2017-07-26

Book Review: "All the President's Men" by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

I recently got to read All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward; although I had seen the movie many years ago, I hadn't gotten the opportunity to read the book until now, and I figured that with the current political situation in the US which so many are calling "Nixonian", it would be good to revisit one of the definitive works about a pivotal political scandal in that era. It's a documentation, from the perspective of the Washington Post reporters (the authors of the book), of the events and investigative journalism starting from the reports of the Watergate Hotel burglary and ensuing arrests all the way to the implication of President Richard Nixon and his top aides in engaging in illegal dirty campaign tactics to harm political enemies and subsequent illegal coverup tactics. It's a moderately long book, yet the smooth writing and structure of the details keep the narrative moving quickly. Although it has been a while, from what I remember, the movie focuses more on Bob Woodward's meetings with Deep Throat (the deep background informant who worked for the government), so it was nice for me to see the fuller picture of events from many other angles, showing that the meetings with Deep Throat, while important, were not necessarily the primary focus of any reporting events.

From the standpoint of this being a documentation of historical events, more than anything else, I was fascinated to see the (usually clever, sometimes questionable) extent to which reporters like Woodward and Bernstein would cajole agreements to meet and then share information on the phone, in person, or in writing with various people; it was like a miniature course in human psychology in the framework of various competing institutions with different power structures, and this was evident not just in the conduct of the interview subjects but also in Woodward and Bernstein themselves. That said, there were a few instances were their conduct went beyond the point of being questionable, becoming sleazy or even straddling the line of legality, and while these instances were discussed, they weren't given the same gravity as the corrupt behavior of government officials that they were uncovering; from their perspective, it makes sense as they would of course cast themselves in their own story as sympathetic protagonist reporters going up against a corrupt and vile group of people in a powerful institutions, but I would have liked to see more of this (though maybe other accounts from this era from other reporters would go further in depth). Overall, I really enjoyed reading this, and would recommend this to anyone interested in the political situation then or now. Follow the jump to see a few more brief thoughts about this book in the context of the current political situation in the US.

2017-07-24

Long-Term Review: Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE

Installed System: Main Screen + Xed
A little over two weeks ago, I made the decision on what Linux distribution to install and use full-time on my personal laptop. I chose Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE, because I felt that while it could do a bit better for total newbies in terms of usability (as some usability features have regressed since a couple of years ago), it has been a reliable and known quantity for me, and I figured that if I could generally use the live session without much hassle, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch (no pun intended) to imagine that the installed session would likely be workable. As I've covered most of the experiences of installing and using programs and getting around the desktop in my review of the live session, this post will be relatively short, covering only the salient points of the installation and some of the changes I made after the installation. Follow the jump to see more.

2017-07-17

Featured Comments: Week of 2017 July 9

I meant to write and post this yesterday, as I typically do this on Sundays. However, I was rather tired yesterday and forgot about it until today. Anyway, this past week, there were two posts that got comments, so I'll post four selected comments from one, and the single comment from the other.

Review: Debian 9 "Stretch" MATE

Reader Isaac Ji Kuo said, "Sluggishness is due to being a USB install. USB is far slower than a hard drive. LiveCD install partially compensates for this by using file system compression, but this still inevitably means sluggish delays due to decompression time. If you want to just see whether or not Debian is functional, a LiveCD is good. If you want to have some idea of its performance for a hard drive install, LiveCD will give you no idea. Flash works in Debian 9. I don't know precisely how it works, but every web site I've tried works with both Firefox and Google Chrome (normally I use Google Chrome, but it's not available in 32 bit so I was forced to try Firefox to use Netflix on my 32 bit computers). Anyway, I think it has to do with the PepperFlashPlayer." (Most of the comments were along these lines, with varying degrees of detail and civility.)
An anonymous commenter had this to say: "Testing live image from USB/DVD and complaining about sluggish delays is bit silly. Unless you test some Puppy/Puppy like distro that loads in ram. Debian live images are used for only one purpose, to see what it can offer with different desktop environments. It is not even recommended to install from those live images, even if that option exists. As for flash, no it does not work out of the box with Debian. And package for flash in Debian is unusable, its maintainer is missing in action. On google chrome flash comes integrated with browser. For Firefox it can be installed easily by downloading it from adobe site, unpacking it and moving libflashplayer.so to the /usr/lib/mozilla/plugins/. Downside of that is that you must manually repeat procedure whenever adobe updates flash."
Reader CFWhitman shared, "In my experience Debian is faster in regular use than any version of Ubuntu or Mint. When you have lots of resources, it's just as fast as Lubuntu or LXDE. When you start to run short, it tends to be faster, at least as long as you are running the same desktop environment. When I have hardware that's too weak for even Lubuntu to run well on it, I switch to Debian. I run Debian 9 on a ten year old netbook with an Atom N270 32 bit processor and 1 GB of RAM. If you had problems with speed I have a lot of trouble believing it's a problem with Debian 9. Your USB drive would seem a more likely culprit."
Another anonymous commenter had the following tips: "Other distributions optimise for the liveCD demo, but Debian optimises for long-term use ;-) For a Debian distribution that uses the Mate Desktop and is optimised for liveCD use I'd give Parrot Security OS a try. And yes, I will read your review! That said, I'm about ready give give up on reading "reviews" that are in effect clickbait...eg: just a liveCD demo that is not of what it's like to use for a week or two. LiveCD/USB/etc should be in the title of the page imho. To be fair, sometimes the installed system can be slower than the live one due to background processes like file indexing daemons. ex: Nepomuk and aKonadi. How a distribution configures such things in an actual installation says more about the experience of using it and more about the values of the project than any liveCD."

Review: Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE

Reader Steve said, "Please give Debian the benefit of the doubt. It has a huge ecosystem and is ported to dozens of different architectures and envirionments. The Debian developers and maintainers do an amazing job of keeping the various versions to have the same look and feel as much as possible. I used to think that two years was an awfully long time to prepare a new version, until I researched the Debian web sites to see what had to be done." (This was more in response to the previous review, as I had referenced it in this review.)

Thanks to all of those people for those comments. I don't have anything particularly planned for this week. However, I did end up installing Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE on my laptop's hard drive, and have been using it for over a week now. Given that, I'll probably have a short post with some notes about installing and using it next week. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!

2017-07-12

Review: Linux Mint 18.2 "Sonya" MATE

Main Screen + Linux Mint Menu
The quest for a replacement Linux distribution for Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" Xfce continues. With this post comes a review of the latest MATE edition of Linux Mint. Especially for regular readers of this blog, Linux Mint needs no introduction. I will just say that with the latest point release, it seems like the developers have put more polish into the distribution, including their new set of "X-apps" meant to work across MATE, Cinnamon, Xfce, and GNOME, avoiding the pitfalls of more DE-specific applications. I want to see what has changed since my last review and to see whether this would be suitable for installation and daily use on my laptop. To that end, I made a live USB system (again, on my new SanDisk Cruzer USB flash drive) using the "dd" command. Follow the jump to see what it's like. Note that I'll frequently reference that previous review, noting only changes and overall important points as needed.

2017-07-10

Review: Debian 9 "Stretch" MATE

It has been about 2 months since the support cycle for Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" ended. Since then, I haven't been able to update Mozilla Firefox or Adobe Flash, and concurrently, I haven't been able to use the latest versions of Google Hangouts or Skype, the former of which I already cannot use to the fullest extent, and the latter of which I am still somehow able to use but am counting the days when that will end too. Given that, it is urgent that I upgrade the Linux distribution that I use soon, so today, I am trying Debian.

Debian is a rather old distribution, being among the first to use the Linux kernel. It is known for its very conservative release policy for distribution and package versions, as well as its strict policies regarding free versus proprietary software; as such, it is known to be a stable base (and has been the original base for Ubuntu and its derivatives) for desktop and server environments, though while it is not supposed to be a piece of cake to configure and use, it does come with decently-configured generic DEs and other software to start. I figure that I have accumulated a bit of experience with testing and configuring Linux distributions, so that I may be able to install and configure things to my liking even if they aren't present by default.

I tested the 64-bit edition on a live USB made from a live ISO file using the command "cp", which Debian recommends. Additionally, it is worth noting that this is the first review that I'm doing on a new SanDisk Cruzer 8 GB flash drive (as my previous SanDisk Cruzer Micro 8 GB flash drive, which I got 8 years ago, seems to have stopped working reliably, which is why I haven't used it for reviews in the last few months, and the flash drive that I had been using in the meantime, a generic 4 GB unit which I got for free from a career fair several years ago, stopped working after a "dd" command failed). Follow the jump to see what it's like. (Also, I apologize that there are no pictures; I stupidly forgot to upload them, and by the time I exited the live session and restarted my computer, it was too late.)

2017-07-04

Book Review: "The Big Short" by Michael Lewis

I was recently able to read The Big Short by Michael Lewis. Even though there were quite a few details that went over my head, it's an interesting, compelling story about a few specific people who essentially shorted (in other words, bet against) the entire US financial system and ended up "winning" in the 2008 financial crisis. I knew the basic details of how mortgage-backed securities were packaged and repackaged to get high ratings from well-known agencies, even though the underlying instruments were high-risk mortgages given unscrupulously to poor people who were likely to default; that said, I found incredible just how much fraud was being perpetrated, like laundering credit scores based on essentially nothing, or ripping off low-income people with false or misleading interest rates. Also, many financial models seemed to assume no underlying information and total lack of correlation among various investments, assets, or liabilities, even this was obviously untrue: subprime mortgages bundled into financial instruments were highly correlated by underlying economic indicators, and companies' fortunes could often be predicted much more accurately even with publicly-available information (like with Capital One's fortunes depending on regulatory judgments against it), yet these models often still naïvely and nonsensically assumed Gaussian distributions for such events.

Coupled with that ignorance of information in financial modeling seemed to be an intentional lack of transparency in the market for these complex securities and other financial instruments. Typically, enlarging a risk pool would seem to produce better outcomes throughout the market, but here, the mirror image of that was happening: more and more people were being exposed to risk, and that risk was being multiplied based off of essentially nothing tangible (often simply camouflaged through clever names as comprising diversified assets), yet large Wall Street firms were making money off of that for years before the whole system collapsed. On a related note, some people have claimed that short-sellers are beneficial to the market by signaling that certain trading practices should stop as they are too risky, yet as far as I can tell, this only works in an idealized world where information and people's decisions are transparent to everyone, whereas the whole point is that the short-sellers and those selling risky financial instruments were all trying to one-up each other in a cloud of opacity and obfuscation so that they could make their big money (which is what really happened).

Overall, the book is quite engaging and well-written. As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of subtleties, nuances, and jargon that went over my head, but the narrative and salient points are clear enough to a layperson; if anything, the technicalities simply add to the authentic feel of what one of those short-sellers must have been thinking during those years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. It is important to note that the focus of this book is the financial crisis and the years leading up to it, from the perspective of the finance industry/Wall Street; it does not really touch upon the broader economic trends in the US leading up to that point (except for specific trends that tie into the discussions of specific mortgage-backed financial instruments), and it does not discuss the recession per se. With that in mind, I'd recommend this to anyone who is interested in the subject.

2017-07-03

Second Paper: "Unifying Microscopic and Continuum Treatments of van der Waals and Casimir Interactions"

My second paper has been published! It is in volume 118, issue 26 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 first paper, 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.

2017-06-05

Book Review: "Cosmopolitanism" by Kwame Anthony Appiah

I've recently been able to read Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah. When I first picked it up, I thought it might be an interesting take on the issues of multiculturalism and immigration that Western societies have had to deal with over the last 2 decades (considering that this book was published in 2006). It actually turned out to be a bit different than I expected, being instead a more abstract philosophical work that lays out the arguments for a certain sort of cosmopolitan worldview and manner of engaging with other people, with these arguments being based on somewhat more abstract discussions of the histories of nations, cultures, and peoples. In particular, the author discusses how cultures have diffused throughout space and time and how people are capable of engaging with different issues and other people from across the world in an intelligent and active manner, so the framing of issues like cultural imperialism/theft or charity for the poorest around the world may end up being counterproductive in the long-term; additionally, the aim of conversation and engagement with strangers should be to reach a mutual understanding and (ideally, though this depends somewhat on the topic at hand) respect for different culture-specific values, because persuasion of people to change such culture-specific values is typically [though not always] a fool's errand. I realize this brief summary doesn't really do the book justice, because it is a rather dense book (at least for a layperson like myself) with so many different issues discussed at varying lengths and levels of abstraction.

Overall, there are a lot of arguments that seem disconnected, especially the anecdotes of his family or his childhood in Ghana (though those were nice to read), and there seem to be a lot of philosophical subtleties that may well have gone over my head, but while each chapter is a nice self-contained explanation of an aspect of cosmopolitanism, the overarching message seems rather muddled (especially comparing the last chapter to everything before it). There are other issues that I have with the book that I'll detail after the jump, but more broadly, I was somewhat disappointed by the ease with which I could use the author's own terms and arguments against the book. That said, I do agree with one main theme, and that is of respectfully engaging with strangers by critically examining "thick" beliefs on their own terms and as they arise from other "thick" & "thin" beliefs (to be explained after the jump), in order to find common ground while also understanding and respecting where differences arise; this is similar to what I learned from the last student-led discussion I attended at the Day of Action on campus in March. I suppose people who are interested in this sort of thing would be drawn to this book anyway, but I wouldn't really recommend this otherwise. Follow the jump to see more of my thoughts on this book.

2017-06-01

Book Review: "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley

I generally don't read works of fiction, as I don't have as much interest in them as I do in well-crafted nonfiction works, but Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is one of the classics of dystopic science fiction; in particular, many comparisons have been made to Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, with the latter surging in popularity in the last few months in the context of the current political climate in the US, so I figured I might give this one a read instead. This book is set in a time where society is explicitly stratified into castes and everyone is conditioned, through physical, chemical, and psychological means from [artificial] fertilization through death at age 60, to behave in ways that would never lead them to question their roles in society; this is further helped by the omnipresence of a pleasurable drug called soma and by the omnipresence of this very conditioning, such that social ostracism is feared perhaps above all else. With that in mind, the main story primarily involves two characters, one named Bernard Marx who is born and raised in this society but finds himself dissatisfied with the society and his role in it, the other named John the savage who is born to a woman (named Linda) outside of this society and becomes repulsed after understanding the superficiality of the existence of members of that society.

The initial parts of the story seem to drag a little bit as it isn't initially clear to which character the reader's attention should primarily be drawn, but after the introduction of Bernard Marx, it becomes much clearer that the initial parts paint the setting of this world to make it clear why Bernard Marx is out of place. Additionally, in terms of movement of the narrative, the extended dialogue between John the savage and the controller Mustapha Mond drags a little, but it provides a fascinating glimpse into the author's true view of such a futuristic world. What I found most interesting is that both Bernard Marx and John the savage keep trying but failing to escape the oppressive social confines of their world, though the issues at play are different. Bernard Marx feels socially isolated due to his short height relative to his upper caste and due to his (perhaps related) desires to have time from himself, away from the rest of society. However, his psychosocial conditioning is fairly thorough, such that even when he visits the tribe of savages and has a chance to live a simple and isolated life among them, he chooses instead to bring John the savage as well as Linda back to the main society in London so that he can gain credibility in that society that he finds hard to come by; when John the savage rejects further gawking visitors (which reflects poorly on Bernard Marx, being the custodian of John the savage), rather than joining John the savage in solitude, Bernard Marx becomes despondent about his renewed feelings of alienation and ostracism from society at large. This deepens near the end of the book, when he is exiled to Iceland; his thoroughly conditioned worry about social alienation overcomes any excitement he may have felt at realizing that he would be among high-caste misfits like himself instead of in the superficial society for which he ostensibly does not care so much. Likewise, John the savage is initially delighted by what he sees after traveling from his tribe to London, but having been raised and conditioned outside of that society, he is disgusted by the superficiality, free love (though that may have more to do with his early childhood trauma of seeing his mother, who was brought up in the society, attempt to practice free love with the men of the tribe, consequently leading to his and his mother's ostracism from the tribe by the women and children of the tribe, respectively), and inability to find solitude in the main society. Yet at the end of the book, when he attempts to escape and live an ascetic penitent life outside of the city, the other members of society relentlessly hound him as an exhibition for their amusement; even at the very end, when he takes his own life, his limp hanging body is seen as another cheap spectacle, so even in death, his earthly remains cannot escape the superficiality of that society. Overall, I'd recommend this book for anyone interested in this sort of thing. Follow the jump to see more discussion of my thoughts about how this relates to today's society in the US (disclaimer: this is coming from a lay observer of American politics and society, so don't take anything too seriously; moreover, I'm sure that many of these observations have been made in the past by various people at different times).

2017-05-22

Book Review: "Red Notice" by Bill Browder

Recently, I was able to read the book Red Notice by Bill Browder. It is a detailed exposition of his career in finance, specifically his interests and investments in Russia (as well as other parts of Eastern Europe earlier in his career). He discusses how he and his business partners were able to find so many amazing investment opportunities in Eastern Europe after the fall of the USSR just because few other people had seriously considered those countries for investment. This leads to his company being the victim of fraud perpetrated by corrupt government officials and oligarchs in Russia, and once his business partners and lawyers come under threat from governmental and extrajudicial shakedowns, he turns his focus away from his investment company and toward the broader issue of human rights abuses in Russia, thereby going from a friend to an enemy of Vladimir Putin.

The book, though it may seem long due to the page count, is a fast-paced, gripping tale of intrigue and suspense, reading so much like a James Bond-esque spy thriller novel that it is easy to forget that this is all a true story. It was also enjoyable for me to read this because I hadn't really given much thought to the issues of economic inequality, oligarchy, and investment in Russia after the Cold War, and I certainly hadn't considered it from the perspective of a financier who could make both friends and enemies in high places.

What's more interesting to me is to consider that at the beginning of his career (as the story is mostly a chronological account of his career), his actions are essentially amoral, being driven primarily by greed; his exposure of the fraudulent practices of corrupt government officials and oligarchs in Russia was driven not by high-minded morality but by his desire to ensure the success of his company and to do right by his investors/business partners who were counting on him. In a sense, there may have been a weird tribal morality that one could associate with his close kinship with his business partners and his initial desire to push forward with exposing such corruption despite the high personal and business risks of doing so. This is further justified by considering that his focus turns away from his company and toward broader issues of human rights abuses when his business partners and lawyers start becoming targets of extrajudicial shakedowns, most notably including Sergei Magnitsky, whose cruel and inhuman torture and neglect before even going to trial (which culminated in the insane posthumous show-trial of Magnitsky in Russia) made him a cause célèbre in the US and EU, leading to the passing of laws recognizing his work and financially sanctioning those in Russia involved in his torture and murder.

That said, he shows himself throughout the book as believing in the ideals of the rule of law and justice while simultaneously understanding that these are hard to come by in Russia, and as a result, he portrays himself as having some moral core that overrides business and personal considerations as his friends come in danger; it is only his initial naïveté about Putin that makes him initially think of Putin as an ally in the crusade against the oligarchs, and these illusions are shattered quickly enough when Putin co-opts the remaining oligarchs and enriches himself in the process. By contrast, he shows the oligarchs to be thoroughly corrupt in their quest for material enrichment and their ability to shamelessly lie, cheat, steal, and hurt people to that end; they operate at a totally different level of amorality. Of course, this depiction is his own, so it's not surprising that it would elevate his own moral standing, potentially at the expense of others, and the same can be applied, for example, to his rather negative portrayal of John Kerry as desperate to hang onto as well as enhance his existing power; with that in mind, his story seems somewhat more credible to me given the independent validation by all of the different people and news organizations of his accounts of Russia. It's worth noting too that the verb "corrupt" comes from the Latin word meaning "break from within", and can also mean "rot" or "spoil". In this case, the oligarchs may have some thin veneer of seeming morality (if that), but this is quickly eaten away by having a lot of money and power, revealing only the atavistic amoral lizard brain at the inner core; by contrast, the author seems to maintain some moral core throughout the story, and while he is initially motivated by amoral greed at a surface level, once things hit him in a deeply personal level, that surface is stripped off (though again, it is necessary to bear in mind that this portrayal is the author's own). Overall, this book is a very interesting and intriguing read, and I'd recommend it to pretty much anyone.