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.

2017-05-08

Nuanced Déjà Vu in Microsoft's Desktop Monopoly

When I was in late high school, which was in the early days of this blog, I had recently switched to Linux and was essentially an evangelist, singing its praises and loudly cursing the misdeeds of Microsoft with respect to the desktop market; many of my blog posts at that time were in that vein. In the nearly 8 years since then, I, my blog, Linux, Microsoft, and the consumer device market have all evolved and matured: I've become less evangelistic and more realistic about many things (or so I'd like to think), my blog has correspondingly shifted focus in various ways, Linux distributions have become less of a "wild west" than they were 8 years ago and have gained more support for popular things like proprietary video drivers and game platforms like Steam, Microsoft has been more open about supporting free and open-source software initiatives, and the consumer device market has shifted much more toward mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets which are very different from the desktops, laptops, and netbooks of 8 years ago (the latter of which doesn't really exist anymore as it once did). That said, I recently read a post on Slashdot (original article by Brian Fagioli of Betanews) about how Microsoft is locking the configuration settings for changing the default browser (Microsoft Edge) and search engine (Bing) choices in Windows 10 S, which is its version of Microsoft Windows 10 designed for lower-end hardware used in schools. For the sake of old times, I thought it might be nice to post about it, but hopefully with a bit more nuance than what I was capable of 8 years ago (and with the benefit of having seen the last 8 years of intervening technological development). Follow the jump to see more.

2017-04-23

Featured Comments: Week of 2017 April 16

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

Book Review: "Weapons of Math Destruction" by Cathy O'Neil

An anonymous reader said, "I had one question. Since algorithms may have access to the internet, (not controlled by the government or any particular single body), I imagine it would be extremely difficult to minimize their abuse or misuse. I hope precautionary measures such as new government or private bodies or maybe benign algorithms will deal with this issue in the future. Does the author talk about such measures ? Also, it seems that there is a lot of unrest regarding AIs these days. People like to imagine situations where an AI designed with a rather innocent goal of calculating 'pi' with a significant precision exterminates human race, sets on a conquest of the entire galaxy just to calculate 'pi' but for reasons unfathomable. Does the author talk about misuse of algorithms by AIs ? Although I am asking about the book, I would be more interested to know your personal views on these. :) Thank you."

Thanks to that reader for that comment. I don't have anything particularly planned on this blog for this week, but I may have a distribution review next week. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!

2017-04-18

Book Review: "Weapons of Math Destruction" by Cathy O'Neil

I've recently read Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O'Neil. It is a short but dense exposition into the various ways that computer algorithms can determine the courses of people's lives and exacerbate existing societal inequities and biases/prejudices, in areas like education, civic engagement, education, health at the workplace, and many others. It argues that while many algorithms used in big data can be used for good, many instead widen inequalities and reinforce various cycles of poverty because of their opacity, lack of accountability, poor use of statistics, and lack of critical examination by those in charge (who instead use results and predictions generated by such algorithms to fire workers, deny opportunities to potential employees, financially prey on poor people, and so on, making such predictions self-fulfilling prophecies as only confirmatory data is fed back in); in particular, many of these algorithms and models use questionable proxies to predict certain attributes or behaviors (especially when the desired attributes are hard to quantify but the proxies are easy), these models are rarely transparent in what inputs are collected and how they are manipulated to produce outputs, and further research and fine-tuning are rarely performed to correct models that most humans would recognize produce incorrect results (but which computers would miss). It concludes that extensions of existing regulations on use of health and financial data are needed to curtail the misuse of such algorithms, and that simultaneously data scientists need to be scrupulous about the ways that their work is used and developed.

I rather enjoyed reading this book: it's pretty fast-paced, yet gives many detailed examples of the abuse of these algorithms to form a compelling narrative. Additionally, it in many ways follows the book The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu (which I have previously reviewed), because as that book shows the various ways that companies collect and sell customer data, this book shows the various ways that data can be used for the benefit of those companies (even if that works against some of those customers). There are only two issues that I have with this book. One is that the few times that politics comes up, the author's political bias (in favor of liberals in the US) is obvious; perhaps this is just due to the nature of the author's passionate crusade against abuse of algorithms and for institutional action uplifting poor and marginalized people, as that would necessitate regulation of such mathematical instruments, which would be (and has been) loudly opposed by large corporations maintaining their short-term profits and long-term status quo through these algorithms as well as the conservative politicians that they support. The other is that there aren't too many examples of big data and related algorithms truly working toward greater socioeconomic equity, especially when such algorithms are finding patterns that wouldn't be found by humans; while I get that the author is trying to build a brief but dense narrative warning against the excesses and abuses of such algorithms (as she professes herself to not be a big data evangelist), I would have liked to see more nuanced examples of proper uses of big data, because as this book stands, it seems just as one-sided/polemical as uncritical big data evangelism. Overall, I certainly feel like I got a better sense of the potential dangers of unchecked and uncritical use of algorithms to shape the economy and society. Plus, now that I'm about halfway through my PhD, I've started to think more about the sorts of jobs that I'd like to take after I finish. I've decided that I don't want to go into finance because (as mentioned in this book too) I'm not comfortable with playing with other people's money, as it is too easy to be seduced by mathematical simplicity and elegance into doing questionable things. That said, one thing (among the many) that has caught my fancy has been studies of policy problems (especially as related to STEM fields, but as they affect ordinary people); however, the story in this book about the role of the Mathematica Policy Research company in developing the arbitrary and statistically unsound metrics for evaluating teachers in DC public schools has made me realize that I'll need to make sure if I end up joining a policy research organization/consultancy/think tank that the organization that I join is responsible and transparent about the data that it collects and processes as much as possible.

2017-04-16

Featured Comments: Week of 2017 April 9

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

Review: Manjaro Linux 17.0.1 "Gellivara" Xfce

An anonymous reader said, "Manjaro is quite a bit more stable than other rolling-release distros, as they delay packages from Arch for a couple weeks to test them for stability/compatibility before updating the Manjaro repos."

Thanks to that reader for that comment. This coming week, I will have another book review out. I was hoping to do a Linux distribution review, but I had trouble booting it, so I'll have to wait until next week to review a different distribution (which will hopefully provide more success). Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!

2017-04-12

Review: Manjaro Linux 17.0.1 "Gellivara" Xfce

This is the next installment of my series of reviews to determine which Linux distribution I can use to replace my current installation of Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" Xfce on my personal laptop. The (not strict) criteria that I am considering are that the distributions should be well-known, which is reflected to some degree in DistroWatch rankings, as this implies that the distribution may have official or strong community support for popular proprietary packages; additionally, the distributions I consider should preferably have MATE or Xfce editions (though I'm open to other DEs as well), and should have a long (more than 3 years from now) support cycle or use a rolling-release support model.

Main Screen + Xfce Whisker Menu
The current distribution I am trying is the latest Xfce edition of Manjaro Linux. It is a rolling-release distribution that was formerly based on Arch Linux, though it still uses the Arch User Repositories (AUR) for many packages that the distribution maintainers do not officially test. It also has an official KDE edition, as well as community-supported editions for other DEs. I tested the 64-bit version (though a 32-bit version is available too) on a live USB made through the "dd" command. (This time, I used a USB stick that I have never used before, to avoid the issues seen in my recent review of openSUSE with my previous aging USB stick that I have been using for reviews for the last 8 years.) Follow the jump to see what it's like.

2017-04-10

Book Review: "Atomic Accidents" by James Mahaffey

I've recently read Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey. It's a fairly long and detailed exposition into accidents involving civilian nuclear power or military nuclear weapons in the US, UK, [former] USSR, Japan, and elsewhere. The author goes into quite granular detail with respect to the history of a certain weapon or civilian site, the timeline of the accident, and the aftermath; with each, he summarizes the lessons that were learned (or should have been learned but were not). After an introduction showing how nuclear accidents are quite similar in many respect to railroad accidents, the first few chapters go into the development of nuclear technology through WWII and the accidents along the way. The middle section of the book goes into knowledge gained about the occupational hazards of employees at power plants, the risks of transporting nuclear material by airplane, and related ideas. The last few chapters are about more recent accidents in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, ending with an assessment of the current state of nuclear power.

As a layperson with respect to the field of nuclear engineering, I think this book may be best suited for experts and other people with a serious interest in the field; for laypeople, the first few and last chapters are interesting, but reading through the middle sections became somewhat tiresome, as the technical details and jargon were a bit hard to follow, and the structure of the stories of the accidents became rather repetitive. The author does discuss issues of fear/hysteria in the general public with respect to nuclear accidents, yet the [seemingly contradictory] combination of the overall discussion of nuclear accidents in gritty detail along with some relatively cursory words of support for the safety and efficacy of nuclear power at the end means that this really is for experts who rationally understand the full historical & current contexts underlying nuclear power. Additionally, as a side note, the author briefly mentions India's nuclear program twice, noting that the Indian government broke a promise to Canada to not turn an imported reactor design toward weapons development, and that nuclear power plants there have had spotty safety records; while I am all for calling out entities that are cavalier about these issues, I found the author's word choice to be unnecessarily condescending toward India in a manner reminiscent of British imperialists justifying the subjugation of India in order to "civilize" the "savages". That aside, as noted earlier, I would recommend this book to those with a serious interest in this subject.

2017-04-09

Featured Comments: Week of 2017 April 2

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

Review: openSUSE Tumbleweed GNOME Snapshot 20170329

Reader msian_tux_lover said, "I think you missed the point and objectives of Tumbleweed - it isn't meant for beginners and more for tinkerers and hobbyists i.e. people with average or higher know-how of Linux like yourself for instance; that is why Tumbleweed is a rolling distro with newest/er versions of packages rather than a more fixed/controlled versions of most packages like LTS versions of your favourite Ubuntu/Mint platform. I have to agree that openSUSE Tumbleweed needs to be more polished (I am thiking of a similar edgy distro like Fedora but then again they aren't a rolling distro, although you 'could' upgrade the distro using fedup - a bit of a hit and miss there), but that is what openSUSE Leap is doing - a hybrid distro with core stuff from SUSE Linux Enterprise (SLE) with community userland apps. Tumbleweed can be rough round the edges - but it is running fine on my low end Acer notebook."

Thanks to that reader for that comment. Now that I'm done with my conference and the pace of work has settled back to normal, I can post more in this blog. This week, I will have another Linux distribution review as well as another book review out. More Linux distribution reviews are to come through this month and next month as I continue to search for a replacement for the distribution currently on my laptop. Anyway, if you like what I write, please continue to subscribe and comment!

2017-04-05

Review: openSUSE Tumbleweed GNOME Snapshot 20170329

For the last 5 years, I have been running Linux Mint 13 LTS "Maya" Xfce as my main OS on my laptop. Its support cycle is only 5 years long, so its end-of-life is fast approaching (within a month). This has spurred me to seriously start looking into replacements/upgrades. In the interest of having an open mind, I don't necessarily want to lock myself into sticking with Linux Mint; while I may still be biased toward the Ubuntu/Linux Mint family, the collection of minor issues in the latest releases of Linux Mint may actually make me more open to other alternatives. However, I'm probably not going to go with some small one-person distribution, especially if the community around that distribution is small and it doesn't have officially-supported packages. My criteria for considering a distribution are that it should have either official support for Skype and Google Talk (both of which I use regularly) or it should have a large enough community to make unofficial support viable (through the implication that the distribution will last a long time); related to the last point, I expect the support cycle to be as long as possible, and in particular, to be more than 3 years. Additionally, while I am not completely opposed to KDE, my most recent interactions (in my most recent distribution reviews) with KDE 5 have left me somewhat less than impressed, so when possible, I will try to stick to MATE/Xfce when possible, thanks to my familiarity and confidence with their tools, ability to recognize peripheral devices, et cetera. Additionally, because I'm seriously trying to test aspects of these distributions for my daily use, I'm going to touch upon a few other things beyond what I might write for a typical distribution review.

With that in mind, my first test subject is openSUSE Tumbleweed GNOME. I've tried openSUSE before, but it has been a while since the last time. Additionally, its support cycle is only 3 years, but it does have a rolling-release version called Tumbleweed, so I figured I might try that. I created a live USB of the 64-bit ISO using the "dd" command, as recommended on the website. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

2017-04-03

My Time at the 2017 APS March Meeting

This is just a quick update from my graduate studies. In the middle of March, I was able to attend the 2017 APS March Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana; this is the first conference that I have attended in any capacity. I had a ton of fun being able to travel there and meet with old friends, collaborators whom I had not yet met in person, and other people that I didn't know but who have been working on similar things to me; it was great being able to discuss interesting potential project ideas with them. Going to many talks was also cool, giving me a good sense of the state of my field and the sort of work that other people are doing, though in many respects, I honestly feel like I learned more just from talking with people at length in more informal settings. Finally, the highlight for me was getting to present my own work and seeing the interest that many people took in it: I was presenting a semiclassical electromagnetics approach to van der Waals interactions between molecules and larger bodies in a session dominated by density functional and atomistic long-range many-body approaches to van der Waals interactions solely in [large] molecular systems, so I was truly gratified to see that members of the audience saw value and significance in what I've been doing, especially given how different my talk was from those that came before and after it in that session. Overall, I had an amazing time, and I hope to be able to attend other conferences, both similar to this as well as more specific to my research, during my remaining time in graduate school.