A Book That Everyone Should Read: Naomi Alderman

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I can’t even begin to describe the impact that reading The Power by Naomi Alderman had on me (and I am sure I am not alone). I would even go as far as to predict that this book will become a classic that will keep on being discussed for many decades.

The main premise is the following: at some point teenage girls start experiencing the ability to strike someone with the electricity thanks to the new organ they developed. This new development than leads to complete re-definition of the gender norms on unprecedented scale.

The point that the book is making in the incredible clever and spot-on manner is that the inequality is about power and it has absolutely nothing to do with race or gender by default. I read lots of angry counter arguments to the book stating that if power dynamics were switched women would never ever be so violent or power hungry. But I believe that truth of the matter is when there is an opportunity, means and societal approval people are ready shift their morals surprisingly quickly.

In my opinion, the problem we have nowadays is not there is a better race or gender for politics, computer science or battle against climate change, it is the disproportional representation of people with the certain kind of opinion in the position of power. And what Ms Alderman illustrates wonderfully by the means of extremely readable fiction is that true equality is not that women and minorities can in principle do whatever they want, true equality is the proportional representation of all humans in all the relevant position of power.

Dear Mr President

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Petar Kujundzic/Reuters: Vaclav Havel, Dec 19, 1989

 

Fourteen days ago I thought this post will be full of optimism of getting an educated liberal enough president with the potential to lead my home country into the direction that Vaclav Havel had in mind.

Sadly enough, instead we are getting another term of racism and sexism fuelled pro-Russian populism. After the first (and landslide for that matter) victory of Milos Zeman in 2013 many people thought it was just a symptom of not sufficiently appealing counter-candidates. While I thought Mr. Schwarzenberg would make a fine president, I could understand that many people did not see him as an ideal choice. Or, in the 2016 terminology, it must have been a Hillary Clinton situation right? Except at the end of January it turned out that was not the case. Even with the number of white male attractive-enough reasonable candidates, Czech people still chose the old sick racist angry guy. The fear of a made-up muslim refugee threat resonated better than objective advantages and economic growth associated with being part of western society.

As Mr. Zeman keeps insisting after his victory on referendums on EU and NATO memberships (after five years of hard work on misinforming the public on their function), I keep thinking of Vaclav Havel. He led us out of communistic misery and under his leadership we became a western democracy. Even though that democracy is now under the threat and even though the results of both presidential and parliamentary were extremely depressing, at least in the former case, the race was close. Close enough to know that at least half of the Czech voters are still Vaclav Havel’s nation that will not buy into bigoted narratives. So let’s try to learn a lesson from this and, like voters in US, get more involved into politics of our home country.

 

2017 in Books

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For me 2017 was all about reading bit out of my comfort zone and expanding my genre horizons. Even though it was fun and I found some delightful books, I am looking forward to go back to my line-up of contemporary fiction in 2018.

The most remarkable fiction I read last year was definitely Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (the book that takes some of the most twisted racial prejudices to extreme consequences in a rather satirical manner – even though the author himself doesn’t like the book to be labelled as a satire). Apart from the fact that The Sellout will make you laugh and cry at the same time, this book is one of the best ways of making a point I have ever seen in any context. Another fiction book I liked, as disturbing as it is, is Han Kang’s Vegetarian (I wrote bit about it here).

I tried to get into sci-fi this year, and some classics like Dune took my breath away, some others, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, completely annoyed me by its blatant sexism (sure in 50 years the travel across the galaxy will be possible, but having a woman engineer would be absurd). The sci-fi book published in 2017 that I absolutely loved is John Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire, which is very political and seriously funny space opera with a cast of diverse super interesting characters. I am already looking forward to the follow-up to be published in 2019.

I also read number of biographies (I really wanted to mention Al Franken here, but well… I guess that the book itself is still interesting enough if you feel like reading it). I loved Trevor Noah and Tiffany Haddish books that are both super funny and inspiring.

The annoyed-me-the-most in 2017 is split between Yuval Noah Harari: Homo Deus and Brian Green’s Light Falls. Yuval Harari wrote a book about a species that Homo Sapiens will develop into due to the artificial intelligence revolution. While the book is making some good points and somehow landed on the reputable recommended reading lists, I was constantly annoyed by the over-simplification and superficiality of many of the arguments. To give Mr. Harari the benefit of the doubt, I think that often he plays the devil’s advocate on purpose (he likes to make a point that the problem with Capital not becoming reality is that the capitalists can read). So I guess that his argument that liberal values only make sense in the world where each member of the society is needed to contribute to GDP might be meant as a provocation of the similar type. Then again, it was a week of rage at the over-generalization that is a direct consequence of selectively picking certain claims about artifical intelligence and creating a false narrative.

When comes to Brian Green’s book, let me just say is it really okay in 2000something write stuff like: Einstein was stressed because Hilbert was closing in on him and he had to deal with angry outbursts of his wife while facing the pressure to marry his mistress. Really?

Let me finish with honorable mentions of other great books that I warmly recommend: Hope Jahren: Lab Girl (thoughtful and beautiful memoir of a biologist), Neil deGrasse Tyson: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (super cool popular science book), Andy Weir: The Martian (perfect nerdy sci-fi).

New paradigm for parameter estimation

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In our latest work, now on arXiv, we show how to use a convolutional neural network to extract physical parameters (even the quantum ones!) from experimental currents.

In my PhD I was generally concerned with monitoring and parameter estimation of quantum systems. These elements are crucial for efficiently functioning quantum devices, and, in difference from on-chip quantum operations, there is still a long way to go in terms of getting efficient readout at reasonable times. The ability to extract the maximum amount of information from an experimental record is therefore essential.

In practice, the experimental noise is sometimes so stubborn and viciously correlated that it may be really hard if not impossible to construct a quantum model that describes it. In our work we show that even for the cases where traditional parameter estimation methods do not work the convolutional network is a great solution to find the parameters governing the dynamics of the system.

Exporting histograms from TensorFlow

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Lately I have been working a lot with Google’s TensorFlow library for machine learning. It has a really nice tool for data visualisation, TensorBoard, which can be very useful to understand how the training and evaluation of your model is working. One small bottleneck though is that it has a built-in tool for data export that only works for the scalar functions and unfortunately not for more complex visualisation means like histograms. I find especially the histograms to be particularly useful because they show how is your probability distribution narrowing as a function of learning steps, so it is a really useful figure of merit for understanding the training/evaluation. This is also the reason why I thought it would be useful to export the histograms and customise them for example in Matlab. I would like to share here the code for exporting the histograms from the TensorFlow model. Hopefully you will find it useful! You can download it here.


 

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Saas-Fee

Saas-Fee is a wonderful car-free Swiss village with the proximity to a glacier and several 4000 peaks. I just took a short holiday there and here is a few pictures. If you are ever going to hike there I can especially recommend going to Spielboden and Langflüh, from where you have excellent view of the glacier, and walking from Felskinn to Plattjen, which starts way above the snow line and is one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever went to.

A Case for Past Quantum State

Recently I finished my latest work that has been done in collaboration with my wonderful supervisor and Oxford experimental team and I would like to use this post to advertise it a bit in general terms. You can read it in full at arXiv.

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The past quantum state method relies on a simple assumption: since in practical experimental situations you would like to monitor your system continuously and collect as much data as possible it makes sense to condition your probability not only what happened to your system BEFORE the time t (that is any given time for which you would like to make you probability prediction), but also AFTER the time t. In other words you use both the PAST and the FUTURE (from the point of the time, t, you are interested in) to make a probability prediction. This might sound a little bit sci-fi but as in general in quantum reality it is nothing too fancy, you basically just need to modify the Born rule a bit. The method was first proposed here and we used this kind of reasoning to argue stuff about correlation functions and improve fidelity of the teleportation protocol.

Here we took on the challenge to improve the experimental readout of the single electron quantum dot as well as modify existing techniques for parameter estimation. As it turns out, for typical experimental parameters, we are able to remove most of the noise and we are able to find time of each tunnelling event with super high precision. In addition to that we modified the Baum-Welch parameter estimation method and combined it with good old Bayesian to estimate both coherent and incoherent parameters under the same footing. So if you like quantum dots or you are just interested in quantum measurement theory in general, please have a look!

Non-fiction corner

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In general, I am a huge fan of literary classics and a contemporary fiction, and I spend most of my time reading it. Lately, I tried to extend my literary horizons by adding some new biographies and non-fiction books into this years reading list. I wasn’t disappointed and enjoyed throughly some contemporary perspectives from talented individuals with fresh and eye-opening points of view.

Let me start with Giant of the Senate by Al Franken, which is genuine and funny autobiography of the junior Minnesota senator. There is many funny stories making the book light and super entertaining read, but at the same time he doesn’t come out as a person who is living his life just to create a lot of funny stories about himself. There are underlying ideas and standpoints strongly present and Al seems like a person who genuinely wants to make the world a better place (I guess the fact that I happen to personally agree with much of his political ideology kind of helps there:)). Of course, he is little bit full of himself, but at the same time he is able to make fun of himself and also convey very strongly motivations for his political stands and principles.  At the moment, I am reading another of his books, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, which he wrote during the Bush administration before he became a senator and I must say I find it to be an extraordinary piece of political satire and if you ever been frustrated with Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly reading it definitely brings a lot of humorous relieve..

Another memoir I read recently was Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. In this book Trevor concentrates on his growing up in South Africa during apartheid and right after it was dismantled. Even though he is still his usual funny self, he shows much more serious side in his book and well, most of his experiences are extremely chilling. Reading about the ‘perfect racism’ of apartheid is extremely scary… and then you get sad and scared even more when you realise that there is still way too many people around the world who subscribe to those points of view (which for some reason become somehow acceptable if you deviate just slightly enough from appalling apartheid rules). I must say that I found mostly admirable how he dealt with the difficult situations he was put in and found the book overall great and worth reading.

New book by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, is a pure pleasure to read (or listen to, which is what I did, since Neil narrates the recording himself). I have been raving on this blog about how great job is American Museum of Natural History doing in making science fun and accessible and Neil of course contributes to that greatly. He has wonderful storytelling skills and cool ways to explain science without unnecessary trivialisations. As a physicist I am always wary reading popular books about physics, because there is only so many popular explanations of entanglement I can take, but this book was an overall pleasant surprise. Well, I’m not an astrophysicist, so maybe some of them would beg to differ. But I really liked the science explanations (even the LIGO detection of gravitational waves was included!), and while I don’t necessarily agree with all Neil’s philosophical points of view I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to everyone, a scientist or not.

Finally, I read Modern Romance: An Investigation by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. This was definitely the lightest of this portion of my non-fiction reads content-wise, but still interesting, serious and sufficiently scientific investigation of how the newest technology is impacting the human relationships. Aziz is a great writer and the studies presented seemed serious enough to me, even though I don’t have experience in social science. The conclusion presented is basically this: while we are in much better position to find a partner that is a right match for us compared to the generation of our (grand)parents, we get overwhelmed with the amount of choice and put much less effort into actually cultivating relationships with the people we meet. So while our parents had to make a choice about a spouse from a very small set of people, they were generally valuing the relationship more and tried to put more effort into making it work (because, well, that was the person they were supposed to be stuck with for the rest of their life), we tend to dismiss people based on tinder photo or weird text and never talk to them again.

In addition to this I am re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird mostly because I feel like everyone around me keeps quoting Atticus Finch and I barely remember any details from the story since high school, so I feel perhaps I didn’t appreciate it enough as a teenager and want to give it deeper look.