Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Today I turned fortyseven (or 74?) so it's party time with Hillary and Dub-ya in Oxford (click on the picture)! What else is one to do given the overall global "funk" that we all seem to be in? This is a tough age for me and mankind, but it also feels transformative and regenerative. There may indeed be "more years behind me than ahead (so I say: "what the hell"... let's rock!)". I'll have to die at the ripe old age of 94 if today were indeed the halfway point of my life... Whether I like it or not, I am officially middle-aged (and have been so for a while), and looking back twenty years to the start of the VPC adventure and then looking the other way, twenty years into the future to my Venice 3.0 dreams only deepens my existential introspection. I am in the middle of a 20-20 hindsight/foresight exercise that is salutary, but also painful. I just went through boxes of old papers from the early days of the VPC. Some things I had completely forgotten re-emerged. A lifetime of doings... a lading-list.
Reminds me of the poem by Philip Larkin, which Richard Rorty splendidly dissects in the"contingency of selfhood" chapter of his Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (a classic of relativistic existentialism), part of which goes like this:

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.
And what's the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.

Continuing to Live is the title of the poem and it's also a good motto for moving forward. I only have 3 more years before I'm out of the quaranta range.

Friday, July 25, 2008

En-gauging the UK

An important part of the trip to the UK was a meeting that Adrian and I had at Potters Bar at the home of Thomas Larsson of Better Planet, with the participation of Nigel Bennett of Metropolis Planning and Design. Despite being exactly one hour late due to a soviet era wristwatch malfunction, the meeting went well. It was decided that Metropolis Green will fund the initial development of a web-based energy monitoring and reporting system, to support the implementation of Merton-rule regulations throughout the UK and in general to measure the real progress towards ambitious national and municipal carbon dioxide emission reduction targets. Once installed, a network of energy gauges will provide a constant stream of City Knowledge regarding spatially distributed energy production and consumption. We should be able to implement some of the basic web services thanks to this funding. After my experience with managing software development this summer, I hope that Steve Guerin of Redfish will be able to coordinate the programming effort for this project.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Narrow escapes

Well, we all pretty much vacated Venice this week. The four interns went back to their respective homes, while Nick and I went to the UK to cash in on our rain check from last year's curtailed narrowboat escape on the Oxford and Thames.
It has been great to spend "quality time" with Nick who has been having the summer of his life (to date) thanks in no small part to his "toit pants". He was even able to reconnect in London with the Califriends he had met in Venice... Quite nice!
I hope we can do more narrowboating in the future. I find it greatly relaxing...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Venetians in peril

It was good to meet with Thierry Morel today, right before we trade places and Nick and I go to Oxford, where he normally lives. He and Jane Da Mosto are making steady progress in their quest to document the socio-economic issues confronting Venice in order to publish a book supported by Venice in Peril in the same vein (but with a different focus) as the prior Cambridge University Press book on the Science of Saving Venice, to which I contributed a chapter.
Since we also plan to release socio-economic data as part of our anniversary, using gapminder-like dynamic graphics, or other gadgetized infoporn of the petabyte age, it would seem to make sense for us to collaborate on this, wouldn't it?
We agreed that it might make sense, as a next step, to write a letter to chairwoman Anna Somers Cocks to propose a collaboration for the creation of online tools for the visualization of complex socio-economic data, with the assistance of Redfish in Santa Fe. I'll send out the letter in mid-August. It would be a great complement to all our other activities this year.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Steel guides

Today Nick, Michele and I
climbed this mountain:


The lesson: nothing is impossible if you follow your guides!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Redemption song

As Venetians have done for over 400 years, once again tonight, on the eve of the third Sunday in the month of July, we celebrated the Redentore to thank God for the end of the plague of 1575.
The "zoning" of the bacino di San Marco for different types of boats worked perfectly once again, so we were able to row a traditional batea from Arzanà right up front and center, around the tip of the dogana. Fantastic! The fireworks, as always were magnificent.
Next year's Redentore will mark the end of our anniversary year.

We shall have lots to rejoyce about as we watch the 2009 fireworks!!!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Venice summer of code

As of today, the four programming interns in Venice this summer have been here a month. Rado is going back to Bulgaria after the weekend as planned. He enjoyed Venice, the sights, the gym and says he learnt a lot from the experience. The other three interns have also decided to leave prematurely to get back to the US and complete the project there, where the internet is faster and the dollar goes a lot farther than in euroland. Since I would like to inaugurate a Venice Summer of Code session every summer from now on, we need to learn from this year's lesson. "Real programmers" need a quiet place where they can work at their own schedule, with really fast internet and lots of whiteboard space. It may be impossible to secure a really creative in-and-out place, with food, drinks, bean bags and lots of gadgets à la Googleplex, but it is clear that neither the VPC office, with its comings and goings, nor the apartment, with the poor cell-quality internet connectivity fit the bill. We need to figure out a solution that will help the team of four CS seniors who are coming to Venice in the fall to follow up on the interns' work. Our task is to make their working environment as productive as we can, and we will do our best in that regard.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Doge Marcello's DNA

Count Girolamo Marcello was a crucial mentor for me when I was a young and idealistic fellow Venetian exploring the creation of the Venice Project Center, back in 1987. His palace, near San Fantin, was the de-facto headquarters of the VPC in 1988 and 1989. He has also been a constant supporter of our research agenda throughout the 20 years of our existence, periodically checking in on us and showering our students with lavish end-of-term celebrations on his palace's rooftop terrace. Tonight, we had dinner together "in cantina" (at the osteria ai Assassini ) and conducted an informal assessment of our track record as partners in the VPC experiment. He praised the VPC's tremendous contribution to the rehabilitation of Venice's physical infrastructure, but also lamented the continued decline in the quality of life for the city's inhabitants. Many of this year's IQPs will deal with socio-economic issues, like "being young in Venice", "getting old in Venice", "living in Venice" and "visiting Venice", precisely because of our renewed attention to "Venetians". In fact, we plan to start right from the beginning, by tracing the "origins of the Venetians" through DNA. Count Marcello, like all remaining patrizi veneti, could provide us with useful samples as could many other ancient Venetian families. Girolamo has agreed to let the Marcello gens be part of the investigation. More on this later...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has been involved with Venice ever since the disastrous flood of 1966, when the whole world was mobilized to "save Venice". Since then, a permanent office, currently called BRESCE (Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe) has been operating in Venice, together with the so-called "liaison office" that coordinates the restorations funded by the private committees for the safeguard of Venice. The Venice Project Center has had a long and fruitful collaboration with UNESCO in the 1990's which resulted in the Venice Inner Canals project and the publication of the book Venezia La Città dei Rii. Our 20th anniversary year coincides with a renewed interest on the part of UNESCO to return to an active role in the shaping of a sustainable future for Venice. Despite having been one of the first cities to be included in the world heritage list in 1987, Venice still lacks a management plan, as all world heritage sites are supposed to have. UNESCO's new director Dr. Engelbert Ruos would like to employ a World Cafè approach in re-opening a discussion about Venice's opportunities and challenges in this new millennium.
After meeting with him today, it looks like our paths may converge on a joint project aimed at producing a web-based geospatial information system, initially containing data collected by WPI, the VPC, Forma Urbis, the Private Committees, and the Commissione di Salvaguardia. Such a system would provide the needed informational support for the world cafè sessions that UNESCO plans to hold in 2009 and may also constitute the basis for the creation of a management plan for this world class heritage site.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

NASA and Venice

Together with colleagues from the Boston Museum of Science and the University of New Hampshire (UNH), today we submitted a NASA grant proposal called Digital Earth Watch (DEW), to "promote environmental monitoring by students and citizens through remote sensing and digital photography". The project revolves around the use of pictureposts which allow voluteers to take a set of 9 photos at specific orientations. The pictures can be related to NASA satellite imagery and can help detect longitudinal global climate patterns, by measuring vegetation health over time and space. Our contribution to the project will be a web-based crowdsourcing social network so that students and volunteers can easily upload and share their pictures through an interactive web 2.0 site. The 3-year, $250,000 grant would allow City Lab to develop the core web services to support collaborative data gathering for our emergent City Knowledge software platform. In the short term, the same web services would find immediate application in some of our planned Venice 2.0 web applications.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bastinsula day

One of the most effective partnerships the Venice Project Center enjoyed over the years was the one with Insula s.p.a., the urban maintenance company owned by the city of Venice. Today I had lunch with an old friend from Insula, Lorenzo Bottazzo, to discuss ways to reconnect with Insula on the occasion of the 20th anniversary. Together, we did a lot in the late 1990's, when all of the results of the WPI-UNESCO joint project on Venice's canals was officially transferred to Insula, after it was created in 1997. Some of the most impressive achievements of the Venice Project Center occurred in the context of the WPI-UNESCO-Insula collaboration, as testified by the book Venezia La Città dei Rii, which marked the hand-over in 1999.
Today is also Bastille day and one could notice the preponderance of French speakers in Venice, kind of like the effect one would heave felt after May 12 1797, when Napoleon put an end to the millennium of Venice's history as an independent republic. Ile means island -- and so does "insula" -- so I re-christened today Bastinsula day...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Santa Ve projects

We are moving forward with the Santa Ve initiative to connect Santa Fe (New Mexico) with Venice (Italy). We are planning on collaborating on 3 projects, 2 in Venice this fall and one in Santa Fe in the spring:
  1. a Venice project entitled “Being Young in Venice”, relating Venetian Youth and Santa Fe youth with the support/collaboration of SFI and the Santa Fe Complex (SFC). See the Postmodern Postmortems (access is restricted).
  2. a Venice project on “Moving Around Venice” utilizing advanced autonomous agent models and visualizations to model the flow of boats and pedestrians through the city, using interactive tables as the vehicles for simulations;
  3. a WPI bootstrap project in Santa Fe in term D (March 16-May 5 2009) focusing on art and technology as vehicles for Native American youths to address issues that affect them, especially in relation to community services provided by local government

Friday, July 11, 2008

Fresco Notturno

The Associazione Settemari, our oeno-ludo-gastronomic rowing/cultural club, is great because of the variety of activities that it promotes, most having some venetian rowing component. One of the greatest events that take place traditionally in Juy is the so-called Fresco Notturno (lit.: "nocturnal fresh"), which entails rowing down the Grand Canal in a big procession of row boats, stopping in front of the Rialto bridge for an on-board, picnic-style dinner, followed by a leasurely row down to Campo S.Vio in the Dorsoduro for a final round of prosecco with watermelon and a live musical feast wth very traditional singing and some dancing. This year, Bill Hnath joined me in the extravaganza and picked up rowing right away (see picture). Even despite a near-plunge, I think Bill had a good time rowing around all night and experiencing Venice as a real Venetian...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Drained brains

Italy has long suffered from the so-called "brain drain" which has led many Italians to leave the country and complete their education elsewhere, as I have done myself. To reverse this process, a few years ago, a "brain re-entry" (rientro dei cervelli) program was instituted for people like me who are teaching or conducting research abroad to entice us to get back to Italy and contribute our knowledge to our native country. I was recalled by the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia (IUAV) as part of the program, but my candidacy has been on hold for several years due to the repeated government changes and elections that are unfortunately commonplace in my home country. No wonder the brains leave! Anyhow, today I had a meeting at IUAV to discuss the organization of a fall symposium on (1) New technologies, (2) Institutional frameworks and (3) Information design in the field of geospatial urban data management. It rekindled my interest in the institute, especially since I had chance to see some really cool laser scans of urban landscapes that created dot clouds very similar to those shown on microsoft's photosynth, which is a really fabulous application with great potential. Who knows? Perhaps my brain has already been drained and I might as well reman in the US for the rest of my career...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Alpine heights

In 2005, we conducted a project in collaboration with the Venice branch of the Alpine Club of Italy (CAI), which manages half a dozen mountain huts ("rifugi") in the Dolomites. It was one of the most strenuous and engaging IQPs we ever conducted at the Venice Project Center. To commemorate the 3rd anniversary of the project, Michele Botta, my son Nicolò and I rounded the Croda da Lago with an overnight at the rifugio "Palmieri". Fantastic! It is humbling to be reminded of the smallness of our actions vis à vis the grandeur of nature. The Venice 2.0 initiative may not be such a great deal in the bigger scheme of things... but it's still important to WPI, to Venice, to the VPC alumni and to me and my family.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

68 Km of uScript

Today, we visited the Venice State Archives with Giovanni Caniato. It is hosted inside the ancient Frari convent and contains the entire history of Venice fragmented into millions of government acts filed away into thousands of parchment binders over 68 kilometers of shelves. For years, we have been working on the development of a software application to aid scholars in the transcription of these ancient manuscripts. The current version is an AJAX-based online "emergent" application called uScript, whose philosophy is to assist transcribers by learning handwriting over time, while allowing successive refinements of the transcriptions by multiple scholars (with varing reputations), all contributing to cumulatively unlocking the secrets contained in these tomes. It is our goal to release this application as part of the Venice 3.0 activities following this anniversary year. We will be applying for funding for this activity in the next few weeks.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


Adrian's all-too-short visit to Venice was very fruitful. It seems that the sequence of IQPs that Adrian supervised for the London Borough of Merton have created quite a stir and a number of government agencies (Dept of Food, Environment & Rural Affairs, Dept of Communities & Local Gov, Dept of Business, Enterprise and Regulation, Gov Office for London) as well as several boroughs from the SouthEast of London (Merton, Croydon, Islington, Southwick) have expressed interest in seeing a "Merton Rule" monitoring sytem in place to measure the actual carbon emission reduction achieved with a variety of government policies, incentives and interventions. We need to develop a system that will allow the farming of renewable energy installation data and relate it to actual consumption in the same building, to determine to what degree the self-imposed CO2 reduction targets are being met. As we did in Venice with Forma Urbis, once again a professional follow-up to WPI projects is clamored for by our sponsors. I think WPI would be wise to institutionalize a system for spawning follow-up consulting companies at each of our global centers. It's a need that someone else -- with worse credentials and expertise -- will be called upon to fill out if we don't.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence day: Iteration #1

As announced in the previous blog entry about agile programming, we completed iteration #1 today. The WPI interns have developed a web beta version of our public art application, minus the maps. They also refactored the database models to better suit the system (see Galia's powerpoint below).

Rado has prepared some sample XML files representing outputs of our API calls and has developed a proof-of-concept application that takes that XML and dynamically displays it. Meanwhile, Bill has wrestled Dspace into submission and is now exploring how to get stuff in and out of it using the Lightweight Network Interface (LNI).
Finally, together we discussed allowing different departments to develop independent applications and publish their own datasets autonomously. I think we have a simple scheme based on the Birth Certificate concept with an application registry that may just be the solution that "our founding fathers" (as well as Occam) would appreciate. Happy Independence Day!
(Iteration #2 will be a week from today on July 11.)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Gapminder for Venice?

Something else we're playing with is gapminder, a truly outstanding application that allows the visualization of complex datasets in at least 5 dimensions (using X, Y, color and size of dots, plus time). This would be a great way to release our Venetian time-series datasets, especially those concerning socio-economics, demographics and urban change. Since Google bought the company, it has released a gadget that will let users add dynamic graphics to their mashups or igoogle pages. We'll be testing this really soon, so stay tuned!