. With that in mind, I now provide a review of my new laptop; this review will be by no means a thorough review of hardware, but will be more of a summary of my experiences installing Linux on it and using it for around a month.

A few months ago, I noticed that part of the plastic frame around the screen of my old laptop, along with the hinge below it, had partially detached. A little over a month ago, that detachment had become much more noticeable, to the point of becoming a liability for me: the laptop would no longer close properly (without me risking breaking it altogether), so I would not be able to take it anywhere outside. Up until that point, I had experienced no major hardware issues with that laptop, and only minor issues such as the optical drive occasionally being unresponsive; I could tell that it was struggling a little more with newer software, but on the whole, it was performing quite well, so while I had from time to time over the last couple of years been looking casually into replacing it, this sudden development forced the issue. Given my disability, I wanted something a bit more lightweight, because my old laptop was 4.5 pounds, which was a bit heavy for me; that said, I still wanted something that would offer a reasonable amount of computational power, and while I didn't anticipate requiring a high-performance graphics card for gaming as I am not a serious gamer, I figured there may be some casual games as well as the possibility of getting into GPU programming for my work for which I may want a reasonable dedicated graphics card. Luckily, I found the ASUS ZenBook UX331UN, which seemed on paper to fit the bill on all counts, and I found only a few left in stock online for a reasonable price (just over $1000), so I went ahead and bought one. Follow the jump to read more.

2018-11-19

My Time at the 2018 SHPE Convention

About 4 weeks ago, I got an email asking me to help Princeton University's School of Engineering & Applied Science (SEAS, of which my department, the Department of Electrical Engineering, is a constituent) recruit undergraduate students attending the 2018 Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) Convention to apply for graduate school in SEAS; that convention happened the previous weekend in Cleveland, Ohio. I first thought it was a little strange that I should get this email, given that it was somewhat short notice and especially given that I am not Hispanic nor have I done anything with SHPE in the past. However, after clarifying these details, I decided to go, because I do care about increasing representation of people from marginalized & underrepresented backgrounds in graduate education & academia, especially given my disability (as disability is just another aspect of diversity and too often leads to societal marginalization).
I had a lot of fun at the convention. I went with our SEAS diversity chair, a postdoctoral researcher in my department, and 13 undergraduate students; the former two people and I were there primarily to recruit, while the undergraduate students were there for their own benefit to meet corporate or academic recruiters and learn about (and hopefully secure) positions after graduation. It was definitely nice to see so many enthusiastic undergraduate students from all over the country coming with so many questions about graduate school, and I enjoyed getting to know those in my travel group more, such that I didn't feel left out even though I was essentially the only one among them who hadn't previously done anything with SHPE. There were some events that may have been more relevant to me that I missed due to the travel schedule, and I didn't find that many companies of interest to me when I explored the giant career fair (the focal point of the convention) on my own, but I did take solace in finding a few. Plus, it was nice to get out of Princeton and briefly explore a city that I hadn't really seen before (barring a short trip when I was very young, which I barely remember). Overall, I'm glad I went, and hope to have similar opportunities in the future.

2018-10-01

FOLLOW-UP: Sexual Harassment, Power Dynamics, and Institutions

Last year, I wrote a post motivated by a case of sexual harassment and assault committed by a professor in my department against a student in his group. The incidents happened in the spring of last year, but the news about the incidents and the nominal punishment only came at the end of the year. Since then, there have been further developments, as described in this article (by Marcia Brown in The Daily Princetonian), so I am writing this post as a follow-up regarding the specific developments of this case and our department's response, even as my post last year was my attempt at exploring the broader issues at stake. Essentially, Princeton University had reason early this year to investigate further claims of past consensual relationships between that same professor and other direct professional dependents (students & postdoctoral associates), and suspended him for the spring semester and summer as they conducted their investigation. The university concluded the investigation with findings of guilt on his part of having engaged in at least one such consensual relationship, and as that is a violation of university rules, he was fired. Follow the jump to read more about my thoughts regarding this; as mentioned above, compared to my previous post on this subject, this post will have more of my raw emotional reaction to this whole process and to the specifics of this case rather than a more measured take on the broader issues at stake.

2018-09-17

Book Review: "Medici Money" by Tim Parks

I've recently read the book Medici Money by Tim Parks. It's a book that covers the rise, consolidation of money and power, and downfall of the Medici banking family in Florence in the 15th century. It focuses on the main players in the Medici family as they relate to their banking business, and how that business grew, became intertwined in politics & religion, and was able to fund the collection & creation of artworks and other cultural artifacts; the whole story is just a long power play, with jockeying between Medici family members, popes & cardinals, politicians, and competing nobility & business interests.

The book itself is a well-written, engaging, fun jaunt through that period in history; by the fact that it only has a casual section at the end containing bibliographic notes, without having a formal bibliography, footnotes, or endnotes, I can tell this was written for popular rather than technical/academic consumption, which I can appreciate. It was particularly interesting to see the tensions, contradictions, and hypocrisies of the Catholic Church's views on usury (in the old sense of lending money at any nonzero interest rate) explored fully in this book: the argument is that usury allowed ordinary people to become wealthy without needing to inherit it or work as hard, upending the social order, while the Catholic Church depended on usury to fund its own wars & extravagant lifestyles even as it condemned the practice (though even people at that time struggled to find coherent Biblical justifications for injunctions against usury), leading to weird debates about whether some commercial practices like speculation on currency exchanges were really usury in disguise. My only quibble is that the author ties the notion of usury too much to currency: the way I see it, currency simply liquefies commercial value across space (i.e. making value available across different geographic areas), while usury liquefies commercial value across time (i.e. making value available to future buyers), so while currency certainly makes usury much more feasible by combining liquidity in space and time, it is conceivable to imagine usury without currency, simply through bonds between people expecting greater future returns to be settled through consensual barter. Overall, I think this book could be an interesting and fun history for a general audience.

2018-08-06

Book Review: "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn

I've recently read the book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. This is a classic treatise from 1962 expounding Kuhn's view of scientific progress not as cumulative and incremental but instead as comprising paradigms in each field and discipline which drive most scientific research while being subjected to drastic changes from time to time; this is the book that popularized the notions of scientific paradigms and shifts therein. It starts with a description of what "normal science" (in the sense of science comprising and being driven by existing paradigms) is, defining the notion of a "paradigm" in the context of science, and how people do science in that framework. It then moves onto the notion of a scientific crisis, and shows how that may or may not develop into a fully-fledged scientific revolution. Finally, it shows how new paradigms may take root and how scientific revolution may ultimately be resolved in one way or another.

While Kuhn did not perform serious sociological research for this treatise (though the book seemed to me like an informal sociological review of the scientific community at large), and while he later in life turned his attention more to fundamental questions of scientific philosophy, he was a historian of science and identified most strongly as that; I feel this may have helped shape this book into something far more clear and engaging for a layperson like myself than what I may have expected from a book about the philosophy of science, as the book is chock-full of relevant and easy to understand references to the history of science (though it may also have helped that Kuhn, having been a theoretical physicist before becoming a historian of science, focused almost exclusively on the historical development of theoretical frameworks in the physical sciences). Moreover, because this was meant as an extended essay, this book is not particularly long, though it is reasonably well-referenced with illuminating footnotes too; in fact, the chapters are called sections, as would befit an essay/treatise. One question to which I kept returning through the book was about how to distinguish between discoveries that answer open questions within a paradigm versus those which more fundamentally threaten the existence of such an established paradigm; Kuhn masterfully addresses the various aspects of this question in a clear progression over the course of the book, to the extent that I almost felt like he was speaking directly to me in order to answer my questions as I read the book. I do have a few criticisms of the book, though these should themselves be taken with a grain of salt and subjected to criticism too, as I am a layperson in the context of the philosophy of science; follow the jump to read those. Beyond that, though, I think this is a really interesting and valuable perspective on the practice of science at the level of groups/communities, and would be useful for anyone interested in how the sausage of science is made, discarded, and remade.

2018-08-01

Third Paper: "Phonon-Polariton Mediated Thermal Radiation and Heat Transfer among Molecules and Macroscopic Bodies: Nonlocal Electromagnetic Response at Mesoscopic Scales"

My third paper has been published! It is in volume 121, issue 4 of Physical Review Letters, and an older preprint of it is available too for those who don't have access to academic journals (it has all of the same figures and ideas, though it is missing a few sentences of further explanation as well as a couple of new citations that were inserted for the final publication). As with my previous papers, in the interest of explaining these ideas in a way that is easy to understand, I am using the ten hundred most used words in English (except for the two lines that came before this one), as put together from the XKCD Simple Writer. I will use numbers sometimes without completely writing them out, use words for certain names of things without explaining further, and explain less used words when they come up. Keep reading to see what comes next.

In the paper that came before this one, I looked at how to do a better job of figuring out the van der Waals (vdW) forces, which are the forces that let geckos (small animals with hard skin over which your finger can slip easily) stick to anything no matter what it is made of, between molecules, which are the little things that make up most of the stuff we see and are in turn made of smaller things called atoms. I tried to figure out how these forces look at distances where the fact that molecules are made of atoms is important, but if those molecules are near much larger bodies, the fact that the larger bodies are made of atoms and molecules should be less important; it turns out that at those distances, how fast light goes matters a lot, and using ways to figure out these forces exactly instead of using easier ways to figure out those forces makes a big change in what those forces are. That paper was able to show how to bring together all of these different ideas from considering large and small bodies in a single way where none of those ideas can be ignored. That would be important when considering new kinds of molecules like graphene, which is made of a lot of carbon atoms in a thin sheet, or really long molecules like DNA or those found in foods, when those molecules are near larger bodies that we make.

This paper looks at the same sorts of molecules, but not at vdW forces anymore. Instead, in this paper, I look at how heat (through light) goes between different molecules, especially when they are near larger bodies. For that, I need to do a better job of considering how molecules can make changes on each other through light, and that means that I need to better consider how the full atoms within molecules move toward and away from each other in a way that repeats itself. By doing that, I can now show how heat through light goes between different molecules, whether they are close together or far away from each other. When people considered heat going through light between larger bodies, they found that the heat would keep growing as the bodies came closer together, and that growing wouldn't stop; from knowing how things work every day, we know that once bodies come close enough, they touch each other, and the growing stops at some point. In this paper, I've shown that when molecules come close together, the heat grows for a while, but if they come close enough, that growing does stop, so I've been able to show what distance we can say two molecules touch each other, so that heat going between molecules happens through them touching instead of through light. This is really important for things like graphene, which are used as part of things used for making power from the sun by getting its light and heat, and also for making new things that can become part of computers made of really small things like molecules that work because of heat going between different parts.