Month: January 2010

2010 – Year of what?

Ever since 1995 I hear the same phrase, and ever since 2000 I stopped listening. It was already the year of Linux in 95 for me, so why bother?

But this year is different, and Linux is not the only revolution in town… By the end of last year, the first tera-electronvolt collisions were recorded in the LHC, getting closer to see (or not) the infamous Higgs boson. Now, the NIF reports a massive 700 kilojoules in a 10 billionth of a second laser, that, if it continues on schedule, could lead us to cold fusion!!

The human race is about to finally put the full stop on the standard model and achieve cold fusion by the end of this year, who cares about Linux?!

Well, for one thing, Linux is running all the clusters being used to compute and maintain all those facilities. So, if it were for Microsoft, we’d still be in the stone age…

UPDATE: More news on cold fusion

The Wikipedia Game

There was a time when the gods were bored to death, but because they couldn’t actually die, they started writing down all their knowledge to pass the time. Virtually everything known to them was written on the ancient manuscripts and organized by topic, cross-linked with other topics, in a very simple yet complete language that described everything to the last detail.

Time passed, universes were created and in some of them, creatures developed critical thinking. With that, came science and with science, the logical conclusion that gods didn’t actually have to exist was inevitable. So inevitable that finally, without delay, the gods actually died. For the curious minds, that fact is based on the quantum principle that, if no one sees it, it doesn’t actually exist.

Yet, for the great benevolence of the Universe, the manuscripts were kept and for billions of (Earth) years (relativistically speaking, of course), they were forgotten. But everything that is lost is waiting to be found, and in a very small speck of dust, in a completely irrelevant galaxy on the (multi-dimensional) margins of one of the universes, a yet-to-be intelligent race found a way to the manuscripts. However, their intelligence was not enough to uncover the whole truth. They could only gather hints and pieces of what once was the complete knowledge of everything.

It was much more of a coincidence, really, that so many of those beings would channel the truth through their fingers and type them, guided by the manuscripts themselves, on a remote system that all the other beings would go and search for knowledge. Some would misguide them, of course, and others would fight over the truth, for no one really know how to interpret such manuscripts. Seeing such confusion and regress, the Universe decided to create a game, on which such frivolous beings could channel their good side instead, even if not consciously knowing so.

The Game

The game is very simple and is meant to beings with very limited mental and social capacity.

The younger member starts by clicking on the “Random Article” link on any Wikipedia page, or by choosing a subject from the main page. After that, the following rules must be repeated until the players are tired or bored to death:

  1. The current player must explain (out loud) what the article is about and think of a related subject. The relation can be of any kind.
  2. The other players would then decide if the relation is valid and the player should then go to the related page.
  3. If the relationship is valid and approved, the points are counted on the following manner:
    • 1 point if the article exists, +3 points if the player enhances it.
    • 3 points if the article doesn’t exist, +9 points if the player creates it with a stub.
  4. The player on the right goes next.

Of course, at least one access to Wikipedia is necessary, but many can be used simultaneously. It is considered foul play to tamper with the contents of the pages just to get extra points (remember, the gods won’t be pleased at all!).

In between games, there is a way to get extra points for the next round. If the player proves that he/she enhanced Wikipedia pages quoted from a previous game (change logs suffice), he/she gets +3 points at the start of the next game for every considerable change (10 or more words) in a single page. Multiple changes in the same page counts as one change and the points can only be counted if the change happened between the last game and current, so the same change cannot be considered twice. Creation of new pages related to the subjects mentioned also count as change.

The Winner

The winner of the game is obviously the one that gets most points, but the real winner is the society. Knowledge has no owner, no boundaries, no limits. The more you share, the more society benefits. Knowledge is power, and you can give it for free, as easy as writing an email… to the world.

Logic and a bit of luck

Most game-changing scientific discoveries had a lot of logic and critical thinking, but also a bit of luck involved. As most scientists, I don’t believe in luck, so the definition of luck here is being the right person in the right place at the right time. As most (good) scientists, I don’t believe, I state, hypothesise, prove, refute, so the definition of belief here is also obvious.

My point is that evolution wouldn’t have been formulated if Darwin hadn’t gone with the Beagle, genetics wouldn’t be so solid if Mendel hadn’t believed the contrary so fiercely, Plank wouldn’t have found the quantum if there wasn’t a major argument about the black-body spectrum and Einstein would have won the Nobel prize for any other thing if he hadn’t been so drawn by God playing dice.

My story today starts in a similar way, but in a much more mundane problem… I lost my keys.

There is nothing I hate more than loosing my keys, especially in the 25th of December when we’re going to hit the road in the 27th. I lost all my keys, car, house, even my USB key. These modern car keys are not easy to replicate, I’d have to buy the whole thing again and loosing your front door key is not the kind of thing you let pass with a simple copy, you have to change the whole set, especially when you’re going away for a week.

Well, after despair came fear. After fear, despair again. We searched the whole house, inside, outside and in between. Nothing. Brute force wasn’t helping, but that hadn’t stopped me to do it once in a while again, just in case. In between the despair brute-force moments, we decided to be logical about the situation and think, rather than search for the answer.

First point, we had a spare of either car and house, so at least we could still travel and come back home. My worries were, in fact, what would we find when we came back home… If I had lot my keys outside or had left them hanging off the front door’s key hole (happened more than once), it’d be just too easy for someone to clean the house while we were away.

So we tracked down every place we went, every thing we did. By logic, I couldn’t have lost them in the city or anywhere I would have gone by car. Nor I could have lost it inside the car, so at least we knew that it’d be either inside the house or around it (including the key hole, unfortunately). I almost cancelled our trip because of the key hole probability, but Renata, very logically, convinced me that everything we did could not have caused me to leave it there. It was very, very unlikely. So we went…

However very unlikely, that still bugged me the whole week and I felt a bit of panic when we got home. But to my comfort, the house was exactly the way we left. That was, in a twisted way, another indication that the key was not left in the key hole. It had to be inside the house. I went back to work, still using the spare keys, but always thinking about it, wondering wherever it was. Sometimes, just in case, I’d imagine that I would look somewhere and see the key there, and be very surprised I haven’t seen it there before. That feeling never came.

This week I thought enough was enough. I had to continue with my life, change the front door keys and buy the very expensive key set from the car’s manufacturers. I put a to-do in my mobile: “call toyota, landlord wrt keys”. It was then that luck stroke with an impeccable logic. I felt like Darwin finding the platypus or Mendel smashing peas.

I looked at our bag of snow jackets, hermetically sealed for the next winter (Cambridge has only one chance of snowing each year, and that was before Christmas), and thought: “If the keys are in there, we’ll only find out next winter.” The simple logic led me to think it’d be much cheaper for me to re-open the impossible-to-close-hermetically-sealed bag now and not find the key than to wait until next winter and have spent thousands of pounds for nothing. The risk assessment was positive, and that led me to the next piece of information that closed the gap: it was snowing before Christmas! It had to be there!

I opened the bag and tapped my jacket, nothing. But the logic was impeccable, I couldn’t be wrong. I wore the jacket and trusted logic above my own despair. Gently sliding my hands inside the pockets, as I always do. The pockets are deep, and I felt nothing at start, but that didn’t stop my trust in logic. Spock would have laughed at me if I did, it’s that serious, a vulcan could actually laugh. It was not out of faith or belief, it was the ultimately trust that scientists lay on logic above all feelings, common sense and general knowledge, that kept me going until I finally felt something…