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.


A Reminder about Remote White-Collar Work and Loss during this Pandemic

As always, please note that I have no expertise in public health, and please follow relevant guidelines from public health officials regarding this pandemic.

This is a short post about the effects of this pandemic on white-collar workers, although the needs of essential blue-collar & service workers during this pandemic should not be ignored either. Over the last several months, I have read many op-eds about how the huge shift to remote work for white-collar jobs may or may not last after this pandemic, and on the whole, those op-eds basically saw this shift as a giant social experiment to see how well people could work in white-collar jobs when physically separated from each other, with very little mention of the broader context of this pandemic (beyond narrow questions of hygiene & safety in offices). It was tempting for me to think about this pandemic in such abstract terms too. However, I recently experienced a death in my family due to this coronavirus, and especially as I was very close to that person, it reminded me of a more basic fact, as follows.

This coronavirus is killing many people, and it is irreparably damaging the health of many others; in turn, it is severely damaging the mental (and in some cases physical) well-being of people whose loved ones are directly affected. Thus, white-collar workers aren't simply working from home in a giant social experiment; many of them are dealing with these tragedies among their relatives & friends. Given this, even though it might be tempting for employers, managers, and supervisors to think that workers are accustomed to the situation, I hope that many of them start (if they haven't done so thus far) or continue to be empathetic to the problems that many of their workers face outside of work, giving those workers time & space as appropriate to deal with those problems; of course, many white-collar workers had to deal with caregiving responsibilities as well as illnesses among family members & friends before this pandemic, but this pandemic has drastically increased the number of such people dealing with such problems at any given time, the magnitude of such problems, and the uncertain course of such problems (as the disease itself has such an uncertain course).


Book Review: "The Drunkard's Walk" by Leonard Mlodinow

I've recently reread the book The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, which is a book about many ways that probabilistic phenomena occur in daily life and what the consequences are for understanding individual & collective decisions. I say "reread" because the first time I read it was in high school (as I recall, although I don't remember exactly when, though I did mention it in a review for a different book, saying then that I didn't finish it because I didn't find it as engaging as the book in that review); a few days ago, I happened to see it on top a stack of books, and I figured it would be nice to reread for a few reasons. First, I have learned a lot of science, and my worldview has developed & matured a lot, since I was in high school, so I thought it would be good to see how this book would hold up in my view in that context. Second, I figured it would be nice to read a book about probabilistic phenomena, as it wasn't something that I had to worry much about in my college studies or in my PhD work (which is a little ironic, given that van der Waals forces and radiative heat transfer are phenomena of statistical thermodynamic fluctuations, but it turns out that certain mathematical formulations hide all essential randomness), it will be relevant to my postdoctoral work as I get more into travel surveys with associated statistical analysis, concepts like base rate fallacies are relevant for things like false positive result rates for tests associated with this coronavirus (please note that I am not a public health expert, and please consult governmental public health agencies for guidance with respect to this ongoing pandemic), and I've been thinking over the last several months about how many of the conceptual quandaries associated with quantum mechanics can actually be tied to questions of whether probability is emergent versus fundamental.

The book is not too long, and it is a quick & engaging read. The author uses many interesting examples to motivate the discussion of fallacious reasoning in the context of probability as well as ways that probability enters daily life even in areas where people expect more determinism. There are also many interesting historical anecdotes about the development of probability theory, especially how ancient Greece and certain medieval European societies believed that any discussion of uncertainty would go against their conceptions of a pure & deterministic universe (whatever the prime mover might be). Also, in the tenth chapter, there is an interesting discussion of how the development of chaos theory itself is an example of the unpredictable & seemingly random nature of human life (though I didn't like the conflation of chaos theory itself with probability, as chaos is a separate mathematical phenomena that can emerge in purely deterministic systems). Additionally, in the tenth chapter, I appreciated how the author is careful to state that determinism is a bad model only of human behavior (at individual & societal levels) and makes no claim about the applicability of determinism to the universe at large, and how the author makes a call for humility and for rewarding people based on their character instead of perpetuating beliefs that people who are successful are wholly responsible for their successes while people who are in marginalized circumstances are somehow rightfully being punished for past mistakes. Overall, I think the book does a good job of achieving its purpose of illustrating to lay readers how ubiquitous probabilistic phenomena are in even seemingly deterministic aspects of daily life.

Before getting into other criticisms, I should point out that my copy of this book has several printing errors (mostly missing words) and a few typographical errors, but these occurred maybe once every 10 pages (based on an instinctive guess), so these therefore didn't affect my understanding of the book. Also, the author errs in claiming that Germanic rule in the Dark Ages (commonly understood to be the medieval period) preceded the ancient Roman civilization, but this again doesn't undercut the overall argument.

Where this book falls short is in fulfilling its purpose of diving deeper into the implications of such randomness for human behavior at individual and societal levels; the author's sloppy treatment of human behavior is a recurring problem throughout the book. In particular, there are a few related broad issues that come up at various points through the book. The first is the question of how to reconcile the apparent randomness of daily events (including the phenomenon of regression to the mean) believed to be deterministic with the real phenomena of collective self-fulfilling prophecies (including emergent segregation of social groups to reinforce outcomes that are believed to be deterministic even if they are not, thereby reinforcing determinism in itself). The second is the treatment of things like superstitions as examples of self-fulfilling prophecies, even if the superstitions have no effects in their contents but may change mindsets enough to change outcomes. The author doesn't do a good job of addressing many of these issues throughout the book, and only partially acknowledges the power of self-fulfilling prophecies at the end of the book (in the tenth chapter); the author makes it seem like a slow & methodical build-up to a satisfying conclusion, but frankly, the discussion of these issues could have been a lot more clear & concise and could have come much sooner in the book. The discussion of superstition in particular is rife with condescension, as the author never acknowledges how superstitions may change mindsets & lead to self-fulfilling prophecies but instead summarily dismisses them as silly relics mostly of a bygone era, reinforced by statements about how science and religion were irreparably separated with the trial of Galileo with no nuanced discussion of how religious beliefs (even if not organized religious institutions per se, to the extent that was the case before Galileo) played a role in motivating scientific discoveries even after Galileo. Another example is how the author glibly dismisses many claims of clusters of environmentally-caused cancer; it may well be true that some cases are due to biased statistical analysis after the fact, but it doesn't really address why inequitable outcomes seem to occur so frequently in this context, and it doesn't do justice to the gravity of the problem. (UPDATE: I recognize that my argument against the author's treatment of the incidence of environmentally-caused cancer can easily be dismissed as an overly emotional reaction that is not justified by the statistics, so it is worth clarifying that further. My concern is that the statistical arguments that claim that environmentally-caused cancer is not really a problem, and that those who claim it is a problem only do so by drawing arbitrary boundaries after the fact to inflate apparent concentrations of carcinogens in specific areas, may themselves be riven with the same sorts of bias that are perpetuated in situations like machine learning determining the provision of health care, but are cast in a way that seems "neutral" and therefore "superior" to "emotionally-driven" arguments.) Furthermore, although there is discussion of both the failures of superficial statistical arguments in favor of DNA testing in the criminal justice system and of the way that Bayesian analysis can systematically codify learning of new information in terms of probabilities, there is little discussion of how these issues can combine in toxic ways to perpetuate existing societal biases under the veneer of formal Bayesian analysis (as occurs with machine learning now); I admit that I wouldn't have been thinking about this as much had I not read and reviewed the book Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil, but similar examples were already available at the time that the book that I review in this post was being written. I really see an essential condescension and a lack of humility throughout the book in these discussions of human behavior, masked by the pithy & irreverent writing, that are at odds with the author's own calls for humility & deeper understanding.

There are other aspects of human behavior that this book fails to adequately capture; these may technically be beyond the scope of this book, but I think they are worth noting anyway, as they speak to larger problems with the ability of people (even those well-trained in STEM fields) to really understand probability theory. The second chapter goes over many examples of how, in the technical language of probability, given events \( A \) and \( B \), certain questions can be framed such that laypeople and professional specialists (particularly doctors & lawyers) fall into the trap of believing that \( \operatorname{Pr}(A \cap B) > \operatorname{Pr}(A) \) even though the opposite is mathematically always true. However, I can already see that the phrasing of many of those questions, particularly the way that events \( A \) & \( B \) are juxtaposed (especially if \( B \) is additional information that may be relevant to the assessment of \( A \)), may make people believe either that what should be interpreted as \( \operatorname{Pr}(A) \) is actually \( \operatorname{Pr}(A \cap \neg B) \), in which case \( \operatorname{Pr}(A \cap B) > \operatorname{Pr}(A \cap \neg B) \) could in fact be true, or that what should be interpreted as \( \operatorname{Pr}(A \cap B) \) is actually the conditional probability \( \operatorname{Pr}(A|B) \), in which case \( \operatorname{Pr}(A|B) > \operatorname{Pr}(A) \) could in fact be true. This speaks more to the way that natural human language is unsuited to the subtleties of the language of probability theory, yet rather than address these possibilities, the author again leaves the discussion there, implying disdain for people who are too stupid to know better. Another problem is that throughout the book, the author raises the question of how to determine whether a particular sequence of observations of outcomes for a process that may be random reflects a specific probability distribution model, but never clearly explains how to do this in practice, instead only giving hints about this through various examples. This is related to the question of why one may prefer an explanation based on probabilities than based on deterministic phenomena, particularly for small sample sizes. For this, I will give an example. Consider exactly 5 observations of an event, which has binary outcomes (either success or failure), for which no other observations are made, and for which in all of those 5 observations, success occurs every single time. Intuitively, laypeople might be inclined to believe that there is a deterministic cause of this, while if a probability theorist were to initially believe that this is consistent with a binomial distribution with \( (N, p) = (5, 0.6) \) but then later revise this to \( (N, p) = (5, 0.99) \), laypeople could reasonably wonder why this would be justified, and why the probability theorist refuses to believe in the possibility of some deterministic causal relationship. Of course, this is a contrived example, I understand why causation needs to be proved as an alternative to a null hypothesis, and I understand that probability distributions closer to uniform probabilities are favored as those that maximize entropy (which essentially means that subject to certain known constraints, the probability distribution that best reflects the state of ignorance about a system is closest to uniform), but the author does not properly explain these points. Finally, the broadest problem with this book is that the author only superficially acknowledges the issue that if every calculation in probability theory or statistics, whether of a certain event happening, a string of events being a true "hot streak", or a model fitting data correctly, is itself a probability, then the aforementioned disconnect of this language of probability from natural human language makes it difficult to translate probabilities into robust rules for deterministic (usually binary) decisions that laypeople must make; this is related to the idea that in game theory, a single person playing a single-shot game cannot play a mixed strategy, and the concept of a mixed strategy only makes sense in the context of observing a large ensemble of independent players, possibly playing repeatedly. Perhaps asking the author to address this problem is too much, but I still feel like such failures diminish the book in comparison to its hype.

Without hyping my own credentials, I admit that it is possible that my reaction to this book is more of a reflection of my greater experience with STEM, humanities, and social science fields and with science education/communication compared to when I was in high school. Furthermore, just as this book exhorts, I cannot be overcome by either positivity bias or negativity bias; it would only be fair to take the good & bad parts of this book together as appropriate, without believing that one outdoes or cancels the other. Given this, I can't really make a strong recommendation that readers should or should not read this book.


Ongoing problems connecting a Canon CanoScan 4400F scanner to Linux Mint

This post is about the experiences I've had connecting a Canon CanoScan 4400F scanner to various computers, primarily focusing on my current laptop which, as of the time of first writing this post, ran Linux Mint 19 "Tara" MATE along with Microsoft Windows 10. For context, I am hoping to scan some of my personal & work notebooks for personal archival. I figured that this scanner, which I've had for a long time, does a good job at rendering images, even though it is quite old & slow, so I should continue using it for as long as it continues to work.

I used to use this scanner regularly with my previous laptop, which is an ASUS U30Jc and, when I last ran it regularly, ran Linux Mint 18.3 "Sylvia" along with Microsoft Windows 7; initially when I connected the scanner to the old laptop (a few years ago), it didn't work with Linux Mint out-of-the-box, so I decided to do all scans in Microsoft Windows and then transfer files between partitions later. I stopped using that laptop approximately 2 years ago, and since then until the beginning of this month, it just sat in a box gathering dust. At the beginning of this month, desirous of using this scanner again for the aforementioned purposes, I brought out the old laptop & scanner, but found out that in the intervening 2 years, the damage to the laptop's screen & hinge had worsened, the battery had completely died due to no charging in that time, and the laptop (on either OS) would randomly overheat & shut off. At this point, I now believe that old laptop should be junked.

My current laptop is an ASUS ZenBook UX331UN. I didn't think the scanner would work with it, because it uses USB 1.1, and I remember having trouble getting this laptop to read an older USB device. Just for the heck of it, I decided to connect the scanner to see what happens. Just as with my old laptop, in Linux Mint, the Simple Scan application didn't find any connected scanners. However, I had the idea to run the command "sudo simple-scan" from the terminal. That showed that the scanner was in fact being recognized, so this was probably a permission problem; I also realized that the earlier problem with another old USB device was specific to that device and not a general issue with this laptop reading any older USB device. That said, when I tried to scan a document, I got a window showing the error "Failed to scan: Unable to connect to scanner". Follow the jump to see more.


Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Papers

My eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh papers have been published! These require subscriptions to read, so here are alternate links to older preprints for the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh papers, respectively (which have most of the same content, with some minor changes to explanations, citations, and figures relative to the published versions). 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. While these papers aren't as closely related to each other as the previous three, there are enough relations that I'm putting them together in a single post. These papers need a lot more math (note: "math" isn't one of the ten hundred words) than the papers before, and because they need a lot of thinking to get, I actually won't say as much about them.

On another note, this is a milestone for me because these are the last papers from my PhD in which I was a leading author. I still have one more review paper left to be published, but as that has been submitted to the journal and as I'm not the leading author, I don't really need to worry about that at this point. (Of course, once that is published, I will write a blog post summarizing it, though as it is a review paper, that summary will probably be quite short.) Thus, I am truly done with the work from my PhD, and can fully shift my mindset away from physics toward thinking about problems in transportation policy, as I will do in my postdoctoral research at UC Davis.


Book Review: "The Worldly Philosophers" by Robert L. Heilbroner

I've recently read the book The Worldly Philosophers by Robert L. Heilbroner; this was a book that I got from a friend who moved away a few years ago, but never got around to reading until now. This book is essentially a survey of the lives & works of famous philosophers whose works & thoughts had fundamental impacts on the development of economics as a field, and who considered the general problems faced by & ultimate evolution of society to be within the purview of their grand theories. The preface gives some background regarding the writing of this book, the first chapter explains how economic philosophy can be especially dangerous as it has arguably much more immediate relevance to human society but much less rigorous testability than natural sciences, the second chapter explains why economics as a distinct discipline did not emerge until societal change in Europe (and its colonies in North America) had led to a state where the interconnections of goods, services, and money pervaded all aspects of life even for ordinary people (i.e. going far beyond the raising of stocks & bonds for the large colonial corporations like the Dutch East India Company, which had to deal with financial instruments only at the level of the national interest), the eleventh (final) chapter recapitulates the ideas of the book and explains that there may be no further grand theorists of "worldly philosophy" because the apparent inability of capitalism to effectively regulate itself (in the author's view, at the time of the publication of this edition in 1986) would mean all further development would have to come more from active political decisionmaking, and each chapter in between catalogs the lives & works of famous "worldly philosophers". A key feature of this book is that the historical context of each of these philosophers' lives is made clear, such that the development of those philosophies can be read as essentially a natural consequence of those circumstances; as examples, the optimism of Adam Smith is seen as coming from his observation of improved standards of living arising from the proliferation of many small factories, while the pessimism of Thomas Malthus & David Ricardo came from their observations of growing numbers of people living in abject poverty and in unsafe & overcrowded conditions without their living standards seeming to improve as a whole.

The book is written in a very engaging, accessible, and clear way. The details of the philosophers' lives make for a more interesting read, and they sometimes (though not always) even add further context for understanding how the mindsets behind their philosophies. Moreover, the author's contextualization of each philosophy in its historical place & time is combined with clear explanations of the more generally applicable features of those philosophies, so that it becomes clear whether certain aspects of some philosophies that are dependent on the historical contexts leading to their development might suggest that applying those philosophies today may be problematic. This is also combined with cogent & clear critical analysis of those philosophies in the present context by the author, as appropriate; perhaps there could have been a little more critical analysis of some of the assumptions of Karl Marx, and I felt like the author made John Maynard Keynes's analysis of the emergence of economic recessions from savings gluts seem unduly different from prior ideas that economic recessions are essentially mass panics, but these are ultimately minor points. (As "present" means 34 years ago, some of those analyses & predictions have obviously not aged well, but in fairness, I cannot hold that against the author, because none of those analyses suggest an arrogance on the part of the author in claiming that nothing of those analyses would change 34 years later.)

The explanations of the various philosophies aren't extremely deep, but they are deep enough to give readers an appreciation for their contexts & differences and to encourage readers to learn more. For instance, I was struck by realizing how similar my thoughts about economic policy are to those of John Stuart Mill, so I've been inspired to read more by & about him. As another example, I always felt too intimidated to read about Karl Marx, due to the high likelihood that what I would find online would be too inflammatory/partisan (as he is revered among socialists & communists and reviled among many other groups, especially in the US given the country's historically strong anticommunist stance); while I may be biased in my sensibilities from growing up in the US, I thought the author did a good job of treating Marx & his work in an evenhanded way, explicitly stating that Marx should be thought of as neither saint nor demon, and the same should be true of his work. I also thought that by the end of the book, the reasons for the author's choices of which philosophers to highlight became quite clear. For example, I wondered why Henry George wasn't discussed in a full chapter but only in a part, but then the author made clear that this is partly because Henry George's singular focus on land rents was overly narrow & simplified, and because Henry George, like other heterodox economists in the 19th century, was too uncritically revered by those who wanted to think about the deep implications of economics for society (as opposed to the narrow focuses on mathematical formalism & description of equilibrium that had come into favor among establishment orthodox economists at that time); the author's criticisms helped to solidify some of the instinctive reservations that I had but couldn't quite articulate about Henry George's claims that taxing only land & rents would solve everything, as it seemed intuitively appealing yet weirdly incomplete. As another example, I felt like the chapter on Joseph Schumpeter didn't seem to suggest any great impact that would justify his inclusion along with John Maynard Keynes or other philosophers, but the following (final) chapter made clear that the real novelty of Schumpeter's analysis was in predicting an end state for business owners/capitalists that was notably different from their beginning state, and using this to argue for socialism as an end state to capitalism for completely different reasons than what Marx argued. Perhaps it could be argued that the contributions of John von Neumann & John Nash to game theory merited further discussion, given the important application of game theory to international politics (particularly nuclear deterrence in the Cold War), but a counterargument would be that unlike those discussed in this book, they did not set forth grand economic philosophies describing society as a whole, nor did they broadly set out to describe the evolution or endpoint of capitalism.

Overall, I rather enjoyed reading this book. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in starting to learn about economic philosophies, as the engaging storytelling helps to leaven the philosophical parts that may seem drier to some readers.


Classical Phase Space Densities for One or a Few Particles

This is the first time in several years that I've done a post about physics that didn't have to do with my research. This came about from thinking about applying techniques in statistical physics to game theory; although I still have a lot more to learn about that and need to do more to flesh out those ideas, it occurred to me in the process that I never had such a good intuition for the phase space density in classical mechanics, and notes that I've found online focus almost exclusively on the phase space density of a large number of particles in an explicitly statistical treatment. I intend to use this post to shed light on why this may be the case, help build intuition for how things like the Liouville equation work for simple systems of one or a few particles, and reinforce the notion that there is no classical analogue to the phenomenon of a multi-particle entangled quantum state yielding a mixed single-particle state under a partial trace. Follow the jump to see more.


Book Review: "The Social Contract" by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Now that I have been able to properly enjoy the summer, having essentially finished my PhD work, I've recently read the book The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (translated from French to English by Willmoore Kendall); this was a book that I got from a friend who moved away a few years ago, but never got around to reading until now. This is one of the classic texts of political philosophy from the European Enlightenment era, and came before many of the seminal events of world history, including the American & French Revolutions and the European colonization & subsequent independence of much of Asia, Africa, Australia, and South America. The author provides his own refutations of many of the arguments for hereditary monarchy and instead forcefully argues for a legislature, separate from the executive, that is conducted as a direct democracy, even while acknowledging that different circumstances for different states may suggest different forms & sizes for the executive. The book includes many examples from ancient & medieval European history, and while much of the discussion of cultures outside of Europe seems antiquated or racist to modern eyes, I imagine it was typical of its time & place.

It was really interesting to see such broad imagination of democratic & republican societies before they came to be in Europe & North America. However, the book itself is not an easy read: it basically feels like a polemical political treatise written in the terse style of the textbooks by the physicists Landau & Lifshitz, in which every definition and proposition must be carefully parsed & understood individually and also as part of a broader whole. The arguments are built up slowly, so patience is required too; frequently, I found myself wondering how the author could fail to acknowledge certain seemingly-elementary rebuttals to his arguments, only to find such acknowledgments after several pages. Originally, I thought the translator's introduction about how to read the book were basically excuses meant to cover for bad writing, but as I read through more of the book, I came to appreciate it more.

There are a few comments that I have about the contents. The first is that it isn't clear to me how citizens, in the author's view, are supposed to resume the exercise of natural rights, which have been pooled into the sovereign & redistributed as civil rights, when the social contract is thought to be violated, especially as it also isn't clear to me how to distinguish a violation of the social contract from an individual's unhappiness with the general will going against that individual's private will. Related to this, it isn't clear to me how a citizen, acting to debate & make laws for the sovereign to further the general will, is supposed to act completely separately, as a sort of Jekyll/Hyde situation, from that person's thoughts as an individual, because the execution of laws furthering the general will may affect that individual and others perhaps not particularly naming those people but naming a certain group affiliation, and it becomes hard then to define the general will in that context. The second is that so many of the author's arguments regarding the formation of a new state seem to depend on their being a full vacuum of power beforehand, with only the barest acknowledgment that new societies & nations don't emerge from a vacuum; to be fair, many of the great upheavals that figure prominently in my imagination regarding this point came after the publication of this book, but enough had happened which the author mentioned that this sparing treatment of the issue seems odd. I also have some more minor comments, namely that I'm not sure if the author's specific claims about the intertwined nature of politics & religion in ancient societies would be validated by modern scholarship, and the author's claims about there being no "true" Christian soldiers seems to rely too much on a no-true-Scotsman fallacy.

I would certainly need to reread this book carefully to better appreciate it, and perhaps that could address at least some of my comments. In any case, I'd only recommend this book to people with a serious deeply-rooted interest in political philosophy, who can appreciate the book and the context of its time & place, as opposed to novices like myself.


Reflection: My Graduate Experiences at Princeton University

Please note: there will be mentions of the current global public health crisis in this post. I have no background in medicine, public health, or closely-related fields. Please consult public health agencies and other governmental agencies for guidance regarding responses to this crisis, and please consult actual professionals as appropriate for individual problems in this context.

This post is the third in a series of three posts about the end of my time as a PhD student in Princeton University (in this post henceforth referred to simply as "the university" when there is no ambiguity). As a write this, I have successfully defended my PhD thesis! Furthermore, I will officially be graduating this coming weekend. This post follows the first, which was meant as a reflection of the events of this public health crisis that led to my premature physical departure from the university campus combined with a paean to the friends I made over the course of 6 years in the PhD program, and the second, which explained the experiences & thought processes that led to my decision to change careers from research in physics to transportation policy. This post is a broader reflection of my time and experiences at the university, with all of its ups and downs, and a message of gratitude toward the people in the university and elsewhere who meant so much to me during my time in the program; a lot of it is taken from the acknowledgments in my thesis, though for privacy reasons, I won't be giving explicit names. Additionally, there will undoubtedly be many comparisons over the course of this post to my undergraduate experiences at MIT, for which I wrote a post around the time of graduation 6 years ago. Follow the jump to see more.


Reflection: Starting a Shift to a New Career in Transportation Policy

This post is the second in a series of three posts about the end of my time as a PhD student in Princeton University (in this post henceforth referred to simply as "the university"). As a write this, I am still technically a PhD student enrolled full-time in the university, working on topics in nanophotonics & fluctuational electromagnetics. Next fall (assuming the current public health crisis abates to an extent that it is safe for me to do so — please note that I am not a public health expert or epidemiologist, so I am not making predictions in this regard), however, I will start a postdoctoral research position in the University of California Davis analyzing transportation policy, with a particular eye toward the effects of such current & future policies on the mobility and resulting socioeconomic opportunities for those who have been marginalized by current transportation systems, including people who are poor or have disabilities (like myself). This is a fairly drastic, and arguably surprising, change of career; I have told many friends and relatives about this, but not all of them, so I'd like to use this space to explain my thought process over the years leading up to this decision. Follow the jump to see more.


Reflection: A Week of Downward-Spiraling Public Health News Culminating in Unexpected Adjustments

Please note: this is about the current widespread disease outbreak that is dominating the news. I will not mention the name of this disease or other common words used to describe its spread, because for good reason, popular search engines are cracking down on articles and videos other than those from official public health agencies and related well-established organizations to stop the spread of misinformation. I have no background in epidemiology or public health. This post is merely my musings about the last week, and the implications for my near-future plans. Please consult public health agencies and other governmental agencies for guidance regarding responses to this crisis.

This post is the first in a series of three posts about the end of my time as a PhD student in Princeton University (in this post henceforth referred to simply as "the university"). As a write this, I am still technically a PhD student enrolled full-time in the university. The second and third posts will be somewhat more traditional reflections for the end of my time, but this first one has been precipitated by the current public health crisis. Follow the jump to see more; it is effectively a chronological history of the developments of this crisis from my very narrow perspective, and my own (in hindsight, arguably delusional) reactions to these developments.


Book Review: "Michael Polanyi" by Mark T. Mitchell

I've recently read the book Michael Polanyi by Mark T. Mitchell. (As an aside, it may be worth noting that some listings of this book carry the subtitle The Art of Knowing, but the usage of this subtitle within the copy of the book I got was inconsistent.) The book gives a relatively brief summary of the life and times of the physical chemist-turned-economist/philosopher Michael Polanyi in the first chapter, and then goes into a little more detail about his philosophies on economics, politics, science, morality, knowledge, religion, and other things in the second through fourth chapters, concluding in the fifth chapter with a comparison of his philosophical views to those of his contemporaries along with a little discussion about the implications of Polanyi's views for the present day.

The book is fairly short, well-written, and engaging even for a layperson like myself. The overview of Polanyi's life is quite interesting, and as I am considering the next steps for my own career (more on that in a future post), I was particularly taken by the story of Polanyi's career change so late in life. The discussion of his philosophy avoids unexplained jargon and very heavy technical arguments, instead clearly laying things out in simple terms & examples, and I was surprised (mainly as I was previously unacquainted with Polanyi's work per se, even though I have already read works about some of the people who influenced him and whom he may have influenced) to see myself having come to similar conclusions as Polanyi even before reading this book. With respect to the latter point, though, I do have a few criticisms, which are attributable in parts to Polanyi or to the author of this book. For one, the appeals to common sense & simple examples lead to the situation where the defense of Polanyi's theory of tacit knowledge against charges of subjectivism or circularity (i.e. begging the question) isn't necessarily as tightly constructed or satisfying as possible; some of this comes from Polanyi's own quotes, while the remainder comes from the author (who seems to agree with and follow Polanyi's philosophy). For another, some of Polanyi's defenses of Christianity and critiques of evolutionary theory, with respect to their implications for constructing meaning out of human existence, aren't clear as to how broadly they should be applied in his more general framework, and it isn't clear whether this very opacity is in itself the fault of Polanyi versus the author of this book. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a nontechnical clear read about a sometimes-overlooked figure in Western philosophy of the 20th century. Follow the jump to read more detailed summaries per chapter and about my thoughts regarding the book as well as Polanyi's philosophy (warning: it may be quite roughly organized).


Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Papers

My fifth, sixth, and seventh papers have been published! These require subscriptions to read, so here are alternate links to older preprints for the fifth, sixth, and seventh papers, respectively (which have most of the same content, with some minor changes to explanations, citations, and figures relative to the published versions). 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. I'm putting these three papers together in a single post because they form a trilogy of sorts, all having to do with finding the biggest number for how much heat, through light, can go from one body to another when they are really close together, or can go from one body into outer space. These papers need a lot more math (note: "math" isn't one of the ten hundred words) than the papers before, and because they need a lot of thinking to get, I actually won't say as much about them.

The fifth paper is called "T Operator Bounds on Angle-Integrated Absorption and Thermal Radiation for Arbitrary Objects", and is in volume 123, issue 5 of Physical Review Letters. This is the one that has to do with how much heat, through light, can go from one body to outer space. People knew before that the number for how much heat really big bodies can put through light into outer space grows like the surface area of the body, but for really small bodies it grows like the space of the whole body (volume), and they were not sure how these two things join in between. This paper lets people figure out what the most heat is that can go from a body through light into outer space no matter what the largest shape the body can sit in, and shows how to join the things that people knew before for middle-size bodies of different shapes. (Another press release from my department can be found here.)

The sixth paper is called "Fundamental limits to radiative heat transfer: Theory", and is in volume 101, issue 3 of Physical Review B, while the seventh paper is called "Fundamental Limits to Radiative Heat Transfer: The Limited Role of Nanostructuring in the Near-Field", and is in volume 124, issue 1 of Physical Review Letters. Those two papers go together, so I'll write about them together. The sixth paper is about the math behind figuring out the biggest number for heat, through light, to go between two bodies. The seventh paper shows that heat, through light, going between two big flat bodies that are close together can be pretty close to the biggest number possible, so making the shapes of the bodies less simple than just flat surfaces is of no use.