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Quake homeless “enjoy a weekend of camping” April 8, 2009

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The quiz of the day: who uttered such a profanity today, during an interview to german television, referring to the victims of the destructive earthquake who destroyed part of central Italy two days ago ?

I will give you a few hints. It is the same person who just a few days ago embarassed Italy at the G20, the same person who a few years ago suggested in a verbal exchange at the european parliament that Schultz, a german socialist, would make a very good nazist kapo’.

Ok, if you haven’t figured it out already, check it out on the times online.

I am ashamed of the person Italians has elected as their representative, and I feel especially bad since now I cannot even tell myself that the US president is even worse anymore.

Religions against women, everywhere April 4, 2009

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Maybe you might get the impression that I am discovering hot water with this post, and in that case I apologize. But I cannot help logging in this site that I insist in being constantly amazed at the virulence, the shamelessness, and the violence which religious activists use on a daily basis against women, everywhere on this poor planet.

We are all used to the ferocious laws against women in islamic countries, the beating to death of mothers and daughters for futile reasons, the lack of civil rights of women there. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the Talibans were eradicated from power in Afghanistan -only to wake up later and find out that nothing much has changed. In general, when we discuss the rights of women, the situation in arab countries is the obvious issue to deal with.

Things, however, are not qualitatively very different in more “civilized” countries. Take Italy as a very clear example. A western country, a democracy, a secular power which should be able to legislate free from religious ingerence. But it is not so: through lobbying, declarations of archbishops, preaches by Pope Ratzinger, and sermons in the churches, the Vatican managed to convince the italian government to pass a law that for all practical purposes prevents in vitro fertilization. Women who want to get pregnant with medical aid have to travel to Spain or Ukraine, if they can afford it. Worse still, the health of women who accept the italian rules on assisted procreation is put to risk by insane rules whose denominator is the belief that “the embryo is sacred and has to be defended” -even at the risk of the owner of the womb. Every sperm is sacred: one cannot help hearing the old song by Monty Python sung in the background every time Cardinal Bagnasco or one of his accolites is seen on national television.

There would be other things to discuss -Ratzinger’s fight against condoms in Africa, for instance, is directed first and foremost against women. Or the idiotic laws against stem cell research. But I want to mention something else here today.

What prompts me to write about religion and women today is the news about a picture of the new Israeli government of Benyamin Netanyahu, which contains -the horror, the horror- two women: Limor Livnat, minister of Culture and Sport, and Sofa Landver, minister of Immigration. These two women were amidst 28 men in a picture taken yesterday, and shown on most israeli newspapers. The devil is in the details: see the two versions, and decide for yourself which one is the original and which one appeared on ultra-orthodox newspapers, Sha’a Tovah and Yated Ne’eman.

No violence was moved, nobody was hurt. But to me, the photoshopped picture is if possible even more disturbing than an “ordinary” violent act against a woman. Because it comes from a supposedly respectable institution, in a “civilized” country.

If I were Netanyahu, I would force the newspapers editors to publish the original pictures and present their excuses to the ministers, to the people of Israel, and to us all. Otherwise, some of the reasons why we root for Israel against arab fundamentalists are lost, and Israel itself becomes weaker in its struggle for survival.

Wealth, poverty, and progressive taxation April 4, 2009

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A note left by a colleague in his facebook page:

I just can’t get these numbers out of my head: The 500 richest people on earth earn more than the bottom 416 million.

That’s 416 million – not 416 thousand, or 4.16 million, but 416,000,000 – much more than the entire population of the United States.

So if some ideologue decided to even out wealth distribution between these two extremes, each of those top 500 earners would see their net worth reduced by a factor of a million! They would lose 99.9999% of their wealth, while the bottom 416 million people would see their assets double.

I’m used to large and small numbers, from my work, but this amazes me. The numbers come from an opinion by Nicholas D. Kristof published in the International Hearald Tribune yesterday, 3-April-2009, and he cites the U.N.

And my reaction:

Hi M., that is indeed striking -and disgusting, in a way. I would not ask the 500 richest people to share all their wealth. If they just gave away half of what they have, 416 million people would still get a 50% increase of their means. That would be a little bit less ideologic and maybe only decent!
Probably the only way about this is not to intervene in a rotten situation, but change the rules. Progressive taxation is the way. The economic situation in the world lends itself to strong intervention, and I think what they G20 decided this week is a step in the right direction, but still a bit too shy.

A lifetime of bribes March 31, 2009

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Do you remember Mario Chiesa ? Of course you don’t -seventeen years have passed since his arrest in flagrance of bribery, and, weren’t it for the explosive developments that ensued, his story would have only appeared as a one-column piece in local newspapers, and would have long been forgotten by now.

But Chiesa did make headlines for months in January 1992. The bribery system that was standing behind the curtains he took down as he spilt his guts bit by bit was one of gigantic proportions – italians were shown in a true coup de theatre how the current political system, led by Arnaldo Forlani’s Democrazia Cristiana and Bettino Craxi’s Partito Socialista, was one centered on systematic corruption. Politicians drew money from the business world in fixed percentages, and in exchange helped the businesses which paid those bribes; everybody thrived in this vortex of dirty funds. A few of the politicians got rich, but most of them contented themselves with their increased political means.The parties governing the country fed themselves to retain their power.

Of course, many had known about the whole thing for decades. The funny stories on Craxi and the Socialist Party were countless, and citizens who did not support the government with their votes felt a tad cleaner than those who did; all, however, stood in a sort of forbearance. But things changed overnight: Chiesa’s deposition constituted proof of the misdemeanor, and judges in Milano teamed in to expose the corruption with momentum.

Heads fell one after the other. Craxi fled to Hammamet, where he would spend the rest of his life in a gilded self-inflicted exile; others committed suicide; the toughest fought mightily in judicial courts, and some, as Mario Chiesa, did time. Those were the years of “Mani Pulite” (clean hands), which were saluted with relief by the largest part of the population.

Today, Chiesa is not the young, enterprising fellow he was back then. But he has apparently not lost his vice yet. He was arrested yesterday for charges of bribery, in a story of illicit drain of waste.

If I look back at these last 17 years, I cannot help smiling at the incredible turn-around which ensued. We once had a system whereby politicians received illegal funds to advantage businesses, and used those funds to retain their power. Now we have a system where the two subjects have become one and the same: this way, there is no more a passage of money: the politician and the businessman are the same person, which legislates in a perfect match of interests. He makes the laws that allow his businesses to thrive, and his businesses work to increase his political power. I do believe Berlusconi is serious when he says there is no conflict of interests in Italy: his is, in fact, quite the opposite: a matrimony.

Not a normal country – but maybe an amusing one February 18, 2009

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In the news today: the british lawyer David Mills has been found guilty yesterday of accepting at least 600,000 dollars in 1998 to produce false testimony, in order to help Silvio Berlusconi get acquitted in two separate trials where he was charged for corruption and other frauds -business as usual, for him.

The news is rather curious for two reasons. The first one is technical: in the trial, Mills and Berlusconi were being judged together, but the latter was excluded by virtue of a law, the infamous “lodo Alfano“, which the italian government passed a few months ago, and which prevents the Prime Minister (along with the President of the Republic, and the heads of the two parliament chambers) from being tried during his or her mandate.

Thanks to that ad hoc law, produced by a member of Berlusconi’s party-company, Forza Italia, and passed with urgency through the legislative iter, Silvio Berlusconi evaded a sure embarassment and the probable sentence of guilt for corruption in Mills’ favor. The aftermath of all this is that we now have a person who received money to produce false testimony and save Berlusconi in his two processes, but we cannot try who gave him the money. Note, the sentence says who Mills received money from -Silvio Berlusconi- but the corruptor is left out of the whole business. I find this peculiar.

The other detail is more hilarious -I would say Jonescan. David Mills, besides a 54-month imprisonment, faces the unpleasant charge of having to give 250,000 euros to the italian Premier’s office. That is because the italian State’s Bar, which represented the Premier’s office at the trial, obtained the sum as a reparation. So Mills received money by Berlusconi. He was condemned, Berlusconi got away with it, and now Mills has to go to the italian premier and
say, “Dear italian premier, here is the reparation money -but wait a second, haven’t we met already ?“.

Italy is not a normal country: in a normal country, a prime minister would have resigned from office, having been proven a corruptor. Not in Italy: here, if you get away with your sins, you are considered kind of cool.

But Italy is also a definitely entertaining country: for its politics, and for some of its politicians.

In favor of death for Eluana February 9, 2009

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The case of Eluana Englaro, a woman in irreversible coma since 1992, is causing an institutional conflict in Italy, as well as a pitiful example of “insolence of office”.

The story is long, and if you have not followed it on the newspapers, it is hard for me to summarize its salient points. However, here is a speed attempt.

A jury has decreed that the father has the right to ask for a stop of the forced nutrition, thereby allowing Eluana to die as was her wish in case of such an infermity. The vatican screamed of homicide, and the minister of health tried to stop the transfer of the body to a clinic where the procedure could be implemented, getting to the point of publically threatening the clinics officials. Then, a suitable place was found in Udine, and Eluana was transferred there. In a crescendo of drama, while the stoppage of nutrition and hydratation of the poor body was getting started, the italian government rushed to try a urgent decree which would prohibit such a procedure. The decree, to be executive, had to go through a signature of the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano; but Napolitano had already expressed his negative opinion on such a unmotivated urgency in a matter -the rights of a person to refuse to be cured- which would have required much analysis.

Today we are assisting at several other attempts at “saving the life” of Eluana by the italian government, which is nothing than an execution of Vatican orders: a full-fledged law is being rushed through the Senate (it is just the decree rejected by Napolitano, so one wonders what difference it could make); the Police force is threatening to take possession of the rooms where Eluana is resting in the clinic, claiming that the site is non-compliant to specifications; judges are investigating on the clinic itself. In the meantime, stand-offs of pro-life and pro-choice activists take place in front of the clinic. On the right, pro-choice activists; below, pro-life activists.

I am thoroughly disgusted at the sight of a State that cannot life a life independently of its religious appendage. But disgust is not the end of the story: I am also quite alarmed by the reactionary moves of the Berlusconi government, which shows for the umpteenth time to not care for the democratic rules and the constitution, whose predicaments their decree was neglecting. Berlusconi is ignoring Napolitano’s pledge for a pacate, unrushed discussion on a law for the “biologic legacy”, which should govern the rights of citizens in matters concerning the end of life, forced cure, and related topics. By forcing a law on such matters through the parliament, Berlusconi aims at exacerbating the conflict with the head of the State, in order to create the conditions for a change of the italian Constitution, which would allow him to take Napolitano’s seat with greatly increased powers.

In the meantime, Eluana is finally dying, as she would have wanted to do 17 years ago. However, while this is happening we are assisting at pro-life fanatics claiming that the family does not really know the real intentions of their daughter, in a desperate attempt to “save her life”. Let me be clear on one thing here: if for accident or illness I fall in a persistent vegetative condition, it is my will that my life be terminated, by whatever means are found appropriate. It is my will that no forced feeding and hydratation be continued without aim if there are no reasonable chances to ever return me to a conscious state. And, being a scientist, by “reasonable” I mean 5%, not one in a million!

UPDATE: Eluana died one hour ago. Would you guess this made people silent ? Nope.  Accusations of homicide flew around in the italian Senate, catholic personalities felt the urge to express their feelings, the government claims they will bring forward their law “such that Eluana’s sacrifice has not been vain”. The disgust continues. I think it will last four more years.

UPDATE: a few links in English on the matter:

The State is laic February 7, 2009

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The other day, while waiting for my turn to operate the automatic coffee machine in the basement of the physics department, I read a small newspaper clip hung by somebody on the bulletin board in front of the machine. It was a comment by Michele Serra, who sarcastically thanked an italian archbishop of the catholic church, for clarifying in an interview that the Church’s rules, to a christian, come before the ones of the State. In other words, Serra clarified, catholics should not follow laws, in case those collide with the predicaments of the Church. So catholic physicians, for instance, are justified if they do not prescribe the “day after” pill against pregnancy: the State demands them to do it, but Christ comes first.

We of course have very clear and present in our minds how religious fundamentalism is dangerous to the civil world, thanks to recent terrorist actions in the US, in Spain, and elsewhere in the world. It still surprises, however, to read it clearly from the words spelt by a high mushroom in the catholic hierarchy.

And today, I was reading a book on the young catholics in Italy after WWII, their organization (GIAC, the catholic action movement), and their attempts to make sense of the conflicting needs of being a good catholic and a good citizen. My father was a member of this movement in the years immediately following 1948, when Italy was a young democracy and the relationship of State and Church needed to be rethought and rewritten (he became an atheist a decade or two later, after observing for a while the fundamentalism of catholics from a vantage point).

The book, by Francesco Piva, is titled “La gioventu’ cattolica in cammino… Memoria e storia del gruppo dirigente (1946-1954)“, ed. Franco Angeli 2003. I thus found a very interesting quote by Umberto Eco, who was to become a famous italian novelist and professor of Semiotic, and back then was a member of the GIAC along with my father. On page 205 Piva clarifies things in this revealing quote:

Eco insiste sul fatto che l’educazione cattolica era tutta concentrata sul sesto comandamento perche’ era impregnata di antistatalismo e non aveva alcuna sensibilità verso i doveri sociali: “Non dimentichiamoci che l’educazione cattolica che si riceveva era: il contrabbando e l’evasione fiscale non sono peccato, perché sono contro la legge dello Stato che è contingente, non sono contro la legge divina. (…) Il problema era che uno non commettesse atti impuri: se poi fregava lo Stato…

Here is a tentative translation:

Eco insists on the fact that the catholic education was thoroughly concentrated on the sixth commandment, because it was filled with anti-statalism and it did not show any sensitivity towards social duties: “Don’t let’s forget that the catholic education that one was given was: smuggling and fiscal elusion are not a sin, because they are against the law of the State which is accidental, they are not against the divine law. (…). The problem was avoiding committing impure acts: if one then fucked the State…

Enlightening. It transpires that the archbishop mentioned by Serra in his article is not a white fly: they all have this belief deeply implanted in their roots. That, to me, is a clear reason for any politician, right or left, believer or atheist, to reject any ingerence in political decisions from the Vatican. This is another State trying to influence the law making in ours!

President Obama speaks to DoE employees – live now! February 5, 2009

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You can hear him at this site.

UPDATE:  shoot, I just missed him. I was hoping in a small delay, because I was late from a meeting, but it appears the speech was on time. I hope the audio will be made available offline… If you know a link to it, please post it in the comments thread below!

Black holes hype does not decay February 3, 2009

Posted by dorigo in astronomy, Blogroll, cosmology, humor, news, physics, politics, religion, science.
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While the creation of black holes in the high-energy proton-proton collisions that LHC will hopefully start providing this fall is not granted, and while the scientific establishment is basically unanimous in claiming that those microscopical entities would anyway decay in a time so short that even top quarks look longevous in comparison, the hype about doomsday being unwittingly delivered by the hands of psychotic, megalomaniac CERN scientists continues unhindered.

Here are a few recent links on the matter (thanks to M.M. for pointing them out):

The source of the renewed fire appears to be a paper published on the arxiv a couple of weeks ago. In it, the authors (R. Casadio, S. Fabi, and B. Harms) discuss a very specific model (a warped brane-world scenario), in whose context microscopic black holes might have a chance to survive for a few seconds.

Never mind the fact that the authors say from the very abstract, as if feeling the impending danger of being strumentalized, “we argue against the possibility of catastrophic black hole growth at the LHC“. This is not the way it should be done: you cannot assume a very specific model, and then draw general conclusions, because others opposing your view may always use the same crooked logic and reverse the conclusions. However, I understand that the authors made a genuine effort to try and figure out what could be the phenomenology of microscopic black holes created in the scenario they considered.

The accretion of a black hole may occur via direct collision with matter and via gravitational interactions with it. For microscopic black holes, however, the latter (called Bondi accretion) is basically negligible. The authors compute the evolution of the mass of the BH as a function of time for different values of a critical mass parameter M_c, which depends on the model and is connected to the characteristic thickness of the brane. They explicitly make two examples: in the first, when M_c=100 kg,  a 10 TeV black hole, created with 5 TeV/c momentum, is shown to decay with a roughly exponential law, but with lifetime much longer -of the order of a picosecond- than that usually assumed for a micro-BH evaporating through Hawking radiation. In the second case, where M_c=10^6 kg, the maximum BH mass is reached at 3.5 \times 10^{21} kg after about one second. Even in this scenario, the capture radius of the object is very small, and the object decays with a lifetime of about 100 seconds. The authors also show that “there is a rather narrow range of parameters […] for which RS black holes produced at the LHC would grow before evaporating“.

In the figure on the right, the 10-base logarithm of the maximum distance traveled by the black hole (expressed in meters) is computed as a function of the 10-base logarithm of the critical mass (expressed in kilograms), for a black hole of 10 TeV mass produced by the LHC with a momentum of 5 TeV/c. As you can see, if the critical mass parameter is large enough, these things would be able to reach you in your bedroom. Scared ? Let’s read their conclusions then.

“[…] Indeed, in order for the black holes created at the LHC to grow at all, the critical mass should be M_c>10^5 kg. This value is rather close to the maximum compatible with experimental test of Newton’s law, that is M_c=10^6 kg (which we further relaxed to M_c=10^8 kg in our analysis). For smaller values of M_c, the black holes cannot accrete fast enough to overcome the decay rate. Furthermore , the larger M_c is taken to be, the longer a black hole takes to reach its maximum value and the less time it remains near its maximum value before exiting the Earth.

We conclude that, for the RS scenario and black holes decribed by the metric [6], the growth of black holes to catastrophic size does not seem possible. Nonetheless, it remains true that the expected decay times are much longer (and possibly >>1 sec) than is typically predicted by other models, as was first shown in [4]”.

Here are some random reactions I collected from the physics arxiv blog -no mention of the author’s names, since they do not deserve it:

  • This is starting to get me nervous.
  • Isn’t the LHC in Europe? As long as it doesn’t suck up the USA, I’m fine with it.
  • It is entirely possible that the obvious steps in scientific discovery may cause intelligent societies to destroy themselves. It would provide a clear resolution to the Fermi paradox.
  • I’m pro science and research, but I’m also pro caution when necessary.
  • That’s what I asked and CERN never replied. My question was: “Is it possible that some of these black might coalesce and form larger black holes? larger black holes would be more powerful than their predecessors and possibly aquire more mass and grow still larger.”
  • The questions is, whether these scientists are competent at all, if they haven’t made such analysis a WELL BEFORE the LHC project ever started.
  • I think this is bad. American officials should do something about this because if scientists do end up destroying the earth with a black hole it won’t matter that they were in Europe, America will get the blame. On the other hand, if we act now to be seen dealing as a responsible member of the international community, then, if the worst happens, we have a good chance of pinning it on the Jews.
  • The more disturbing fact about all this is the billions and billions being spent to satisfy the curiosity of a select group of scientists and philosophers. Whatever the results will yield little real-world benefit outside some incestuous lecture circuit.
  • “If events at the LHC swallow Switzerland, what are we going to do without wrist watches and chocolate?” Don’t worry, we’ll still have Russian watches. they’re much better, faster even.

It goes on, and on, and on. Boy, it is highly entertaining, but unfortunately, I fear this is taking a bad turn for Science. I tend to believe that on this particular issue, no discussion would be better than any discussion -it is like trying to argue with a fanatic about the reality of a statue of the Virgin weeping blood.

… So, why don’t we just shut up on this particular matter ?

Hmm, if I post this, I would be going against my own suggestion. Damned either way.

On the casualty ratio in Gaza January 19, 2009

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In this short post I wish to discuss whether during the 22-day-long war in Gaza the israeli defence force (IDF) has been, as some commenter claimed here, “the most moral army in the world”. It is indeed reported by media that the IDF makes phone calls to civilian houses before those are bombed, that leaflets are spread on areas which will be targeted, etcetera. I think these are commendable actions, but on the other hand the media these days are full of news that report despicable episodes by the israeli army, which tend to demonstrate the opposite. Leaving aside the endless debate that such conflicting evidences would set up, let me stay on the easier ground of mathematics, and aseptically discuss the civilian casualty ratio in Gaza.

First of all, there are a couple of caveats to mention. The ratio is not too easy to ascertain, because -to some extent- many of the Gaza “civilians” might be considered supporters of the Hamas force. So we have to stick to numbers provided by Israel itself, rather than rely on the claims by Hamas that just 48 of its combatants have been killed in the attack. Israel sets that number at “at least 500”, and I will take 500 as a fair estimate, ignoring the Hamas claim and the rather propaganda-sounding “at least” by the IDF.  Let us give the number a 20% uncertainty: 500+-100. As for the total casualties, their number is less uncertain: most sources set it at 1300 or above, if we stick to palestinians who have lost their life until today. More can die of the wounds in the near future, but the ratio we are to compute should not be affected by that.

The other caveat is that one could argue that it is unfair to judge the actions of the IDF on the basis of the casualty ratio, because the action was aimed at eradicating the weapons potential of Hamas rather than Hamas itself, and the weapons had allegedly been concealed in homes, hospitals, schools, places of worship. This objection to me is not too valuable, because it amounts to declaring that the action had been decided in spite of that practice. Or, to put it another way: if Hamas uses the horrible practice of human shields, Israel uses the even more horrible practice of ignoring it!

Now, let us look at the numbers. (1300-500)/500 = 1.6 \pm 0.5, roughly. That means that for each Hamas fighter, more than one civilian has been killed.

Let us now look at some statistics reported one year ago by Haaretz  here, about the civilian casualty ratio of air strikes. It is reported at 1:30.

So I am led to conclude that the IDF considered not enough the air strikes, and needed a different strategy to counter the Kassam missiles; and that they did not really care about the civilian losses they would inflict on palestinians, this time.

And a warning: Of course, I am willing to hear other opinions on the matter; this blog is usually censorship-free. Since, however, I am bored by allegations of being “anti-semitic”, “communist”, of “caring zero for the other wars in the world”, “where were you when Serbia was bombed by your country”, etcetera, I will apply some measure of censorship here. Either leave your name and address, or refrain from posting meaningless, insulting comments, please.