Words I wish I wrote myself, n. 2

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on November 9, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

Reading, I had learned, was as creative a process as writing, sometimes more so. When we read of the dying rays of the setting sun or the boom and swish of the incoming tide, we should reserve as much praise for ourselves as for the author. After all, the reader is doing all the work – the writer might have died long ago.

Jasper Fforde, First Among Sequels

The Emperor New Clothes

Posted in G 1 with tags , , , , , on November 5, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero


Photo from The Big Picture – Boston Globe

OK, it’s been a while since I wrote my last post here. I imagine I could, with a small effort, build up a whole bunch of very good reasons for that. But the truth is,  I’m too lazy to do it. And that’s exactly why I skipped these last three months here. Laziness.

Anyway, I wanted to give it another try since some time, but after such a long vacation, the post subjects that came to my mind always seemed somehow unworthy of the occasion. Well. I guess today I have no more excuses. It’s indeed well possible that, in a few years, people will ask each other what the hell they were doing in such a day. Where they were, how did they live through the event. Exactly like it did happen for 9/11. History could be a whole different story from today on. Maybe. Then, indeed, maybe not.

So, the emperor today had donned new clothes. Magnificent ones, or so it seems. In any case undeniably much, much better than the old ones (not such a difficult task, I concede). And we, from our lookout at the borders of the empire, cannot but rejoice for that. Still, there is a possibility that eventually we’ll discover the naked truth hiding behind the clothes, and won’t like it so much.

In the past, I had expressed some perplexity about Obama, but I ended up liking him more and more. True, it somewhat helped that the alternative,  possibly the only decent candidate the Republicans could put in the field, had squandered his campaign by choosing a strategy based solely upon denigration and by banding together with the genius she-hunter from Alaska.

So, today I’m quite happy. The event in itself has at least a strong, positive symbolic relevance. Therefore I push at the back of my mind the doubts I still have. But I cannot resist to mention again a quote from the late Kurt Vonnegut:

“There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don’t know what can be done to fix it. This is it: only nut cases want to be president.”

I’m personally quite convinced of the truth of that. One must indeed be mad to be willing to bear such  a burden.

However,  there are things (just a few simple actions, indeed) that should absolutely be done for the progress of the US and the rest of the world, but are faced by such a strong resistance that only a madman would be willing to undertake them.

Let’s hope America has just elected such a madman, unlikely as it is.

And in case you didn’t get enough…

Posted in G 1, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 1, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

(Maximilien Brice, © CERN)

…have a look at these wonderful photographs from The Big Picture – Boston.com. (Hat tip to Phonkmeister.) Enjoy.

P.S.: And don’t worry. This is not really going to happen (in Italian).

Everything you always wanted to know about LHC…

Posted in G 0 with tags , , , , , on July 29, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

… but were afraid to ask.

Hat tip to Dorigo, for pointing out in his blog the video above, an LHC rap shoot on location at CERN. At least from a first view the text is way more accurate and to the point than most divulgative articles about the machine and experiments in recent newspapers (no sweat, you may say, but still…).

Information about the author here (from Dorigo’s post comments).

In case you’re still curious (and still don’t dare to ask), I’d like to mention this public information site about LHC, including an LHC blog (watch out for news) and webcams (you can even have a look at what’s going on in the Atlas control room).

A Modest Proposal

Posted in G 1 with tags , , , , on July 11, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

I started to suspect some time ago that in Italy there could be a problem with gypsies, or, to employ a more politically correct term, Roma people.
Not much of a news, you say? OK, right, sometimes I’m sort of slow in catching up with the current news.

However, I did a small research, and yes, I’m positive: we have a problem. Only, it’s a bit worse than I expected. The good news is that there is a solution. A rather simple one, in fact. And quite obvious. It somehow emerges naturally if only one cares to give a closer look at the issue, and it could be both effective and not too difficult to implement.

Bear with me, you won’t be disappointed. I hope. Most likely you would be surprised.

It all started last week when I come upon a mention in an article on Repubblica of a recent survey put in place by the European commission about discrimination and inequality in Europe. Repubblica reported that Italy resulted the EU country with the highest dislike for Roma. Of course, the few random percentages mentioned in the newspaper couldn’t possibly give a comprehensible view of the situation. I was intrigued however by the fact that France was mentioned as much more tolerant than Italy. I live in France, and I know that Roma are much more numerous here than in my country of origin. I resolved I would check the numbers some other time.

Well, I have found some time now, so I retrieved the original report and I looked for Rom population estimates in Wikipedia,  with the aim to check for correlations.

The survey, for the part of interest, involved two questions, put to population samples across EU countries:

1) How comfortable would you feel in having a Rom as a neighbour? (Scale from 1 tot 10, highest more comfortable.)

2) Do you have any Roma friend ?

I thus plotted the survey results against the percentage of Roma over the entire population of the different countries, and here are the results (including error bars for estimate uncertainties):

So, there is hardly any overall correlation between the number of Roma in a given country and how they are perceived. there. In Italy the Roma are only a tiny fraction of the total inhabitants (less than 0.2%), as in most of Europe, but all countries with similar low Rom densities are much more tolerant than Italy, and their score show a rather large spread. The western Europe countries with a relatively high Rom density are amongst the more tolerant, while east Europe countries, with the higher number of Roma, are slightly below average but show, interestingly enough, a positive trend (higher Rom density = high tolerance). Therefore, the claim that in Italy there is a reaction to the too high number of Roma starts to look a bit fishy. What’s so special about Italy, then? Somebody particularly malignant  could be tempted to answer that Italy is the only EU country with a prime minister with a dominant position in the mass media and a very strong interest first in creating dissatisfaction with the previous government and then in distracting the public from more important issues (for which he has no clue about possible solutions). However we should dismiss here such hypothesis  as unscientific, on the ground that it’s impossible to either prove it or disprove it in this context.

It’s however interesting to look at the plot below, dealing with the answers to the second question. of the survey It is not surprising that only four percent among Italians admit to have a Rom friend, since it’s so hard to find one at all. On the other hand, almost half of Bulgarians have friends among Roma. It looks like xenophobic reaction are damped by increased presence of minorities, thus more opportunities to meet and understand them.

Eventually, I find the last plot the more intriguing. I compare here the reaction to Rom neighbours among the countries supposedly closest to Italy for culture, social structure and standard of living. I include UK and Germany, the other larger western states, for comparison. It is very tempting to admit a trend towards higher acceptance in case of a stronger presence of Rom minorities.

The conclusion is blatantly obvious: Italians are not comfortable with Roma, because there are not enough Roma in Italy. An increase in their number would give Italians more chances to know them better and therefore be reassured.

So, if the present government really want to reduce social alarm caused by Roma people, it should first of all try to attract more of them. It may not solve completely the problem, since Italy looks like such an anomaly, but this simple study show that it can only improve it.

Unfortunately I suspect that, as is often the case for simple, logical solutions based on a scientifically sound analysis, the political power would gladly ignore such a suggestion. Pity for them us.

Angels & Demons

Posted in G 0 with tags , , , , on June 15, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

As many will know, Angels & Demons is a rather appalling, if highly successful, book by Dan Brown.

Director Ron Howard is presently working on the movie version of the novel, following up on his previous rendition of another bestseller by Brown, The Da Vinci Code. Tom Hanks will be starring in the movie, in the role of professor Robert Langdon, which he had covered in the previous one as well.

I learned today that the Vatican had denied access to its premises for the shooting, as it had previously done for the Da Vinci Code, on account that the movie “offends common religious feelings”.

As you may know, the novel start with a murder of a physicist taking place at CERN and the theft of an absurd amount of anti-matter in order to set-up an unlikely anti-matter bomb. The process of anti-matter production, the physics involved and the laboratory itself are also described in a rather ludicrous manner. Such that CERN felt obliged to rectify a few questions in one of its public web pages.

I was wondering if the movie plan was requiring some shooting at the CERN site, so I had a look and discovered that it was indeed so. And, guess what, not only CERN management apparently had already granted access to the site, but CERN physicists had helped to get some physics issues straight in the script.

I have still some reserve about the likely result, but this is not the main point. What is worth noticing is the different behavior of CERN and the catholic church administrators.

It could well be that in the novel the church has been treated in a worse way than science or CERN had been. Or they are more easily offended. Or less tolerant. Or again, could be that science is less vulnerable than religion to what adds up to a fair amount of essentially innocuous bullshit wrapped around a cleverly devised plot.

And could be that this has something to do with science being based on facts and logic rather than faith. Up to you to decide.

For me, I’m rather happy to be on the side of Angels, this time. Or are we the Demons?

Well, whatever.

Rollin’ & Tumblin’

Posted in G 0 with tags , , on June 5, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

No, in spite of the title and the picture, this is not a musical post.

I just wanted to inform you that since a few days I’m experimenting with Tumblr. Mainly in Italian. Here.

I’m not sure I’m really getting the knack of it, though. Comments welcome.

Time for choices

Posted in G 0 with tags , , , , , on June 4, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

So, America has finally chosen.

Obama will be the one that will run against McCain for the presidency.

Maybe because I’m eternally undecided, but, as I stated in a previous post, I still cannot make up my mind if I like Obama or not. Even if, between him and McCain, I’d rather have him. Well, I suppose.

What is sure is that, after the last Italian elections (and the slogans, the videos and everything), I cannot look at Obama without being reminded of Veltroni. And, alas, I must confess I wouldn’t be able to choose between the two, either.

I must be allergic to decisions.

Except, now that I think about it, I wouldn’t have any possible doubt if I was left to choose between Berlusconi and McCain.

…O, say, does that
Star-Spangled Banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free
And the home of the brave?

A good value for money

Posted in G 1 with tags , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

The world only needs 30 billion dollars a year to eradicate hunger. FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf today appealed to world leaders for such an effort in order to re-launch agriculture and avert future threats of conflicts over food.

This reminded me of a discussion I had last week, during a visit of local politicians to CERN installations. During the discussion, a kind lady made a comment I must have heard a number of times:

“What you’re doing here is fascinating, but when I think about the amount of money needed to realize all that, I wonder whether it could not be used for a better task. You know, with all the people dying of hunger in the third world…”

Yes, I’ve asked myself the same question, a few times. And yes, I have given myself answers. But I won’t provide these to you. I’ll just tell you some facts, some of which I just checked up today:

– The annual budget of CERN is about 1 billion dollar per year.

– The total cost of the LHC is estimated to about 6 billion dollars.

– A single F-22 fighter plane cost is more than 300 million dollars, while a B-2 bomber costs up to 2.2 billion dollars (including R&D costs, subdivided by total number of planes built).

– The annual budget of the US defense is more than 500 billion dollars. The annual military expenditure in Italy is (wanna try to guess?) about 30 billion dollars.

– The direct official cost of the Iraq war to the US administration is 845 billion dollars up to date. In a recent book, the Nobel laureate Stiglitz had evaluated the total cost to the US economy to 3000 billion dollars. A very conservative estimate, he claims.

When somebody ask a physicist today about what practical use one can make of the potential discoveries of an experiment like LHC, there’s only one possible answer: “We don’t know (yet)”. The same answer Faraday apparently gave to Gladstone, then British minister of finances, who was asking him about the practical use of electricity. “But I guess one day the government would put a tax on it.” , he added.

We indeed know a bit more about the practical uses of electricity today. I guess I don’t need to remind you what the practical use of a bomber is.

I hope the information I provided can help somebody to decide whether the money invested in fundamental science is a good value for money or not. Everyone, of course, will have his own opinion. I think I’ll stick to mine.

Family matters

Posted in G 1 with tags , , , , on May 27, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

Yesterday, in Palermo, a father stabbed his own son, apparently justifying his act by the young man homosexual inclination.

Last week the UK House of Commons unexpectedly rejected proposals that would have made the access to in vitro fertilisation exremely difficult for homosexual couples or single women. The new bill amends existing legislation, which require clinics to recognise the “need for a father”, to the simple need of “supportive parenting”. It makes thus easier to access in vitro fertilization. Both partners will be recognised as parents on birth certificates when lesbian couples conceive with donated sperm or gay men use surrogacy to have a child.

Two weeks ago, a sentence of the California Supreme Court recognized gay marriage.

Meanwhile the Italian Minister for equality declares to newspapers that gays are not being discriminated and expresses her views on gay rights and abortion – in her blog.

So thinking about all this, I remembered today a comic booklet for children I had discovered in the Geneva public library, where I had brought my son.

Geneva library has a nice children section, where kids are free to roam around picking up books from scaffoldings and cupboards. Sofas and chairs are also spread around, even if they are in general neglected in favor of the preferred reading place of Swiss kids, which happens to be, like in all countries, on the floorboards.

The book dealt about homosexual parenthood, in what I found a rather tactful and charming way. I remember having been only moderately surprised to find such a booklet there in public display. My only thought was the usual one, on how more advanced than Italy are indeed countries like France or Switzerland.

Since I could’t remember the title nor the author of the booklet, I looked up for it today on the web, where it was not difficult to find. It is called Jean a deux mamans by Ophelie Texier and published by Ecole des Loisirs. While I was looking for it, I also found an article appeared on Le Figaro dealing about it, and discovered that even in supposedly advanced countries, the occasional idiot can be found. And get some support as well.

I report here a few phrases, by a pediatrician (and right-wing politician):

“…c’est n’importe quoi ! … [l’homoparentalité, c’est] pas une valeur, mais un fait marginal. Elle véhicule donc, dans ce sens, des antivaleurs… De zéro à 6 ans, ce que vous voyez et entendez, vous l’engrangez comme un fait intangible, cela se colle dans la mémoire. Même s’il ne sait pas lire, un enfant capte des messages, lesquels lui paraissent comme un fait acquis. A cet âge-là, la structuration du psychisme est en pleine construction du complexe d’Oedipe. L’enfant est en train de prendre ses repères, il fixe sa place par rapport à son père et sa mère, il construit qui il est. … Or, lire ou raconter ce genre d’histoire bouleverse tout et peut nuire à la construction psychique.”

In brief (I spare you a complete French-to-English translation by an Italian, even if it could have been rather funny), the book is bullshit, it propagates anti-values, and to read it would undermine the personal identity of children, who are building it in relation with paternal and maternal figures.

N’importe quoi, really…

I’ll probably have troubles sleeping tonight, thinking about the many generation of children (and myself among them), whose life was irremediably ruined by the deeply distorted family paradigm provided by the household shown in the post image.