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My Thoughts on Science, Technology, Freedom, and Stuff
Updated: 17 hours 28 min ago

Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Papers

Monday 10th of August 2020 12:43:00 PM
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.

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

Monday 3rd of August 2020 12:54:00 PM
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

Wednesday 1st of July 2020 06:18:00 PM
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.

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

Tuesday 23rd of June 2020 07:42:00 PM
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.

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