Featured Comments: Week of 2021 August 8

There was one post that got one comments this past week, so I'll repost that.

Some Recent Troubles with pCloud and Google Chat

Commenter pCloud said, "Hi, thank you for taking the time to write your concerns. If you need assistance or to discuss any of the points with pCloud's representative, please contact support@pcloud.com". (The link going to the official pCloud site tells me that this is an official employee of pCloud. This would not surprise me, because regardless of pCloud's actual customer service quality, it does aggressively post on blogs and social media sites in response to customer complaints.)

Thanks to that employee for commenting, though I ask that pCloud employees, if they see this post, not comment on it as there is no need. I don't have any other posts planned for this month. In any case, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!


Some Recent Troubles with pCloud and Google Chat

Originally, I was going to write a post just about my experiences with pCloud, following up on a recent post in which I wrote of wanting a secure cloud storage service that preserves data privacy and concluded that pCloud is the best option for my needs. Since then, Google forced me to migrate from Google Hangouts to the new Google Chat, so I decided to write about experiences with both of those in a single post. Note that this isn't a full review of either product, as I haven't explored either one in great depth. This is just a short write-up of my experiences using each product to satisfy my needs. Furthermore, in the interest of my own privacy, I won't be posting any screenshots.


I have been using pCloud for the last 1.5 months. In that time, I have experienced a few benefits but significantly more concerning problems. The benefits are that the zero-knowledge encryption service seems trustworthy (to someone like me who has some technical knowledge but no specific expertise with encryption), the integration with Linux Mint seems reasonably good as it is possible to open both the standard and zero-knowledge encrypted folders using desktop file managers, the web interface makes sharing links with others easy, and it is cheap. Before I list the problems, I should note that I've only tried pCloud for my own purposes on my laptop that has Linux Mint 20 "Ulyana" MATE installed. Therefore, it isn't clear whether the problems are specific to this setup.

The problems are as follows.

  1. For folders protected by standard encryption, some folders don't transfer properly and may require multiple attempts to transfer, whether using the desktop file manager or the web interface. It may take a few sessions to figure out which folders didn't transfer properly. (It may also be possible that pCloud, having the encryption keys, is secretly deleting folders. This would be extremely troubling, but I haven't paid close enough attention to know whether a folder didn't transfer properly or whether it did but was later deleted.)
  2. File transfers are very slow, because while some transfers can go up to 20 MB per second (which is reasonable given that I have an Internet connection that allows for up to 100 MB per second in each direction), most file transfers are only around 1 MB per second. Any transfer that involves copying thousands of small files & folders especially seems to create a bottleneck and slow things down further. For this reason, it took me many hours over several days to transfer hundreds of gigabytes of files to pCloud.
  3. The web interface doesn't allow for uploading folders as such (only file contents within an existing folder).
  4. When transferring to folders protected by zero-knowledge encryption, timeouts occur unpredictably and require encrypting and again decrypting those folders. Additionally, such transfers have unpredictably but on multiple occasions (though certainly not on every occasion) caused the desktop to freeze.

These problems are troubling enough that I wouldn't recommend pCloud to others, despite the fact that it is one of the few secure cloud storage providers that protects data privacy (at least with zero-knowledge encryption) and ostensibly gives Linux users the same benefits as users of other operating systems. I'm a patient person and I've spent enough money on this, so I'm willing to put more time into making this work. However, if these problems keep occurring regularly or if I see even worse problems like evidence of pCloud deleting files that were uploaded without zero-knowledge encryption, I will likely switch to Tresorit and keep looking for other alternatives too.

Google Chat

Without even getting into the particular issues with Google Chat, I'd like to express how strange it is that Google seems to change its messaging platform around once every 4-5 years. It feels like Google thinks it has to catch up to other services or like Google really doesn't care about its messaging platform.

Having said that, there are benefits and problems with Google Chat. I do appreciate that it has migrated my previous conversations from Google Hangouts. Additionally, many of the features, like document sharing within conversations, seem pretty nifty. However, there are two big problems that I have with the design of Google Chat along with its companion program Google Meet.

  1. The version of Google Chat that is integrated into Gmail is missing quite a few features compared to the way that Google Hangouts was integrated into Gmail, like seeing contacts who are online (as opposed to only seeing previous conversation threads, which is a problem because before, I could have a chance of seeing someone pop online that I haven't talked to in a while and would therefore get the idea of reaching out to that person, whereas now, seeing only recent messages self-reinforces a narrowing group of conversations). The separate Google Chat website at least has the date or time of the most recent message in a thread (whereas the version of Google Chat integrated into Gmail lacks even this) but does not have the aforementioned feature of seeing contacts who are online.
  2. Splitting voice or video calls out of Google Hangouts and into Google Meet is problematic because Google Meet lacks the immediacy of a Google Hangouts call: when a call is placed on Google Hangouts, the website or app will immediately ring for all recipients, whereas when a Google Meet link is created, the sender must wait for recipients to react to a single beep indicating a new message containing the link.

I think I can get used to Google Chat and Google Meet soon enough. If nothing else, perhaps it is an ironic consolation that I won't have to deal with it so much because the group of people that I keep in touch with over Google Hangouts (and now Google Chat) has significantly narrowed over the years (as I now keep in touch with most people through platforms other than Facebook products or Google Chat).


Twelfth Paper: "Near-field radiative heat transfer in many-body systems"

My twelfth paper has been published! It is in volume 93, issue 2 of Reviews of Modern Physics, and an older preprint of it is available too for those who don't have access to academic journals (it is identical in content and only differs in formatting). Unlike my previous blog posts about published papers that I have written, this one will not strictly use the thousand most common words in English. This is because unlike my previous papers, which put forth novel ideas advancing the field of nanophotonics, this is a review paper that gives a broad historical scientific overview of the subject, namely, the flow of heat through light (i.e. electromagnetic (EM) fields) between objects that are typically separated by less than 1 micron (approximately 1% of the width of a typical human hair). It goes over work that other scientists have done theoretically and experimentally in this subject, and this paper in particular is divided into two main sections.

The first section, to which my PhD advisor & I made most of our contributions, is about the flow of heat via EM fields between just 2 objects. Relevant issues include choices of materials (mainly metals/conductors versus insulators), choices of shapes for objects, advances in experimental measurement techniques, advances in computational simulation techniques, and derivations of upper limits to the flow of heat via EM fields between 2 objects (mostly referring to my previous 2 papers that were the subject of the following linked blog post).

The second section, which constitutes the bulk of the paper, is about the flow of heat via EM fields among more than 2 objects. Relevant issues include changes in temperature over time in objects that are very small compared to their separations, the fact that the heat flow among more than 2 objects involves very complicated interactions among them, the fact that material properties could depend on temperature so there could be many possible sets of object temperatures where heat flows but temperatures don't change, heat flow via EM fields over distances longer than 1 micron, applications of heat flow via EM fields to microscopy techniques, heat flow via EM fields in materials that can be attracted to permanent magnets, and applications of heat flow via EM fields to engineer new devices.


Book Review: "Speak Freely" by Keith E. Whittington

I've recently read the book Speak Freely by Keith E. Whittington, but it has been sitting on my bookshelf for nearly 3 years. This is not a book that I chose for myself, nor is it one that someone to whom I'm close chose for me. Instead, this book is one that the Princeton University president Christopher L. Eisgruber chose for the then-incoming undergraduate class of 2022 as well as all other students, staff, and faculty to read. This in itself was typical; examples include the book Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele, which I have reviewed here, and the book Our Declaration by Danielle Allen, which I have reviewed here. Less typical for this book was the fact that the president personally ordered that physical copies be sent to every student (including graduate students, which included me at that time), staff, and faculty; it was commonly understood that the president is a personal friend of the author, who is a professor of constitutional law in Princeton University, and did this as a favor. Furthermore, there was a lot of chatter about this book in the middle of 2018 when this book was mailed to all students, staff, and faculty, just because so many people read it. In such a university with students & faculty who have very progressive (in the US context) political views, a conservative defense of unpopular free speech on university campuses, as expected, was seen as controversial. Personally, a few of my friends did read it and recommended that I not read it because it would be a waste of my time. I admit that these occurrences may have prejudiced my view of this book to some degree, but I genuinely tried to read & understand this book as fairly as possible. Follow the jump to see more.


Manually Creating a Rudimentary Searchable Image Tagging System

This post is the third in a series of three posts about some changes I have been making in my personal life with respect to how I interact with online social media platforms. When I published the second post in this series, I was on the lookout for secure privacy-respecting cloud storage services. As of this post, I still haven't committed to a specific service. One of my requirements has been that the service should allow me to share certain files or folders securely with others. Unfortunately, unless I use a service like Google Drive which has just as little respect for data privacy as Facebook does, it isn't clear how I can easily tag images with details about people, location, and other comments in a way that I or others can easily search. My proposed solution, involving BASH scripts, is far from perfect, it is very much a work in progress, and it is arguably somewhat specific to my particular situation. Follow the jump to see more details.


Looking for Secure Cloud Storage that Respects Data Privacy

This post is the second in a series of three posts about some changes I have been making in my personal life with respect to how I interact with online social media platforms, and how that affects this blog. When I published the first post in this series, I had completely deleted the Facebook and Twitter pages associated with this blog, and I mentioned that I was on the lookout for a secure cloud storage site that respects data privacy (which meant options like Google Drive, Dropbox, or Flickr were not going to satisfy my desires). Since then, I have conducted almost all of my frequent conversations on platforms not owned by Facebook, and I have been in the process of conducting all other infrequent conversations away from Facebook platforms too. However, I have still been on the lookout for such a secure cloud storage site that would also allow me to securely share files, especially pictures, with others, without compromising the privacy of my data. This post goes over some information that I have compiled over different potential candidate services. This is not a review, because I have not actually tested any of these services yet. Follow the jump to see more about each candidate and where I lean.


Shifting Away from Social Media Platforms

This post is the first in a series of three posts about some changes I have been making in my personal life with respect to how I interact with online social media platforms, and how that affects this blog. The points most relevant to this blog are as follows. This blog used to have associated Facebook & Twitter accounts, and I used to share each new post on my own personal Facebook timeline to encourage others to read it. While I'm aware that a few contacts on Facebook did read my & share recent blog posts, there weren't many. Meanwhile, looking back at the Facebook & Twitter accounts associated with this blog, almost no new readership came from those, so I didn't feel too badly about deleting those accounts (after deleting each individual post), especially because the synchronization of new posts from this blog being automatically shared to its associated Facebook page didn't work for the first few months that I tried it (over 10 years ago), and then I stopped caring about that Facebook page afterwards. Furthermore, I added a lot of tools to connect this blog to social media sites over 10 years ago, when I, being in high school and then in the first & second years of college, had more time on my hands & had high hopes for this blog becoming popular online (especially in the domain of Linux distribution reviews); for the last several years, I have had neither the time nor the interest to continue pursuing such popularity contests, and I'm almost certain that I won't feel inclined toward such things again, so I have no problem with removing those connectivity features. I know there are still some widgets built into each post or page on this blog which are connected to different social media sites for easier sharing of posts, and I should remove those eventually, but simply as a practical matter (with respect to my own time), I'm less concerned about removing those right away. In the meantime, I think it is still possible to get updates about this blog via email, RSS, or Atom. Follow the jump to see why I have taken these steps for my blog and am currently undertaking similar steps with my personal presence on social media platforms owned by Facebook or Twitter.


Copyright, Police Interactions, Transparency, and Corporate Dependence

When I started this blog when I was in high school, I was quite interested (at least at a superficial level) in issues of technology law, including the abuse of copyright & patent laws. (This is an example of such a post on this blog from 12 years ago, when my maturity & writing skills were far less than they are now.) Since then, my interests have shifted a lot, so I don't follow news stories about technology law abuses as much as I did in high school or college, I certainly don't post about these issues so often, and I'd like to think my reactions on this blog are a bit more carefully considered now than they were 12 years ago. That said, as far as my older interests go, I saw a story on the website Vice, by Dexter Thomas, about how a few police officers in Beverly Hills, California, have been found to have played copyrighted music from their phones loudly when they believe they are being filmed by an ordinary person. Essentially, those particular police officers have depended on zealous copyright enforcement algorithms on social media & video sharing platforms like Instagram & YouTube to ensure that any ordinary person who tries to post a video on such a popular corporate platform will have that video automatically removed due to copyright violations. If the police officer deliberately chooses to interact with the person recording while the song is playing, that means that even if the person recording decides to mute that section of the audio before uploading, the audio from that interaction will be removed one way or another. Additionally, on many sites, if the person uploading such videos ends up doing this multiple times, that person can be blocked temporarily or permanently from uploading videos in the future.

On the one hand, my beliefs about police behavior & copyright law are such that this behavior disappoints me on both fronts (as I believe this is a gross abuse of the spirit of copyright law and of trust in police officers), but on the other hand, I can't help but appreciate the ingenuity of this "solution" to the "problem" of being recorded. Additionally, it is worth noting that the main instance of this happening as described in this story is in a police station, where it can be argued that police departments could rightfully enforce rules against using cell phones; that said, the story also mentions other instances of this happening in outdoor public spaces. In any case, beyond these issues, this story has raised several broader questions in my mind, which I list below, and which I do not intend to be merely rhetorical.

  1. Would police officers be fined for broadcasting such music as a "public performance" in an unauthorized way?
  2. Should this motivate an alliance between groups aiming to reform police departments & groups aiming to reform copyright laws?
  3. Should this motivate greater use of the site Wikileaks or other existing sites, or creation of a similar site, as a well-known not-for-profit repository to document police abuses (instead of relying on for-profit platforms that might zealously enforce copyright laws)?
  4. What should be the mechanism for determining which videos of police officers get publicized, in order to ensure that trivial misunderstandings don't get blown out of proportion at the expense of the livelihood of the police officer?

There are certainly many other questions that could be asked about this issue going forward. In any case, it is unfortunate that enforcement of copyright laws is being twisted in this way, but it will be interesting to see how similar cases develop in the future.


My Time at the 2021 TRB Annual Meeting

This is a quick update from my attendance of the 2021 Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting. The conference was held in a fully online format, and as a result, events were spread over the entire month, with the first & second weeks being filled with committee meetings, and the third & fourth weeks being filled with research presentations & workshops. This was my first time attending this particular conference, and it was my first time attending a conference of this size in the field of transportation since switching into this field. That said, I knew going in that certain aspects, like networking, might feel less satisfying compared to what they would have been if this conference had happened in person in normal circumstances.

I really enjoyed the committee meeting about the transportation needs of people with disabilities, and the later presentation session about the same subject, as those are among my primary research topics right now. I also really enjoyed the workshop about the history & future of road pricing, precisely because that topic is only tangentially related to my research interests, so it was fun to think about these issues that I wouldn't normally think about. Plus, in all of those sessions, I was able to meet people and expand my professional network to some degree.

Of course, the networking aspect fell far short of what I would have expected for normal circumstances, but that wasn't too surprising. More disappointing was that the last week of this conference was plagued by technical difficulties that led to me missing several sessions that I wanted to attend. In particular, the website was designed quite badly, as it often didn't load correctly, and when it did load, it was often quite difficult to navigate to the desired sessions (as it was set up to "mimic" the "spatial layout" of a convention center). Furthermore, although setting up poster sessions as a series of chat rooms may have seemed like a good idea at first, it ended up being quite frustrating to use in practice (when it worked at all), so I felt rather discouraged from signing up for further sessions.

Overall, I'm glad to have attended the committee meetings, and while I generally enjoyed the research presentation sessions that I did attend, I was rather frustrated by how this conference was rife with technical difficulties. I hope this will be a lesson for future online conferences, and I hope too that progress with vaccines against this coronavirus will mean that in-person conferences can return soon enough. (Please note that I have no expertise in epidemiology, virology, or vaccine development, so I cannot claim to prognosticate on this matter.)

Unrelated to this, please note that the public Facebook & Twitter pages for this blog have been deleted. This is because of my unhappiness with those companies' recent actions and my desire to migrate away from those platforms. Of course, this blog will continue to be published here until further notice, and it is still possible to sign up for an email subscription for new posts on this blog.


Book Review: "These Truths" by Jill Lepore

I find it appropriate that to close a year that has been marked by personal highs & lows and by so much national political tumult, despair, and existential questioning, I should read the book These Truths by Jill Lepore. This is a book that I got as a birthday gift from my family within 12 months of the publication of this book, but I didn't get around to reading it until these winter holidays because I didn't want my busy schedule at work to lead me to start reading it and never finish, and because in truth I was intimidated by its length & subject matter to start it during the summer (even though I had a lot of time before starting my new job in the fall). As discussed in the preface, the book aims to be a comprehensive political history of the US, starting with the explorations & conquests by Christopher Columbus and then moving mostly chronologically forward from there, and frames this history with the overarching question of the extent to which the US has lived up to its founding ideals over the centuries. The author makes clear that the focus on political history, in conjunction of the length of the book, will require lessening focus from military & cultural history, but I felt that aspects of military & cultural history were adequately covered to support the main arguments, and I didn't feel like I missed those things so much. The author puts forth the ideal that history should be a form of inquiry that goes beyond record-keeping and her hope to be neither blindly praising nor blindly disparaging of the US, while acknowledging that her prioritization of available written records will bias the discussion toward the narrative told by people in power.

The book is rather long, spanning more than 800 pages (in the original hardbound edition) from the preface through 16 chapters and the epilogue. However, as this book is for laypeople as opposed to scholars (the latter exemplified by the book The Invention of Science by David Wootton, which I have reviewed here), the font is a little larger and has generous spacing, making it easier to read. Furthermore, the content of the writing itself flows smoothly, and this is a very engaging read. Thus, I was able to finish the book faster than I originally anticipated. Also, I initially wondered whether such a long book would be useful, because I usually like to seriously grapple with the ideas presented in a book like this, and I envisioned that every page of this book would be so chock-full of ideas that it would be too long; however, as I came to see that the narrative was a bit more fast-paced as opposed to dense, my concerns were allayed.

As I have understood, the main points of this book are as follows. In the opening statement of the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal", there have been endless debates about who "we" are and to which "men" these "truths" should apply. The questions about "we" and "men" have been seen from the beginning through the conflicts about slavery and about the treatment of indigenous tribes, immigrants, and women, and in disputes since then. The questions about "truths" have been seen relatively more recently, since the 1890s, with the rise of political consultants who aim to shape public opinion to their own ends even if such actions lead to divisions that destabilize the country and lead to rejections of notions of objectivity; the author makes this point clear, drawing a straight line from the political consultants of the 1890s to the pollsters of the 1930s to the misguided idealistic computational social scientists of the 1960s to the cynical conservative political strategists of the 1970s to the conservative media personalities of the 1990s to companies like Facebook in the 2010s. Initially, I thought these points could have been made in a better way to form a more coherent narrative through the book. However, I am now more convinced by the book that further reduction of these ideas into a narrative that seems too neat would do a disservice to the complexity and dynamism of US history.

Although the author aims to stay ideologically neutral, it is clear that she writes from a more liberal perspective. This is of course obvious from the central thesis, framing issues of race, gender, and class as central to understanding US history, but it also becomes clear at various points through the text in which the author decries liberal electoral losses or things like that. While the author doesn't hesitate to criticize liberals for hyperbolically overreacting to certain conservative beliefs or public figures or for going so deep into identity politics as to reject the very notion of objectivity, the author's criticism of conservative politicians since the 1950s is more pointed, explicitly casting many such politicians & movement leaders as acting cynically even though many liberal politicians, movement leaders, and political consultants have acted in similarly hypocritical & cynical ways (giving the example of how many consultants for the Obama campaign have been hypocritical in their denunciations of Republican corruption & profit); perhaps it is true that since the 1960s, conservative politicians, movement leaders, and political consultants have behaved more cynically (in frequency and intensity) than their liberal counterparts, and I certainly learned a lot about how extensive Nixon's cynicism was, how early he developed such cynical instincts, and how much it influenced the Republican Party after his presidency, but I would still have preferred to see explicit characterizations as appropriate of certain liberal political actions as cynical. At the same time, the author's moderate stance on racial issues, decrying the ways that conservatives in the 1980s denounced "welfare queens" and the epidemic of police brutality against black people that only became broadly visible beyond black people in the 2010s while also decrying the ways that liberals sanctimoniously call conservatives racist buffoons and the splitting of racial justice movements into racial factionalism via identity politics, liberal stance on gender issues, decrying the ways that women were stymied by men in power in the quest for equality while also looking skeptically upon women who wanted to be free from male society altogether, and apparently progressive stance on economic issues, looking for real antitrust action as well as welfare, seems to align in many ways with my views; I don't know if that is due to real alignment or if that is because people of different political persuasions can feel like they align with the author, because the latter would be an act of genius on the part of the author, and in any case, it all adds up to a striking criticism of liberal politics from the 1950s onward (and especially in the 1990s).

This book illustrates how US history rhymes, even if it doesn't repeat exactly. I found myself surprised at many junctures to see how even in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so many of the debates about the nature of facts, polling, partisanship, economic inequality, civil rights, and things like that are echoed in current affairs. For example, I was surprised to see how so many court cases involving the Fourteenth Amendment in the 1870s involved questions about the extent to which corporations can legally be considered to be persons, and to see how the Republican Party of the 1880s supported trickle-down theories of economics (using almost the same terminology). In this way, there were a lot of things that I learned about US history that reaffirmed my view that arguments based on history must go beyond the last 7 decades and must properly contextualize the circumstances of the last 7 decades within the full 244 years of this country's history. Plus, the author seems to have written this book in a way that makes clear to laypeople with even a passing interest in current affairs how so many past events resemble current affairs. With respect to the point about proper contextualization, the author also does a good job of avoiding common traps of simplistic conventional wisdom. For example, the author clearly shows how the supposed consensus from people watching the same TV news sources in the 1950s & 1960s was an artifact of the Cold War and of lack of racial & ideological diversity, because the first decade of the Cold War largely forced both major political parties to become essentially indistinguishable, preserved a status quo in which positions of power in politics & the media would be held by old white men, and thereby ensured in practice that any deviation from these norms would be implicitly censored. However, the author isn't perfect in this regard, and I think the author's lapses in this way could have been solved by more explicitly connecting discussions of later events to previous discussions in the book of earlier events. Using the same example as before, the author contrasts the partisan media fragmentation of the cable TV environment of the 1990s with the unified network TV environment of the 1950s but fails to connect this with the earlier discussion of why the supposed consensus of the 1950s was actually artificial to a large degree.

There are some bigger problems that I have with this book given its central thesis, and these are all about what the book doesn't discuss in sufficient detail. First, the book doesn't properly discuss the electoral college of relevance to electing the president. There are mentions of electoral shenanigans in the elections of 1796, 1800, 1876, 2000, and 2016, but given how the author clearly shows the expansion of the president's powers and the growing dysfunction of the political system at the federal level in the US, I think there should have been much more discussion of when, why, and how the electoral college shifted from an meaningful body of electors selected by state legislators to a winner-take-all (except in Maine & Nebraska) accounting of the presidential winner & congressional representation in each state. Second, there isn't much mention of Native American affairs following the ratification of the Constitution, nor of the systems of government by Native American tribes before then. Perhaps it can be argued that Native American systems of government didn't really inform and therefore weren't really relevant to the system of government laid out in the US Constitution, or that Native American affairs weren't central to US political disputes after that because those tribes' populations were already so small after the genocides & pandemics committed by & following Christopher Columbus, but this should have been made clearer. Perhaps the relatively small number of extant written records by Native Americans influenced the author's focus, as the author herself admitted could be a possible source of bias, but if the author anticipated that, then she should have consulted other Native American sources too as is evident from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in DC. Third, there could have been a much more thorough discussion of race in the context of immigration from Europe, treatment of Native Americans, and slavery: I've already read about many of these subtleties in the book The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist (which I have reviewed here), and read on Wikipedia about how even Native Americans owned black slaves, so I think at least a bit more discussion of these issues would have greatly strengthened the central thesis of this book.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book, and I learned a lot about US history from it, even as I felt that it reinforced some of the facts that I already learned as well as some of the views that I already held. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has even a passing interest in current affairs & US history.