Monday, 12 July 2021

arrivederci, fed04.17

Se oggi la situazione è complessa, non c’è ragione di credere che invece fosse semplice nel passato.

So why Italian? Sure it’s a beautiful language but isn’t Mandarin (Arabic, French, or even German) more widely spoken and, therefore, more useful?

In my book, the beauty of Italian trumps the perceived usefulness of German. But, if it’s not enough, there are many more reasons to learn this language and its history. Look no further than this fantastic MOOC (or its little sister) to discover, indeed, why Italian. By a telling coincidence, I finished this course yesterday, just as Italy defeated England in the Euro 2020 finals.

L’italiano nel mondo is a complete opposite of Italian Language and Culture. No unconvincing skits with pretend students. No silly examples that nobody ever uses. And no English spoken whatsoever. This ten-week course is offered by Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II (FedericaX) and presented by Nicola De Blasi, professor of Italian linguistics at the said university. Here’s the syllabus:

    Lezione 1 — Italiano lingua internazionale
    Lezione 2 — Italiano nel cinema e nel teatro
    Lezione 3 — Italiano nel mondo contemporaneo
    Lezione 4 — Geografia dell’italiano
    Lezione 5 — Le origini dell’italiano
    Midterm Exam
    Lezione 6 — L’italiano ai tempi di Dante e di San Francesco
    Lezione 7 — L’italiano nuova lingua di cultura
    Lezione 8 — Italiano e dialetti
    Lezione 9 — Le innovazioni dell’italiano
    Lezione 10 — La continuità dell’italiano
    Final exam

Each lesson contains two short-ish (7—8 minutes) videolectures, each followed by a reading, and, starting from Lesson 3, very simple self-evaluation. For those who do this course “for real”, there are also midterm exam and final exam; not for freeloaders like me though.

The videolectures feature little more than a “talking head” of Prof. De Blasi. Most of the time, he is sitting in the nice surroundings, usually with bookshelves behind him, and uses no other props than (physical) books when he is talking. Kind of old school; I like it. (I also would like, one day, sit at the table like that, on my own, and lecture to the world; or maybe just sit at the table like that. Never mind.)

Curiously, up to the Week 6 all the videos have both Italian and English subtitles. Starting the Week 6, English subtitles have disappeared. Not that I needed them too much: I found that I understand about 70% of what De Blasi says without them, and then there is Italian transcript that I can use. Still, I duly informed the course staff about that and got a prompt response:


thank you for your feedback. We try to make every course available in other languages as well, but this one is completely in Italian and we are working on the English translation that we hope we'll put up as soon as possible. Meanwhile you can find a shorter version in English at this link:

Happy learning,

FedericaX Team

I followed the link and discovered that Italian Language around the world is a five-week course which, most likely, just uses the videos of the first five weeks of L’italiano nel mondo. Oh well.

The readings, also in Italian of course, build on the lectures and provide the visual support that, one may feel, is missing from the videos. For example:

The language, academic it may seem, is easy enough to understand. And if not, Google Translate is doing a decent job, apart from the moments where some examples of mediaeval Italian are given. On more than one occasion, Google Translate helpfully suggested to switch to Corsican.

Thursday, 6 May 2021

ci vediamo, Italian1x

A few years ago, I started Italian Language and Culture: Beginner by WellesleyX only to abandon it after a week or so. This year, I decided to have another go at it.

This course is said to be “a new iteration of our course Italian Language and Culture: Beginner (2019—2020)”. In reality, a lot of material dates from much earlier time.

Friday, 16 April 2021

this is the extent of serendipity

According to Wikipedia, Charles J. Pedersen (1904—1989) “is one of the few people to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences without having a PhD”. Pedersen received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1987, twenty years after he published his classic paper on crown ethers [1].

Revisiting his work for Current Contents® (remember them?), he wrote [2]:

In 1961, at age 57, I began to study the effects of uni- and multidentate phenolic ligands on the catalytic properties of the VO group. The desired ligands, up to and including the quadridentate, had been synthesized. Now, the quinquedentate ligand, bis[2-(o-hydroxyphenoxy)ethyl] ether, was to be prepared by reacting a catechol derivative containing a protected hydroxyl (contaminafed with 10 percent catechol) with bis(2-chloroethyl) ether. The expected quinquedentate ligand was obtained, but nature lent a hand to provide the hexadentate dibenzo-18-crown-6 in 0.4 percent yield. This is the extent of serendipity.
Other crown ethers were synthesized, and when their unique properties had been determined, an exhilarating period of research was inaugurated: every successful experiment produced a significantly novel result.
The crown ethers might have been stillborn in another environment. They were discovered in the Elastomer Chemicals Department of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company, but what had they to do with elastomets? Moreover, the small amount of the byproduct might have been tossed out or disregarded as something other than the desired product. However, with the support of the top departmental management (C.J. Harrington, A.S. Carter, H.E. Schroeder, and R. Pariser), I worked independently with these compounds for nearly eight years. During the period leading to the paper, my sole coworker was T.T. Malinowski, a laboratory technician. I also had the resources of the analytical groups and the chance to consult with anyone on the technical staff of the company.
The editor of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Gates Marshall, wrote of the manuscript: “You are clearly reporting a monumental piece of work...” But he complained that the experimental section “...looked as though it had been copied verbatim from a laboratory notebook.” He contributed to the frequency of citation by allowing two unusual features in the paper: length (20 pages) and a new system of nomenclature (crown) for identifying compounds whose official names boggle the mind.

I don’t know about you but I find all this astounding. A guy sans Ph.D. is allowed to work for eight years on something that has nothing to do with his company’s products. Two years before his retirement, he publishes a single-author experimental paper on synthesis and characterisation of 33 cyclic polyethers, plus proposes the new nomenclature system for crown ethers that we still use today. It is as if the management knew he’s gonna win the Nobel and just let him work toward it.


  1. Pedersen, C.J. (1967) Cyclic polyethers and their complexes with metal salts. Journal of the American Chemical Society 89, 7017—7036.
  2. Pedersen, C.J. This Week’s Citation Classic. Current Contents®, no. 32, August 12, 1985, p. 18.

Monday, 15 February 2021

what’s the matter

In high school (1981—1983) I was taught that (physical) matter (материя) (1) consists of substance (вещество) and energy (энергия). However, in the English-speaking world matter (2) is usually understood as something that has mass (more precisely, rest mass) and occupies space. It does not include photons or waves. So, matter (2) is the same as substance. I find the concept of matter (1) useful for it allows us to talk about conservation of matter even when there is no conservation of mass as, for example, in nuclear reactions.

In Soviet times, the definition of matter (3) that we all were supposed to know by heart was the one given by Lenin in the Chapter II of his 1909 book «Материализм и эмпириокритицизм» (Materialism and Empirio-criticism):

Материя есть философская категория для обозначения объективной реальности, которая дана человеку в ощущениях его, которая копируется, фотографируется, отображается нашими ощущениями, существуя независимо от них.
Matter is a philosophical category denoting the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them.

Now Lenin’s concept of matter does not include dark matter and dark energy whose existence is postulated to explain certain cosmological hypotheses. Quite apart from the fact that Lenin did not know about them, neither dark matter nor dark energy can be observed (that’s why they are “dark”) and thus are not given us in our sensations. Of course, that could change in future. But, for the time being and for most practical applications, matter (1) is pretty much equivalent to Lenin’s matter (3).

Here’s an anecdote that my mum told me on a few occasions. Back in her student days, she also had to take an oral exam on “diamat” (диамат; short for dialectical materialism). The standard practice was, upon entering the examination room, to draw a “ticket” (билет), i.e. a slip of paper with the questions. So she took her “ticket” and sat down at a desk.

A student being examined at that very moment was finding himself in hot water. Not just any student: one of the top students of her class.

“Well, my friend, maybe you should come again another time, when you are better prepared”, the professor eventually suggested.

The student did not object. He got up and headed towards the exit. To the professor’s surprise, my mum also got up and began to pack.

“And where do you think you’re going?” he asked.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know anything. Will come back when I am better prepared.”
“Nonsense!” cried the professor. “You must know something if you came to this exam.”
“But I know that I don’t.”
“Are you Socrates or something?”
“No, but...”
“Are you telling me you don’t even know the Lenin’s definition of matter?”
“Why, of course I do know that.”
“Kindly tell us.”

And so she did. “Matter is a philosophical category denoting the objective reality” and so on and so forth.

“See?” said the professor. “Everybody look at her. She says she doesn’t know anything but she knows when I ask the question. Where’s your grade book?”

A grade book (зачётная книжка, or «зачётка») contained the record of exams and scores throughout the student’s university life.

“Here, your five.” (“Five”, or “excellent”, was the top score.) “And you”, he turned to the first student who, by some reason, still was hanging around, “you’re coming back another time.”

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

the great danger of the metric system

A few fact(oid)s about Dame Agatha Christie I haven’t been aware until now.

  • Pharmacy and toxicology were among Christie’s many interests. During the the First World War, she took some time off her work as a nurse to study for the Apothecaries Hall Examination. She wrote in her autobiography:
    To be introduced suddenly to the periodic table, atomic weight, and the ramifications of coal-tar derivatives was apt to result in bewilderment. However, I found my feet, mastered the simpler facts, and after we had blown up our Cona coffee machine in the process of practising Marsh’s test for arsenic our progress was well on the way. <...>
    A chemist’s shop, the first time that you go behind the scenes, is a revelation. Being amateurs in our hospital work, we measured every bottle of medicine with the utmost accuracy. When the doctor prescribed twenty grains of bismuth carbonate to a dose, exactly twenty grains the patient got. Since we were amateurs, I think this was a good thing, but I imagine that any chemist who has done his five years, and got his minor pharmaceutical degree, knows his stuff in the same way as a good cook knows hers. He tosses in portions from the various stock bottles with the utmost confidence, without bothering to measure or weigh at all. He measures his poisons or dangerous drugs carefully, of course, but the harmless stuff goes in in the approximate dollops. Colouring and flavouring are added in much the same way. This sometimes results in the patients coming back and complaining that their medicine is a different colour from last time. <...>
    During the course of my pharmaceutical instruction on Sunday afternoons, I was faced with a problem. It was incumbent upon the entrants to the examination to deal with both the ordinary system and the metric system of measurements. My pharmacist gave me practice in making up preparations to the metric formula. Neither doctors nor chemists like the metrical system in operation. One of our doctors at the hospital never learned what ‘containing 0.1’ really meant, and would say, ‘Now let me see, is this solution one in a hundred or one in a thousand?’ The great danger of the metric system is that if you go wrong you go ten times wrong. <...>
    It was while I was working in the dispensary that I first conceived the idea of writing a detective story.
  • It was not until 1920 that her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, saw the light of day. The corresponding episode of Poirot was released 30 years ago on occasion of Christie’s 100th birthday. Now, to mark the centenary of Styles, the Royal Mint issued the new £2 coins featuring the author’s signature, a jigsaw puzzle and some instruments of murder.

  • I visited Ayuntamiento de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria on many a bureaucracy-related occasion without knowing that its (pretty ugly) headquarters occupy the place of the former Quiney’s Hotel Metropole where Agatha Christie stayed in 1927.
    Las Palmas is still my ideal of the place to go in the winter months. I believe nowadays it is a tourist resort and has lost its early charm. Then it was quiet and peaceful. Very few people came there except those who stayed for a month or two in winter and preferred it to Madeira. It had two perfect beaches. The temperature was perfect too: the average was about 70, which is, to my mind, what a summer temperature should be.
    Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

  • The Mousetrap was not only the longest-running West End show but it had the longest initial run of any play in history. It premiered in 1952 and ran continuously until March 2020 until it was rudely interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Monday, 13 April 2020

staying indoors all night working

From Soul Music by Terry Pratchett:

A new day dawned.
It had hardly finished doing so before Ridcully hurried through the dewy grass of the University gardens and hammered on the door of the High Energy Magic Building.
The door opened.
‘Oh, it’s you, Archchancellor.’
Ridcully pushed the door open further.
‘Morning, Stibbons. Glad to see you’re up and about early.’
Ponder Stibbons, the faculty’s youngest member, blinked at the sky.
‘Is it morning already?’ he said.
‘You ain’t been out lately?’ said Ridcully.
‘No, sir. Er. Should I have been? I’ve been busy working on my Make‑It‑Bigger device. You know, I showed you—’
‘Right, right,’ said Ridcully, looking around. ‘Anyone else been working in here?’
‘Well . . . there’s me, and Tez the Terrible and Skazz and Big Mad Drongo, I think . . .’
Ridcully blinked.
‘What are they?’ he said. And then, from the depths of memory, a horrible answer suggested itself. Only a very specific species had names like that.
‘Er. Yes?’ said Ponder, backing away. ‘That’s all right, isn’t it? I mean, this is a university . . .’
Ridcully scratched his ear. The man was right, of course. You had to have some of the buggers around, there was no getting away from it. Personally, he avoided them whenever possible, as did the rest of the faculty, occasionally running the other way or hiding behind doors whenever they saw them. The Lecturer in Recent Runes had been known to lock himself in his wardrobe rather than take a tutorial.
He stared at the students. It was a worrying sight, and not just because of the natural look of students. Here were some people who, while this damn music was making everyone tap their feet, had stayed indoors all night — working.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Borges-like dreaminess

From The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony:

The Cucuteni-Tripolye culture first appeared around 5200—5000 BCE and survived a thousand years longer than any other part of the Old European world. Tripolye people were still creating large houses and villages, advanced pottery and metals, and female figurines as late as 3000 BCE. They were the sophisticated western neighbors of the steppe people who probably spoke Proto-Indo-European.
Cucuteni-Tripolye is named after two archaeological sites: Cucuteni, discovered in eastern Romania in 1909, and Tripolye, discovered in central Ukraine in 1899. Romanian archaeologists use the name Cucuteni and Ukrainians use Tripolye, each with its own system of internal chronological divisions, so we must use cumbersome labels like Pre-Cucuteni III/Tripolye A to refer to a single prehistoric culture. There is a Borges-like dreaminess to the Cucuteni pottery sequence: one phase (Cucuteni C) is not a phase at all but rather a type of pottery probably made outside the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture; another phase (Cucuteni Al) was defined before it was found, and never was found; still another (Cucteni A5) was created in 1963 as a challenge for future scholars, and is now largely forgotten; and the whole sequence was first defined on the assumption, later proved wrong, that the Cucuteni A phase was the oldest, so later archaeologists had to invent the Pre-Cucuteni phases I, II, and III, one of which (Pre-Cucuteni I) might not exist. The positive side of this obsession with pottery types and phases is that the pottery is known and studied in minute detail.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

our work on relative motion

“I need my wife. She solves for me all my mathematical problems”, Albert Einstein used to say [1]. What?

I have to admit that until today I knew literally nothing about Mileva Marić (1875—1948). It was thanks to publication of Rosa Montero in El País Semanal [2] that I looked her up. Her life was fascinating and tragic. Quite apart from being a brilliant mind, her husband was an ordinary asshole.

I look forward to resume our new common work. You must now continue with your research — how proud I will be to have a doctor for my spouse when I’ll only be an ordinary man.
Albert Einstein to Mileva Marić, September 1900 [1]
We will send a private copy to Boltzmann to see what he thinks and I hope he will answer us.
Mileva Marić to Helene Savić, 20 December 1900 [1]
How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a victorious conclusion.
Albert to Mileva, 27 March 1901 [1]
<Michele Besso> visited his uncle on my behalf, Prof. Jung, one of the most influential physicists in Italy and gave him a copy of our article.
Albert to Mileva, 4 April 1901 [1]
Marić in 1896

Whatever was Mileva’s actual contribution, we may never learn. Einstein submitted articles signed by his name only. Abram Ioffe claimed that “he saw the original three submission papers of the 1905 theory of relativity paper and said they were signed Einstein-Marity <Hungarian variant of Marić>. However, Marity was removed from the final publication” [3].

In 1912, Albert embarked on an affair with his first cousin, Elsa Einstein (Löwenthal). He forced Mileva to sign a humiliating contract [4, 5]:

  1. You will make sure:
    1. that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order;
    2. that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room;
    3. that my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only.
  2. You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons. Specifically, You will forego:
    1. my sitting at home with you;
    2. my going out or travelling with you.
  3. You will obey the following points in your relations with me:
    1. you will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way;
    2. you will stop talking to me if I request it;
    3. you will leave my bedroom or study immediately without protest if I request it.
  4. You will undertake not to belittle me in front of our children, either through words or behavior.
“Mileva moved back to Zurich with her two sons on 29 July 1914. In 1919, she agreed to divorce, with a clause stating that if Albert ever received the Nobel Prize, she would get the money. <...> In 1925, Albert wrote in his will that the Nobel Prize money was his sons’ inheritance. Mileva strongly objected, stating the money was hers and considered revealing her contributions to his work” [1]. Here’s what her ex responded:
You made me laugh when you started threatening me with your recollections. Have you ever considered, even just for a second, that nobody would ever pay attention to your says if the man you talked about had not accomplished something important. When someone is completely insignificant, there is nothing else to say to this person but to remain modest and silent. This is what I advise you to do.
Albert to Mileva, 24 October 1925 [1]


  1. Gagnon, P. The forgotten life of Einstein’s first wife. Scientific American, 19 December 2016.
  2. Montero, R. Ella también. El País Semanal, 2 June 2019.
  3. Banovic, R. Does Albert Einstein’s first wife Mileva Maric deserve credit for some of his work? Independent, 13 June 2018.
  4. Smith, D. Dark side of Einstein emerges in his letters. The New York Times, 6 November 1996.
  5. Isaacson, W. Einstein: His Life and Universe. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2007.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

the power of wish to distort and deny

From the Foreword to the 1990 Edition of Awakenings by Oliver Sacks:

In the summer of 1970, then, in a letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association, I reported these findings, describing the total effects of L-DOPA in 60 patients whom I had maintained on it for a year. All of these, I noted, had done well at first; but all of them, sooner or later, had escaped from control, had entered complex, sometimes bizarre, and unpredictable states. These could not, I indicated, be seen as ‘side-effects,’ but had to be seen as integral parts of an evolving whole. Ordinary considerations and policies, I stressed, sooner or later ceased to work. There was a need for a deeper, more radical understanding.
My JAMA letter caused a furor among some of my colleagues. I was astonished and shocked by the storm that blew up; and, in particular, by the tone of some of the letters. Some colleagues insisted that such effects ‘never’ occurred; others that, even if they did, the matter should be kept quiet, lest it disturb ‘the atmosphere of therapeutic optimism needed for the maximal efficiency of L-DOPA.’ It was even thought, absurdly, that I was ‘against’ L-DOPA — but it was not L-DOPA but reductionism I was against. I invited my colleagues to come to Mount Carmel, to see for themselves the reality of what I had reported; none of them took up my invitation. I had not properly realised, until this time, the power of wish to distort and deny — and its prevalence in this complex situation, where the enthusiasm of doctors, and the distress of patients, might lie in unconscious collusion, equally concerned to wish away an unpalatable truth.

Friday, 29 June 2018

cheers, BEERx!

It’s been a while since a did a MOOC. But I just couldn’t resist doing The Science of Beer, a five-week course from the Wageningen University & Research. The best thing about this course, in my view, is that it was developed not by the academic staff but by the students of WUR. Apart from the videos and quizzes, there are optional “fun assignments” every week. Regretfully, I didn’t do any of them. (Why oh why?) My special regrets go to the first and probably most fun of the Fun Assignments, viz. Home Brewing, complete with this sweet disclaimer:

It is important to realise that this assignment involves the creation of an alcoholic beverage. It is possible for anyone to participate in this assignment, but please be aware that drinking or brewing an alcoholic beverage may be subject to laws and regulations in your country and can be hazardous. We cannot be held responsible for any consequences related to this assignment in any situation or circumstance. By continuing with this assignment, you agree to do so responsibly at your own risk.

No MOOC is perfect and this one is no exception. It being a student project, however, ensures that wabi-sabiness is practically built in. Whether or not a rerun of BEERx is planned, I highly recommend you checking it out. Currently the course is archived but the materials remain available to everybody.

Learning Outcomes

After successful completion of this course, the students will be able to:

  • identify the steps involved in the supply chain of beer and describe the scientific disciplines involved;
  • explain the effect of each step in beer production on the final product;
  • identify the main beer styles and explain how the production process can be designed to achieve their differences;
  • describe the characteristics and cultivation of the main raw materials of beer;
  • name the main historical events related to beer and explain how the image of beer changed in time;
  • explain how marketers try to influence consumer behaviour;
  • describe the pathway of beer through the human body after consumption;
  • discuss their own opinion on responsible drinking by looking at the health effects related to beer consumption.

Course structure

  • Module 1: Production - Processing and Categories
      This module covers three production topics: processing steps, process design and beer styles. During the processing, malt is produced, enzymes become active, chemical reactions take place, yeasts produce alcohol and flavour compounds, proteins are needed for foaming, and much more. Fun Assignment: Home Brewing.
  • Module 2: Production – Quality and Logistics
      This module focusses on the quality aspects involved in beer brewing. Also, it sheds light on the final steps of the production process: packaging and distribution. Fun Assignment: Beer Tasting.
  • Module 3: Raw materials of beer and cultivation practices
      This module goes back to the basics of beer. The students get a broader picture of the main ingredients and have a look at their characteristics and cultivation; discuss what defines a sustainable production, learn where beer comes from and explore important events in its history. Fun Assignment: Brewmasters through time (card game).
  • Module 4: Marketing of beer and cultural effects
      How are beers marketed? The students learn the essential activities in the process of bringing a beer onto the market. They also explore the world of advertising and discover the image of beer and how it changed over time. Fun Assignment: Advertisement.
  • Module 5: Consumption of beer and health effects
      The students follow the pathway that beer takes after it is consumed. They form their own opinion on responsible drinking, by comparing both positive and negative effects on the human health. Fun Assignment: Awareness.
  • Module 6: Recap and Exam
      This final module wraps up the course with a final exam.