Easy weekend: John Cleese on Creativity

Brilliant lecture on creativity by John Cleese of Monty Python fame (this is from 1991).

Even better, I also found the transcript. I know, John Cleese is as good as it gets, and it is also incredibly funny, but the lecture is too slow for me. I prefer to read. It used to be this way also when I was a student at the University: I skipped lectures as soon as I found a good and dense textbook.

Just for association of ideas, it comes to my mind a short gag of “The West Wing in mind”. I could not remember it exactly, so I just searched for the word “menu” in this site with the complete TWW scripts. Here it is: episode 11, series 7 (the video is below, at time 0:52):

The waitress walks up and hands them some menus.

Hi. Thank you.

Mmm-hm. Would you like to hear the specials?


Well, tonight we're featuring New Zealand lamb...

Is this from a list?

I'm sorry?

The specials, are they written down somewhere?

Um, yeah, they're right here.
Just give us that. We'll read. We're readers.

Whatever you want.

It's just easier that way, then you don't have to, you know, perform

Web search is powerful and superfast. No excuse for not having enough information on the past, no matter if for fun or for serious business.


Statistics from companies in Crunchbase

Interesting numbers on outcomes of startups in Crunchbase: my feeling is that most companies are entered in Crunchbase <after> they receive at least seed funding (and maybe are removed in they are folded too soon).

It would be nice to see the correlation between Techcrunch posts and funding ….


Originality in Research can work against Science

I’ve encountered some situations in recent weeks that made me think about a short essay in Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham: “Design and Research“. In particular, this paragraph:

The difference between design and research seems to be a question of new versus good. Design doesn’t have to be new, but it has to be good. Research doesn’t have to be good, but it has to be new. I think these two paths converge at the top: the best design surpasses its predecessors by using new ideas, and the best research solves problems that are not only new, but actually worth solving. So ultimately we’re aiming for the same destination, just approaching it from different directions.


Using old ideas in new ways that actually work better, is actually considered less interesting in research than  proposing original ideas that have have such apparent drawbacks that make them totally useless (if you do not count writing a paper as “use”).

This issue is of course very serious in engineering and all the so-called “applied sciences”. In those fields, when you propose something new, you typically have an incumbent technology or technique to use as a benchmark.

But it is serious in an even subtler way in the so-called “basic sciences” [1]. Indeed, since several years, as a way to increase the chance of getting funded in basic science projects, researchers are repackaging them as “applied science” projects, or simply stress the fact that results can have a large impact on applications. Examples of the latter are “mesoscopic transport”, “quantum computing”, or “molecular electronics”, just to name few fields I’ve been working on or close to. What I observe repeatedly is the proposal of new ideas, new devices, revolutionary technology without a due diligence, a detailed understanding on the incumbent solutions and of the important metrics for that field of application.

There is also another issue in which originality in research works against science. For science to work, experiments should be tested and reproduced several times. However, all credits goes to the first. If you are just the second, your work gets published in a less exclusive journal. Therefore if often happens that competitive research groups in a rush to complete an experiment just stop – if another group finish first and publishes results – and start working on something else. This is bad for science, because experimental results are less verified than they should be. This happens also for complex theoretical derivations and numerical simulations, because you typically cannot even publish as a second, unless you find an error in the first work.

One should not be surprised, by this behavior, anyway. Scientists are simply professionals, and of course they respond to professional incentives.

This is also true for me. I appreciate the multifaceted advantages of originality, and have choses to focus on new device or circuit concepts and on new methodologies. However, I have in time published several papers on the tune of “why this proposed technology cannot work”. I will continue, since I believe it is important. Still, it makes you appear as a grumpy old man.

[1] At my venerable age, I have not really understood the difference between basic science, applied science, and engineering, for that matter. That is why I use to specify “so-called”. but this will be the topic of another post.

Related posts:

Easy weekend: Results from the Heinlein Score game

Great success for the Heinlein Score post! 4000+ unique visitors to the site in 24 hours (about 40x my average), and 1739 questionnaires returned. Most of them from the US, due to my submission on Hacker News.

Anyway, these are the statistics:

  • Average score: 14.4 (I really have sub-average skills)
  • Modal score: 15
  • Standard deviation: 3.2

Regarding individual answers, you can find below the complete chart. As you can see: it is very hard to butcher a hog, but it is easy to cook a tasty meal!

p.s. These Google office tools rule!
p.p.s I will continue to gather statistics …

Easy weekend: the Heinlein score

Below is a famous quote from the novel “Time enough for love”, by legendary science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.

Specialization is for insects.

I love it, and I find it resonates with Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s concept of full person [1].

So, what is your Heinlein score? You can just fill in this form below. My score is 12/21. Not really good, I need to learn new skills.

I will publish statistics on the site next Sunday. If you have ideas for items that should be in the list, just suggest them in the comments below (you can login with any social network account).

[1] By the way, here is a wonderful essay on RWE by Harold Bloom

The economic status of higher education

An extremely interesting blog post by Marc Cuban on the economic status of higher education in the US. I really enjoy Marc Cuban’s posts, since he always goes straight to the issue. I think he has a couple of good points, that resonate with some of my thoughts:

  1. We have always considered a good thing to have a higher percentage of graduates, as in the US, UK, France, Germany. In 2010 the percentage of graduates in Italy was 13%, compared with 30% in the US and 24.2 in EC12). Not all degrees can lead to a well-paid job. I covered in part this issue here (post in Italian). Now we probably should reflect on the fact that some countries might have overshot. And it does not depend on whether the University system is public, mostly public, or mostly private. It is a call to reconsider the relevance of technical and vocational high schools.
  2. Higher education as an economic activity has not followed the deflationary path or the productivity improvements that other economic activities have experienced, pushed by globalization and ICT technologies [1][2]. In the US they have actually gone the opposite direction in recent years, with a large increase in academic fees fueled by student debt. I think at this point the “classical” model of the research University is at risk, unless an updated scalable model can be found. I covered some of the points here (in Italian), but plan to talk about it some more in one of the next posts. For those interested, there’s a great recent opinion piece on this issue by David Brooks on the NYTimes.

[1] This is also true for the national health systems both in Europe and in the US.

[2] Oh yes: higher education is an economic activity. I do not mean it is “only” an economic activity.

The site is back

My site has been shut down by the webhosting company for security reasons. After a few days, and a complete reinstall of the site, everything is back. If you notice something is not working or is missing, please tell me through the contact form. I’ll do my best to fix it.

A simple approach

(Post in lingua italiana)

‘Scientist’ is a job description. It is a mistery for me that in Italian the word is used only in reference to a great Scientist. For the mundane scientist, the word ‘researcher’ (ricercatore) is preferred. In addition, researchers denote a broader category than scientists do, as for example they include also classical scholars.

In English, scientist is a common word, that can be found in many business cards of people working in research and development in Industry and Academia. Our ‘ricercatore’ is directly derived from the French ‘chercheur’, as usual.

More important is the attitude of a scientist. Which consists in accepting no authority principle when considering an issue or forming an opinion. The CV does not matter, nor the academic degree, nor the authority of the speaker. Any claim is only assessed with the solidity of its arguments and falsifiability tests.

It is a daily and minor version of the scientific method. A healthy excess of professionalism. One can find it in many non-scientists, even with little education. Sometimes it is missing in professional scientists. Sometimes it can be found in irriverent kids.

Never say “X said that”, “You cannot know, you’re not a Y”, “I am right since I studied at”, “Everybody knows”. A frequent note to my students: don’t believe me. Check.

Related posts:

Billionaires in Italy

Can one learn something on the character of a Nation by looking at its billionaires?

According to Forbes in Italy there are 16 billionaires (in dollars).

Eleven of them come from fashion or fashion-related businesses: Leonardo del Vecchio (Luxottica), Giorgio Armani, Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli (Prada), the four Benetton siblings, Poletti Polegato (Geox), the two Della Valle brothers (Tods).

Others are scattered among different businesses: one from Steel Industry (Rocca), one from Food (Ferrero), one from Pharmaceuticals (Pessina), one from Insurance (Doris), one from Media (Berlusconi).

Billionaires are only the tip of the iceberg. But the tip is the same material as the rest of the iceberg.

In this country the fashion Industry rules. High tech is a light weight.


New NanoTCAD-ViDES Released!

This week we have released the new version of NanoTCAD-ViDES.

NanoTCAD ViDES it is a software package for the simulation of nanoscale electron devices and materials on an atomistic basis, using non-equilibrium Green’s functions formalism for the solution of the Schroedinger equation with open boundary conditions, and full three-dimensional electrostatics.

It is a major new release! My colleague and lead developer Gianluca Fiori put in incredible energy to make available to the computational electronics community a versatile and powerful simulation tool. Yes, because NanoTCAD-ViDES is released as open source with BSD license.

We have also launched a dedicated website: vides.nanotcad.com, where one can find the source code and full documentation, lots of detailed tutorials, how to work with us to improve the code, a list of papers based on ViDES.

This release of NanoTCAD ViDES  is a python module, so that we can leverage the whole flexibility of the most science-friendly scripting language. The new structure is extremely modular and makes it very easy to add new modules for additional materials, functionality, and physics.

As of now, we have released the code with a set of predefined functions, to compute transport in graphene nanoribbons, carbon nanotubes, two-dimensional mono-layer and bilayer graphene transistors. Basically it is  the set of devices and structures for which we have used the code up to now. Most of them are illustrated in the beautiful figures above.

We wil be adding new modules as we develop them and use them in our research.

A module for zincblend crystals, such as silicon, germanium, and III-V, is coming soon, based on a sp3d5s* tight-binding Hamiltonian. In the next future also modules for hexagonal boron-carbon-nitride compounds will be released.

As you can see, I am really enthusiastic of this new development, and I really can’t wait to see how ViDES continues and grows.

We started the adventure in nanoelectronics TCAD several years ago with the NanoTCAD project, funded by the European Commission in 1999, which really meant a lot to me and to my career as a scientist (a non-expert news article here). After few almost complete rewritings, thanks to Gianluca’s technical leadership, the code is ready for a new phase, with a much larger base of users and contributors.

With Gianluca, I’d love to thank also the other scientists that have contributed to the code: Alessandro Betti, Paolo Marconcini, and Pino D’Amico. I hope this list becomes very long.

If you are a scientist working on computational nanoelectronics, just consider the opportunity. You can leverage the great capabilities of NanoTCAD ViDES by contributing to the code. You can focus your effort only on the new module that is of interest to you, and use the perfectly validated and tested 3D electrostatics and NEGF module. I would call this maximum leverage. The BSD license ensures you full ownership of what you write. If you think you can take advantage of collaborating with us on this, just drop us a line. We have wonderful experiences of remote and very fruitful collaboration: the Internet works!

As a finishing word, if you want to work with us in Pisa on computational nanoelectronics and on extending NanoTCAD ViDES, contact me. If you have a strong background on device electronics or condensed matter physics, and really know how to program (this link if you understand Italian), we can have positions available in Pisa, from few months to few years. Even if you are a MS student looking for a thesis subject or a summer job, just drop me a line. But be prepared for a tough interview!


If you are interested, signup here to our newsletter dedicated to NanoTCAD ViDES, with release updates and news on research results.