2017-03-20

Book Review: "How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything" by Rosa Brooks

I've recently read How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything by Rosa Brooks. It's a moderately long book about the institutional culture of the military, the historical and present perceptions of the military and its relationship with peacetime society, the evolving notions of war & peace, and the issues facing the military in today's domestic politics and international uncertainty. The thesis of the book is that while societies have historically tried to neatly separate war & peace spatially as well as temporally, such a dichotomy is rarely clear in practice, and the state of low-grade perpetual war in which the US is currently engaged, especially with regard to the adversaries we face, is in many ways surprisingly similar to the history of wars before the emergence of well-defined nation-states in Europe; moreover, issues like mission creep and a shifting political & financial emphasis away from civilian foreign engagement toward military engagement, in conjunction with adversaries having access to technologies and the fruits of globalization that allow them to attack the US from afar with unprecedented ease, has caused the military to take on roles for which it was not built (in the form in which it exists now), further blurring the lines between civilian versus military roles and war versus peace.

I really enjoyed reading this book overall. Although it's a little longer, the writing is clear and accessible, and the stories & anecdotes interwoven with more formal reports & studies make the progression of the book engaging. Additionally, I feel like the author's background of having grown up in an anti-war family and still retaining a somewhat skeptical eye with respect to military action/growth while also having worked in the Pentagon and in similar roles at other institutions for as long as she did lends her credibility when discussing the subtleties & nuances of the US military, its foreign policy, and its institutional culture. Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in current US affairs; follow the jump to see a few other thoughts about this book.

2017-03-01

Book Review: "The Victorian Internet" by Tom Standage

I recently read The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage. It's a brief history about the technical development of the telegraph, developments in telegraph operations, its uses, its rise, and its eventual decline. It particularly goes into the various ways that optical and then electrical telegraph systems were developed by different independent inventors, the difficulties in laying cables for long-distance telegraphy, and the ramifications of the telegraph for business, politics, military actions, newspapers, and day-to-day communications among ordinary people (despite the usual hype of that time about how instant communication would bring people together and effect world peace), comparing these issues to the issues people care about with regard to the Internet, given their similar network structures (though do note that this book was written in the late 1990s, so the author couldn't have even imagined things like Google, Facebook, or Twitter at that time). It's a short book that is a fairly engaging and fast-paced read throughout, so I'd recommend it; my only minor complaint is that the discussion of messaging through pneumatic tubes, while certainly relevant to the chronological history of the telegraph, seems to be a bit of a distraction from the main point of how relatable the 19th century telegraph system would be to users of today's Internet. Follow the jump to see a few more points about the book.

2017-02-13

Review: KDE neon 5.9.1

It has been a while since I've done a review of a Linux distribution. Lately, I've seen a few reviews of KDE neon (the second word being intentionally written in lowercase), and some of them have praised it as being much better than Kubuntu (the traditionally KDE spin of Ubuntu). That got my attention, so I figured I should check it out.

Main Screen + Kickoff Menu
KDE neon is essentially a showcase of the latest and greatest version of KDE, packaged atop the most recent LTS release of Ubuntu. It specifically does not officially support any other DEs (though of course users can try as they like), and it is meant to provide the stability of the Ubuntu LTS base in conjunction with the newest features from KDE. It has several versions available, depending on how adventurous one feels in using new software; some of the versions claim to be made for "everyday users", which I take to include Linux newbies, so as usual, I will evaluate this distribution from that perspective. In particular, I downloaded the User Edition (not the User LTS Edition, which features the latest LTS version of KDE, though all editions feature the latest Ubuntu LTS base) and wrote it to a USB via UnetBootin. Follow the jump to see what it's like.

2017-02-01

Book Review: "The Attention Merchants" by Tim Wu

Originally, this post was supposed to come out a week ago, as a Linux comparison test between BunsenLabs Linux and CrunchBang++ ("#!++"), two quasi-official successors to the now-defunct CrunchBang ("#!") Linux distribution. Unfortunately, neither of them booted in a live USB. For that reason, this post is now a book review of The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu. It is a relatively long and detailed book about the history of advertising and other ways that people have tried to get into our heads and sell us on either commercial goods or ideas. It has a fairly extensive discussion of the development of advertising in newspapers, city posters, and radios, as well as further developments through TV and the Internet. Additionally, it goes through the cycles of development and backlash with respect to each medium of communication, noting how the backlashes are fairly similar to one another in many respects throughout history.

The book is quite interesting, and despite its longer length, it generally reads easily enough that this length is less noticeable. There are many examples given through each period of history and with respect to each medium of communication showing how advertising techniques further developed, and each of them is quite compelling on its own. I even learned a few interesting bits of trivia that I take for granted on a daily basis: "propaganda" was originally a straightforward (not derogatory) term for "propagation of [religious] faith", "broadcast" was originally an agricultural term (for spreading seeds through a field) that later got co-opted in advertising, and drive-in movies originated from the British government displaying war propaganda films from vans on large exterior walls in WWI. The only issue that I have is that the latter parts of the book become a little tiresome to read; part of that is because I have read from other places about the issues surrounding Internet tracking and advertising, while part of it is because the author could have better connected developments in Internet advertising to prior developments in newspapers/radio, so the repetition of key points without those deeper connections being made explicit (or only being made partway) felt a bit wearisome. Overall, though, I recommend this book for anyone who'd like to learn more about the history of advertising, how people have tried to fight back, and how the cycle continues. Follow the jump to see more details, as well as further scattered thoughts and questions I have about this book.

2017-01-09

Book Review: "More Than Just Race" by William Julius Wilson

The book that I've been able to read most recently has been More Than Just Race by William Julius Wilson. It is essentially a collection of 3 essays (each as a chapter) concerning various issues of the black experience (especially in cities) in the US, separately considering the conditions of black ghettos, the socioeconomic problems of poor black males, and the breakdown of poor black familial structures. These chapters are bookended by introductory and concluding chapters summarizing and further expounding on these issues. The main purpose of the book is to analyze, through various studies from the social sciences, the complementary roles of structure and culture in explaining why blacks in the US, especially in inner cities, are worse of by many metrics than their suburban counterparts and than people of other races/ethnicities in the US.

It is a relatively recent book (2009), but it isn't recent enough to have touched upon issues of police brutality and exploitation in urban black communities or issues of socioeconomic decay in poor white communities in cities as well as in rural areas (characterized by structural joblessness, opioid addiction, et cetera). The book itself is short, but the main three essays themselves are a bit dry. In particular, the essays are essentially separate from each other and can be read as such, but there aren't many attempts to form an overarching narrative (beyond the idea that structure and culture combine to explain the issues that many black Americans face), and the few attempts that do exist feel somewhat forced; perhaps the issue is that these issues are simply too nuanced to be described in a single broad brushstroke, but while that is clear from the details of the book, it would have been nice to see such a thesis made a little more explicit. Additionally, there are a few arguments that get rather muddled, and some ideas that aren't touched upon much after their introduction, perhaps because they don't fit the local narrative quite as well; I'll discuss these and other issues after the jump. Overall, while the discussion of structural issues seemed to be in line with a lot of what I've read in articles in newspapers and magazines in the last few years (probably because the author is an academic heavyweight in these areas anyway), the discussion of which cultural factors seem more (or less) plausible is relatively new to me, and their combination is much more nuanced than any of the broad stereotypes of individuals or institutions that I have seen previously; I rather appreciate this book for providing that perspective.

2017-01-03

Book Review: "Gang Leader for a Day" by Sudhir Venkatesh

Happy new year 2017! My latest book review is of Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh. The author is a sociologist who has meticulously documented his time in the 1980s as a PhD student in sociology, getting a deep, extended, first-hand look into the world of crack cocaine gangs in Chicago. He describes the progression of his relationship with the leader and close associates of a particular gang, the tenants and managers of the building that gang primarily operated in, the daily activities and quality of life of the gang members and building tenants, and even his own stint at leading the gang (in a very limited and supervised way) for a day. He further goes into the various moral quandaries that he finds himself in as he spends more time with this gang, with regard to when he should report something to the police, when he should step into a situation himself (thus inserting himself into a situation that he should be externally observing from an academic perspective), and whether his research will ultimately be essentially voyeurism writ large if he can't convince himself that publishing his findings will ever lead to measurable improvements in his subjects' lives, given the rampant corruption and cycles of poverty and crime prevalent then in Chicago.

Despite being nearly 300 pages, the book is extremely engaging, and the stories that he has documented have been masterfully crafted into a compelling narrative that flows very quickly and easily. I could really get a sense for the developments in his ability to conduct this research, his relationships with various tenants and gang members, and his comfort in such settings, going from the initial feeling of being very out of place, to the part in the middle where he still feels unsteady directly commandeering the gang (for a day, even in a limited and supervised capacity) despite his growing understanding of the gang's operations from the perspective of an outsider, to the part following that detailing his increasing comfort in seeking out broader perspectives from the community at large given his greater experience in conducting such research over time; I further liked how he ended the book by neatly wrapping up his narrative, mentioning his moves to Harvard University and then Columbia University, while still emphasizing that the story of the cycle of poverty and crime doesn't end so neatly for his research subjects, echoing what he says throughout the book. More than that, given that my upbringing as the son of immigrants from South Asia born and brought up in comfortable middle-class suburbs is quite similar to that of the author (except that he was born in India and brought with his family to this country at a very young age) and given that my family is extremely wary of me going into any situation that would remotely put me in danger (especially given my disability and skin color), this book really resonated with me. It felt thrilling for me to essentially vicariously experience this part of his life in such vivid and moving detail; I especially enjoyed reading about how a man who was fearlessly observing drive-by shootings, participating (however minimally) in gang retribution, and the like would still remain a principled vegetarian through it all, which I found deliciously ironic (and I realized that in a similar situation, I would actually probably do the same). One criticism of this book that I've seen online is that the author can be condescending and self-centered; given that this is a nonfiction book for general audiences, given that the goal is to weave his observations into a narrative, and given that he remarks throughout the book on the idea that there is no true neutrality and that he is inevitably going to be part of the story (on one side or another) that he is trying to document, I feel that anything else would have just been less honest in the end. I would highly recommend this book, and I do wonder how much relevance it could continue to have when considering the state of inner cities now, 30 years following this research, with the renewed emphasis on issues of police brutality, systemic racism from governmental institutions, and so on.

2016-12-19

Book Review: "Identity and Violence" by Amartya Sen

I've recently been able to read the book Identity and Violence by Amartya Sen. It's a relatively shorter book, taking me ~3 hours to finish. The author focuses broadly on how personal identity is neither singular nor static, but is multifaceted, context-dependent, and dynamically evolving over time based on the choices people make. He further argues that a lot of sectarian strife (whatever identity the sect may encompass) occurs because people can be led to make one facet of their identity encompass their entire identity and to then act in destructive ways based on that. Additionally, he provides numerous examples of how facets that tend to be associated with individual cultures (whether ethnic, religious, linguistic, or other), with such shoehorning leading to detrimental stereotyping and unsupportable cultural fatalism, have in fact emerged over many such cultures across continents at various points in time, sometimes independently, while other times due to cultural contact and diffusion. With this, he suggests that a lot of the well-meaning efforts to integrate religious minorities into Western society, as well as efforts to reconcile religious or ethnic factions that have been at war in other countries, are misguided due to their single-minded focus on the same sorts of categorization that have led to such conflicts in the first place, and that instead, such efforts should appeal to the broad variety of identities that people hold dear to them and that make them feel whole.

Overall, I generally agree with the thrust of this book (further justifying the notion that Amartya Sen seems to capture my lay ideas about economics and society in a systematic and scholarly manner), and the numerous historical examples of cultural interaction, cultural diffusion, and the development of ideas such as democratic political participation and the protection of human rights across continents and across time periods of course jibes with things that I've learned in history classes in school and elsewhere. The book is a pretty solid read (despite a couple of minor typos that can easily be overlooked), and it brings forth many interesting ideas. I'm glad that I read it recently, given that issues of privilege, identity politics, and communal violence have been in the news lately; I would perhaps like to think that the author may have articulated ideas of privilege and "intersectionality" before those terms came into vogue in the last few years for people interested in social justice, but something the book makes clear is that these ideas of intersectionality, if not the particular jargon, are probably much older than just a few decades. Despite all of that, I do feel like there may be a few things missing in the discussion, and my question about those issues come after the jump.

2016-12-18

Featured Comments: Week of 2016 December 11

There was one post this past week that got a few comments, so I'll post all of those here.

Review: MX Linux MX-15


An anonymous reader said, "It's simply preposterous that a distro for newer Linux users stops booting at an obscure command-line prompt and that an inexperienced user is required to know or guess or somehow find out that pressing Tab will reveal a list of commands that will enable the boot to continue one way or another (although my guess is that the less-experienced users may also need to guess or somehow find out what those commands actually do). People who are enamored of the command line shouldn't try to produce a graphical OS for newer users."
Following up on that, commenter Unknown had this to say: "that particular problem at boot of the liveUSB is with unetbootin and syslinux. the newer syslinux boot system that mx uses is not installed on all other linux platforms, and as such unetbootin doesn't always work right when using the linux version, depending on the actual host linux system. interestingly, the windows version of unetbootin works just fine. as does dd (command provided on the download site), which doesn't give you the persistence options off the live-usb but will get you a proper live environment to install it."
Reader Jerry3904 countered, "Late to the party here, since this OS is now a year old and MX-16 is being released today. For whatever reason, this diverges from all other reviews we have seen: https://www.mxlinux.org/reviews".

Thanks to all those readers for commenting on that post. In the next couple of weeks, I will have at least one more book review out, and by next month, I will probably have another Linux review of some sort out. In any case, if you like what I write, please continue subscribing and commenting!

2016-12-12

Review: MX Linux MX-15

Originally, this review was going to be of Bodhi Linux, based on a suggestion from a comment in a recent review. However, when I tried it, while it was able to connect to the Internet, it could not connect to its package repositories for me to install any packages, and I figured that there wouldn't be much point in writing a review given that. Then, I thought of trying the latest version openSUSE on the recommendation of a friend of mine, especially given that I haven't tried openSUSE in quite a while; that turned out to only be available in the form of an installation DVD, as no live image is available yet (though I hope to try it when that does become available). After that, I saw some reviews of MX Linux, and thought it might be interesting to try. (Spoiler alert: this review exists because there's enough material for me to write about it.)

Main Screen + Xfce Whisker Menu
MX Linux is an effective merger between the former MEPIS and antiX Linux distributions. It aims to provide a desktop experience that is easy and efficient, with an emphasis on reliability. Its focus is on the Xfce desktop environment, and it uses Debian as its base, along with a lot of the code from the erstwhile antiX and MEPIS. I tried it as a live USB made with UnetBootin, which appears to be the recommended method; in fact, MX Linux discusses many different options for different levels of data persistence from one boot to another in a live USB (though that may also refer to live USB systems made with different tools). Follow the jump to see what it's like.

2016-11-28

Book Review: "The Marketplace of Ideas" by Louis Menand

The book that I have been able to read most recently is The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand. The author generally discusses the current state of the liberal arts and humanities in higher education in a historical context, focusing on the tensions that have pervaded it for many decades, including the distinctions between the useful/practical versus learning for its own sake, disciplinarity versus interdisciplinarity, generally teaching the liberal arts to all students via a distribution versus core curriculum model, et cetera. The author further discusses how political issues have shaped academic discourse in the liberal arts, as well as how certain features of academia that are perceived to be new are actually logical extensions of features that were in place long ago, and vice versa. Overall, the author argues that much of academic work in the liberal arts, as it is conducted today, is structurally bound by how things were more than a century ago, even as the objects of study have themselves evolved quite a bit over that time.

Having completed my undergraduate education at a technical institution, I expected to see a bit more about the simultaneous evolution of science, engineering, and humanities curricula, given that the author does discuss the shifts in emphasis from teaching to research at major universities, and given the rather broad title and description of the book. Instead, the author admits fairly early on that because he is a history professor by training, his focus is almost exclusively on the liberal arts and humanities. That focus is understandable, yet I feel like by essentially ignoring simultaneous developments in science and engineering in academia, the discussion of the developments in the liberal arts and humanities in academia seems strangely divorced from the historical events surrounding those developments. Moreover, I feel that the author is somewhat siloed in his own view of disciplinarity versus interdisciplinarity in academia by focusing only on the liberal arts and humanities and ignoring how interdisciplinary research has evolved among the various branches of natural science and engineering, which is ironic considering his arguments that interdisciplinarity in the liberal arts and humanities has actually reinforced disciplinary rigidity in those fields; perhaps the author would have been better served by more extensively consulting (or coauthoring) with someone who is familiar with STEM fields in academia, but if he felt that such interactions would only reinforce rigid disciplinary boundaries and would not help mutual understanding across fields, then that may be more reflective of his own siloed experiences and resulting biases than of anything else. Additionally, the author has an occasional tendency to slip into technical philosophical and literary jargon; while the context makes the meaning of such jargon clear enough, it would have been nicer for the author to use more broadly accessible terminology, given that the book seems to be marketed toward a general audience (in line with some of the ideas discussed in the book itself). With all that said, I do appreciate seeing this aspect of academia that I otherwise would not have really seen, given my undergraduate education in physics at a technical education followed by my current status as a graduate student in electrical engineering. While it is short on prescriptions, it is long on context, which is its aim in any case. Finally, the book itself is generally clear and concise, and it is a short, quick read.