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.

Reading the tea leaves of the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign

To the eye of the external observer the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign seems to have turned a corner.

Now that he clinched the republican nomination Trump seems to be on a rampage of self-inflicted damage: first the goofy attack on the Khan family (whose fallen kid is a war hero of Muslim religion), then the refusal to endorse the primaries of GOP heavyweights Paul Ryan and John McCain (perhaps as revenge for their absence at the RNC), then the unbelievably clumsy kicking out of a crying baby at a rally – and the list goes on.

Media are taking their gloves off, with well-researched attacks that suggest he is not at all as successful as he portrays himself (Newsweek) and that the republican top brass is really, REALLY fed up with him (WaPo).

So what’s going on?

I think Trump plan was never to be President at all. The POTUS job is a tough one and the Don is not ready to work his ass off like that. Especially since he always had a fallback solution that requires much less work, zero risk and almost as much visibility, visibility being the only thing he really craves.

The solution is called “I could have been President if only the pussies in my party hadn’t thrown me out” and it works like this:

  1. win the nomination – CHECK !
  2. outrage the GOP so much they kick him out – NEARLY THERE
  3. HRC wins by a substantive margin
  4. for all her Presidency, Trump can go on behaving like the madman the media love, acting as her shadow opposer.

For someone who thrives on exaggeration, brashness the “I could have been President” solution is the best: no responsibility, almost the same visibility.

Being acquired

As some will know, I had an Agency for nearly 20 years: for 9 of these years (1993-2002) we were independent, while for the other 10 (2003-2012) we lived as part of a big American Group who had acquired us.

There are lessons I learned from the acquisition process itself, but they are a bit too close personally to share openly, so if you want to learn what they are you will have to email me. The question I received today, however, is different:

“Which life was better?”

To try to answer, I will dissect the word “better” into some of its many meanings.


Better = make more money for myself

This essentially depends on timing (and therefore on some luck): selling when you are at the top of your game will advantage you financially, because for all their experience in negotiation, your counterpart are as dependent on the business cycle as you are. I thought that having weathered the ebbs and flows of the tide so many times they would have the fix, but they don’t.

The general rule is therefore that they will pay you a little less than the cash your business will generate, unless you catch an overhang coming from a few exceptionally good years across the acquisition date, followed by a string of bad ones. This is a rather unique combination which I hit upon by sheer luck: my mistake was that I should have perhaps severed the remaining link a couple of years earlier than I did – so think carefully about your ultimate exit strategy.

Better = make more money for the firm

This is almost NEVER the case: the weight of compliance and policies will erode your profit margins, especially if you live in a peripheral country like Italy: as always in history, vassals pay for the Prince’s silverware.

Better = win more business

Of course, living under the umbrella of a big, respected international brand means you get invited to bigger pitches by bigger clients; this is very true for the “main” countries like the U.S., U.K. or Germany. Much less so for Italy, always an afterthought and never the target of big budgets. Smart individuals can however have the chance to work at international level to fully exploit their capabilities, and a big global firm is the best stage for someone willing to excel.

Better = work on more exciting clients/projects

Mind the general rule: sexy work in big American firms is done in New York (or, much less, in London). Nowhere else.

So yes, you could get on sexy work if you’re smart, but you must doggedly pursue a job in those central hubs: you must work the organisation, get hooked up in NYC, play the Corporate game, purposefully and ruthlessly.

Better = easier to recruit/motivate good people

Being a grunt for a big services Brand (advertising, consultancy, PR) is like being drafted for military service: you do it because you must, but you hate every second of it. As an independent, people joined my firm because they wanted to work with me, after the acquisition they joined because they wanted to get our Big Brand on their resume.

So this will work out even, trading the attractiveness of the firm’s leader for the attractiveness of its brand, but the sense of loyalty will be much watered down; I tried to walk a middle ground of treating people fairly also when in a Big Brand, but of course with the added corporate costs you can only do this for as long as business is exceptionally good. I am sure there is plenty of ex-employees who think I was every inch the corporate selfish bastard.

Better = more sophisticate internationally

Definitely so: if you’re willing to do it, a big Global Agency is where you can forge relationships, learn from other cultures: this is where your ability to function in a culture other than your native one is forged and where you learn to live in a constant state of imbalance.

Better = more innovative service offering

Big organisations are risk-averse: they thrive not in innovation, but in perfecting the tried and tested, making it into a process that requires less and less skilled workers because it’s so ingrained into the organisation.

New ideas are received with intellectual curiosity but rarely pursued also because they would entail change and remember, no organisation ever wants to change. As a result, innovation departments is where you put brilliant fellows whose impact on the organisation is next to nothing.

Better = more rigorous planning and management

Services businesses are bitches to model, and without models, it’s hard to develop measurement breakpoints to understand what’s going on.

So you would be justified in expecting that a conglomerate made up of hundreds of very similar businesses would have developed some good quality models for you to adopt: well, if that was the case, such models never made it to me: the things I learned (and there are many) were invariably the intuition of more insightful or more experienced peers, rather than the distillation of collective knowledge burned into a crystal-ball Excel.

Better = more skilled as a manager / professional

As I already said the acquisition leveraged my ability to work in international contexts, but it did not fix any of my own shortcomings (I am a good leader but a crap manager, I lose interest easily and I am not so fond of details, much preferring the Big Picture), nor did instill in me any love for the human side of organisations. In fact, my tendency to analyze/model and then use the information system to support organisational change stems probably from the desire of managing the model rather than the people making it up in real life.

I have no idea whether the people in the model (my employees) found themselves objectified: one thing I remember well is that I kept everybody at a distance for fear of attaching myself to someone I may have to fire later on, also because I insisted on dealing with every dismissal directly myself, perhaps as a way never to forget how painful they are.

Better = improved my relationship wth money

Despite not being wealthy, I am not motivated much by money: my own greed was always short-term and tactical (“Hey, I made a bundle this year, let’s go buy a new car/house/toy !”) ; as a result, I had a hard time accepting and supporting faceless corporate greed, which is an end in itself.

Emptying the fish tank (2)

About six months ago, I offered an historical perspective on how Italy fought (and won) its own battle against terrorism.

It was a less ferocious strand of that virus, but it spawned massacres like the Piazza Fontana bomb or the one on the Italicus train or in the Bologna railway station.

My post concluded with a plea for islamic clergy to clearly define terrorists like Da’esh as heretics.

In six months the situation has gotten worse, and although westerners tend to get emotional over the carnage on the Promenade des Anglais, much worse has happened in Turkey, Pakistan and Iraq. It is clear that the target of the bearded crazies, now under intense military pressure,  is no more a fuzzily defined West, but the Rest of he World.

So I feel compelled to offer another history lesson (just to prove the point that whatever mistakes Islam may be making, Christianity has made them before and in spades).

Christianity lived through a profound schism (called the 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.


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

It took until 1417, when the Ecumenical Council of Constanze, having sorted out in three years of discussion the doctrinal differences (which in reality masked political necessities of the various factions), 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 potentially clashed with the dogma of the papal infallibility.

What is the lesson?

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.

This 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, for all faithful to see and stay away from.