Wednesday, December 31, 2008

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Bona Zirada!

Well, the official 20th anniversary year is drawing to a close, but we still have another year to celebrate this milestone.  I find this card, created by fellow Settemarian (Carlo Dedy) to be not only beautiful, but also appropriately symbolic, personally as well as professionally.  It represents the "new" bridge on the Grand Canal (nicknamed Ponte di Calatrava after its architect), connecting the Railroad terminus with the car/bus terminal of Piazzale Roma.  Yet, it was planned way back in the 15th century, as documented in this map from the Venice state archives (a rare gem I may add).  Thus, this bridge confirms that "Everything new is old again" and conversely also that "Everything old is new again"...  So, in the grander scheme of things, what's another year?  All we really ever have is this moment, so let's accept its inevitability and enjoy it as it happens!
Bridges are often used as metaphors of positive forward change too (remember the Clintonian "bridge to the 21st century"?).  It would be tempting to use this modern bridge, connecting two symbols of progress (trains and cars), on this day of passing from one year to the next, to make it be a good auspice for the future.  I am choosing instead to avoid attaching lofty meanings to it and stick to its simpler symbolism of connection.  
Let this bridge be a constant reminder for us all to stay connected!  With ourselves, with those we love and with all of humanity!
Finally, the Venetian name for this bridge (on the bottom of the postcard) is Ponte de la Zirada, which translates to "bridge of the turn".  
So, may the end of this year be an authentic turning point for all...
Bona Zirada!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Just a quick entry to wish all of our Venice alumni, advisors, sponsors and friends a very MERRY CHRISTMAS and a HAPPY 2009!!!  

One more year of celebrations for our 20th Anniversary!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Last Day

Today, the students are leaving Venice.  Another year has gone by... 
The students have crossed the metaphorical bridge of sighs and are now flying back to the US to complete their education, with a major milestone behind them. 
Next year, 28 more students will come and continue the work we started in this pivotal year.  They will still be 20 years old, as they have always been, but I will be one year older.  I will also be wiser, I think.  This has been a challenging year for me, both on the personal and on the professional level, but these challenges bring about transformation and insight, which I am confident will translate into even more fulfilling experiences for us all.
The Interactive Qualifying Project instills great confidence in our students, who are thrown into a topic about which they know close to nothing, coached by advisors who typically are equally unfamiliar with the disciplines involved (clueless may be the word used at times).  The students are put in a "sink or swim" situation (bordering on torture as the students probably perceive it).  Yet - magically - they always swim away...  It's an amazing process.  And it works time after time; in Venice it has worked for over 500 students since 1988.  It proves that they are lot more resourceful than they even know.
This great invention, the Interactive Qualifying Project, is what distinguishes WPI from all other institutions of higher learning and once again the intuition of the founding fathers of the "WPI Plan" was confirmed by this 20th anniversary year's teams.
We should be seeing the final reports and deliverables in the next few weeks before the start of term C (Jan. 13, 2009).  
I look forward to that and to a new year full of creativity and success, as we continue to celebrate our anniversary until the fall of 2009!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Last Supper (or Lunch really)

We had planned to have our "last supper" at Pampo's at 8pm today since some students have to leave on Friday (despite clear  instructions to the contrary), but another Acqua Alta was forecasted for 11pm (140cm), so we decided to have a "last lunch" instead, around 2pm, right after the last presentation at UNESCO.  As always, it was a bittersweet occasion. 
We were all elated that the presentations were over and the projects had been a great success, but at the same time, it dawned on all of us that this would likely be the last time we'd all be together as a group.  We raised our glasses and toasted each other many times and Paul and I had our last chance to address the group to remind them how far we had all come from our tentative beginnings in August to the confidence and pride we all shared today.  
I pointed out to them that, as tough as the IQP is, it is also that much more rewarding when we cross the finish line.  It truly mirrors "real life" (unlike many traditional academic programs) by creating a context in which personal growth and transformation can occur, above and beyond the subject matter of the project.  For many students, it's a life-changing experience and for me it has been, and continues to be, the most rewarding aspect of my professional life.
All too soon, we were outside for a group picture and then off to the VPC office for more last minute printing, binding and even meetings.  
"It ain't over until the Marangona tolls" as we say in Venice...
(actually I made this one up, because the "fat lady sings" seems not very politically correct as it disparages weight-challenged singers)

Final Presentations - Preserving Venetian Heritage

The last presentations took place today at the Venice office of UNESCO.  Once again, the high tides affected the attendance (we had to move the presentations back 1/2 hour to wait for the acqua alta to subside), but those who did attend were high caliber people, including Dr. Carla Toffolo, the secretary of the Private Committees for the Safeguard of Venice, Dr. Emmanuele Armani, one of the premier restorers of works of art in Venice, representatives of UNESCO and other friends and students.  We combined two presentations back-to-back.  The first was on the development of a roll-out plan for the non-profit organization we call PreserVenice, which will take on the challenge of moving towards active preservation of endangered pieces.  The team put together an outstanding presentation which explained how they designed a fully-interactive web site to showcase our multimedia catalogs of almost 4,500 pieces of art that are visible from the streets and canals of Venice, and how the site could be used to solicit donations to begin the process of actually preserving this incomparable collection that has no equals in the world.  The richness of the data allows our sophisticated algorythms to instantly graph the condition ratings of each piece and thus automatically calculate the estimated cost and priority of each restoration.  If a donor is attracted to a particular piece he or she can "adopt" it by donating to its restoration fund.
In the spirit of the Venice 2.0 initiative, we sincerely hope that this project will mark the final stage of an effort that started in 1990 and will thus herald the beginning of a new era that will result in the active restoration of Venetian Public Art.  All we need now is seed funding to hire a part-time administrator of the fledgling organization so the restorations can start in earnest.  Click here to donate now to the seed fund.
(actually we can't accept donations now, so invest your money in a Madoff  "Ponzi account" and watch it grow while we get our PayPal account activated ...)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Venice -2.0?

With 2 days left to go, it feels as if Venice wants us out of here after 20 years... And it's going to flush us out with Acqua Alta.  Let's hope we don't beat the historical record of 1.92m, or Venice will be at -2.0 meter under... The current forecast (see figure below - which will change every day from now on) is rather ominous, and things don't look too good for the next few days, as we try to wrap-up our 20th anniversary projects here. We had to move up our Preservenice and Municipal Data Objects presentations tomorrow to 11:30 (they were originally at 11, just 2 hours after a 140cm tide). Plus, we had a dinner planned for tomorrow evening at 8pm (with a 130cm tide forecasted at 10:40pm) at Pampo's, which we changed into a lunch at 1:30pm (in between peaks). Luckily, the City provides fairly accurate and timely warnings about the upcoming tide events, using forecasts, sms text messages and even sirens.  Despite the failure of the December 1st forecasts, we are hoping that our friend Paolo Canestrelli, who runs the Centro Maree will get it right this time or at least get it wrong by overstimation...  In any case, tonight, tomorrow and Friday, we'll be hearing the new tide warning sirens in Venice quite a bit...  Click the Play button in the lower left-hand corner in the picture below so you can hear them too, and be with us in spirit while in the comfort of your own home...
For added realism, try wearing rubber boots!

Final Presentations - Venetian Quality of Life

Today was the third day of presentations and it started with a high tide that surrounded our presentation location (the Spazio Mondadori, courteously provided by Giovanni Pellizzato, a founding member of the 40xVenezia).  Three teams presented an integrated presentation that reviewed the opportunities and challenges faced by Venetians from cradle to grave.  Despite the morning schedule - during office hours - the audience included people who were interviewed by the teams who came to see the results of the study on Young, Adult and Elderly Venetians.  The presentaions were very well received by those who attended, all of whom expressed their admiration for the "concise and visually impressive exposition" of the results of these projects. 
The unified presentation was extremely well-done despite the fact that 11 students were involved in a long sequence of almost 100 slides.  The graphics the teams produced were very exciting and innovative.  I'll post those once tehy are fully available on line.  
Even though these were complex and challenging topics, the preliminary results produced by the 3 teams came across very clearly and demonstrated an intriguing and persistent dichotomy in the way the primary quality of life ingedients play against each other.  In the words of the students, Venice seems to truly be a "City of two faces".  For example, although Venice provides a wide array of educational opportunities both in Vocational High Schools as well as at the University level, the employment opportunities are abundant only in the tourism and services industries.  So, although one can get a degree in Computer Science at Ca'Foscari, such a degree would almost guarantee that one would have to leave Venice after graduation.  There will be more explorations in these realms and hope to collaborate closely with the "40 per Venezia" on these exciting topics in the years to come.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Final Presentations - Origins of Venice

The third presentation this year (and the second today) was by the "Origins" team, which tackled three broad aspects that together would contribute tremendously to our understanding of the origins of Venice and its People:
  1. The Archeology of Venice and its lagoons
  2. The information content of Ancient Manuscripts in the Venice Archive
  3. The genealogical provenance of the Ancient Veneti
I blogged on these before, but it was good to see the final product, which is being assembled into a single web site for ease of access (it should be completed by 12/19).  Once again, the students did a great job presenting this multi-faceted project, which will pave the way for many follow-ups in the years to come.   People in attendance included the principal archaeologist in Venice, Marco Bortoletto (featured as an avatar in many of the powerpoint slides),with his colleague Alberto Zandinella, plus Stefano Piasentini, a long-time friend and historian who spends much time prowling the Venice archive and who was one of the primary inspirers of the Manuscript Transcription Assistant concept
As previously explained, we have secured support for the DNA part of the project from the Genographic Project, which will enable us to contribute to confirming which of the main theories about the origins of the Venetians is more plausible.
For the other two major aspects,  the next steps are to get funding for the Archeology data harvesting system that this team designed, as well as funding to continue working on our uScript online emergent transcription crowdsourcer, which a couple of the team members (Shikhar and Viktoras) intend to turn into their own senior-year technical project (MQP).  I look forward to giving readers many more updates on these three ambitious and revolutionary approaches to the understanding of the genesis of Venice and its People in the years to come!

Final Presentations - Moving around Venice

The second day of presentations started off on the wrong foot when the Spazio Mondadori staff, who kindly hosted us thanks to the 40xVenezia organization, was unable to find the cable  that connected our laptop to the projector.  After some scrambling, an IT person showed up and found the cable in a closet and we were able to begin our first presentation on "Moving Around Venice" The display we saw was well worth the wait. The teams dazzled the audience with great results, truly killer graphics and magnificent animations, produced in part with the indefatigable assistance of our friend from Santa Fe, Steve Guerin.

San Filippo e Giacomo agents from Fabio Carrera on Vimeo
The students showcased their work on intermediate secondary turning behaviors to further the development of autonomous agent models for Venetian boat traffic - as support for an interactive traffic simulation system supported by the EU Mobilis Project. They also discussed their methodological contribution to the development of a pedestrain model to help manage the city's plateatici (outdoor public spaces leased to restaurants).  In attendance were representatives of the City's mobility office, who manages boat traffic, as well as a representative of the Commerce Department who is in charge of the plateatici.  Needless to say the presentations were very well received.  Both models have a great chance of being adopted by the city in the not too distant future as tools for day-to-day management of both pedestrians and boats.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Immaculate Misconception

Leave it to Steve Guerin to know the factoid of the day... Contrary to my long-held beliefs due to my Catholic upbringing, which included going to a nun-run elementary school and a priest-run middle school, today I found out the real truth about today's holiday.  The Immaculate Conception does not (I repeat does not) refer to the Virgin Mary's conception of Jesus, after the angel announced the news to her.  What the Immaculate Conception actually refers to the conception of Mary herself!   The Wikipedia entry about this Catholic dogma is very clear about the misconception that many of us have about this holy day.  It clearly states that:
Her immaculate conception in the womb of her mother, by normal sexual intercourse, should not be confused with the doctrine of the virginal conception of her son Jesus.
The immaculate conception refers to the fact that She was born immaculate (without stain or sin) and our Holy Mary is therefore doubly immaculate, both at Her own birth as well as when She gave birth to Jesus while still remaining a Virgin.  
I am conducting an informal survey today to see how many Catholics actually know this fact and, so far, 100% of the sample has confirmed how widespread the misconception of the immaculate conception really is.  Amazing!  Thanks Steve!  

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Immaculate completion

We are starting our last week tomorrow (Monday) which is a holiday here in Italy (the Immaculate Conception).  This miraculous event that happened 2009 years ago, allows us to use the day for final rehearsals of our presentations which will be taking place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  The calendar of our presentations is posted on our wiki, together with a nifty embedded google map of the presentation locations.  We're wrapping things up and slowly migrating all of our results into project-specific web sites, such as the one our Origins team has been putting together.  One more week to go! Almost there...

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Fun in San Marco

Many of you may have seen the video of the wakeboarder in Piazza San Marco.  One such video that caught our attention, since it was shown on Italian TV, contains the added bonus of an interview with Bethany Lagrange, one of our students here.
The video below, from YouTube, unveils the enigma of the mysterious surfer who is cruising really fast down Saint Mark's without a boat pulling him along.  The secret was a hidden (and very powerful) winching system!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Server Back Up!

Finally, today we got the Venice Server up and running again.  Our Venice 2.0 website is up, so are our Venipedia wiki, our picture gallery and even Dspace, our Venice repository and open archive. So, it took a few days, but we have fully recovered from the big flood and we're up and running just in time for the final week!  Also, as an aside, the server is not only back up, but it has been regularly backed up since before Thanksgiving, so we wouldn't have lost any data even if the server went under.  The Venice Anniversary is well protected thanks to the efforts of Saul Farber and Andrea Novello! 
Here's one more video for your viewing pleasure (keep in mind that this was shot when the tide had already receded for about an hour, when I was finally able to get out of the VPC).  You can find all videos here and all photos here.  Enjoy!

Strada Nuova Flood from Fabio Carrera on Vimeo.

Final Presentations - Visiting Venice

Our first final presentation by the "Visit Team"  today was a great success. The audience included Dr. Concato of the Tourism Department of the Venice Provincial Government (former sponsor of WPI teams when he directed the Venice Tourist Board (APT)), plus a representative from the Slovenian Government, interested in a partnership for a European Union project with Venice on the "Divertimi" program developed by the team, as well as two of our long-term collaborators, tour guides Laura Sabbadin and Bruno Nogara.  Unfortunately, our other key accomplices, Prof. Michele Tamma and his Ph.D. student Anna Moretti were busy with classes, otherwise all our primary contacts would have been there.
 The students did a great job in presenting their sophisticated proposal for a personalized web-based tour-planning system, based on individual and group profiles.  If it ever gets EU funding, and the final product is anywhere near as good as proposed, this will be reall "killer app" which I for one would love to use to plan my future trips!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The days after

After spending one day mopping, I spent today reconnecting all of the equipment and reshelving all of our books and project reports. We're still not quite done, since the server is still not reachable, due to a line problem, even though it is up and running normally inside the office.  The video below shows the situation outside the office about an hour after the peak of the tide, when I was finally able to get out and my knee-high boots were high enough to keep the water out.

Rio Dragan from Fabio Carrera on Vimeo.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Acqua Alta 2.0

Well… in this 20th anniversary year, we’ve just made it through the highest Acqua Alta (high tide) in twenty years (1.56 cm).  The fact that I am writing this blog entry is part of the good news…  I got at least one DSL line working.  We had about 6 inches of water in the VPC and for the first time we had water clear across the entire length of the office.  I spent all day mopping, but everything is spic and span now (I guess it needed a cleaning).  Once I got to the office (on foot due to the awesome timing of the concurrent boat strike),  I spent the first 3 hours trying to salvage 20 years worth of projects, plus all of our equipment. Then, I was trapped with no phone or internet, plus cell phones don’t work in the VPC, so there was a communication breakdown for about 4 hrs.  We had no phone nor internet until 6pm but both are back up again…  The server is down until we can get it restarted.  We will wait until tomorrow, since another high tide is forecasted for 11 am tomorrow (115 cm as of now, but they were wrong last night…).  I hope this won’t disrupt our week too much, but we’ll take it one day at a time. Here's one of my videos:
Acqua Alta in the VPC from Fabio Carrera on Vimeo.
I'll upload more videos tomorrow...