Book review: Ancillary Justice/Sword/Mercy

Another book cycle finished. Actually, a longer time ago, but I got wound up in random events and did not find the time to blog. My bad.

I have already written something about the first part, and now I would like to revise my conclusion. I told you that Ann Leckie is an heir to Banks, and I probably will stay with that opinion. But she is also an heir to Asimov, in the sense that she likes to talk about evolution of social structures in the far future, over large distances.

Ann Leckie’s concept of the Empire is a distributed personality ruling everything; the premise is that it is possible to link a human body to a distributed mind and let it act as an agent of the said mind. As the agent is semi-autonomus and may not necessarily be always in contact with her other selves, communication delays may let parts of her personality act independently; hence, the stability of the Empire may be in question.

As far as space operas go, this particular one is pretty constrained in time and space. However, this is not a bad thing, as the questions Leckie discusses are large and require attention, even in the far future. Again, in the tradition of early sci-fi, today’s questions are asked in the setting of a possible tomorrow to look at them from a different perspective.

What I liked most, however, were the characters. Not all of them are my favorites, but at least the main character, Breq, is exactly the rational and cold-blooded person I expected to see in her position. Not all of her surroundings are, sadly, but in most cases they don’t raise disbelief (which is already very good!).

Also, I liked the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, so I just say that it is not the one you’d typically expect and also the one that makes most sense. Yes, this is not a contradiction.

“Ancillary Justice”

Yay. I like characters that think aloud. I even more like characters that think aloud clearly, with clear goals, self-conscience, and some kind of risk assessment. Breq/Justice of Toren is such a character and is incredibly convincing. Although the part when she is distributed could be longer.

The story is set in the not totally (but soon) grim darkness of the far future, where humans are somewhere in the stars. The “social” part is sufficiently alien (although not entirely alien to the reader of today), but the questions relating to society are, as with every science fiction work, understandable and more or less acute in the society of today.

You probably should not expect epic action. Action is rare in this book, it is mostly main characters on a quest. However, dialogues and character development are convincing enough.

All in all, an heir to Banks.

Internet usage patterns

It happens pretty often that I think about Web technologies and how cool it would be if the web sites were responsive and all the websites would turn into shiny rich internet applications.

And then I end up in one of these hotels where the only source of Internet is the lobby with really poor, dialup-quality bandwidth. Then I ask myself whether it is really, really necessary to build megabyte-sized websites that contain mostly text and a metric ton of fancy design.

A prayer

This year, lots of things made me uncomfortable. Hypes, idiots, wannabe-experts. I happen to have the right quote for this case (because I’m a scientist and previous work has to be mentioned). Long, long ago (October 1, 2008, to be precise), a guy got so fed up with this world that he wrote a short prayer (in Russian):

Dear, dear God!

Please, enact a Fucking Big Economic Crisis, to return all these well-fed managers and analysts back to drinking cheap beer in parks, to make all the uppity sociocultural thinkers get to the villages they came from, since they won’t afford their flats. Turn back the Successful Startupers into socially inept black market delivery boys, and glamorous columnists into street prostitutes. Dear God, please, make this fucking world of arrogant insects collapse.

Dear God, I am even ready to be hungry for some months to see this.

Please.

Living with Markov chains

It has been nearly two months since I started in grad school, and I have not told you what I am working on. (Well, some of you know, but I still have not announced it.) The project is called “Bounded-Parameter Markov Decision Processes” and it deals with decisions under certain uncertainty conditions. The broad context is optimization of technical systems under uncertainty, and this is one approach to the general problem.

So, what is it all about? It begins with Markov chains, which are a fairly old formalism that describes a system that has some states, like “lights on” and “lights off”. The formalism contains probabilities of the event that the system changes its state after one unit of time. With some linear algebra and probability theory, it is possible to compute the behavior of such system. Then, we go on and extend this formalism: now, in each state, we can make a decision and execute an action from some given action set; in our case these actions might be “flip switch” and “do nothing” (as you can see even in this simple model, inaction is also a decision and implies consequences). Each action has some costs attached to it (costs may be also negative, thus, being rewards) and alters the state in a different way: in our example, flipping the switch would mean a state transition and doing nothing would mean staying in the previous state. This leads to the obvious question of finding a strategy that minimizes costs. And for this case, too, one can employ Mighty Linear Algebra and find several algorithms that deliver optimal strategies.

Now, my problem is a little more complicated. In my case, the transition probabilities are not certain; one only knows lower and upper bounds, which in the most general case can mean arbitrary transition probabilities. In this case, it is far less trivial what the optimal strategy can be.

But the thing that bothers me most is that, actually, I’d like to get a joint Math/CS degree afterwards, since what I am doing is basically lots of (applied) math 🙂

Hatred

If I could give you an advice on living in Germany, that would be: never rent a flat with an address that has a letter, like Baker Street 221b. The shiny information systems that crave my Big Data seem to fail this not very seldom case.

In my case it happened that two databases could not understand that I, in fact, have a house number that is not a number.

As for the internets, it seems that my ISP and the backbone provider cannot decide who is responsible for my connection since my house seems to be connected through the neighbors, which means that I will have to talk to the landlord and ask him strange questions. This obviously had to happen two weeks after I ordered the phone and internet package, which is a little annoying. (Not to say: if I could, I would make them all get only 8 KB/s bandwidth for a month just to feel some empathy)

DSA

For the last two weeks, I have been giving a course on SAT solving at the DSA, which expands to „Deutsche SchülerAkademie“. This is a system of summer camps in Germany that provide courses on various scientific topics (mostly: mathematics, science, politics, philosophy, and art) and are intended for high-schooler one or two years before they finish school.

Having participated at such an event myself, I connect lots of warm memories with my DSA, and my intention was to help gain the same experience for those who were participating in it now. I think I managed to do that.

P1010737

I have met lots of motivated young people, experienced a very different perspective on teaching, and I hope I got some new insights about people in general. I am happy that I could do it, and I would like to give a course again.

After-thesis traveling

So yeah, four weeks into some-kind-of-vacations and I already have visited three cities. It feels somewhat strange, not having obligations of any kind besides my student job that I still have. Other than that, it is a very beautiful feeling of freedom — though it might be whited out by other feelings.

Since the whole Prism affair I had several thoughts on matters of information security. Besides, I also wanted to have an independent web presence, so here you go. This blog is as of now available at http://blog.s13h.eu , hope you will like it here.