Travel learnings

This week I had a somewhat hurried depart for Helsinki – thanks to a misunderstanding with my client, I learned about my flight details only 90 minutes before take-off.

As luck wants, I was leaving from the airport closest to where I live, meaning I was at the gate with time to spare. However, I realised I have become sloppy with some of basic traveling golden rules, which therefore I sum up again here as an aide-memoire.

  • Travel gear always in ready mode – this means a two day change already in the bag, including light sweater; throw in a couple of shirt and I’m good to go in <5′.
  • Never-ever take my toiletry bag, nor my travel pillow-cum-rain jacket out of the bag.
  • Carry on bag should be half-empty to accommodate briefcase: too may airlines have become fiscal on the one bag thing to afford the risk of having your bag snatched at boarding time.
  • Passport ALWAYS in the briefcase’ front pocket
  • Backup power bank in the briefcase and the backup’s backup in the bag, while I await delivery of my Space Case
  • Should I purchase an “extreme emergency” power brick to leave in the bag at all times?


A few years ago I narrated the story of how I underwent some major facial surgery to fix the problem that I wasn’t able to sleep any longer. That project was for me a great success, despite its many challenges (and some pain).

Now it’s time to face the other great damage Arthritis has inflicted on my body and that’s the functionality of my hands.

This will a bit more gruesome, as essentially I will undergo a “double Skywalker”

luke's handexcept mine won’t be nearly as high-tech as this: both hands will be surgically removed from their current locations (avoiding severing nerves, of course!), repositioned in a more “natural” posture and locked back in place. Titanium will not be limited to my skull, therefore.

The deal is that I will sacrifice the very little that’s left of my wrist-flexing functionality in exchange for restoring my right extensor tendons, fixing growing CTS (carpal tunnel syndrome) and a little prensile strength.

Today marks the real start of the process, with a long list of pre-op diagnostics. The CAT scan and X-ray were easy of course, but if you tried EMG (electro-miography) you will know that it is NOT a pleasant experience.

I expect this phase to conclude by end June at which point the hand surgeon will issue his final verdict and define a plan.

More to follow…

The Archivist’ dilemma

A while back the Interwebz mysteriously put on my path this excellent article by Vic Gray “Preservation vs. Use: the Archivist’ dilemma” which I found so intriguing I happily spent the $30 needed to read it in its entirety.

Predictably, I also promptly misplaced it and now cannot find it anymore, but this is not a great problem as I remember well the gist of the article which is whether the main purpose of any archive should be its conservation or its accessibility. This is an issue which is highly pertinent when said archive is, e.g. my film collection: started in the era of VHS, I soon (but not soon enough) realized that this “fabric” (to use one of Gray’s words) is highly IMG_20170504_141719.jpgperishable and switched to longer-lasting and by then available DVDs and later to Blu-Ray.

The upgrade of the 600-odd movies I had on VHS is obviously a financial challenge, especially as it needs to be performed WHILE the collection is growing with new releases, but you will be pleased to know I am halfway through. I briefly thought of adding a soft copy (i.e. ripping the movie upon arrival so that I would never have to use the DVD again – preservation!) but the job is VERY time consuming and with the advent of online MOD services such as Netflix, of dubious usefulness.

Physically speaking DVDs are much smaller than VHS, so this means my existing storage space should easily suffice for another 5-6 years.

Plus, movies come with a universal barcode that enable quick data entry (I use the very capable MyMovies software for archiving and retrieval). Such good software means that if it takes a second to satisfy the quest for essential factoids such as how many movies directed by Stanley Kubrick I have in my collection (10) or how many feature Woody Allen as an actor (28).

Books, however, are an entirely different ball game, for two main reasons:

  1. they have no universally accepted barcode system (many modern books do, but a lot of the ones I own date back up to forty years). This makes data entry a daunting task.
  2. no universal book database exists: AFAIK the most comprehensive Italian database is ALICE (*ahem* not available online) which carries about 1.1 million titles (not bad considering Italy publishes about 62,000 books per year); about 15% of the books I own are however in other languages.

This rules out the use of book archiving software, leaving only physical archiving, which is prone to numerous mistakes: we chose to archive by Author, but last time we moved, we found three copies of Joyce’s Ulysses(*) !

Even a simple count is difficult: at the time of our last move (again!) we counted 167 boxes averaging 20 books each, so the current estimate hovers around 3,000 units.

Up until recently, I though e-books were the answer and my preferred choice for new books, but yesterday I was let down also by that simple solution.

I went looking for Richard Feynman’s “Six not-so-easy pieces” lectures and could not find them together with my other Feynman books. I am rather sure I read that book, so I concluded I misplaced it; since I still wanted to re-read it, I decided to buy the Kindle version as a) it’s cheaper and b) when the book surfaces I don’t feel entirely a moron.

Unfortunately, Kindle books are really bad for essays, as they do not support anything except the written word: in this case, all the mathematical formulas are but illegible, making the book practically useless.

It seems that the only solution to my issue is manual labor: hire someone who manually inputs the data and builds the database: at 5′ for each book, 3000 titles would require about 250 hours of work.

I guess this goes on the list, after I finish the Great Digitization.

Note (*): don’t feel bad, I still don’t get it!


The ever active debate with no vaxxers is but the tip of the iceberg in a wider debate which I am trying to capture under the heading of “Q2V – Qualify to Vote”.

Democracy means literally “rule of the people”: one head, one vote. It assumes those who vote understand what they are voting on, because the previous system (only the elites decide) worked so badly, privileging the few to the expense of the masses.

The imbalance grew so extreme it sparked bloody revolutions, the 1789 on the France being the most egregious example. Democracy essentially replaced the previous system creating a less bloody way to overturn the privileged elites.

And this is essentially what’s happening all across the world: the elites have grown so rapacious, leaving behind so many people that these underdogs are voting for revolutionary candidates who promise to overturn privileges: Trump, Erdogan, Le Pen, Farage, Grillo…

The fact that most of these candidates are in reality the full expression of privilege should not surprise us, nor is particularly new: the French Revolution was bloodshed and anarchy until Napoleon arrived – even after he self-incoronated himself as Emperor, he was “the Son of the Revolution” and enjoyed immense popularity, so strong that even after his military defeat the restored aristocratic rulers did not have the nerve to serve him the death penalty, but preferred an exile in a faraway island.

Look who voted for Trump or Erdogan or Brexit and you see the same picture.

This in itself is not bad, as it gives clear signals to the ruling elites to self-reform themselves and re-balance what’s imbalanced, or else… at a much lower human life cost than a revolution.

The scary extension however is the temptation to defer to popular vote everything: energy policy, space exploration, microbiology, strategic infrastructures, vaccines, cosmology, high-energy particle physics: all these sciences need a degree of divulgation to garner popular support (as they rely on public money to continue their work) and to report back on the results of said monies expenditure, and this divulgation may give the impression people now understand them deeply enough to be able to make decisions.

Not so.

Richard Feynman was the most egregious divulgator on Physics, as Neil deGrasse Tyson  on Cosmology or Roberto Burioni on vaccines: their efforts to make the unwashed masses appreciate the essentials of their sciences should be lauded, but never mistaken for a shortcut replacing many years of hard study. These people are brilliant scientists with a knack for communications, not communicators who took a crash course.

Not all matters should be subject to popular vote, because most of us do not Q2V.

The essence of fake news: Truth and Obfuscation

Some of my readers know that my business is now Sustainable Mobility. As it is natural, I have shifted my reading interest towards that subject.

Yesterday I spotted this article on Bloomberg (not some scrawny blog) whose gist is:

When you account for the pollution created in generating electricity, an electric car pollutes just as much as a gasoline one

This is great example of “fake news” applied to a field other than politics.

The technique is subtle: you take an element of TRUTH (“generating electricity pollutes”) and extrapolate it into the desired conclusion (“electric cars pollute just like gasoline cars”) simply by OBFUSCATING (=not providing) the factual elements that would allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions. The factual elements in question are:

  1. how much CO2 is actually emitted when generating electricity?
  2. how much electricity does an electric car consume?
  3. how much CO2 does the average car emit?

Luckily, we live in an age of open data: most information is available with a little searching, which I have done for of Italy, my home country. Let’s review these in the same order:

  1. The EEA (European Environmental Agency) actually tracks the so-called “carbon intensity” of electricity across the EU28: the data is only available up to 2014 when the EU28 average was 276 gCO2/kWh. Italy was a little better, at 229. As you can see from the chart, the figure is going down by about 20 grams per year, so Italy is probably now closer to 180 gCO2/kWh.
  2. Manufacturers are notoriously not reliable when it comes to actual consumption data, issuing figures which bear no great relationship with actual use. Luckily car consumption data have been crowdsourced long time ago by (also available in english) for all kinds of cars and engines. It turns out that most electric cars will drive about 6 kilometers per kWh (excluding Teslas which only go 4.6 km/kWh)
  3. The CO2 emission is the easiest to find for new cars, as this information is now mandatorily published: a modern medium-sized  gasoline car will emit 100 gCO2/km (manufacturer data: if wrong, you can safely assume it’s wrong on the optimistic side). The average carbon footprint of the existing cars is slightly more difficult to find, but it turns out that ISPRA, the Italian Agency for Environmental Protection and Research has an open-data database called SINAnet with data for all kinds of pollutants. For CO2, the average emission is 231 gCO2/km.

Running the numbers yields:

  • current ICE: 12,000 km * 231 gCO2 = 2.8 tCO2 / year
  • new ICE: 12,000 km * 100 gCO2 = 1.2 tCO2 / year
  • EV: 12,000 km / 6 * 229 gCO2 = 0,45 tCO2 / year

We can therefore conclude that an EV will emit almost 70% less CO2 than a modern ICE (instead of “about the same”); additionally, an ICE car also emits PM2.5, PM10, CO, NOx and benzene and a lot of electric car owners also have a photovoltaic system which therefore generates some of their electricity without any pollution at all.

Truth + Obfuscation: we must learn to deal with them.

Do cars have a future?

Not a day goes by without a new prediction on the upcoming disruption (ha!) looming over the automotive industry. First Tesla was going to eat their lunch. Then Google, then Apple, then Faraday…

Now it turns out the first mass-market EVs will come from very traditional brands like Renault (with the 41KWh new Zoe) and General Motors (with the 60KWh Opel Ampera-e) both beating Tesla’s Model 3 by months or years.

The switch to electricity is inevitable, the only question mark being when the charging infrastructure will be able to support a re-fueling cadence which will move from “twice a month” to “daily”.

At the same time, the runaway success of micro-rental (I refuse to call them “sharing”) services in urban areas meant owning a car went from “Status symbol” to “Pain in the neck” in the space of a generation.

My question however is slightly different and, maybe, more fundamental:

Why now?

Re-phrased: why are these trends (none really new) driving serious change in the industry today? To answer let’s try to follow the money.

There are two industries who border Automotive shaping the economics of two key aspects of the car lifecycle: Ownership (=>Finance) and Use (=>Energy).


Cars provide an endless source of high-yielding, (relatively) low risk investments over which the Financial Services industry can earn handsome fees, to the point that for many vendors the financial services arm generates the majority of profits.

This investment is relatively low risk because the asset does not get used much meaning its residual value can be accurately predicted: the average car drives 12,000 km per year at a speed of 30 Km/h, which means it sits idle for 95.5% of the time.

Consumers pay for an asset they don’t use.

In consultancy business, this is what it’s called a retainer: a fee that compensates for the convenience of a car that’s waiting for me, completely on demand.


Cars provided the quintessential “money for nothing” energy proposition, as an ICE  wastes as heat as much as 70% of the energy contained in its fuel, so in a way

Consumers pay for energy they don’t use

The waste is so prominent EVs would need to clock 3-4x longer mileages to consume the same amount of energy as their ICE counterparts.

I think what is shaking up the car industry is the elimination of these two giant wastes to the benefit of consumers. Is this reduction large enough to have an impact on the sector?

  • a medium-sized car costs about EUR 300 / month; ignore the night and say real usage is 5%, at stake is €2,500 per year on ownership;
  • the same car uses about 1,200 litres of petrol; if 70% is wasted, at stake is another €1,000 per year on fuel.

Multiply these numbers by the 250M car stock in the EU28 and we’re talking of a phenomenon which could shrink the monetary value of the Automotive industry in Europe by as much as €875B annually.

When you consider that in the EU28 2015 turnovers were:

  • Sales of new cars = €325B
  • Ancillary ownership services (*) = €120B
  • Sales of gasoline = €375B

(*) insurance, maintenance, tires – my estimate.

you have the answer to the original question. Given the size of this income transfer there are a few fairly obvious considerations:

  • it won’t happen overnight
  • it’s unstoppable because once understood, the incentive is just too large to ignore
  • it won’t happen in one fell swoop, but in leaps and bounds as the three giant industries which are involved will jockey to position themselves in such a way as to intercept at least some of that value
  • it has NOTHING to do with the environment, which will benefit but only as an afterthought

Case studies from History (2)

After the teaser of a few weeks ago, please find below the full text of my remarks at the 3rd Arab PR Conference held in Cairo on December 19 and 20.

Conferences in the Arab world are not the pinnacle of presentation skills: thanks to their difficult relationship with images, most presentations are a dull sequence of text in Arabic (which I don’t speak or read). So mine was exactly the opposite, and contained nothing but images, some of which are interspersed in this text.


MESSAGES (Italy, 1970s – the Years of Lead)

f12-marcus-porcius-catoIn the 70’s the Italian economy was ravaged by rampant inflation, slow growth, corruption – the usual set of deadweights that unfortunately bogged down my country since the end of Second World War. Actually, when you read essays on Ancient Rome, you realize that Marcus Porcius Cato was complaining exactly about these same evils in 200BC so it’s a tradition that goes back a long way…

MANIFESTAZIONE DI LAVORATORI OPERAI DELLA PIRELLI ANNO 1969As usual, the poorer segment of the population was bearing the brunt of this situation and social strife was everywhere: hardly a day went by without a protest march or a strike and the mildly conservative governments that rapidly came and went were unable to cope with diverging extremes both on the left and on the right.

f14-cds-piazza-fontanaIn 1969 a bomb exploded in a bank in Piazza Fontana in central Milano, killing 17: it was the start of an escalation of violence that lasted about ten years, collectively known as “Years of Lead”. Terrorist groups formed in both extremes, the best known perhaps being right wing Ordine Nuovo (“New Order”) and the leftist Brigate Rosse (“Red Brigades”).

While the neo-fascists always operated under guidance or inspiration from Secret Services (both Italian and American), the Red Brigades prospered like piranhas in the fish tank of a dispossessed working class.

Exactly like piranhas in a feeding frenzy, inebriated by their newly found enormous visibility, they escalated their military actions from symbolic non-lethal woundings of key figures of the establishment (journalists, industrialists, politicians) to deadly attacks which culminated in 1978 in the cold-blooded murder of Aldo Moro, then President of the Christian Democratic Party, together with the five men of his security detail.

Despite the violence, the rhetoric of what was then the largest Communist Party outside of the Soviet Union, and especially that of the hardline Union of Metalworkers CGIL, was to characterize the Red Brigades as “comrades who went too far”.

f24-1979-guido-rossaIn 1978, however, Guido Rossa, a CGIL Union Representative working at the largest Italian steel mill, Italsider, reported to the Police one of his co-workers for distributing Red Brigades leaflets at his workplace. It was an act of isolated bravery: two other Union Reps, despite having witnessed the same event, refused to testify for fear of reprisals.

These fears proved not without foundation, as a few months later Guido Rossa was murdered by the Red Brigades, the first homicide against a member of the working class.

The Red Brigades attempted to portray Rossa as a spy, but both the Communist party and CGIL subtly altered their stance, starting to call the Red Brigades “Enemies of the People”.

The phenomenon had peaked and without popular support the Red Brigades frayed in a myriad of bickering small units, militants started to defect and soon all terrorists were apprehended and sentenced long prison terms.


The fish tank had been emptied killing the fearsome piranhas.

Forty years later, we know a great deal of what happened during that dark decade but back then? Propaganda fed us all kinds of credible stories, mixing bits of truth with loads of lies and confusing everybody.

The switch that made possible that a divided and confused country would come out from a season of blood and hate was the shift in Communications which did away with the subtle differences, justification and historical rationales and painted the world in much simpler colors, pigeonholing terrorists in their right box: enemies of the people.

f30-isis-flagIf I bring up this image, what do you think? Most of you will think Islamic State, right?

Well, I think we are making a significant semantic and communications mistake every time we call “Islamic” something that has no relation to Islam, and “State” f31-ku-klux-klansomething that is definitely not a State. The use of the adjective shoud be sanctioned in the same way we ridicule the Ku-Klux-Klan’ abuse of Christian symbols.

The use of the noun should also be sanctioned, because a “State” is such only if other States recognize it.

It is quite clear that the real target (and the worst enemy) of terrorists are the many peaceful, integrated, hard-working people that happen to be of Muslim religion. They are the living demonstration that people CAN and WILL live peacefully together, improving unjust western societies and making them a better, more tolerant place with every generation. But they are also the living chain of transmission that will eventually import what is good from western societies to the betterment of their home countries.

It is high time that this majority, their leadership and their clergy empty the fish tank by denouncing terrorists for what they are, i.e. enemies of Islam and of the Muslim people, addressing them with the only word that is appropriate.


But as I said, there are two components to every great Communications projects, because alongside a clear message strategy, we need a reputable spokesperson.

REPUTATION (Europe, 1377: the Great Schism)

Christianity lived through a profound schism (called the Great Western Schism) for most of the XIV century: initiated with the transfer of the Pope from Rome to Avignon in 1307,

the Schism itself appeared with the return of the Papal Siege to Rome decided by Pope Gregory XI in 1377: upon his death, the french faction and the roman faction both elected a Pope, and Europe found itself divided in “french obedience” (France, Spain, southern Italy, Scotland) and “roman obedience” (Eastern and Northern Europe, northern Italy, England, Ireland) with the German Empire and Portugal flip-flopping between the two depending on political convenience.


Such divisions on matters of faith masked – as it’s often the case – unresolved political issues existing between the various Empires and Kingdoms, starting with the Church, itself a secular potentate at the time. Therefore a seemingly innocuous religious dispute became the “reason” for much bloodshed.

In 1409, an attempt to resolve the problem made it worse by adding a third Pope to the existing two.

If41-concilio-di-costanzat took until 1417, when the Ecumenical Council of Konstanz, having sorted out in three years of discussion the doctrinal differences, deposed all three Popes and elected a new one, Martin V.

The Ecumenical Council was not a “new” instrument: in the history of the Church it had been called sixteen other times (but only five since) to address doctrinal issues such as heresies. The 1414 one was the first time it was used to decide which Pope was the legit one, a thorny issue which called into discussion the supremacy of the Pope which was sanctioned in 1870 when it was upheld formally stating that the Pope was indeed infallible when speaking “ex cathedra on matters of faith”.


This brief history lesson teaches us two things therefore:

  • it’s a matter of words, which we call


Changing the way you call someone that has gone the wrong way will have an impact on the perception of the masses. If Italian Unions had not started to call the Red Brigades “Enemies of the People” probably the Years of Lead would have stretched much further in time.

  • it’s a matter of authority which we call 


The Western Schism could not have been composed without stretching the mandate of the Ecumenical Council, something that was only possible because all parties recognized the explosive potential of the Schism to precipitate Europe into another endless war.

f45-quranThis is probably what is needed by Islam today: an extraordinary measure to sanction that the perversion of the words of the Quran to justify terrorism is an unacceptable heresy, and preachers of such hate doctrine should be publicly thrown out of Islam,

…into a furnace of fire:

there shall be wailing

and gnashing of teeth

(Matthew, 13:42)

Impressions: Pugz wireless

My Pugz wireless, charge-as-you-go headphones are here.
The first of three outstanding Kickstarter projects I backed has delivered and while iPhone users are pissed because CAYG was not delivered on their phone due to some 11th hour changes by Apple, it works fine on my Android.
Not entirely sure I get the point, as anything that cuts short the battery life of a phone seems dumb enough but you could connect them to a battery pack if you’re having a REALLY long (>4 hrs) confcall.
Not as dumb as totally wireless headphones so that you can carry them around your neck when not in use and still have some hope to find them when you need them.
Noise isolation is very good – perhaps TOO good as you end up in a quite unpleasant muffled world; but you either isolate or you don’t and the isolation works very well when on the phone.
The magnetic charging connector works better than a USB connector and looks very well built as the product as a whole, although I bet the weak link will be the connecting cord which however will not undergo the same strain as tethered headphones which invariably get yanked when you drop the phone.
The wireless functionality also means you can use them on a Skype call on your computer, something I do quite often, shedding the dork look brought by the over-the-ear headphones….. I am getting next week.

More nuclear questions

I am right in the middle of a blogging hiatus, immersed as I am in the herculean task of getting a start-up off the ground. For reasons of personal survival, I hope to be able to report soon.

In this situation, my blogging is purely reactive, as in the case of the questions received by my friend Marco, the author of a cool divulgative page “La Fisica che non ti aspetti” (=Unexpected Physics).

For those willing to understand completely the answers, it may be a good idea to first read this other post which is not specific to the BWR (boiling water) reactor technology used at Fukushima Dai-ichi

Q1. News reports said the cores of one or more reactors melted and contaminated the underlying aquifer. Why wasn’t it contained by the concrete vessel encasing the reactor vessel?

All three reactors at Fukushima experienced core meltdown (while 4, 5 and 6 were on scheduled maintenance), and all three for the same reason: the 13 meter tsunami wave overcame the 10-meter seawall and struck the generators, cutting power; when the batteries ran out of energy, the coolant ceased to circulate and temperature rose.

The resulting corium breached the reactor vessel but not the Primary Containment (concrete) Vessel. It’s all still there, as is the Secondary Vessel encasing the Primary.

That is not to say that all the radioactivity was contained as neutrons have the bad habit of traveling around. Additionally, several controlled and uncontrolled events lead to the dispersion of mainly Ce-137 in ocean waters: given the very strong currents in the area, this is believed to have dispersed in a very large area, causing little or no damage.

Q2. What contaminated people if there was no radioactive cloud?

Fuel rods are encased in a Zirconium allow which is inert at the normal functioning temperature of the core (300 °C); when overheated to 1200 °C however, they react with the surrounding water and create gaseous hydrogen; when the percentage of hydrogen in the air reaches the explosive saturation, chemical explosions occur, as it was the case in all three reactors, dispersing radioactive material.