Thursday, June 30, 2016

Understanding a Scientific Paper (Part 1)

This image is from The Scientific Cartoonist
http://www.thescientificcartoonist.com
Scientific papers are the most arcane pieces of literature I've ever encountered. They make Nietzsche and Rousseau look like child's play. I had to read more than ten different papers over the course of three months before I understood any of them. Now, I think everyone should go through this trial, so they challenge their minds to understand new and abstract concepts. Scientific literature, unlike liberal education, makes you understand the objective world on a deeper level, and I would argue that it's more intellectually rigorous. Besides that, I also believe that we have a civic duty to become scientifically literate. We need to be responsible consumers and voters. Reading articles from scientific news outlets isn't enough for me because most articles lack enough detail for me learn about the theory and methodology. Also, some outlets such as Yahoo! Science are ad-ridden and poorly edited. And, the studies can be misrepresented or fraudulent. This isn't an article about judging the validity of a paper, which is a useful skill for reading papers from open access journals. Nor is it an article on finding scientific papers; getting around the steep paywall is a topic for another post. This is about learning how to think like a researcher.

Recommended Prerequisites

  • Natural Science:University Physics and Calculus
  • This is especially important if you are interested in astronomy, aeronomy, or even chemistry. It will allow you to have some understanding of the formulas and graphs. In addition, you will frequently see some basic terms such as "vector", "momentum", "derivative", etc. If you haven't taken the AP or college classes yet, Khan Academy and other online courses are a great resource. Just make sure you are taking University Physics which is calculus-based, not algebra-based "College Physics". Make sure you have learned differential, integral, and multi-variable calculus. If you want to read some of the more advanced literature, mechanics will also be useful.
  • Life Science: Biology, Chemistry, Anatomy and Physiology
  • This applies to medical, as well as biology papers. I've been able to understand most of the biology papers with only a high school education in those three subjects.
  • Social Sciences: Statistics and Probability
  • These prerequisites are not necessary for comprehension, but they're vital for judging the validity of the paper. The social sciences have a reputation for producing studies with less reproducible results and are more prone to researcher bias, so you will need to be aware of any statistical manipulation. Economics is more rigorous, so I would recommend learning Differential and Integral Calculus as well.

Parts of Research Paper

The outline described here is based on the papers I've read in the natural sciences. Other studies studies might have a different format. After reading each section, you should have learned about a certain aspect of the research. I've including some questions that can act as comprehension checkpoints.
  • Abstract
  • This is similar to the blurb on the cover of a novel. It's supposed to give you a brief idea of what the paper is about, and this is where you decide if the article is worth reading.
    Ask yourself, "What are these researchers studying? What contribution have they made to their field? Is this paper relevant to me?".
  • Introduction
  • This is where you can learn the background information about the paper's field of research. It may include an explanation for the phenomena, examples of past experiments done, and the typical instruments used. If you are entirely unfamiliar with this field, you should read the introductions of multiple papers before proceeding into the next section.
    Ask yourself, "What do the experts currently know about this topic? What is the phenomena? What causes the phenomena?
  • Observations/Data
  • This is where you'll see most of the graphs and tables for this experiment. Besides the figures, the paragraphs will tell you under what conditions this data was collected. The paragraphs often describe interesting events that affect the shape of the graphs, so look out for that. There may also be separate sections devoted to the instrument used, the method of data analysis, and the model chosen for comparing the experimental data.
    Ask yourself, "What's the dependent and independent variable? Why did the researchers study these variables? Did the researchers find a correlation? Where in the graph is the event described in the paragraphs?
  • Discussions
  • Here, the researchers interpret their results. Researchers will identify prominent trends and relationships. They may also compare their results to previous experiments or speculate about the causes behind their findings.
    Ask yourself, "What did the researchers discover? What were the likely causes behind their findings?"
  • Conclusion
  • This is the summary of the study. In addition, the researchers discuss the significance of their findings and how it would impact their field. They may also give suggestions for future studies in this field.
    Ask yourself, "What impact does this study have on its field? this How will future researchers build top of their work? References This is the list of all the sources cited in the paper. You should use to learn more about a theory or past experiment that's briefly mentioned. On online versions, you can click the doi number which is linked to where the source is published. Ask yourself, "Is there anything in the paper that the author barely explained, but I need to learn more? Does it have a citation?

Looking up Unknown Terms

Throughout your reading, you will definitely encounter a lot of jargon that can't easily be clarified with a Google search. While Wikipedia is likely to have an article on most of these terms, it has a weak editing system and it can be inaccurate. So, it should only be a last resort. Here are the best references I've found. Each one addresses a particular need, and I listed them in order from most general to most specialized.
  • The Free Dictionary
  • This site is best for getting a quick definition on basic concepts e.g gravity waves, ordinate, tidal force, etc. I prefer this dictionary over others such as Merriam-Webster because it includes graphics and it has the widest range of scientific terms in my experience.
  • The Encyclopedia Britannica
  • This source will give you a good background on the paper's subject matter or the instruments used. It has many factual, well-organized, and easily understandable articles with plenty of graphics. It's a good place to become familiar with the scientific concepts before getting exposed to the academic language. Searchable topics include nuclear fission, Fabry-Perot interferometer, and chaos theory.
  • Wolfram's Mathworld
  • This is the go-to place for mathematical equations and definitions. It will give you the formal definition, properties, explanations for variables, derivations, and applications.You can look up series, knots, theorems, etc. It's difficult to understand for people with a limited background in math, but at least each article included links to each concept that the topic is built upon.
  • Scholarpedia
  • This online encyclopedia has peer-reviewed articles by the scientific community. So, it's the scientists' attempt to make highly specialized knowledge accessible to the public. It's not so good for looking up general terms used in science that you can look-up using The Free Dictionary. However, it's the best source for finding esoteric theories and phenomena such as the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability or Hydromagnetic-Dynamo Theory. If the term is named after a scientist or will probably never be mentioned in a pop science discussion, you are more likely to find it in this source. Strangely, it doesn't bother to include articles about widely known scientific ideas such as climate change or string theory.
By now, you should know how to fill any gaps of knowledge when reading a scientific paper. This post covered what background knowledge you need, what you are supposed to learn from each section of the paper, and what resource materials you can use to further your understanding. This post turned out much longer than I expected, so I will have to continue on in the next post. In Part 2, I will give additional advice that will help make this process easier.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Fast, Compact Ubuntu Virtual Machine

(No GUI)

Virtualization is a great way for Windows users to explore Linux distros without having to dual-boot or replace your OS completely. However, the downsides are that your computer will run much more slowly under the burden of two running OS's. The virtual machine also takes up a lot of space on your disk drive if you "dynamically allocate" the space. Meaning, you let the virtual drive grow as the demands on the virtual machine increase. Even Puppy Linux, one of the most lightweight distros, is very sluggish in the virtual machine. After much experimentation, the best workaround I found was to install just Ubuntu minimal in Virtualbox. It comes with no pre-installed apps, so I ended up saving a lot of space and RAM. The drawback is that it doesn't come with a GUI, so I'm stuck with only a terminal. However, this is ideal for people only want a Linux development environment. The major benefit is that I can easily switch between using the host and guest without either one becoming unbearably slow.

Installation

  1. Download the Ubuntu minimal iso image here: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Installation/MinimalCD
  2. Download and install Virtualbox here: https://www.virtualbox.org/
  3. Open Virtualbox and click New
  4. Set RAM to 500 to 600 MB
  5. Select Create a Virtual Hard Disk Now
  6. Select any hard disk file type, then select Fixed Size
  7. After the hard disk is built, start your virtual machine
  8. Insert iso image into virtual machine by looking through the task bar and clicking Devices>>Optical Drives>>Choose Disk Image
  9. After the machine boots up, Select Command-line Install
  10. Here's a guide to help you through the Ubuntu installation: How to Install A Minimal (And Non-Bloated) Ubuntu On Your Old Laptop

Installing Guest Additions and Expansion Pack

The Guest Additions and Expansion Pack are supposed to add more functionality to the guest OS, but I haven't seen much difference after installing it. Nevertheless, here's how you install both without a GUI on the virtual machine
  1. Download and install the extension pack as normal from the virtualbox website

  2. Once your guest is running and you are in the terminal, download the guest additions iso by entering this code:
  3. wget “link to download virtualbox guest additions"
    You can get the virtualbox guest additions link by copying and pasting from the virtualbox website
  4. Install DKMS by entering the following code:
    sudo apt-get install dkms
    If DKMS is not availiable, use this command:
    sudo rcvboxadd setup
  5. Fully Update guest system by typing:
    sudo apt-get update
  6. Make a mount point for an iso file by entering this:
    sudo mkdir /media/iso 
  7. Mount iso file by entering this:
    sudo mount -o loop /path/iso_file /media/iso
    Your iso image should be in the same directory that you're in, so you just need to enter the file name. You can find it by entering
    ls
  8. Change directory to where iso file is mounted
    cd /media/iso 
  9. Execute:
    sudo sh ./iso_file 
  10. Restart machine to see the changes

Final Tips

If you want to install different GUIs, I would recommend that you take a snapshot of your virtual machine which acts as a backup. Then, you can create clones of the virtual machine and test out different GUIs on each clone. If you do want to try other Linux distros, save yourself some time and download the pre-built virtualbox images that you can find online. There's also a portable version of virtualbox availiable, but I would recommend against it because it tends to be slower and running the virtual machine from a USB wears it down quickly. Now that you have an easily accessible linux enviroment on your computer, you can have the best of both worlds. You can use the Ubuntu guest to run Linux native programs, compile kernels, download malware without having it affect the rest of your computer. Enjoy!

References

How to Install A Minimal (And Non-Bloated) Ubuntu On Your Old Laptop
How to Mount an ISO File
Virtualbox Manual

Review: Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy

Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a must read for any layman who wants to understand how capitalism works, why communism has not worked, and why socialism failed in places like India. Sowell explains many obscure economic concepts in a way that an average seventh grader can understand. Most of the math in the book is basic arithmetic, and there aren't any graphs. However, the book does have a lot of histories and case studies to back up its assertions.

Reading this book is also a great way to become a better critical thinker. Sowell constantly reminds people to think about the hidden costs and better alternatives behind every decision. He also shows how there are innumerable factors affecting and are affected by economic outcomes. It's humbling, and it helps me stop myself from assuming that I or anyone else can make better choices on behalf of others. He also refutes the pet views of both sides of the political spectrum, so both types of people will get exposed to new arguments.

Sowell favors the Chicago School of Economics, but he fully justifies his position. So, it's not a biased book even if it's not neutral to Keynesian economics. In fact, he highlights a lot of the places where both sides agree. At over 600 pages, the book has enough information on the basics of Economics. However, I do wish that Sowell covered socialism in modern Europe more.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Basic CMD Commands and Windows Shortcuts

When you have to use the command prompt to make changes to your system or run a program, knowing just a handful of commands will save you headaches in the long run. Keyboard shortcuts

Command How-to on Windows 10
Add new path to System Path

(Lets you use executables without changing directory)
  1. Press Windows Button
  2. Type and select "advanced system settings"
  3. Click "Enviroment Variables"
  4. Under "System Variables", double-click Path
  5. Click "New" and enter path name
Change directory cd pathname
End Program Ctrl+c
Exit CMD exit
Last Command up arrow
List files in directory dir
Open Administrative CMD
  1. Press Windows Button
  2. Type "cmd"
  3. Ctrl+Shift+Enter
Rename Folders or Files F2
Run Windows Key + R
Scroll up Ctrl+ Alt + up arrow
Scroll down Ctrl+ Alt + down arrow
Show Hidden Icons Windows Key+ B
Show toolbar
  1. Press Windows Key+B
  2. Press Shift+Tab
Select object in taskbar 1.Windows Key+ T (click T multiple times to change selection)
2.Enter (to open selection)

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Review: Curse of the High IQ

Curse of the High IQ Curse of the High IQ by Aaron Clarey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I like Clarey's other works such as Bachelor Pad Economics and Enjoy the Decline. This book isn't meant to be a self-help book like the other two. But, it still should have been more data-heavy and rigorous because that's what the audience, high IQ people, are used to. Instead, most of his assertions are based on anecdotes and little factual support. I was hoping for some more statistical analysis, excerpts from studies, or historical profiles. For his chapter on education, he could have pointed out specific detrimental educational policies, of which there are many. For his chapter on career, he could have included the IQ ranges of various occupations and college majors and talked about the implications of that.
Clarey is very cynical in his writing, which ironically allows him to give the best advice for young people to avoid mistakes in his other books. Here, it leads him to make overblown assumptions. For example, he assumes that most high IQ people will not be able to find peers at work because of his experiences. His IQ might have caused problems with his finance major co-workers, who aren't exactly the cream of the crop. However, I doubt the same problem would exist with doctors, engineers, or statisticians. And it definitely wouldn't exist if you work for a company like Google, which screens out applicants with interview questions that cleverly get around the ban on IQ tests.
This is more of a feel-good book than an informative book for high IQ people. The problems he outlines may be legitimate, but it's going to need better research to support it. Plus, these problems seem like things that high IQ people are completely capable of getting around to achieve their goals. Einstein's the one that said, "I never let schooling get in the way of my education."



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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Review: Bachelor Pad Economics

Bachelor Pad Economics Bachelor Pad Economics by Aaron Clarey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bachelorettes can also benefit from this book. Though I wouldn't recommend it if you are easily offended and can't handle cursing. Sometimes, Clarey does cross a line such as by suggesting men to give backhanded compliments to their significant other. He also gives mixed messages when he claims "women want, nay, crave to be led", then says some wives can be better leaders.

Overall, this book is a great source of advice from career choice to death. The guiding principles in the Philosophy chapter provide the much-needed clarity for young people to focus on the most important things in life. I learned a lot of new financial concepts, but I'm going to have to fact-check his heavily conservative economic analysis. Still, this book is great for people who want to achieve financial freedom and wannabe entrepreneurs. It will tell you how to plan your life, so you aren't beholden to your boss or go into massive debt. He also sets standards for men and women that I agree with. I'm all for both men and women working on being physically attractive, fiscally responsible, and non-abusive. I also like how he models a marriage after Captain Kirk and Spock. Throughout the book, he is very up-front which is perfect for young fools who need a quick dose of reality.

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Review: The Art and Power of Being a Lady

The Art and Power of Being a Lady The Art and Power of Being a Lady by Noelle Cleary
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book isn't much help for women, like myself, who are trying to appreciate and adopt feminine qualities. I do like that the book creates an ideal for modern women to strive for, and it tries to revive only the beneficial societal expectations that women upheld in the past. I also agree with its general attitude towards style and social responsibility.

However, my main issue with the book is that it bases its advice on survey responses from women held to no standard. The women qualify just by answering "yes" to "Are you a lady?" Obviously, claiming to be a lady does not make you one. In addition, the survey respondents included students and single mothers. Many college students are still trying to form their identities, so I doubt the average one would know how to act with the maturity and self-assurance expected from a lady. While some single mothers could qualify as ladies, single motherhood is an indication of unladylike behaviour in the past. Without screening out the single mothers who haven't become more responsible, the survey results seem unreliable. Instead, the authors should have consulted successful women.

Besides that, the book had little substance. Too much of it is common sense like don't swear in front of children. In addition, the book doesn't educate on topics that a lady should know. For instance, the chapter on style could have explained aesthetic principles and some art theory. The chapter on social responsibility could have taught readers how to evaluate non-profit organizations so that your money isn't wasted on ineffective ones. I also wished that the book had a section on marriage dynamics, conversation, old age, and managing finances (instead of just repeating how important it is).



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Friday, June 10, 2016

Making Smarter Purchases with Trade Studies

Trade studies are a useful tool that every layman can learn from the engineers. It gives you a standardized way to judge multiple options based on multiple factors. Using a trade study is also a lot more quick and thorough than making pro/con lists for all of your options. It's great for major decisions such as choosing a car, college, house, or job offer. For me, the best thing about trade studies is that it takes your subjective preferences into account, without letting them override your decision. If I learned about them earlier, I could've saved myself from many impulsive purchases.

How it works

I developed my own template and system for conducting a trade study using Google sheets. You only need a basic understanding of spreadsheets to use it. The first sheet is where you fill in the information about each option from your research. The 'spec sheet links' rows are where you put the references for each option, so you can easily refer to them. The following rows are where you put the important factors for your decision. You can add more factors in the next rows. When filling out the information for each option, do not include units besides $ and %. This is because the other sheets need numerical values in those cells to perform comparisons. Instead, specify units in column A.
The "Criteria Sheet" is where you fill in your benchmarks for each factor. Note that whatever value you put under the 'above' and 'below' columns are noninclusive in the grading functions. For instance, $1000 is under the 'above' column in the 'unideal' category. But, a $1000 product is going to score as ideal. Also, note that you don't have to fill in all the "below" columns if "lower is better" and vice versa if "higher is better". For non-numerical qualities like location, you can list everything that fits under each category in one column.
For the "Trade Study Matrix", you are going to have to modify some of the grading functions after copying and pasting. I tried to make it easier by including a little search function that will give you the variables you need to plug in based on the criteria name. For nonnumerical qualities, you need to define ranges on the "Criteria Sheet", then replace rangename_1 and rangename_2. The weights tell you how important each factor is with the higher weight being more important. In my system, the weights are on a scale of 1 to 5. But you can easily modify it.
The template should save you the hassle of programming your own trade study. If you want to download it, I recommend the "Get on Google Drive" link because I haven't tested it in the other formats.

Get template:

Get on Google Drive
Download Link for Open Document Spreadsheet
Download Link for Excel

Thursday, June 9, 2016

What I Learned as a College Freshman (Part 4: Writing Better)

Surprise! I wrote an extra post for the "What I Learned as a College Freshman" series because I realized that college taught me another valuable skill: writing. Writing isn't just about impressing your audience or voicing your opinions. It allows you to organize your thoughts into a coherent statement, so you know if your thoughts follow any logic outside your head. I have briefly talked about academic writing in Part One, but there's a lot more tips that can help streamline the writing process.

  • Make Notes As You Research
  • You will save a lot of time if you have a neat pile of supporting evidence before you begin writing. These notes will be your best source of inspiration when you are brainstorming ideas. For articles, print a hard copy so you can highlight and annotate. For books, write the locations of important material plus comments on index cards. 5x8 inch will give you sufficient space to work with.

  • Buy a Guidebook
  • One of my biggest shocks in college was that many of the writing rules I learned in high school no longer applied. I can write a paragraph with one word. I can use "I" in my writing! With these restrictions gone, what's acceptable writing is thrown into question. A guidebook can help you balance the need to sound professional with the need to sound human. A good guidebook has quality writing examples that you can model. It must cover the opener of the paper all the way to the closer. You should definitely buy a hard copy, so that it's readily accessible and you can bookmark useful pages. Writing with Style: Conversations on the art of writing by John Trimble is a great resource for college students.

  • Rational > Original
  • New insights are great, but they're harder to defend. Sometimes, they are based on circumstantial evidence in the text. Always defer to the evidence, so you have a strong case. You don't need originality to be interesting; you need to be compelling.

  • Attack Your Opposition After You Have a Strong Argument
  • Discrediting the opposition isn't necessary, even for an A-quality paper. It can improve your paper, but not if it takes away your focus from defending your side. At times, overzealous attacks seem to hide the lack of a reasonable argument. You can see this in real-life when self-righteous people condemn others without knowing much about them.

  • Have Many Backup Plans
  • Despite your scrupulous notes, the first topic you write on can still lead to a dead end. You might become bored with the subject, or you realize that the evidence does not cohere. To make a transition easier, you need backups. While researching, organize your notes under different potential paper topics. When brainstorming, make outlines for different ideas. This will prevent you from becoming ideologically attached to one stance, and as a result, continue wasting time on a failing idea. A side benefit is that you'll also be able to see multiple viewpoints. You might be able to merge ideas or incorporate different ones into your paper, which will strengthen it.

  • Weak Connections between Ideas Cause Transition Problems
  • If you have trouble finding the right transition word, this means that you can't identify the relationship between two sentences. You fix this by separating ideas that can stand alone. Ideally, each sentence depends on the claims of previous sentences. This can also apply to paragraphs, where one exists to justify assumption and the other to make a claim based on that assumption.

  • Take Many Short Breaks
  • Especially when you get writer's block. It will save you lots of headaches and keep you mentally fresh. Of course, this would mean that you would need to start writing long before the deadline so that you have this luxury.

  • Avoid Flowery Language in Body Paragraphs
  • At best, it comes off as fluff- distracting and unnecessary. At worst, it's sophistry or what Thomas Sowell would call "verbal virtuosity". It hinders your reader from understanding your argument and objectively evaluating it. Like overzealously attacking your opponents, flowery language can appear to hide the absence of a reasonable argument. Only indulge in it in your title, the hook of your introduction, or your conclusion. These three locations are far enough from your arguments. Even then, beware that flowery language can still morph into emotional appeals and claims beyond the scope of the paper.

  • Peer Review is not Necessary
  • It's helpful for testing how understandable your paper is. Not so much for its logical validity. After you master writing straightforward sentences, it's not as useful. It's because other college students are still developing their prefrontal cortexes, so they're not the best judges of reason. For that, it's better to seek your professor's help. You can also do it more quickly yourself by identifying all your key assumptions and fact-checking them. In addition, it helps to imagine that your reader is ideologically opposed to your stance. That will get you to make your argument as airtight as possible.

  • Goal of Editing: Becoming More Blunt and Concise
  • Readers should instantly understand your sentences as they read. To that end, your final job is to use the simplest and fewest words possible. Get the shortest sentence possible without losing any of the content. Here's a sentence that needs editing, "The romance between Romeo and Juliet was fated to end in tragedy from the beginning". "Romeo and Juliet’s relationship was doomed from the beginning," is much less cumbersome.

As you write more, you'll see a lot more holes in your arguments. As you become a more rational thinker, your writing will improve. Public schools in the United States don't take this approach. In Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell points out how teachers only encourage students to make emotionally-driven arguments by making students comment on controversial topics before they are sufficently informed. High School classes rarely teach students how to judge the credibility of each source, and extrapolate the implications of the claims made. In my experience, there are some efforts to teach these skills in college. However, college education places more emphasis on independent learning. So, we students bear the responsibility to improve our writing and thinking.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Intellectuals and Society

Intellectuals and Society Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a must-read for avid consumers of intellectual work. These people, myself included, are susceptible to putting intellectuals on a pedestal. We sometimes fail to see that many of these intellectuals are egotistical, speak outside their expertise, and are insulated from the consequences of their positions on political issues. Sowell does a great job of explaining why no one- no matter how brilliant- can be well-informed enough to make decisions on issues they are far-removed from. He makes the case that the "mundane knowledge" of laymen can be much more relevant in the real world than the "specialized knowledge". He then goes on to make logical rebuttals of many misconceptions held by the intelligentsia, showing just how wrong they can be. Even if I don't agree with a lot of his arguments, his arguments are based on evidence that I can easily fact-check. It's better than the emotional appeals and unverifiable, abstract arguments that I find elsewhere. This book is great for anyone who wants to become a critical thinker because Sowell explains precisely how intellectuals avoid facts that conflict with their vision. It gives me an idea of how I can start challenging and verifying assumptions that are often taken for granted.

However, Sowell is also a public intellectual who speaks outside his area of expertise. It begs the question: what makes him different from the liberal intellectuals who he condemns? He also praises other conservative intellectuals such as Milton Friedman, but he never explained why they deserve such praise. His bias for conservative intellectuals wouldn't be such as bad thing if he didn't end up making a "one country comparison". He came to the conclusion that liberal intellectuals are worse than conservative ones without bringing up a negative example of a conservative intellectual.

Regardless of whether you are a liberal or a conservative, this book has many important implications. I for one need to pay attention to whether I'm mistaking "verbal virtuosity" for logical, fact-based arguments. We can also learn to be intellectually humble, by acknowledging the limitations of intellect described in this book. Overall, the book did change my worldview gave me new perspectives to think about.


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