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My Thoughts on Science, Technology, Freedom, and Stuff
Updated: 13 hours 16 min ago

My Time at the 2019 SmartDrivingCar Summit

Tuesday 21st of May 2019 08:56:00 PM
Last week, I attended the 2019 SmartDrivingCar Summit, hosted in Princeton University by ORFE professor Alain Kornhauser. As someone with a physical disability, I've become excited of late about the possibilities that autonomous vehicles could offer people like myself as well as older people or people with cognitive disabilities, blindness, or even those without disabilities but live in poverty, while also wondering about the socioeconomic implications for such people with respect to the development of autonomous vehicles and associated systems in practice. Given this, I've been in conversation with Prof. Kornhauser about these issues for several weeks, and desirous of learning more & meeting people in the field, I attended the conference.

Laudably, the conference had the overall theme of prioritizing development of autonomous vehicle systems to serve the needs of those in marginalized groups (where marginalization could be socioeconomic or through disability). As I have been reading about some predictions about socioeconomic impacts for the last few months, presentations touching upon those aspects felt more familiar to me, but it was really interesting to also see the technical developments in this field, current innovations in transportation network development for elderly & disabled people, and psychological aspects to bear in mind with respect to popular acceptance of autonomous vehicles. For instance, with respect to the last point, it didn't really occur to me that some people in marginalized communities may feel a sense of social belonging with others at public transit stops as they are designed now and may feel more socially isolated in small autonomous vehicles.

The overarching concern at the conference was about the funding pressures being acutely felt following the incident of an Uber autonomous vehicle killing a pedestrian in Arizona last year, along with the general failure of fully autonomous systems to materialize at this time despite predictions from 3-5 years ago that it would happen now. As a result, the tone of the conference felt more measured than some of the hype from that time might have suggested, yet there was an overall sense of optimism and motivation to do more work toward solving these problems. Even if fully autonomous cars fail to materialize, whether the problems are technical (i.e. they just won't work unsupervised) versus political (i.e. the number of accidents in testing becomes unacceptably high), I am personally optimistic about the possibility of working toward solving some socioeconomic inequities in transportation even with current innovations. Overall, I really enjoyed learning more and meeting new people, and am hoping to get more involved in this field in the future.

Book Review: "Radical Markets" by Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl

Tuesday 23rd of April 2019 01:10:00 AM
I've recently read the book "Radical Markets" by Eric A. Posner & E. Glen Weyl. I should disclose that I came to know of this book upon attending a talk and Q&A session on campus by the latter author about this book, and that I was able to ask a question during that time (though as I point out later, I didn't find the answer to be so satisfactory). In any case, the topic intrigued me. This book is essentially a vision for a radical reformation of society, starting in the West but ultimately spreading through the world, such that concentrations of power are systematically broken and a level playing field is quickly approached. The two key novel contributions of this work are the notion of a common ownership self-assessed tax (COST), which aims to revolutionize notions of ownership by abolishing property rights extending to perpetuity and replacing them with auctions for goods & capital, and quadratic voting (QV), which aims to replace the principle of one-person-one-vote with voting credits such that individuals can vote on issues or candidates (for or against) in proportion to their perceived importance while being prevented from unduly swinging elections. There are also other issues discussed, such as immigration, institutional investment, and the value of digital data, all in the context of concentrations of power. It is worth pointing out that though there are many arguments that extend to Canada, the UK, other European countries, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, most of the arguments are made in the context of the US.

I will leave a detailed critique after the jump, and summarize my thoughts here. I found the ideas presented in the book rather intriguing and certainly novel. However, the main flaw of the book in my view is that the authors too often like to present their ideas at a very broad conceptual (macroscopic) level while simultaneously presenting examples justifying these concepts at a very granular (microscopic) level. The missing elements are the granular implementations of their broad concepts as well as the implications of the granular examples interacting on a larger scale; as a result, particularly for the introduction of the COST ideas, the claims must be taken essentially on faith, as the authors are quite glib about the importance of implementation details to the overall path of society if their ideas were to be followed. Given this, there are many reasons to remain skeptical about these ideas. This is also evident in the writing style too, in that my need to reread parts of certain chapters multiple times, while in part because these ideas are certainly not trivial, was mostly because of these sorts of logical leaps to conclusions that were not obvious, and many times, these conclusions remained non-obvious even after multiple reads through; the writing is otherwise engaging and fun to read, but I could tell that the authors were at many points getting swept up in their own ideas at the expense of clarity for readers. Overall, I recommend this book because the ideas are intriguing and I do want to see these ideas fleshed out better, but I would not recommend this book in the sense of wanting to preach these ideas myself. Follow the jump to see more detailed discussion about this book.

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My Time at the 2019 APS March Meeting

Friday 22nd of March 2019 12:18:00 AM
This is a quick update from my trip to the 2019 APS March Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts at the beginning of March. I felt like my time overall was somewhat mixed, though positive on balance. On the negative side, my talk was lumped into a totally unrelated session on a Thursday afternoon, in which the talks weren't of interest to me and were generally not so well-delivered, the audience consisted almost entirely of the speakers who left after their own talks (and that included me after I saw what was happening, though I was grateful that some of my friends came for my talk), and the first talk which was supposed to be a 36 minute-long invited talk was canceled in the absence of the speaker, leading to a break during that time. Additionally, my advisor and I were busy preparing a paper unrelated to the work I would be presenting, and I've also been taking my time to figure out what I want to do after graduation, so I didn't prepare a schedule of talks to attend as well as I had in the previous two years. That said, on the positive side, I paced myself properly in attending talks, and I did appreciate having conversations with people from my department as well as people I knew in college about our work as well as future plans. I also had a lot of fun hanging out with friends from college as well as graduate school, and though I could have done a better job networking, I did try to reach out as much as I could. Finally, I had a great time skipping the last day of the conference and visiting MIT instead, where I got to catch up with professors from the physics department as well as other people whom I knew well in college (and met some people for the first time too); I felt like that was a far more useful & productive move. Next year, I hope to be able to present in a session more relevant to my current research interests, and to do a better job of tailoring my networking and session attendance to my future interests (which I hope will have solidified by then).

Taking a Class After 3 Years of Full-Time Research

Monday 18th of February 2019 12:49:00 PM
This spring semester, I'm taking a class; as the title explains, this is the first class I've taken in 3 years, during which time I've engaged in full-time research as a graduate student and have been a TA for 3 semesters. This class is in a very different field from my current area of research, as I'm exploring other fields for opportunities after graduation. After 2 weeks of class, I've been considering how taking a class now feels different than it did in high school, college, and the first two years of graduate school.

In high school and college, my main focus was on classes, and I wanted to make sure that I challenged myself as much as I felt I could and got good grades in those classes. This mentality stayed with me through the first two years of graduate school, which is why I felt like I could do pretty well in graduate classes but had a harder time initially finding my footing in research while I remained mentally so focused on classes above all else. I felt quite relieved when I finished my course requirements 3 years ago so that I could renew my focus on research. Since then, I do feel like I've been able to establish a pretty good track record with my research, and given that I'm approaching the end of the PhD program and want to explore other fields, I am comfortable taking this class with fresh eyes and without worrying about grades; in particular, I can really feel like I'm taking this class purely to satisfy my own curiosity and am willing to accept that I'll get out of it exactly what I put into it. Moreover, for the classes I took until 3 years ago, I was fairly engaged with the instructor during lectures, frequently asking questions whether for clarification or edification; now, especially because the others in my class are all undergraduate students, I feel more comfortable letting them take the reins with their own education, and will only ask questions about points that I feel need urgent clarification.

Having been a TA for 3 semesters, I now have a much greater appreciation for the amount of work even instructors whose lectures are of average quality have to do with respect to preparation and delivery of a lecture, fielding questions from students during and outside of class, and grading assignments. Concomitant with that, I especially appreciate the instructors from my past who were particularly good at clearly communicating concepts in the class to as many people in the class as possible in an engaging way, and realize that I was truly lucky to have had so many great class instructors in high school, college, and graduate school. At the same time, my patience for instructors who do a poor job is even less than it was before, because I feel like such instructors are in some sense neglecting the responsibilities to their students fundamental to their job; while I recognize that not everyone develops skills for or interest in teaching immediately, I would hope that such instructors at least put some effort into developing such skills knowing they are responsible for educating young citizens.

It'll be interesting to see how my thoughts on taking a class shift as the semester progresses, and how useful it ends up being with respect to my exploration of other fields. At the very least, I do hope to learn more about how to teach well (and how not to teach poorly) by applying what I've learned from being a TA to my observations of instruction in this class.

More in Tux Machines

Linux 5.2-rc2

Hey, what's to say? Fairly normal rc2, no real highlights - I think most of the diff is the SPDX updates. Who am I kidding? The highlight of the week was clearly Finland winning the ice hockey world championships. So once you sober up from the celebration, go test, Linus Read more Also: Linux 5.2-rc2 Kernel Released As The "Golden Lions"

Audiocasts/Shows: Linux Action News, Linux Gaming News Punch, Open Source Security Podcast and GNU World Order

Review: Red Hat Enterprise Linux 8.0

My experiment with RHEL 8 got off to a rough start. Going through the on-line registration process produced some errors and ended up with me getting the wrong ISO which, in turn, resulted in some confusion and delays in getting the distribution installed. Things then began to look up as RHEL 8 did a good job of detecting my system's hardware, registered itself without incident and offered good performance on physical hardware. I was particularly pleased that the distribution appears to detect whether our video card will work well with Wayland and either displays or hides Wayland sessions in response. I did have some trouble with the GNOME Classic Wayland session and GNOME Shell on X.Org was a bit sluggish. However, the Classic session on X.Org and GNOME Shell on Wayland both worked very well. In short, it's worthwhile to explore each of the four desktop options to see what works best for the individual. The big issues I ran into with RHEL were with regards to software management. Both GNOME Software and the Cockpit screen for managing applications failed to work at all, whether run as root or a regular user. When using the command line dnf package manager, the utility failed to perform searches unless run with sudo and occasionally crashed. In a similar vein, the Bash feature that checks for matching packages when the user types a command name it doesn't recognize does not work and produces a lengthy error. There were some security features or design choices that I think will mostly appeal to enterprise users, but are less favourable in home or small office environments. Allowing remote root logins by default on the Workstation role rubs me the wrong way, though I realize it is often useful when setting up servers. The enforced complex passwords are similarly better suited to offices than home users. One feature which I think most people will enjoy is SELinux which offers an extra layer of security, thought I wish the Cockpit feature to toggle SELinux had worked to make trouble-shooting easier. I was not surprised that RHEL avoids shipping some media codecs. The company has always been cautious in this regard. I had hoped that trying to find and install the codecs would have provided links to purchase the add-ons or connect us with a Red Hat-supplied repository. Instead we are redirected through a chain of Fedora documentation until we come to a third-party website which currently does not offer the desired packages. Ultimately, while RHEL does some things well, such as hardware support, desktop performance, and providing stable (if conservative) versions of applications, I found my trial highly frustrating. Many features simply do not work, or crash, or use a lot of resources, or need to be worked around to make RHEL function as a workstation distribution. Some people may correctly point out RHEL is mostly targeting servers rather than workstations, but there too there are a number of problems. Performance and stability are provided, but the issues I ran into with Cockpit, permission concerns, and command line package management are all hurdles for me when trying to run RHEL in a server role. I find myself looking forward to the launch of CentOS 8 (which will probably arrive later this year), as CentOS 8 uses the same source code as RHEL, but is not tied to the same subscription model and package repositories. I am curious to see how much of a practical effect this has on the free, community version of the same software. Read more

GNOME 3.34 Revamps the Wallpaper Picker (And Fixes a Longstanding Issue Too)

The upcoming release of GNOME 3.34 will finally solve a long standing deficiency in the desktop’s background wallpaper management. Now, I’ve written about various quirks in GNOME wallpaper handling before, but it’s the lack of option to pick a random wallpaper from a random directory via the Settings > Background panel that is, by far, my biggest bug bear. Ubuntu 19.04 ships with GNOME 3.32. Here, the only wallpapers available to select via the Settings > Background section are those the system ships with and any top-level images placed in ~/Pictures — nothing else is selectable. So, to set a random image as a wallpaper in GNOME 3.32 I tend to ignore the background settings panel altogether and instead use the image viewer’s File > Set as background… option (or the similar Nautilus right-click setting). Thankfully, not for much longer! Read more