Case studies from History (1)

I am looking forward to a very intense fall traveling schedule which will take me to Mumbai, Istanbul and Cairo in the space of a few weeks.

I will start with the last one, because I will be covering a whole new topic which I never discussed before in a public occasion, and that is

Propaganda vs. True Public Engagement

How is Propaganda different from True Public Engagement?

Is one leading to the other, or are the two opposed? And, has this changed with the advent of Digital, which removed all barriers to access making each individual a potential, if temporary, news channel?

More importantly, perhaps, did the transition to Digital usher an era of more authentic Communications, where people talk to people directly and information is free to travel across the world?

My impression is that after a very short period of under-evaluation, Propaganda has learned its digital ropes quite well, if nothing else because Propaganda has money and it can afford the best consultants.

One of the largest contracts I led was the Digital campaign for the 2009 European Elections: the Party that was our client won, even though with age I stopped claiming merit for that victory. Barack Obama is widely credited to have won especially the 2008 election thanks to masterful use of Social Media; across Europe, new euro-skeptic parties thrive on digital-only communications.

The Goebbels of our time have demonstrated they are as good at manipulating public opinion as they were in the ‘40s because Digital and Social Media are a channel like any other: they are not un-stoppable, they can be (and are) monitored. If anything, for this purpose they are better suited than most channels, because all that goes through them is already in machine-digestible form: as a matter of fact, some of the most advanced Artificial Intelligence applications are classified and used in military grade surveillance.

Moreover, both sides of any dispute have become so good at storytelling that very often it is quite difficult to figure out who are the Good Guys. I presume we can all think of contemporary geo-political scenarios that fit this description.

When I look at the world we all live in, alongside glorious examples of citizen journalism I see evidence of digital tools being very effectively used to recruit and indoctrinate distraught youngsters to become terrorist chrysalises, ready to blossom into the next Breivik or Abdeslam.

So I started looking at the past, where I found two stories that I believe are of relevance, as they show how in the past crises not dissimilar from the ones facing us right now have been addressed using two of the fundamentals of Communications: Messages and Reputation.

You can call these Case Studies from History.

[more to follow…]

My birthday

Doing my best to get back to everyone who wished me a Happy Birthday; thinking what could I give back, and being this Social Media, a personal story is the best.

12 years ago I stopped celebrating my birthday, because on the very day I was having a great time with my friends, Luca, the 20yo son of one of these friends was killed in a road accident. We were very close to his family, he was in school with my older son, we went on holiday together; for years his father and I would interchangeably whoop ass to either of them when they misbehaved too much, as if they were brothers – in short we were (almost) as devastated as they were.

September 14th had become a day of mourning, especially so because together with the kid, we sort of lost our friends, too: the unfairness of seeing our son still alive while theirs was there no more was too much to bear on a daily basis, and we slowly drifted apart. Nothing rational or even conscious, but we had become a living reminder of their loss.

It’s hard to describe the immense sorrow of losing a kid, but the challenge is nothing compared to having to live with it.

Then two years ago Diego, another kid of the gang got married on that very day, which he chose explicitly to mend the wound: he could have picked any other day to fill with the joy he and his wife were dispensing on all of us, but he wanted to help the healing. In his words: “Luca would have liked that”.

So here we are, September 14th is again a day of (moderate) joy; of course, Luca is not forgotten, but happy memories and sad memories sort of blend together in a mix that’s easier to drink.

This year I will not be able to run the charity BBQ as last year: due to their poor health, my in-laws are moving in with us, and everybody is super-busy with the actual packing and un-packing, but still, this very small group of families will get together for an evening, because now Diego and Luca have an appointment we can’t miss.

Is the gift of Facebook ads “wrong”?

Having been involved in several flames on the subject I feel compelled to articulate why I don’t like the fact that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg donated $500k in FB ad credits to the Red Cross to help out victims of the earthquake who shook Central Italy on aug. 24th.

  1. is this a policy? there are about 1,500 earthquakes of magnitudo 5 and above per year. Are we to expect a similar donation to the Red Cross for each one? Flattened houses and dispossessed people count the same whether they are European, American, Asian, Australian or African, right? I expect therefore that the Red Cross (or Red Crescent, as the case may be)  gets $750M per year in ad credits turning them overnight into one of the world’s largest FB ads brokers, a role for which I am sure they have experience and skills…
  2. “in kind” donations are not immediately helpful. True, they have SOME value for the recipient, but exactly how much is not clear (see #4); plus they place on the recipient the onus of transforming whatever goods the donor gives into the thing that an organization like the Red Cross really needs (i.e. money) and introduces a time delay in the availability of the additional resources. What would you think of Philip Morris giving a truckload of cigarettes, Coca-Cola a tanker of Coke or a University 100 MBA scholarships?
  3. the public announcement stygma. Should donations be advertised? An old discussion which was settled (for me, not by me) long ago, when I was the Country Manager for Lotus Development, a company which gave a percentage of its net profit in every operation to local charities each year. Not only this gift was prohibited from getting ANY sort of publicity, but the committee deciding who would get the yearly gift was formed by employees (not managers). I never knew who received it in the seven year I ran the Italian operation.
  4. transparency. That’s the flip side of #3: shouldn’t donations be public? Don’t shareholders have a right to know? In my opinion they do, as they are the ones ultimately donating, but disclosure should be made at policy level (i.e. how much the company intends to donate and with which criteria the beneficiaries will be chosen) NEVER at the recipient level. Transparency is an additional reason “in kind” donations are bad: I suspect once you factor in all the transformation costs and fees, the real value to the receiving organization is much diminished, so shareholders don’t even know exactly how much they are agreeing to give.
  5. decision process. In other words, who decides? In this case it appears it was mr. Zuckerberg’ own decision, and while he’s the Founder, the CEO as well as one of Facebook’s largest shareholders, Facebook is NOT his property alone: others should be involved in this decision, representing other shareholders and proposing worthy destinations for corporate generosity.

csrSo all in all (while it is obvious that ANY help is welcome) what this boils down to, at least for me, is the fact that mr. Zuckerberg is a person of vast wealth: if his good feelings prompt him to give to help people in distress, praise to him, but he should use some of his own money (= cash)  and not mess with the Corporate Social Responsibility of Facebook.

Maybe he ought to take a lesson or two from Bill or Warren….

Book review: “A Universe from Nothing” (Lawrence Krauss)

A Universe from Nothing.jpegI recently re-read this interesting essay by a one of the most controversial physicists of our time. I do not remember why I did not post my impressions when I first read it, but I’ll fix this now.

I share with prof. Krauss an almost unlimited admiration for Richard Feynman (something some of my readers will certainly know) and a keen interest for quantum physics; Krauss is also a gifted divulgator, perhaps even superior to our common hero.

Despite dealing with some of the most arcane phenomena in modern physics, this book is eminently readable even to the non initiated and offers some plain language explanation of what is perhaps the most advanced thinking about the origin of the Universe.

The first half of the book is totally captivating, to the point of being thrilling: he does not need complex math to explain why there was a beginning to our Universe, what is the evidence of such a beginning and when it took place; the beauty (and power) of the theory is that it precisely accords to the observed values. As Feynman said, such precision is tantamount to predicting the distance between New York and Los Angeles to the thickness of a human hair.

So the Universe began 13.72 billion years ago and it’s made almost entirely (99%) of stuff we cannot observe (dark matter and dark energy) with a precisely flat geometry (one that’s not open nor close): this dark energy does not belong to matter or radiation but, incredibly, is associated with empty space itself. One of the interesting consequences is that the total energy of our Universe is exactly zero.

This seems to be an element of recursive design in Nature: in the infinitely small, empty space is not empty at all, but it teems with a bubbling of particle-antiparticle couples which pop into existence to annihilate on each other in times and distances so small they fall below the limit of the Uncertainty Principle, justifying the macroscopic perception of emptiness, except when this happens next to another wonder of Nature, a black hole, i.e. a region where gravity is so strong nothing – not even light – can escape: when a pair pops in existence next to the horizon event of a black hole, it may happen than one element of the couple falls into said black hole, making annihilation impossible and freeing the other element: to the external viewer, this will look like the black hole has emitted some of its mass as a particle, perhaps ultimately leading to its evaporation.

Back to our Universe, looking farther and farther away we also look back in time: may we one day arrive at seeing the Big Bang itself?

Not so, explains Krauss, because before matter coalesced into protons and neutrons (about 300.000 years after the Big Bang) there was only a plasma that’s opaque to light: what lies before is the so called “inflationary state” where the space expanded at superluminal speed (whose limits concerns only objects or radiation traveling THROUGH space, not space itself) freezing whatever irregularities there might be on the otherwise uniform surface to create all we see today.

If that was all there is to this book, I would wholeheartedly recommend it as a five-star gem; unfortunately Krauss has an agenda which is to show that the concept of Divinity is not necessary: the second half of the book is therefore devoted to demonstrating that since the Universe exists as an oscillation of the otherwise unstable non-existence, the flat universe is a necessary consequence of a “small patch of asymmetry between matter and antimatter rapidly spreading” until it encompasses the unfathomable vastity of our Universe with its 400 billion galaxies.

It requires no ultimate cause, because it simply is as it is.

Since the Universe is expanding at ever increasing speed, galaxies will ultimately recede from each other at superluminal speed, essentially disappearing and making observation of telltale signs of the Big Bang like the redshift of galaxies or the measurement of the Microwave Background Radiation impossible, from which Krauss derives a very unlikely anthropic consequence, i.e. that future cosmologists will have no knowledge that the Big Bang ever occurred nor have any reason to investigate it. When one considers the fact we went from Cro-Magnons to doctor Krauss in less than 50,000 years I daresay the 2 trillion years that will be needed for the space expansion velocity to exceed the speed of light should be more than enough to figure out a solution.

This second “book in the book” is IMHO far less understandable than the first and does not accomplish in the least the purpose the Author announces for it, inasmuch I did not need Krauss to know that it is the individual’ choice to consider the ultimate description of reality divine or not.

Fast vs. Slow Nuclear Power Plants

A friend asked me what is the difference between a “Slow” and a “Fast” Nuclear Power Plant, a curiosity probably stirred by the recent announcement of the Beloyarsk 4 NPP going online.

First of all, 789 MWe Beloyarsk 4 is not such a big deal, capacity-wise. It is part of the Beloyarsk complex, designed to deliver around 2.3 GW of power when fully operational, which is big but not in the league of the true giants like the 8 GW Kashiwazaki plant in Japan or the 6.2 GW Bruce plant in Canada. Russia itself has several 3.8 GW plants like the one powering St.Petersburg (still called the Leningrad Plant).

Beloyarsk 4 is however the world’s largest FAST reactor, about 1.5 times larger than the second-largest, its sibling Beloyarsk 3.

Fast reactors use an “inefficient” moderator like liquid sodium: neutrons are not slowed up as much and when they hit U238 nuclei (the non-fissile vast majority of natural uranium), transform them into Pu239 which then decays into U239 which is even more fissile than traditionally used U235. In short, fast reactors produce some of the fuel they consume and, in certain conditions, all of it and even more. This last kind is called “breeder” and it was popular in the late Seventies as it also bred Plutonium, used in you-know-what.

Excluding this last species, for which nobody has much use nowadays (and instead is faced with the decommissioning headache) fast reactors are more fuel-efficient than traditional light-water reactors: Beloyarsk 4 should achieve 80 GW/ton/day (compared with about 50-60 for a light water reactor) and an upcoming follow-up unit is expected to achieve 120 GW/t/d.

Of course, the engineering of a liquid sodium moderator is a little more complex (for one thing, it is prone to exploding), but the design has been around for decades and is therefore rather stable and well-understood.

The question for me is why, given Russia’s richness in uranium (4th largest reserves in the world after Australia, Kazakhstan and Canada) they are investing in more fuel-efficient plants; for more discussion of NPPs see also these other posts.


*** Political Debate 101 ***

OK, you may think this guy is tool because he’s on “the other” camp.

But as far as the debating technique goes, I actually find it pretty effective and it was part of the political debater toolkit I taught in my previous life.

It’s called “Break” and it works like this: you are about to be asked a tough question, but the interviewer starts the question with a generic (like “polls say…” or “the media report…”) rather than a specific (like “the Gallup poll says…”) so you can break the interviewer rhythm by asking “Says who?” while s/he is still talking.

If s/he cannot remember a single source right away, you could even double up by asking

“Quote ONE poll, please, you said ‘polls’ implying ‘all polls’ so you should be able to name at least one”

at that point there are three possible outcomes:

1) s/he actually HAS the Gallup poll or whatever ready to which you can answer “OK, I just wanted to understand which poll you were referring to” therefore implying that other polls may be saying something else

2) s/he ignores the question or repeats the generic – as she did in this case – therefore debasing completely the negative tone of the question

3) s/he fumbles around looking for one such source, breaking the rhythm and looking biased and ill-prepared.

The reason we may not perceive this is because we start from the perspective of one who reads many papers and already knows that polls say what she says: it’s a so-called ‘shared truth” that does not require demonstration.

But not so the average elector….

August 15th

Since many years, every august 15th I watch (again) the movie of the Woodstock Festival. I do this despite the innumerable jokes that I become the target of, should any of my children be with us.

Tonight, fortuitously, we happen to be on our own, and I will be able to enjoy my yearly smorgasbord of the best 70’s sound evah. I know, I know, it was only 1969, so technically this is the 60’s but… music was never better, and for the following decade nothing really new happened that had not been quite completely described during these 3 days in Bethel.

So to enjoy, I offer you the video of (some of) the performances that did not make the movie.


Water blues

A few days ago I reported about my work this summer to rein in the enormous water consumption of my summer house.

After a few days of comparing data, it turns out that:

  1. There are positively no leakages anywhere: the water circuit is now completely exposed, pipes and connectors have been replaced even if there were no leakages, just in case.
  2. The watering of the lawn (sprinklers)  and rocky garden (drip feed) are the major culprits, requiring almost 3 cubic meters per day; I have now trimmed this to about half that with no negative consequences.
  3. The swimming pool – which I always thought to be the main reason for abnormal water consumption – turns out to be almost innocent: even if there is a leak, it must be a really small one.
  4. Even before the trimming, summer semester consumption can be estimated in 450 cubic meters, winter semester in 50 m3, inclusive of swimming pool leakages.
  5. There is a material difference between the readings of the water company meter and the readings of the meters I have installed.

The only possible conclusion is that, thanks to the faulty meter,  the water company has overbilled me at least since mid-2012, as my water consumption in this period was much higher.

The rate of over-metering however is not constant: right now it hovers around 400-500 liters per day, but that would not explain the discrepancy of the last three winters, where the billed me for 510, 520 and 1,200 cubic meters instead of 50: the over-metering can explain another 90 (= 0.5 x 180 days) so what’s the rest?

One hypothesis is that the over-metering rate changes with the system water pressure, i.e. the higher the pressure, the higher the over-metering. For the past two-three years in the area there was a construction site which obviously required a lot of water, which may have lead the water company to increase the system pressure to compensate for the huge drain. [NOTE: OK, the site story is true, but the rest of the explanation is made up]

This is not going to be an easy sell, but I must attempt it anyway, as the presumptive damage is over €8,000 plus the yet-unpaid bill for €4,500 (the one for the 1,200 m3), so today I filed a complaint follow-up with the water company in my stumbling french together with a request for an expertise on the meter, which will happen on Aug. 23rd, with results due two weeks later (?).

My experience with (Italian) utilities shows that it’s EXTREMELY difficult to get them to admit they overbilled you: we’ll see whether their French counterparts are easier to deal with. Just to cover my back as much as possible, I have also in parallel opened a case with the Mediation Service, no idea whether they will play a role.

Language gender bias

Unbeknownst to international media, a small drama was consumed over the last few days in the Italian media world. In Rio, the female Italian Archery team nearly made to a first-ever bronze medal, prompting regional sports daily QS-Quotidiano Sportivo to headline:


The trio of chubbies nearly achieves an Olympic miracle

Outrage exploded: the President of the Italian Archery Federation issued a protest letter and the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper, Giuseppe Tassi, was promptly fired, two months ahead of his planned retirement date of  September, 2016.

Today, well-known columnist Beppe Severgnini calls this dismissal “excessive”, on grounds that Italian politicians often trespass the boundaries of gender-correctness (specifically citing as example the leader of the Northern League Matteo Salvini who recently at a rally compared a female political opponent to a sex doll).

severgnini cicciottelle

Let me offer a scientific reason why I think such a sin by a journalist is more sinful than when done by a politician (despicable as it may be).

In a recent study on machine learning, researchers at Google studied so-called “embedded word associations” using Word2vec, a large corpus of text (nearly three million words) coming from Google News. These associations allow a machine to respond to the query:

London : England =  Tokyo : X

with the answer “Japan”. As some other researchers at Microsoft Research have found, however, Word2vec is significantly gender-biased; for example the query:

Man : Computer programmer = Woman : X

returns “Homemaker” or the query:

Father : Doctor = Mother : X

returns “Nurse”.

If this gender bias is powerful enough to make its way into something very young like machine learning, imagine what it does to the programming of the human brain. Journalists therefore – as the authors of such texts, hold a special responsibility in being vigilant about this bias, and this is why IMHO, their sin is more despicable.

Summer projects: water in St.Raphaël

Some of you know my indiscriminate interest in understanding the unfathomable, i.e. utilities costs. My new target is the enormous water consumption of my summer house, especially painful in a country (France) where water for non residents costs a feckin’ €4 per cubic meter (hear that, Irish friends?)

This may sound like “not much” (0.4 euro cents per liter) until you receive the bill stating that your house consumes 2,500 cubic meters per year (almost 7 cubic meters PER DAY on average), with no more than 80 days per year occupancy.

The first thing I thought is a leak, and a big one. However, the water circuit is all exposed in the great french invention of the “vide sanitaire” or crawlspace: since the house is built on the side of a rather steep hill, the crawlspace in many places is higher than a normal ceiling, allowing easy access for inspections.

Surely a leak of those proportions should leave visible traces (puddles of water, humidity) which to be honest we could not find. As always in these cases, the problem starts with the fact I DO NOT KNOW how much water a house like mine should normally consume. Without a benchmark, it is hard to assess exactly how bad the problem is.

2016 08 04 21 29 bSo I got a plumber to divide the circuit in three sub-circuits: one feeding the yard, one for the pool with the surrounding lawn and one for the house, each with its own sluice valve and counter.

After a mere few days of observation, I now know the following:

  • In a normal day when there’s people, our house will consume about 400 liters of water; of course this will vary with the number of people.
  • The sprinklers watering the lawn around the pool are quite thirsty, consuming about 1 cubic meter per day.
  • The rocky garden drip watering system in comparison is more thrifty, requiring only 1.8 cubic meters per day for a much larger expanse.
  • The pool itself requires topping up every 10-12 days, to compensate for evaporation and – perhaps – a few small leaks, at the rate of about 2.2 cubic meters each time.

Tweaking the programming of the various sprinklers I have now settled on a yearly theoretical consumption of around 350 cubic meters (the vast majority of which is used during the summer) a far cry from the 2,500 of my last bill !

Moreover, the new system will make easy to shut off altogether the branches I am not using (the house when we’re not there, the garden except during the summer, the pool except when it is being refilled) making mistakes less likely and easier to correct, also thanks to a friendly neighbour which is kind enough to keep an eye on my house in our absence.

The proof of course will be in the pudding, i.e. my next bill, but also in the negotiation I will have on monday with the water company, as there is a little law in France that allows to get a kickback in case there’s a leak certified by the bill of the plumber.