Monday, 6 August 2012

Why Curiosity already won (in my opinion)

Only a few hours before the  arrival of Curiosity on the Martian surface. The landing is a complex and intricate task, and we really hope all will be ok.

The Twitter account of Mars Curiosity, of course managed by NASA, at the time of writing, has a respectable number of 200,419 followers. You can bet that by the time you read this post, it was even a few minutes from now, the number of followers will be even greater.

In my opinion, a first important result of the mission has already achieved: to demonstrate once again that science affects the general public.  People love to stay in direct contact with these great missions: they account for the modern age what once could be the exploration of the Indies, for example. The pictures that come to us from the planets of the Solar System are the equivalent of stories and drawings of ancient explorers. These modern interplanetary missions are called to compile a brand new Million, the famous book that Marco Polo wrote describing his explorations.

The man has a thirst for discovery, to go over, to throw the heart over the obstacle. We are engaged in a thousand affairs, bogged in ten thousand daily problems, but (thankfully), we are still interested in a mass of metal and circuitry that is coming on a distant planet, It concerns us, fascinates us. And after all,  remind us that curiosity is a fondamental aspect of our humanity.

Marco Castellani
INAF - Astronomical Observatory of Rome

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Play Books more closed than iBook?

This morning I installed Google Play Books on my Android device. It 's quite obvious that Google is trying to create its own ecosystem that will be a viable alternative to Apple, so Google Books takes its place alongside Play Music, the Store, etc...

From my first impression, I'd say that I like the graphics, the rendering of the books is excellent - even on small screen (like my Xperia Ray) -  and the possibility to read a book everywhere using the browser (unlike Apple iBooks) is appreciable. Moreover, synchronization between devices is an added value.
Among the things that I do not like, I have to mention that there is no possibility to highlight text on your mobile device (or at least I'm not finding it!), and (most annoying) it seems to me that you can't upload your books, to be added to the library.

It 's the thing that leaves me more puzzled, because even Apple iBooks allows you to load books in ePub format (with no or Social DRM) in order to be addet to your library. I find this is a very a useful thing, and I am disappointed that you can not do it in Play Books (if there is, let me know, please!).
Definitively, it seems to me that you can only add books from Google Play Store.

Is Google getting more "closed" than Apple?

Friday, 27 April 2012

Jogging can be complicated...

A couple of days ago, I went for a jog in the park .

This simple action, actually, made me reflect on the amount of technology that we carry with us every moment of our lifes - even for a simple jog! I go out with my Xperia Ray and earphones, to listen to some music while I struggle. As a matter of fact, I also use a certain number of android apps, during my brief run. Just for fun, I decided to make a list of them :)

Actually, I was a bit more dressed...

I listen to the music taking advantage (obviously) from the built-in player of Android. Meanwhile, I trace my path and the parameters of the training with Endomondo. Sometime I stop to rest a while, and also to snap a few photos of the beautiful landscape (Instagram,LightBox). I also do not forget to make my check in with Foursquare. In passing, almost all of these things can interact with my Facebook profile and the Twitter timeline, of course.

The GPS is also widely used in my run, for applications such as Endomondo (which gives me a nice and detailed report of my effort, along with associated statistics on speed and time...), Instagram (for geolocation of photos) and of course Foursquare (even if, it can work rather fine without it).

Well, I'm pretty sure that there were times when jogging was much simpler... :)

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Unboxing my new iMac...

Finally it arrived! The day before yesterday, I took the box, bringing it at home with me. Heavy, but not that much. In the evening it was still closed. Well with a specific reason, of course: is a sort of gift for my son, and should come as a reward for scholastic achievement. Problem is, the results (at the moment writing) are, at least, controversial. 

At the end, we decided to unbox. I believe that anyone living in a family, as a parent or in any other role, knows quite well that the subtle art of compromise is a necessary quality, indeed often decisive for the proper handling of healthy family relationships. 

Please Dad, let’s unpack it! Just to try if it works... I do not want to play, I promise, I'll only see if it works .. .. (no one believes, but there it is). 

For me, I was  looking at this large box and I was thinking... ok, I understand all, but it is a shame not to try it .... Moreover, I need  also to see if everything is fine ...

Admittedly, the only thing that stopped me - at that point - was a certain amount of laziness: just imagining  the scenario of unpacking, assemble and configure all this stuff.. in a time while you could better stay in bed reading a good book, or sleeping.... or ... 

Curiosity killed the cat, anyway, so that the request of my child won on my laziness. I decided to unpack. Hopefully it will be a quick thing. I still have memories of the other computer, the one with Windows. It was a mess. Attach the cables, the monitor, mouse, speakers, then the network cable (and at this point you already are in the midst of a forest of cables, that tend to weave in an exquisitely polymorphic way), then configure it all, then ...then .... 

Well, this time it has been different. Boys, it was fast. Very very fast. Just, place the'iMac on your desk, plug it. You’re done. Keyboard and mouse come already configured to work with your brand new iMac (I do appreciate this care for small details). Put your network wireless password. That’s all. A spectacle. And it all works, now.

New, new workspace - 2011
Elegance matters... 

The screen, although only the smaller 21.5'' (budget reasons forced me to buy the cheaper iMac, which is more than adequate for the domestic use, at least in my home), is also a spectacle. The computer itself steals very little space. And you have Mac OS X on board. With all the high-class software that you can easily install, often with a moderate expense (and I say this having spent years with Windows and Linux, I think I know rather well what's around for other operating systems...)

I like. I really like. Elegant, comfortable, not bulky. I'm so glad that this time I did not try to save money, deciding for the classic PC with Windows (on which to carve the mandatory partition for Ubuntu).

What are you saying? Ah yes. Yes, you're right. I have become quite Mac addicted, at this point. And (what's worse), I do not regret it.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Open source and research: the case of GAIA

How important is the open-source software as part of the scientific research nowadays? Since I am an astronomical researcher, a lover and a user of open-source software, I’m very interested in trying to deepen this topic.

Well, an opportunity to talk about it now comes from the observation of software tools that are utilized in a big project to which I am also taking part, that is the definition of procedures for processing and analyzing the photometric data that will be generated by the ESA (European Space Agency) probe called GAIA (curiously, one of the first articles appeared on my italian blog was just about GAIA, in 2002). The probe will be launched in 2013, but the work for the definition of the appropriate procedures is already running at full capacity.

An artistic image of GAIA
(Credit: ESA/Medialab)

In my opinion, even a simple, brief list of software tools used by the different teams of Gaia - coordinated through a European network of scientific institutes - would probably be enough to understand that the open-source software is doing great or - to put it in a more technical way – that it now can count on its own defined space essential for applications and fields, at least in scientific research.

To proof this, I’ve written down a list (incomplete) of the open source software currently used in the development of the Gaia data reduction procedures, made by simply thinking about the tools that are used, by me or my colleagues, for the daily work within the project itself...

So, this is the catalog:
  • Java: is the language of analysis software and data reduction. Following a decision of ESA, all procedures need to be written in Java. This involves a series of remarkable benefits in terms of independence from the hardware, portability, modularity, etc. ... too long to be fully explained here.
  • Eclipse: is the highly recommended development environment  (which is to say, do what you like, but you don't expect support with other environments…)
  • SVN: all the code is put under revision control, using subversion
  • MediaWiki: there is a wiki with restricted access, very large, in which is shown all the project documentation, the meetings and seminars for the various teams, the documentation. Briefly, a sort of mini thematic Wikipedia, devoted to people working on the project.
  • Hudson: a tool to automatically test the codes, at scheduled intervals, and submit reports on webpage
  • Cobertura: this tool is able to calculate the percentage of the code accessible to the test procedures
  • Mantis: is the chosen tool for controlling and managing bugs in the project
  • Grace: a useful tool to create graphics
  • Topcat: an interactive browser of tables and data editor
  • ant: a useful compilation tool in Java
  • Plastic (Platform for Astronomical Tool Interconnection) is a protocol of communication among different tools utilized mainly in astronomy (now is going replaced by SAMP)
  • And probably there's something more that I cannot recall right now... :-)

The interesting thing is that all this software is released under the GPL (General Public License) or similar, which makes it much easier to spread and use the software itself: there is no need to obtain proprietary and restrictive licenses (or to make our own institutes acquire them…): you can download the software and begin to use it immediately. That’s it. It's not bad, I’d say, both for the "personal scientific productivity” and for the undoubted advantage that this has as part of the real project. Can you imagine how much of the researcher’s time and of the taxpayer’s money should be spent if they had to obtain licenses (renewals, software keys…) for all these things?

(Originally published on the blog SegnaleRumore, kindly translated by Claudia Castellani).