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My Thoughts on Science, Technology, Freedom, and Stuff
Updated: 5 hours 49 min ago

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.

Book Review: "The Evolution of Cooperation" by Robert Axelrod

Monday 7th of January 2019 09:44:00 PM
I've recently read the book The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod. (Note: this is somewhat of a technical book, so I will dive right into the review with jargon, with more on this point at the end of the review.) It's a primer on results from that time showing how in an iterated prisoners' dilemma, tit-for-tat strategies are remarkably robust for their combination of simplicity, clarity, tendency toward cooperation and forgiveness, and prompt & effective retaliation when needed, and that such strategies can effectively propagate environments even where other strategies are in place, provided that those who play the tit-for-tat strategies can find & cluster around each other to interact often enough, and provided that the value each player places on the next round compared to a given round in an iterated game is not too small. The author also uses examples from trench warfare in World War I, biological evolution, and international trade policy to illustrate the seeming universality of the principles of the prisoners' dilemma and its iterated variant.

Although this book was written in the 1980s, making it a little dated in terms of the complexity of models that could be tested on computers and the formalism of game theory itself, it was great to see the author anticipate a lot of more recent developments by discussing the importance of clustering, stereotypes, reputation, regulations, et cetera. Additionally, while the author stresses that cooperation can take place even among egotistical (non-altruistic) or antagonistic individuals in the absence of central authority, the author does take care to convey the nuance that this is not always a good thing per se, rather than taking the utopic view of libertarian philosophy; such cooperation is detrimental to the public at large in situations like economic collusion in an oligopoly, while the incentives to cooperate or not change such that government (or other societal) intervention is needed to do things like collect taxes & deter evaders to fund public goods, correct historical (and present) racist marginalization of minority groups, mediating conflicts among heterogeneous populations in large cities, et cetera. It was also cool for me to understand that any iterated game where the players are unsure of when the game will end but others controlling the game know it will end after a finite number of rounds can be rewritten as a similar game where the players believe the repetition will be infinite but with a different discount factor. My only minor complaints are that while the author does acknowledge that changing parameters of a social interaction can change the prisoners' dilemma into a different sort of game altogether, it would have been nice to see a more nuanced discussion of the degree to which the prisoners' dilemma is really a universal feature of human interactions as opposed to being culture-specific, given its seeming universality in other domains, and that the author rather glibly claims that sequential versus simultaneous play by players in each round of an iterated prisoners' dilemma doesn't make much of a difference, which I find suspicious in the absence of further explanation/context in the book itself. Overall, I enjoyed reading this and could read it quickly because of my minor in economics in college & interest in the subjects of economics, game theory, and network science, so it may be appropriate to others with similar interests & backgrounds as myself; it is a fairly technical book, so it may not be appropriate to general readers without this background, while specialists in the fields of evolution, game theory, or complexity science may find this book to be too dated.

Second Laptop: ASUS ZenBook UX331UN

Monday 3rd of December 2018 10:48:00 PM
I was hoping that a post from when I got my first laptop, an ASUS U30JC, would provide a template for how to review my new, second laptop. Sadly, that post was from over 8 years ago, when this blog was just a year old, I had not yet started college, and my writing was much worse. With that in mind, I now provide a review of my new laptop; this review will be by no means a thorough review of hardware, but will be more of a summary of my experiences installing Linux on it and using it for around a month.

A few months ago, I noticed that part of the plastic frame around the screen of my old laptop, along with the hinge below it, had partially detached. A little over a month ago, that detachment had become much more noticeable, to the point of becoming a liability for me: the laptop would no longer close properly (without me risking breaking it altogether), so I would not be able to take it anywhere outside. Up until that point, I had experienced no major hardware issues with that laptop, and only minor issues such as the optical drive occasionally being unresponsive; I could tell that it was struggling a little more with newer software, but on the whole, it was performing quite well, so while I had from time to time over the last couple of years been looking casually into replacing it, this sudden development forced the issue. Given my disability, I wanted something a bit more lightweight, because my old laptop was 4.5 pounds, which was a bit heavy for me; that said, I still wanted something that would offer a reasonable amount of computational power, and while I didn't anticipate requiring a high-performance graphics card for gaming as I am not a serious gamer, I figured there may be some casual games as well as the possibility of getting into GPU programming for my work for which I may want a reasonable dedicated graphics card. Luckily, I found the ASUS ZenBook UX331UN, which seemed on paper to fit the bill on all counts, and I found only a few left in stock online for a reasonable price (just over $1000), so I went ahead and bought one. Follow the jump to read more.

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