Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Kamala Harris: A Look At Joe Biden’s Running Mate

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Vanshita Banuana

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Kamala Harris: A Look At Joe Biden’s Running Mate

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Global Views 360

Publication Date

September 2, 2020

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Kamala Harris giving a speech

Kamala Harris giving a speech | Source: Twitter

On August 11, Democratic Party’s nominee for the US Presidential election. Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate for vice president. Her selection preceded a lot of noises from within democratic party’s grass-root workers and progressive leaders to choose a woman of colour for the VP position. This was taken as a show of support for the progressive causes  for which Joe Biden nd Democratic Party stand with full force.

Here’s a look at the life and policies of Kamala Harris, who could be the first woman to occupy the position of Vice President of the USA.

Kamala Harris (L) with her mother—Shyamala Gopalan (C) and Sister—Maya Harris (L) | Source: IndiaAbroad

Kamala Harris was born to immigrant parents who came to the USA as students in the 1960s and stayed on to fulfil their dreams. Her Father came from Jamaica in 1961 to pursue economics from UC Berkeley, while her mother came from India in 1958 to pursue research in endocrinology and breast cancer, also from UC Berkeley. They met and married during the social protest movement in the 1960s but got separated while Kamala was only seven years old. Her mother never remarried and took great care of Kamala and her sister Maya.

Kamala’s mother belonged to one of the highest social classes, the Tamil Brahmin but raised both of her daughters as Black American. She kept her contact with the family back in Chennai (earlier known as Madras), India, which continued with Kamala as well.

Kamala spent much of her childhood in Montreal, Quebec, Canada after her parents divorce. After graduating high school she attended Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C. She is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a well-known Black sorority. She married Douglas Emhoff, an attorney, in 2014. Her sister is currently a lawyer, an MSNBC political analyst, and has worked with Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

She was the district attorney general of San Francisco and attorney general of California, and was the first Black woman to hold those positions. She went into the profession apparently because she wanted to change the law enforcement system from the inside. Over the years she has repeatedly referred to herself as a “top cop,” though she also prefers “progressive prosecutor.” She became a member of the Senate and has been running for President since 2016.

Her stance on several policies has changed over the years. During her prosecutor years she occupied a classic centrist stance: she supported some reforms to the criminal justice system, which was unique in an era of “tough on crime” policies (that often had racist undertones), but at the same time she tried to keep favour with police officers and unions— perhaps due to her nature as a prosecutor, and was often silent on bills which might have be seen as too polarised towards one end of the spectrum.

Her more well-acclaimed decisions came in the form of programs such as anti-bias training, Open Justice and Back on Track. Open Justice is an online portal that makes various criminal justice data, such as deaths and injuries in police custody, available to the public. Back on Track was about a year long program aimed at young and first-time low-level offenders, offering to waive jail time if they went to school, got a job, and other such goals.

It might be worth noting that a lot of Harris’ actions focus on what can be done after an arrest is made and before incarceration, which inherently means that reducing police brutality and reforming prisons have not yet been great strengths of hers. Since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, civil rights activists have looked up to Harris, a Black woman in a position of power, to lead the change in terms of legislature, but have come out with mixed results. Most of them feel that Harris strives for some reform but never gets too bold, and essentially ends up upholding the status quo.

For instance, around 2015, she made body-worn cameras mandatory for all of the small percentage of special agents employed by the attorney general, but did not support a bill to make them mandatory for all police officers in California, stating that she opposed a “one-size-fits-all approach.” Some of her other decisions while she was a prosecutor have been questioned in recent debates, such as her anti-truancy law, and the evolution of her opinion on marijuana.

Harris has spoken out in support of Kashmiris under Indian occupation after the revocation of article 370. Biden has been critical of the Citizenship Amendment Act. However, she has also described the India-US relationship as “unbreakable”, and even tweeted a welcome message for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to India in June 2017.

Biden’s choice of Harris as his running mate for vice president is considered by her supporters as symbolic and historic due to her identity as a Black Asian-American and the representation she brings to a powerful stage. Her critics however, have been skeptical due to her career as someone who worked very closely with law enforcement.

Harris, like any other politician, has a checkered past which deserves scrutiny. Those who are rooting for or against her deserve to know about the different aspects of her political, social and other policy positions which helped evolve into the politician she is today and the direction in which she is expected to move in the future. This will be essential for her to appeal to a wider population and add to the votes for Joe Biden in the November 2020 Presidential poll.

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April 13, 2021 2:10 PM

Detecting The Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays With Smartphones

Smartphones have become the most commonplace objects in our daily lives. The unimaginable power that we hold in our hands is unrealized by most of us and, more importantly, untapped. Its creativity often gets misused but one can only hope that it’s fascinating abilities would be utilized. For example, did you know that the millions of phones around the globe can be connected to form a particle detector? The following article covers the CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found in Smartphones) phone-based application developed by the physicists from the University of California—Daniel Whiteson, Michael Mulhearn, and their team. CRAYFIS aims to take advantage of the large network of smartphones around the world and detect the cosmic or gamma rays bursts which enter the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly.

What Are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic rays are high velocity subatomic particles bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere continuously. Cosmic ray bursts have the highest energy compared to all forms of electro-magnetic radiation. When we say ultra-high energy particles (energy more than 1018^eV), we mean two million times more energetic than the ones that can be produced by the particle colliders on Earth.  These rays are thought to be more powerful than typical supernovae and can release trillions of times more energy than the Sun. They are also highly unpredictable as they can enter Earth’s atmosphere from any direction and the bursts can last for any period of time ranging from a few thousand seconds to several minutes.

Despite many theoretical hypotheses, the sources of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays are still a mystery to us even after many decades of their discovery. These rays were initially discovered in the 1960’s by the U.S. military when they were doing background checks for gamma rays after nuclear weapon testing. Cosmologists suggest that these bursts could be the result of super massive stars collapsing - leading to hypernova; or can be retraced to collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars.

How Do We Detect Them?

When the high-energy particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, the air and the gas molecules cause them to break apart and create massive showers of relatively low-energy particles. Aurora borealis i.e., the Northern and the Southern lights are the lights that are emitted when these cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, these particles are hitting the Earth at a rate of about one per square meter per second. The showers get scattered to a radius of one or two kilometers consisting mostly of high-energy photons, electrons, positrons and muons. But the fact that these particles can hit the Earth anytime and anywhere is where the problem arises. Since the Earth has a massive area, it is not possible to place a detector everywhere and catch them at the exact moment.

Energetic charged particles known as cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, where they collide with air molecules to produce a shower of secondary particle | Source: CERN

Detecting such a shower requires a very big telescope, which logically means a network of individual particle detectors distributed over a mile or two-wide radius and connected to each other. The Pierre Auger Observatory in South America is the only such arrangement where 1,600 particle detectors have been scattered on 3,000 square kilometers of land. But the construction cost of the same was about $100 million. Yet, only a few cosmic ray particles could be detected using this arrangement. How do we spread this network around the Earth?

In addition to being cost-effective, such a setup must also be feasible. The Earth’s surface cannot possibly be dotted with particle detectors which cost huge fortunes. This is where smartphones come into the picture.

Detecting The Particles Using Smartphones

Smartphones are the most appropriate devices required to solve the problem. They have planet wide coverage, are affordable by most people and are being actively used by more than 1.5 billion users around the planet. Individually, these devices are low and inefficient; but a considerably dense network of such devices can give us a chance to detect cosmic ray showers belonging to the highest energy range.

Previous research has shown that smartphones have the capability of detecting ionizing radiation. The camera is the most sensitive part of the smartphone and is just the device required to meet our expectations. A CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) device is present in the camera- in which silicon photodiode pixels produce electron-hole pairs when struck by visible photons (when photons are detected by the CMOS device, it leaves traces of weakly activated pixels). The incoming rays are also laced with other noises and interference from the surroundings.  Although these devices are made to detect visible light, they still have the capability of detecting higher-energy photons and also low-ionizing particles such as the muons.

A screenshot from the app which shows the exposure time, the events- the number of particles recorded and other properties

To avoid normal light, the CRAYFIS application is to be run during nighttime with the camera facing down. As the phone processor runs the application it collects data from its surroundings using a camera as its detector element. The megapixel images (i.e., the incoming particles) are scanned at a speed of 5 to 15 frames per second, depending on the frame-processing speed of the device. Scientists expect that signals from the cosmic rays would occur rarely, i.e., around one in 500 frames. Also, there is the job of removing background data. An algorithm was created to tune the incoming particle shower by setting a threshold frequency at around 0.1 frames per second. Frames containing pixels above the threshold are stored and passed to the second stage which examines the stored frames, saving only the pixels above a second, lower threshold.

The CRAYFIS app is designed to run when the phone is not being used and when it is connected to a power source. The actual performance would be widely affected by the geometry of the smartphone’s camera and the conditions in which the data is being collected. Further, once the application is installed and is in the operating mode, no participation is required from the user, which is required to achieve wide-scale participation. When a Wifi connection is available the collected data would be uploaded to the central server so that it could be interpreted.

There is much complicated math used to trace back the information collected from the application. The most important parameters for the app are the local density of incoming particles, the detection area of the phone and the particle identification efficiency. These parameters are used to find the mean number of candidates (photons or muons) being detected. Further, the probability that a phone will detect no candidates or the probability that a phone will detect one or more candidates is given by Poisson distribution. The density of the shower is directly proportional to the incident particle energy with a distribution in x and y sensitive to the direction in which the particle came from. An Unbinned Likelihood (it is the probability of obtaining a certain data- in this case the distribution of the cosmic rays including their energy and direction, the obtained data is arranged into bins which are very, very small) analysis is used to determine the incident particle energy and direction. To eliminate background interference, a benchmark requirement has been set that at least 5 phones must detect and register a hit to be considered as a candidate.

It is impossible to express just how mind-blowing this innovation is. As the days pass, Science and Technology around us keep on surprising us and challenge us to rack our brains for more and more unique ways to deal with complex problems. The CRAYFIS app is simply beautiful and it would be a dream-come-true to the scientists if the project works out and we are able to detect these high energy, super intimidating cosmic rays with smartphones from our backyard.

Further Reading

The paper by Daniel Whiteson and team can be found here.

An exciting book “We Have No Idea” by Daniel Whiteson and cartoonist Jorge Cham can be found here.

The CRAYFIS app can be found here.

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