Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cold Fusion

There has been a lot of talking on the internet about cold fusion in the past six weeks. Once I read about for the first time this year, I has a lot of negative preconceptions about cold fusion. I don't even know where they come from, as they are really old prejudices. Thanks to slashdot though, I became curios. It is now enough to look for cold fusion on Google News to understand what all the fuss is about. Apparently, by the end of the year a new technology to produce energy will enter the market in direct competition with oil and renewable energies. With the simple difference that this is going to be like the democratization of nuclear power.

How can this be and nobody is talking about it? I think an analogy to VoIP technology is good for understanding. VoIP technology has been a reality for maybe more than 10 years. If used correctly, nobody would consider reasonable paying for phone calls at the moment. And yet, most people still do pay or they use a technology called Skype which in my opinion is a step back. I have been using VoIP for over three years now. It looks like a phone, it works like a phone, and yet is as cheap as it can get, i.e., I call regularly over sea and I pay nothing. All the benefits and no compromises.

I believe cold fusion is the same. It is a technology with little market. I believe that the two inventors and their investor, even with their patents, will not make in twenty years what a single oil company makes in a year. Nobody in the business of energy is going to be happy about this. It will be catastrophic, as soon nobody will want to pay for energy. And yet, most people don't want to believe it. Just try to mention the subject at dinner with your friends. How does that make sense? What makes these news about cold fusion legit? I don't have an answer to that question, but I urge people to read about cold fusion on the internet. There is not much scientific evidence against cold fusion, mostly just a lack of economical interest. I find that hardly surprising.

I have been reading the book "Fire from Ice" from Eugene Mallove about the beginning of cold fusion. The picture in the book points to a view of a great lack of understanding of the physics behind cold fusion, which seems to be still present at the moment, together with some clear evidence of it being a scientific reality. Nevertheless, it seems that funding choices were made thirty years ago by few people mainly driven by opinions rather than by scientific facts. I don't find it surprising, as in academia, where fact matters, a lot of decisions are driven by opinions that too often are hard to change even in front of evidence. I do believe that the cold fusion misconception is mainly a direct descendant of the opinion that grew up for forty years before, that fusion was a process only achievable in the way stars achieve it. But nobody ever said that it has to be so.

I believe that big changes in the world lie ahead. I believe that cold fusion is real because this is the most parsimonious explanation of what I read. And I am really curios to see what is going to happen, as this technology is for sure going to upset quite a few people. Carlo Rubbia, Italian nobel prize in physics, said that if cold fusion was real, then God has been really nice with us. Cold fusion is supposedly going to be clean, scalable, and virtually unlimited. Sounds to good to be true. And yet, why not?

When a molecule of methane mixes with two molecules of oxygen, approximately 9eV of energy are released, but when a Nickel atom fuses with a few hydrogen atoms, it releases approximately 35MeV of energy. More than six orders of magnitude of difference. Like applying Moore's law for more than 30 years. We grow believing that energy is something that comes at a high cost, economically and environmentally. But there is no law that says this has to be the case. Let's go beyond the opinions and be ready to believe again.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The price of short term views

This Christmas I have been hearing about a lot of new devices from Google. With Google TV, Google Nexus S, and Google Chrome OS, it feels like a flood. I could not deprive myself from all of them, and I am now a happy owner of a Google TV. Despite my satisfaction, I do have to say that Google TV has a lot of flaws which have no excuse.
During the first half of the year I have been amused by the diatribe between Apple and Adobe over the Flash technology. Long story short, Apple concluded that Flash over Mac sucks, and as such, they decided to single it out from their technologies. As I despise both companies, I could not care less. I cannot blame Apple's choice though. As a faithful Linux user for the last ten years, I hate Flash more than any other technology ever invented, as on Linux Flash sucks even more and the internet ecosystem it promoted makes often things inefficient on Linux.
Recently I kept reading comparisons between Google products and Apple products praising Google choice to use Flash over their platforms. Again, as much as I hate Flash, I think you should always have the right to make your life miserable by installing it. Myself I do install Flash, but I always block it with the appropriate plugin and use it only when strictly necessary. Unfortunately, on Google TV you don't have the option to block it.
Google itself praises Google TV for being Flash enabled, but apparently they are oblivious to the obvious. That is, the thing that sucks the most on Google TV, is Flash. Adobe has been promising to people, and probably to Google as well, a Linux version of Flash (Google TV, Google Nexus S, and Google Chrome OS all run on Linux) but they have been unable to deliver. With Google Chrome OS the hypocrisy seems to reach a new height now. Adobe praises the product as a new opportunity for developers to deliver their Flash applications to customers, but at the same time reports tell that performances of Flash on Chrome OS make it "sluggish and often unusable for video".
Adobe had the last ten years to switch to a software development of Flash more platform agnostic and they have clearly failed to do so. Their short terms views have finally proved to not pay off and I am glad Adobe will pay the consequences. As much as I despise Apple and their control policies, I admire Steve Jobs for having had the guts to stop the hypocrisy, and say it out loud: Flash sucks, and evidence proves this is not going to change.
The tide has turned. Flash does not deserve a second chance. Internet will eventually get rid of Flash. We might as well lead the change and turn it off now.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Goodbye Kathryn

We live in a society where our friends come and go. Maybe it was not always like it is now, or at least, not to the same extent. We move to a new place, maybe for a few months, or a few years, we get acquainted with the neighbors, we make friends, we get, we give. But then comes the time to leave and say goodbye and start it all over again. We have email and social networking sites. We have the potential to contact whoever we want around the world with the click of a mouse but only the time for a few. We can travel anywhere we wish and visit those that are far, but we have the practical means only to reach a few places in our lifetime. But sometimes, people go far away, where we cannot reach them anymore. Goodbye Kathryn. I wish I called you when I still had the chance. You are still in my memories, and you will always be.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Mobile phone networks greediness

If there is something I hate more than Microsoft and Apple, it is mobile phone networks. I am not surprised anymore by what they come up with. Let's start with some background. Since I had a phone, and now it is getting close to 10 years, I have always been used to paying for sending short text messages. Maybe during the last decade it made a little bit of sense. After all, there is an infrastructure to pay. If I remember correctly, the price was about 15c per SMS. Now, in the United States, the price is about 20c to send and 20c to receive, so overall 40c. At the same time, you can buy data plans which allow you to download MB of data on your phone for a reasonable price. How does that make sense?

There is more. For how long have you been able to call internationally for as little as 2c per minute all over the civilized world? It must have been at least ten years. Still, ATT would charge me more than a dollar per minute if I dare calling internationally to Italy from my phone and they sell a special package which lowers the price to 9c per minute. It is like going to a diner and being told that the eggs are salmonella free, you are just going to have a mild diarrhea. Why is that?

Now I read that Verizon has put a special button on their phones which is very easy to press by mistake and which connects the internet and it would immediately charge you 2 dollars in the case you are not enrolled in a flat data plan. According to a Verizon employee this was not an accident. Yes Verizon, I already hate you for promoting phones without SIM cards, which give the power to the customer to choose the operator they prefer. Now you lost any chance of forgiveness.

While all of this is happening, Google is introducing a new service, Google Voice, which allows you to send SMSs for free, call in the United States for free, call internationally for 2c, and much more. I can clearly see where this is going. What would be optimal is that the only bill you have to pay is the one to access the internet, either at home, or through the mobile network, and then what you do with it should be your own business, be that sending an SMS, sending an email, making an international call or whatever. All these stupid rules about paying for things which don't reflect how much you use the network is just hindering technological advancement. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to pay less for cellphone, after all the service they provide is quite useful to me and worth it the $45 a month I spend for it, but I am tired of all the technical issues I have to deal with. For example, to call in Italy I have to call my Google Voice number, dial my PIN, dial 011 and then the number which I have to remember by heart since I cannot call from the phonebook at that point. Isn't this retarded? Well, yes.

I think someone at Google is even more angry than I am and is actually doing something about it. I can just praise the effort and hope that this nonsense will come to an end soon. Exploiting people stupidity and inability to get organized should be unlawful, like gambling, but this seems exactly what mobile phone companies have been doing. Why is it that I cannot use the internet to answer my calls when I am at home? If phone companies really want to minimize the usage of their network, why don't they make it easy to switch to a different network for people using their service? Because then they have no explanation for charging you. Well, this is very counterproductive for both customers and carriers. Guess what though, with Google Voice you can do that.

You don't need to read this to understand that different services with conflict of interest should not being in the hands of the same company. Do you think it would make sense for a Tobacco company to own the business of nicotine patches? Well, in the same way I think it makes no sense for companies selling the ability to connect to a network to try to control what phone you use to connect to it and in which way you access it. These three things should be decoupled. There is no doubt this will happen in the end, but looking back, if we put some laws, we would have realized that this would have just happened faster and sooner.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Saved by the GPS

On Sunday I went to the U2 concert in Boston with some friends. The event took place at the Gillette Stadium, located South of Boston and capable of hosting more than 68000 people. Most of the stadium was filled, and that, together with the poorly designed exit routes, made coming out of the concert a nightmare.

If I knew that before I would have thought twice about parking at the Stadium. I was kind of startled that for a stadium which costed $325 million they did not even build underground tunnels so that the crowd would not have to cross the road to get to the parking lot. I had to wait more than two hours in the parking lot before the line even started moving. I could not believe I had to pay $40 only for parking. This again, goes along the well practiced way to do business, once they get you to pay, there is no more incentive for a good service.

That said, there was a bright side in the story. Once out of the parking lot, I had in front of me a four lanes line of cars. The idea to be stuck there was as startling as the two hours waiting in the parking lot. While in line, I checked on the GPS program I bought for my phone for $35 and I noticed that there was a little road, S Walpole St, heading back south and joining the highway a couple of miles away. Moved by desperation and a sense of "if I don't try I will never know", I exited the line, and in less than five minutes I was driving 80 miles an hour on I-95, in the complete darkness of the night, since street lamps are not common in American highways. I was amazed, but the best part of it was when I-95 crossed the road where the line was. Around 2am I could see all the cars stuck on top of the flyover. The view was just beautiful.

As I would say in Italian, "un mondo di pecore!"

Monday, September 14, 2009

Chromosome 17

I wished there was a book with fun facts about genetics. Actually, there might be. I have not even looked out of laziness. Nevertheless, this is still a good reason to talk about fun facts. Let me start from the beginning.

Since the completion of the human genome project, every once in while the Genome Reference Consortium updates what is called the human reference genome. Each one of us carries two sets of chromosomes, each made of about 3.2 billions nucleotides. Now, if you wanted to store that information, you could do so by writing down all the nucleotides. You probably know that most of the genome is the same across people, and it is mostly the same across great apes and humans. On average, one nucleotide out of 100 is different between a chimpanzee and a human being. So it is much more efficient to have a reference sequence and to store, for each one of us, the differences between our genome and a consensus reference sequence.

The consensus reference sequence was the goal of the human genome project and, even if it is mainly complete, it gets updated every now and then. In the last update, hg19, 9 regions have been marked as special, because they have what is called an alternate assembly. What happened is that, for different reasons, nine long sequences have diverged so much that they have irrevocably parted and cannot recombine with each other anymore. So, the reference genome takes into account the possibility, at this nine loci, for these alternative sequences.

One of these caught my interest today. It is a two million nucleotides long sequence on chromosome 17. It is thought that at some point, around two million years ago, an inversion event took place, that is, these two million base pairs got inverted in direction. This does not affect the functionality of the sequence, since the cells have no predilection for sequence direction. Although, it affects the ability of the sequence to recombine with the version with the inverted version. Among the genes in this sequence, the most famous is MAPT. It is known that mutations at this gene are responsible for some neurological disorders.

The interesting part of the story is that the inverted version of the sequence is present only in Europeans, with a prevalence between 20% and 30%. It is not clear why and some hypothesize that it might be the legacy of the Neanderthal people, who, before extinguishing, managed to interbreed with homo sapiens. That would explain why the two versions of the sequence are so different from each other and have a coalescence time, that is, an expected age from their most recent common ancestor, of about two million years.

Some of you might already understand why this is a touchy subject. It has all the ingredients for racial discrimination. The sequence is known to influence the brain, in some unknown way, and one version of it is present only among Europeans. I do not want to debate this aspect, although I expect that eventually scientist will perform the due experiments to unveil any possible hypothesis. In the meanwhile, be assured that the Neanderthal project will indeed unveil if the alternative sequence on chromosome 17 was contributed by Neanderthal people or not. Even if it is not, though, it will not rule out that it was instead contributed by home Erectus in Asia or some other unknown extinguished hominid for which no fossils are known.

In the meanwhile, I had to know, as a European, what do I have? It turns out that with 23andme you can check, if you look at the right SNP. In particular SNP rs1864325 is a predictor for the two sequences. A C at the SNP corresponds to the typical African haplotype, while a T at the SNP corresponds to the mysterious European haplotype. It turns out that I have a C and a T. So, whatever it means, I know that I have one of each sequences in my pair of chromosomes 17.

In a more romantic way, I can say to be one of those many million of Europeans within which the two sequences, after million of years of separation, have come together to shape me. Whatever that means. But I am confident I will not have to wait long to know.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Coming back to Boston

I have finally moved, about one week ago, to my new place in Cambridge. I like it a lot, there is a big kitchen and a nice living room and I have half bathroom all for myself. Overall, it is quite a treat. There are two very sweet cats which periodically come to me asking to be scratched on the neck.

After spending the week in Montreal and Hanover, I drove back today at night, listening to radio Kiss 108. This was the first time I drove back to my new place. Driving through the city and parking right in front of my place was relaxing and stress free. Not even two months have gone by, but I think I have already adjusted.