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.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Collecting trash

Since I moved into Boston I started to see homeless people and beggars almost everywhere. Clearly this is the place to be in if you are desperate. Thanks god a situation I am far from, for now. But not so much to not persuade me to get interested on a couch I saw on the street.

Thursday is the day the trash gets collected at night in Cambridge. People put out their bins, their recycling boxes and the furniture they don't want anymore. Someone put out a nice couch and I could not help being attracted to it. The feel of shame was overwhelming. Who would ever go and pick up a couch abandoned on the street ready to be picked up by the trash master?

I have lived in my new home for about a month and I have left about a month in the same place. In September I will move to a nicer place which I already like a lot. People are friendly and clean there and the location is ideal to go to work by bus. But where I am now, people are dirty and careless about the house. The couch is broken and the house overall is left to rot. I cleaned the other day and I ended up thinking that the main reason the people living in this place sublet the house in the summer is that so they get some cleaning once a year. No kidding. Well, also, the subletters from last summer must have not done a god job.

So, I thought, what makes me really think that the couch in my house is worse than the one in the street? Pretty much nothing. That said, I went and picked the couch off the street with the help of a friend. This should make the living room bearable for the month of August, until I finally leave this place. I can just hope that now I will not start looking for food in the trash bin, with the excuse that it will be only until the end of August. Gulp!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Conference in Trieste

After returning to my homeland, I spent my first weekend in Trieste, attending a conference about genetic isolates. I had no expectations of any kind, but I had to present a poster and give a short talk, which is always a nice experience. It turned out I had an even better time than I expected, despite the fact that it rained the all time.

The second day I met Augustine Kong, t, he head statistician from deCODE, after he gave a very inspiring talk. The company deCODE is a research company based in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was founded in 1997 by Kari Stefansson, an Icelandic researcher working at Harvard at the time. Stefansson at the time wanted to study, through genetic and pedigree data of all people from Iceland, that is, about 320000 people, all the genetic causes of the diseases affecting the people in Iceland. More than ten years ago he had a big dream and you can still say, nowadays, that the Icelandic genetic diseases are the ones we know the most about compared to any other genetic disease around the world.

I have known about deCODE for about three years now, and I had read many papers from Kong, but I never met him before and I was expecting someone very secretive about his work since deCODE is, after all, a private company who raised money with the idea of selling part of the intellectual property developed to big pharmaceutical companies to make innovative drugs.

Kong gave an interesting talk, one of those talks that you can tell was already tried before in front of a different audience, maybe with some slight modifications. It did not take long to notice that he is the typical researcher very enthusiast about what he does and very eccentric. The part I liked the best was when he came down from the stage and he was given a microphone to answer a question. He kept the microphone all the time at the level of his waist while he was answering. After the talk I went to talk to him and I discovered this to be no easy feat. He is extremely loquacious, and if you ask him a question he would find his way out of the answer and keep talking about something else for about fifteen minutes. Although he mainly said very interesting things. Then, at the end of the day, I had the lucky chance, together with another Italian student, to sit at the table with him and after a couple of glasses of wine he started to share everything with us.

How do you decide to raise tens of million of dollars and fund a large company? Back in 1996 Kari Stefansson, the CEO of deCODE, applied for NIH grants to study genetic diseases in Iceland using STRs, the current technology for those kind of studies back in the day. His motivation was that Iceland is the perfect location for such a study since they kept perfect pedigree information up to the seventeenth century. Although his project was extremely ambitious and the grant was rejected. People with big egos do not take rejections that easily and he decided to take a different route by raising private money.

When he approached Augustine Kong, he asked him to join the scientific team on the soon to be found company and he told him that there were good chances he could have become a millionaire although the goal was to embrace this adventure for the sake of research. According to Kong, Stefansson is not the easiest person to deal with. Maybe you heard this before, but be prepared when you put yourself between a determined man and what he is after. For the project to work, special laws had to be set in Iceland to protect the privacy of the people who gave their DNA to the company. In exchange, Stefansson promised his country a business which was going to bring a lot of wealth and jobs to the country.

More than ten years later a lot has happened. The global economic recession hit Iceland worse than everywhere else in the world. All the private banks bankrupted and they were nationalized. The Icelandic currency lost more than half of its value on the market. I happen to know a young Icelandic girl who works as an au-pair in the United States and he considered staying longer in the States as a result. Even before that happened, deCODE went almost bankrupt itself and its market value is close to nothing. Kong told us that the company made it through the recession but it has more than 200 million dollars of debts and it is unclear if it will make it during the next three years. Although, since he is paid in United States dollars, he also told us that now life for him is way cheaper.

Kong did not seem to care much about this. He really seems to be driven by the research and the fame that comes from being able to do it in a place unique in the world for it. He seems like the typical workaholic person, around 50 years old, with a plethora of papers published in Nature Genetics and Science during the past ten years. According to him he would not mind retiring from this intense job in the next three years. While in Iceland though, he lost his American green card, as it happens if you don't spend enough time in the country, and he seemed a bit worried about it. In any case, even if the company disappears, they are thinking about applying for grants to keep the research team able to analyze the data that they have collected.

During the dinner I also had some interesting scientific discussions with Kong. My research related to his work, so it was quite a lucky chance. Kong is interested in recombination events, that is, those rare events that recombine homologous chromosomes during meiosis. Without those, eggs and sperm would not be generated correctly. Recombination allows DNA to be shuffled so that favorable mutations that arose in one individual can eventually spread to the whole population and combine with other favorable mutations from other individuals. This in turn, has allowed evolution to work at a much higher pace and allow the complexity of multicellular organisms and ultimately of human people.

Not much is known about statistics of recombination events in human people. First of all these events take place only during meiosis. Second, experiments to study them are very expensive, even if recently some people managed to study recombination events in sperm. The problem is that given a person with his child, it is not possible with current technology to study which meiosis took place in the parent to generate the child. Although, the genotype information that can be analyzed nowadays can be integrated across relatives to unveil the locations of the meiosis and the database created in Iceland is the perfect place to perform this integration.

Human recombination events are a very fascinating subject and most of their mysteries will be unraveled in the next coming years. Recombination, together with random mutation, is the magic underlying force which shapes DNA of species, that allows them to evolve and adapt on the long term. If you believe that there is an invisible force shaping the events of the universe by playing with dice, then recombination is one of its dice. It is known that it happens in very specific places of the DNA, although it seems that where these places are located in the chromosomes might be person dependent to a certain degree. Females have more than males, but there is high variability in how many a person has on average across different people. It is necessary for correct segregation of chromosomes and, as you grow older, you need to have more to yield a fully working egg, which could be an explanation of why some women fail to have children after a certain age. Basically if they already have few to begin with, then these would not be enough later in life.

Nothing is known about why some people have more and some people have less, but, since it is known that it is inheritable, there are likely genetic variations for it. Where are they? My assumption is that, if Kong did not tell us and he does not know yet, then nobody does, since you need a very large dataset of relatives to carry such a statistical study and deCODE is the only place in the world where you could do that. Maybe unveiling the biology of the process might help people having kids even later in life. Or maybe knowing who in advance can and who cannot might make people take different decisions in life. Although, these are just speculations.

Are you feeling the excitement? Well, I did. Five years from now what is now a mystery might be in textbooks. It is not the knowledge per se which gives the thrills, but the process of the discovery. Knowing to be the first one to get there is what gives the excitement. As Kong said, winning the competition is his main drive, not the fact that he is doing something good for humanity and I actually respect that. Because I am bit skeptical about what is good and bad for people and I believe that research should be done, when possible, just for fun.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Goodbye books

I can start counting the days I have left at Dartmouth if I put together my fingers and my toes. This also means that I am about to move all of my belongings, the light ones and, alas, the heavy ones as well. This brings the blame on our best friends, the books.

Books are nice, but they are extremely heavy, especially when they come in large numbers. Furthermore, in five years at Dartmouth I collected a lot of books, some of which I probably should have never bought. Those that know me well might also know that I am not a fan of collecting and that holds true even for books, with some exceptions. Those books over which you really studied hard will always be a very good reference and you might not want to give them away.

Although there are a lot of books which you might have read once and you will probably never read again, for which it is usually just a good idea to borrow them from the library and return them, and there are a lot of books which you might just have not liked them at all. So well, a lot of books weigh more than half of my laptop. What is the best option for them? Thanks god, there are better options than throwing them away.

I finally decided to start selling them on Amazon. The process is amazingly fast and efficient. In a couple of hours I managed to post about thirty books. Now I don't know how many of these will get sold, but in the early afternoon I already sold my first one. Hopefully it is not just luck and tomorrow I will be celebrating again.

I just need to avoid being caught by the frenzy or I will start selling all the books I see around me. The fact, I believe, is that books, like tapes and cds, might eventually become something from the past. A lot of people will tell you the opposite but I think they are wrong. The technology is just not there yet, but, when it will, reading books on paper might feel ridiculous. Anyway, as long as people don't get that, it will be easy to sell. So take your chance now.

I hoped there was something similar to Amazon in Italy, my family has collected all sort of useless medias during the past three decades. When I go home I should start the frenzy again.

Human people have an irresistible instinct at collecting stuff. This probably goes back to when people used to live as hunter gatherers, in which case if you lose your woolly piece of clothes or the spear that your grandfather passed to you, then chances are that you are going to starve to death while freezing your ass. But be aware of what you collect. Cds and dvds will not last longer than thirty years, your electronic gadgets will soon be outdated and your books will eventually be yellow like the cover, if they are Springer books. My sole piece of advice is: if you don't use, you don't need it.

Carpe diem!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Fantaboulous skydiving

Last weekend was probably, by many measures, the craziest weekend of my life. Together with a bunch of good friends I went to this small place in Maine for rafting and a few minutes of pure adrenaline by skydiving from a small plane.

Overall there was a lot of pain involved. By camping in the cold, being sleep deprived, getting completely wet in the river while the sun is hiding behind the clouds, and being repeatedly bitten in the face by flocks of mosquitoes so dense that they could cover the sun.

But the grand finale with the jumping from the plane made up for most of it. If I had to summarize the whole experience with one sentence I would definitely go for the following one: There is nothing to fear but fear itself. In fact, skydiving is a pretty safe activity. Definitely safer than rafting and by many order of magnitudes safer than riding a car with a 19 year old girl driving around 108 miles an hour, as it happened on the way to Maine.

But the really cool part about skydiving is facing your own irrational fears. I had never ridden a small plane, and yesterday I was in this little box, with no space for seats, with barely space for five people, about 3500 meters up in the air standing on a small metal plate inside a big vacuum just full of air.

You can think about it a lot, but being there will give a feeling that it is difficult to describe. Put that together with the fact that you don't know what it is going to feel like. You just know that it will feel like nothing you have experienced before.

That's exactly what I felt. As my tandem instructor put it, it was fantaboulous. I confess I was pretty tense, although not more than I would feel if I had to jump from a 20 meters cliff, or climb a 20 meters cliff. Apparently skydiving has little to do with being afraid of heights. To some extent, I would say it was even less scary because everything will keep telling you that it is safe. Truth is, there is a cap on how scary something is going to be if you rationally believe that it is safe. Emotionwise it will never equal the experience of meeting a hungry polar bear in the middle of an ice pak.

The thing I was scared the most was actually to be scared. Since I bought the video, I thought that I was going to remember everything that I did, so I better did it right. I concentrated a lot about how I was going to behave and maybe it turned out that doing so helped me concentrating on something other than my fears. I don't have the video yet, but I got a feeling that it is going to be pretty funny and kinf of stupid.

But what the hell, as soon as I get it I am going to put it on my phone, so that I will keep it with me all the time. I am so glad I did it. It was worth it every single cent.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Nikitas and Friede's party

Tonight I went to the birthday party of two very close friends. There were many good friends there. I had a really good time, although I cannot the sense of gloominess that comes from the fact that in less than a month I will be leaving Dartmouth for good. Five years living in the same place are quite a lot, and even if I changed friends and company many times during these five years, I feel now even more nostalgic.
Most of the friends at this party are people from Europe that will at some point go back home, whatever home means for them. I am leaving but I am not going home or getting closer for what matters.
I felt really touched by all those that told me that they are going to miss me. They were mainly drunk, I think they really meant it. I ended up DJing after midnight, first with some salsa and then with some awesome songs that we loved and shared. It felt so good, it really seemed that we were celebrating all the time we spent together with the songs that touched us the most.
Friede got a photoalbum for her birthday. It was incredibly nice. Months and months of experiences collected in a single book, and I am in many of them as well. It is scary. People never used to take so many pictures.
Well, this post is a bit of a mess, but that's how I feel now, despite the fact that I have not drunk at all. I feel a lot of gloominess. There were too many nice things happening tonight to believe that it will all be just part of the past soon.
But, as the movies Benjamin Button points out, how would we know how special the people we care about are if they were never to leave us?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cully's run

It does not happen very often, for me, to participate in a 5K run organized for someone that committed suicide which I actually knew at some point in my life. More in general, it does not happen to me to participate in a 5K run at all.
The day was cloudy and windy, as the typical days in spring and summer in New Hampshire. You could feel the chills on your bare legs and the humidity from the grass and the mud. I did not know very well Cully, the person which the 5K was organized for. But I felt touched by the attempt her Rugby team put on the remember her. There were plenty of pictures of her and a long letter describing what person she was like and quoting things that she said. Everything was aimed at describing what a nice and caring person she was.
It seems like after you are dead you suddenly become a wonderful person. It made me wonder what people will remember about me when I will be gone. I do not like the idea to be remembered just for the good things I have done. I would rather have a completely sincere version of me.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Samsung NC20

I know it is kind of lame to make a post about a laptop, but I cannot help. The geek inside me is screaming. Well, as you might have guessed, I bought a new laptop this week. Last weekend I googled "netbook 12", looking for an affordable light laptop. All of us have seen this little laptop called netbooks and got fascinated to some degree. I have been disgusted though. What is the use of a computer with the keyboard of a large cellphone. None in my opinion.
But I do like the idea of a light laptop, without the useless cd drive, which I can bring everywhere, with my thumb, my index finger, and my middle finger. Well, the NC20 is exactly what I was asking for. For a mere $550 you get an awesome 12 inches laptop, weighing 1.5kg. If it was oval, you could use it like a frisbee. Resolution is cool, 1280x800, hard drive is awesome, 160GB. You can read the specs online, it has everything you need.
On a side note, why they did not invent it before? The answer is awesome. Intel forbade hardware manufacturers from putting their processors in netbooks larger than 10 inches, to avoid competing with the more lucrative notebook market. So VIA came out with this new platform, Nano, which is targeted at ultramobile devices. Basically all of my laptop, other than few pieces, is made in Taiwan.
The keyboard feels awesome, you can type really fast, and the screen also looks great, and the system is so silent, you cannot tell the hard drive is working or the fan is spinning. Compared to my 5kg old laptop this looks like a feather blown by the wind.
Here is my geeky post, if you are planning to buy a laptop consider the NC20. You will be able to sit by someone with the Macbook Air and say, "Oh, cool like mine, just three times as expensive". Only problem, not everything works with Linux, which bothers me but it seems like it might get fixed. I can still hook it up at a conference and give a presentation with it. That is good enough with me.
Oh, I forgot to say, the battery lasts 6 hours. I always thought of the battery as that awesome piece of metal that allows you to move from one room to another without having to reboot. Well, it is time for a change. I am on my way to see if I can get some work done with matlab while getting some tan. Bu-ya-ka-sha!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Making a movie

Last weekend I finally got together a couple of friends and shot a movie that I had in mind for a couple of weeks. What an amazing experience. It was very interesting. When you try to make a movie you start realizing all the little problems that you can bump into and that can make something that you would think as very easy to do as a titanic project. But it went well. The audio was kind of bad, but we all had a lot of fun acting and two of us ended up jumping in the lake, which was freezing cold.
I have had some experience with editing movie clips, but I had never tried to put together a short movie before. I have indeed acted before and I knew that it is a very tiring process, that you have to repeat many times the scenes over and over again. But it was a completely different experience to have to tell other people what to do. When directing a movie you need to be conscious of the other people needs as well as your needs to get the scenes well done, which can take many tries. It is a hard balance to keep.
Then, once the shots have been taken, I brought everything to my lab. It took at least eight hours of work to edit all the scenes together, and to think as well how to put them together. It is a sad process, since you also have to decide what to keep out, even if you liked and you know that everybody else put efforts in acting it. The movie ended up being kind of long, about nine minutes. I thought it would have been about three. That tells already how unexperienced I am.
Overall, the experience was a blast. If you have the time and the skills, I suggest to save a weekend to do it. It pays off a lot, and watching it a long time from now will bring back a lot of good memories. On the side, I developed a kind of tick now. Everytime I see a movie I am now always looking at where the hands are and when the angle changes, you will always find out that their position moved a little bit. After you try to edit a scene with multiple angles, you cannot stop thinking about it.
Final remarks, what is the movie about? Well, I do not want to give the details away. If you are curios, then you need to ask me.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Languages around the world

Yesterday evening I ended up entertaining conversation with a Turkish girl at dinner. Turkey is such a close country to Europe. More than a decade ago I went to Skopelos, in the Aegean sea, not too far from it, and maybe I will eventually go sailing with my uncle to Rhodes, which is very close to the Western coast of Turkey.
Despite little desire to learn Turkish, I am always fascinated by how different languages are and how we bear the irreversible imprinting of it. So I started asking all possible questions about names for different objects and concepts trying to catch any similarities with the languages I know. Despite the long list I had little luck, the only thing that came out was "kim" which is the Italian equivalent for "chi" and "baba" that is the equivalent for dad and which can be said in Italian as "babbo". Not much overall.
What I had forgot was that Turkish is not an Indo-European language. Despite the fact that Turkey is closer than India, it would be easier to find similarities with Indian languages. I did not investigate the grammar myself but I read that it is very different. Turkish is part of the bigger superfamily of Altaic languages which do not use articles or gender or even pronouns, if I remember correctly.
I have been studying a little bit of German and I got fascinated by how much the echo of an ancestral grammar lives in Italic languages like Italian and Spanish as it does in German. I can understand how dialects come to life. Each one of us, looking at his own past, might find istances of inventing a new word to describe something special to be recognized only by a small circle of friends. But grammar structures go way beyond what anybody might have tried to come up to change how we comunicate with each other. Who was responsible for genders in Germanic and Italic languages? For sure, for such a change to take place, the logical explanation would be that there was a time that language was spoken by a really small circle of people. Those choices of change, whoever made them, have an everlasting echo across the whole Europe now, and, through English, across the whole world.
Nevertheless, even the Turkish language has the familiar Subject Object Verb order as German and Latin do. Most of languages seem to share this characteristic around the world and I easily believe that this might have to do with something hard encoded in our brain. So, how much is language innate and how much is it acquired after birth? A lot of people asked this question and the answer is such an amazing mystery. It is a fact that in the past ancestral humans could not spoke and at some point something changes, maybe something dramatic. But we have to remember that everything that happened must have taken place step by step. In this regard, I find in these words from the book "Before the dawn" fascinating:
"... the human capacity for syntax might have evolved out of animal brain module designed for some other purpose, such as navigation. Their argument is that the essential feature of language is recursion, the ability to embed one phrase inside another in an indefinitely long chain. Recursion may also be a feature of faculties like navigation that require an animal to remember how to get from A to D, with and excursion to B and C if the way is blocked. If the genes that specify the brain's navigation module were accidentally duplicated, the spare set would be free to evolve and perhaps acquire the function of encoding thought into language."
We might know much more about it in the next decade. Just recently, the Neanderthal genome project proved that Neanderthals had the same copy of gene FOXP2 as humans do, which is believed to have had a big part in the development of language. Even if this is not proof that the Neanderthal could talk, finding a different copy would have indeed proved the contrary, as many people believe.
Little doubt there is that language is one of the key defining feature of the human species. Languages, in their diversity, carry the choices that people like us took thousands of years ago. Choices that echo still now, everytime we entertain conversation with someone.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

And what if he gets hit by a bus?

This week I have been at the Joint Mathematics Meetings, the biggest conference for mathematicians taking place yearly in the United States. I have not been terribly impressed but it was an interesting experience overall.
I took a minicourse teaching how to use a computer software named GeoGebra. It is a program that allows to play with Euclidean geometry very intuitively. It is one of those tools that you wished you had back in high school. Still, I thought it would be interesting to learn how to use it in case I ever have to teach something to younger kids. And, it is completely open source, a plus.
Later on, I went to the exhibits and in one of the many stands there was a girl presenting SketchPad, a software that is terribly similar to GeoGebra but is proprietary and comes with a price. I could not be easily impressed.
Although I decided to engage conversation with the presenter starting saying that GeoGebra looked extremely similar to their software. As I said that, I could see the gloom in her eyes. She did confess me later on that people in their company were very worried about it since SketchPad was their main asset. And once a free and open source version is out, who would buy it?
Definitely not me, since SketchPad does not even run on Linux. Still, I was touched by the story. The people at SketchPad are not against open source, it is just that they do not have a business model for it.
Moreover, I learnt that there was a single designer for SketchPad and that actually, everybody in the company, ten people more or less, was very dependent on the work of this person. The girl confessed me that sometimes she wanders, and what if he gets hit by a bus?
That brought me to something that few people think about when using software. In general, software is very complicated. People write it, people change it. When those people leave, there is a piece of software that nobody wants to touch anymore because it takes forever only to learn how it was designed. It is very common for software engineers to rewrite it from scratch every once in a while. It seems like an inevitable doom. So what do you do? The only answer is: make it as modular as you can, so that when you need to rewrite a piece it is a small one. That seems like the best you can do. And open source is really good at modularizing. Maybe overall that is the very power of it. How many people understand that though?