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.

2018-07-15

Featured Comments: Week of 2018 July 8

There was one post that got two comments (from the same commenter) this past week, so I'll repost both of those.

Review: Linux Mint 19 "Tara" MATE + Xfce + Cinnamon

An anonymous reader said, "Mate has been the best since it replaced gnome2. It scales better across different computers and has many parts that just work. One minor thing is to select the themes only in each of their parts. Controls/panel, window boarder and icons mainly. And to not use vetted parts. But there's so much to choose from and it's just looks. Just about anyway you want", later adding, "I meant don't use broken themes. That's all." (I have since replied with a comment clarifying all of those points.)

Thanks to that reader for those comments. I don't really have any other posts planned for the rest of this month, but I do hope to have a book review or something else for next month. In any case, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!

2018-07-09

Review: Linux Mint 19 "Tara" MATE + Xfce + Cinnamon

It has been some time since I last reviewed a Linux distribution. That is in large part because I've found that the Linux distribution landscape is not as dynamic as it once was, with fewer new distributions vying for market share, while older established distributions have simply continued to exist and develop. As a result, unless you readers have particular suggestions for distributions that I should review (as long as it can be done via a live USB) or a distribution particularly catches my eye, I will likely be sticking to reviewing Linux Mint each time a new release comes out, until and unless Linux Mint declines in quality so much that I need to start looking for new distributions.

MATE: Main Screen + Linux Mint Menu
This time, I'm reviewing the latest edition of Linux Mint, focusing on MATE to test the distribution and its applications as a whole, while more briefly touching upon the DE-specific experiences of Xfce and Cinnamon. I used the USB Image Writer tool on my installation of Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE to create the live USB system; based on the language used (e.g. "destroying" all data on the USB drive), I suspect this is just a nice graphical front-end to the "dd" command. Follow the jump to see what it's like; although 32-bit versions are available, I consistently tested the 64-bit versions.

2018-06-11

Book Review: "The Half Has Never Been Told" by Edward Baptist

I've recently been able to read the book The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist. It is a thorough account of the history of chattel slavery in the present-day US from the 17th century through the Civil War. The main point of the book is to challenge three common assumptions in prevailing historical narratives of slavery, namely that its incompatibilities with liberal democracy in the 1850s were points of universal agreement in the North at that time and drove the Civil War, that its worst aspects were its denial of civil liberties & rights to black people, and that it was bound to fail eventually for being an inefficient economic system. The author counters this, marshaling numerous statistics from that time and corroborating analyses too, to show that slavery was in fact an efficient and dynamic economic system that went hand-in-hand with capitalism and national expansion, and further uses the stories of individual slaves (often left out of conventional historical narratives) on top of the available statistics to show the violence and brutality inherent in slavery as extending far beyond the mere denial of rights (as that denial of rights remained even in the Jim Crow era succeeding slavery).

The facts are presented in a very straightforward manner, and the narrative structure is remarkably coherent and engaging; this makes the emotionally weight of the book all the more apparent. I was particularly surprised to see not just how much of financial speculation familiar to modern readers was present with respect to the products of slavery in the 19th century, but particularly to see that even the slicing and dicing of securities that was practiced on subprime mortgages leading up to the 2008 financial crisis & recession were practiced almost identically with securities representing fractions of average slave labor products in the 1830s (even leading to financial panics then too). Moreover, while I was abstractly aware of the lack of happy endings for most slaves and the conditions of enslavement that would prevent successful revolts or emancipation, the reality of this didn't truly hit me until reading this book, seeing so many stories of slaves whose histories were obscured after a final sale or flogging. It was also quite interesting (and depressing) to see just how much slavery and the desire to maintain unity across the country drove the national political & economic conversations right up until the Civil War, and how much the North economically depended on the products of slavery until they started getting many more immigrants and gaining political power in turn; that discussion really puts into perspective just how simple lies the narratives of the Civil War being "for states' rights" or "of Northern aggression" were. The content is of course depressing to read, but that only enhances its importance; I really believe that this should be taught in schools & colleges to remove a lot of the myths and misinformation about slavery that are promulgated in schools throughout the country, and for that reason, I certainly recommend this book to anyone (though one must be mentally prepared to read about the horrors described).

2018-05-07

Book Reviews: "An Introduction to the Thought of Karl Popper" by Roberta Corvi & "Philosophy and the Real World" by Bryan Magee

I've recently read two books about the life and philosophy of Karl Popper. One is An Introduction to the Thought of Karl Popper by Roberta Corvi (translated from Italian to English by Patrick Camiller, while the other is Philosophy and the Real World by Bryan Magee. Both have some similarities in form and structure. They are both relatively shorter books (under 200 pages, each in hardback form). They both devote a single chapter as an overview to Karl Popper's life, and then devote subsequent chapters to his philosophy of science, philosophy of politics, and the broader themes of his philosophy. Furthermore, they were both written during Popper's life, with some level of consultation with him.

As a layperson when it comes to philosophy, I found Corvi's book, which I read first, to be a bit of a struggle to understand. The prose used in the book is often unclear, and I especially found the first 30 pages to be so densely packed with jargon and assumed background on philosophy that I was tempted to put the book down at that point; thankfully, my persistence paid off, as I found the rest of the book to be progressively clearer. Additionally, there are some tonal shifts throughout the book that I found a bit odd; Corvi does not uniformly praise nor criticize Popper's philosophy, but while her criticism is generally clear, her praise merely restates his philosophy as if it were self-evident fact. I'm not sure if the abstruseness of Corvi's book is due to her own writing style and assumption of a more philosophically-educated audience, due to issues with the translation, or due to the translator's own deliberate choices in tackling the subject of Karl Popper. The book claims to be an accessible introduction to Popper's philosophy, but I'm not sure if that really means accessibility for lay readers (as opposed to philosophy students early in their careers).

By contrast, Magee's book, which I read second, has much more clear and accessible prose. In particular, there were a few misconceptions that I had about Popper's beliefs from Corvi's book that I felt Magee's book cleared up, such as the extent of Popper's rejection of Marxism and disdain for socialism as a political practice versus his belief in essentially social democratic ideals. This book is also shorter, and because Magee was a student of Popper, the narration of this book seems more self-consistent and intimate, reflecting Magee's emotional and ideological closeness to Popper, and it even includes a few points where he makes explicit mention of discussions with Popper; Corvi's book, in comparison, is much more dispassionate and disinterested. However, that intimacy in turn raises questions about the impartiality of Magee's narration. For example, Corvi spends a little time questioning the philosophical foundation of Popper's belief in indeterminism, while Magee completely sweeps this under the rug; this appears to be a broader trend, as Corvi does generally do a better job formulating her own and addressing other people's criticisms of Popper's philosophies.

Both of these books were written before or around the time of the end of the Cold War. This makes the political views espoused in the book somewhat dated; of course hindsight is 20/20, but that throws into especially stark relief the rather inductive nature of the arguments positing ever-increasing rationality and liberal democracy around the world. The arguments that the development of ideas, logic, technology, structures, and so on are indicative of human evolution seem similarly inductive, especially considering that these changes have happened over such shorter time scales compared to typical evolutionary changes observed in humans (over tens of thousands of years and more), and this may also be because understanding of evolution was less sophisticated at that time than it is now, though I'm not entirely sure of that considering that I'm not in the field of evolution. In any case, these books' ages show, and it isn't clear how much of the description of evolution and politics comes in each book from Popper himself versus each respective author's interpolation & interpretation; I'd be curious to see more modern books that address these recent issues. With these issues aside, overall, I think Corvi's book gives a fuller picture, but Magee's book is the clearer introduction for a philosophical layperson like myself.

2018-04-23

Book Review: "Hume" by James Harris

I've recently been able to read the book Hume: An Intellectual Biography by James Harris. This is an "intellectual biography" in the sense that rather than focusing on the particular details or daily life of the Scottish philosopher and essayist David Hume, it delves into his philosophy and writing in the context of what he read, the people with whom he corresponded, and the political history of the Great Britain in which he lived. This is extensively sourced from Hume's very brief autobiography, his more extensive works, and correspondence with and writings by other people; Hume's own will requested that his personal papers and unpublished works (apart from those he wished to see published posthumously) dating prior to the 5 years leading up to his death be destroyed, and this seems to have happened, and Hume's autobiography is far too brief and sparse to serve as the primary resource.

I am not in the humanities, so I come at this book as a layperson. This being an intellectual biography makes it a longer and weightier book than a biography that would focus on Hume's personality and daily life. Moreover, the author feels free to introduce contemporaries of Hume, often by last name only, without much more context to their own lives and thoughts. However, to the author's great credit, the prose is clear and engaging even to a layperson like myself, and the author takes care to outline the philosophies of Hume's contemporaries to the full extent that they relate to Hume's readings, correspondence, and overall philosophical development. Additionally, the author makes clear the historical and political circumstances surrounding Hume's life, so that even someone like myself without that background can reasonably follow.
The author's main goal in this work is to show how Hume approached all of his work and interests with an eye toward philosophical examination of the broad principles governing them, without trying to claim that all of Hume's work sprang from a single unified moral philosophy, nor that Hume turned away from moral philosophical treatises toward essays on politics and religion purely in pursuit of fame. The latter refutation is made clear enough by Hume's avowed disdain for histories that were written in a very superficial way purely for mass popularity. The former refutation comes out over the course of the book: the author points out, where appropriate, and respects Hume's own wishes that his essays be read as independent entities from each other and from his other work, and the author further seems (from my rudimentary perspective) to follow Hume's own moral philosophy of interpretation via human experience. It's clear that other philosophers will use their own perspectives to try to ascribe a broad unified philosophical foundation to all of Hume's work, but I think this author does a good job of making and justifying his overall goal in this biography. It is a fairly long book, but I think anyone who is interested in philosophy and is ready for a work that is a bit more densely packed with history and politics would enjoy this book. Follow the jump to see a few more musings that are not directly related to this book.