Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The (messy) end of a recalcitrant era

Another term has ended and the reports have been (mostly) turned in and boxed away.  We're running out of shelf space...  Next year we won't be in this office any more as our rental contract is ending this summer.
It's the end of an era.
We'll vacate the (dare I say "legendary"?) Veepeesee at Cannaregio 4400... We've really grown into this space in the dozen years since we relocated here from our home in Via Dardanelli, on the Lido.  We are bursting at the seams with at least 150 boxes containing our 20 years of research.
The original VPC office was in the magazzino on the ground floor of my parents' (Cino and Wilma's) house, where I had lived until I left for the U.S. for (what was supposed to be) a single year spent at an American High School.  The year stretched into a full decade spent in the U.S. (getting my degrees from WPI, among other things), before I returned and founded the Venice Project Center in 1988.  After the S.Elena beginnnings, the VPC migrated with Jackie, Nick and me, wherever our family was living at the time.  Only when we moved to Cannargio 4400 -- for the first time -- the VPC was not co-located at my domicile.  We've come a long way... The protracted 20th anniversary is over.  We have turned 21!
The VPC is no longer a minor...
The earth seemed to resist this coming of age... It was as if Venice didn't want the era to end!  An improbable "perfect storm" combination of Acqua Alta and SNOW(!) tried to prevent the students from reaching the airport on Saturday, when the 21st contingent of WPI students was leaving the city, like the grown child who is leaving the parental nest upon reaching the maggioretà.
With a valiant effort -- braving through flooded streets in the midst of a blowing blizzard -- everybody somehow made it miraculously to the airport in time...
...only to be faced with canceled flights and delayed departures to unpredictable destinations, determined with etch-a-sketch "precision" by frazzled airline personnel dealing with thousands of stranded visitors during one of the busiest weekends of the year...
The majority of the students made it home only today, after a four-day ordeal compounded by the snow that simultaneously blanketed the eastern United States, where everyone was headed...  What a way to turn 21!
I personally spent the same four days braving similar weather to and from the U.K., where Adrian and I mediated the re-emergence of energence...
I am back in Venice now, where there is still snow on the ground and it's bitter cold.  And, of course, we have a major predicted acqua alta coming at 4:00am tomorrow, so every table at the VPC is covered with boxes and other materials that were moved out of the "danger zone" in preparation for the likelihood of water entering our office overnight.
It's a sign that it's really time to move on and enter adulthood.  Youth was fun while it lasted.
It's time to get out into the world...

It's the most wonderful time...

...of the year                                     (sing along...)

Merry Christmas!
(may your days henceforth grow ever longer...)

Photo Credit: Nicolò Zuane Carrera

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2 days left: 4 down, 3 to go

Today, the Postmortems team completed the fourth of the seven presentations the current WPI students are delivering to complete their projects at the tail end of our Venice Project Center Anniversary. It was a highly entertaining combination of powerpoint, video clips and live demonstrations of their interactive street installation that will highlight some of Venice's most pressing issues.  I particularly liked the little movies displaying animated schematic explanations with handwritten labels on ruled paper...

Origins, Ships and Mobility went the day before at the Spazio Eventi Mondadori (courtesy of Giovanni Pellizzato of the 40xVenezia).
Tomorrow we will have the final three and then the students will have one more day to get everything together and turn it in by Friday before we all go out to the final dinner at Pampo's...  Wow!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Cruising into final week

We are entering the final week of the term here in Venice. This is when miracles begin to happen as time compresses and the days lengthen.
The final presentations are set and the final results are rolling in.
It's going to be a busy week, but I think we're in for some very nice rewards by the time we have our final dinner on Friday.
Meanwhile, enjoy this preview of some of the work the Ships team did using the timelapse camera...

Not bad for a first cut!  Can't wait for the final Kovenysqatsi video!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving Interview-a-thon

I just got back to Venice from a whirlwind trip to the U.S. where I interviewed candidates for the Venice and Santa Fe Project Centers.  The interviews are part of the process that the WPI Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division has honed over the past two decades, to recruit and select students who will participate in our Global Perspecive Program, by completing either their Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) in their junior year, or their Major Qualifying Project (MQP) in their senior year, at one of our global centers.

Project Centers in the World
Bangkok Boston Budapest Cape Town Copenhagen Hong Kong Ifrane Kansai Lexington San Juan, Puerto Rico Limerick London Melbourne Modesto Nancy Nantucket New York San Jose Venice Silicon Valley Washington, D.C Windhoek Worcester Wuhan Santa Fe, New Mexico Shanghai, China
As a testament to our popularity, Venice had the highest number of applicants (58) of all WPI centers.  Santa Fe also had a lot of candidates (14), despite being a brand new domestic center (the next highest non-international center was Washington with 4...).  Since we only take 28 students per center, it's too bad only half of the Venice candidates made the cut!  I hope some of them will end up in Santa Fe...
Unfortunately, I paid the price of success by having to interview a total of 72 students in two and a half days.  It was a grueling schedule from 7am to 10:30pm, non-stop, with a new student every half hour...  On Wednesday, I interviewed for a half day from 7am until noon, then went home, packed up and drove myself to the airport, bound for Oxford, UK, where I had a British/Canadian thanksgiving dinner at the "chapel of rest" (Anchor pub) with Adrian, Kseniya, Kyle and Ori.  The next day, we treated ourselves to a late night viewing of an interesting Steampunk exhibit, in the midst of a typically British pub crawl.  Oxford is such a stimulating little city!
Being away from the States on Thanksgiving day was a bittersweet way for me to avoid the memories of our traditional family gatherings in Connecticut, which ended very sadly last year after two decades of ritual turkey feasts...  It was my favorite holiday.  Not commercial at all, very down to earth and simple.  Very warm.  As I told many of my friends, in true escapist fashion, I am switching my allegiance to another set of holidays from now on.  I am thinking of "Flag Day" as a definite candidate, plus perhaps something like "Patriots Day" or "the Ascension" (in Venice, the Sensa).  Enough of these sentimental, heart-wrenching, family-oriented celebrations!  Too painful!
Yet, we do have a lot to be thankful for, despite the life-changing events of this past year.  We are all alive and in good health.  Still enjoying the richness that our life has to offer.  Still learning something new every day.  Still experiencing the love of our friends and families.

So... a big THANK YOU to all the friends who met and connected with me during this whirlwind of a trip.  It's amazing how many of you showed up in such a short time!  Thank you for being there for me this past year and for being a continuing supportive presence in my life.  Thanks...

Grazie Mille!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Death (and rebirth) in Venice

Right after President Berkey left Venice after his momentous visit, the Venice Project Center was at the center of a worldwide media whirlwind connected to an initiative entitled "The Funeral of Venice".
Through our friends in the 40xVenezia, we connected with venessia.com, yet another grassroots organization (heretofore unbeknown to me) that is actively working to make a difference in Venice, through self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek, disruptive activities, such as this mock funeral to mourn the death of Venice, marking the fact that the city's population has dipped below the 60,000 mark, continuing its steep descent into oblivion from its peak around 175,000 after WWII.  Despite its macabre tone, the event was intended more as a wake-up call than a last rite.  In fact, on this occasion, venessiapuntocom unveiled a parallel initiative to gather signatures from "potential Venetians" who aspire to live in our city and would gladly move to Venice if they could.
After hearing of our project on the Origins of Venice, which - among other things - entails collecting DNA samples from individuals from the Triveneto area in the Northeast of Italy, to contribute to a National Geographic worldwide research project called The Genographic Project, the venessianipuntocom offered us the opportunity to join in the event to help expedite our data collection, whose goals were in line with the theme of death/rebirth that permeated the culminating performance by comic actor Cesare Colonnese during the funeral oration. Our participation became controversial when some misinformed (or perhaps disingenuous) national and local commentators interpreted our study as an attempt to identify "true Venetians" as part of some sort of eugenic plot to purify our race and possibly even reproduce ourselves by cloning our collected DNA...  hard to believe indeed...
I was forced to issue a clarification on the local Gazzettino newspaper to explain that the tests were simply a regional contribution of 350 samples to an worldwide genealogical study (with over 100,000 samples) aimed at producing an atlas of the ancient genetic pathways - evinced from haplogroups based on statistical haplotypes - of the original human migrations across the continents over 10,000 years ago, long before the Venetian republic even existed.  Luckily, on the day of the event, the students and I were all interviewed by a number of TV networks and members of the press, which by and large corrected the misconceived notions that were broadcast beforehand.

The high density of ideal candidates for our tests (unrelated adult males with both maternal and paternal grandparents from the Northeast of Italy) who could volunteer for the test, and the publicity received by our effort enabled us to collect 40 DNA swabs in just a couple of hours, while we had only collected a total of 80 since we started our project exactly a year ago.  On the wake of the event, we managed to quickly collect several more samples, which are being shipped to Barcelona to join last year's set, which has now crossed the threshold of 100 needed to begin the analyses, so that all past participants will be able to finally review, using their secret codes, their personal ascendants in the big haplofamilies of our ancestors.
Like their predecessors, this year's team is traveling to Barcelona to meet Dr. Comas at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.
As we get closer to completing our initial 350 samples, the students will be discussing a joint research effort between the WPI Venice Project Center and the experts at the Unitat de Biologia Evolutiva to confirm/refute the various hypotheses concerning the origins of the ancient Veneti, by duplicating a prior study in the ancient Phoenicians.  There are two main theories regarding the Veneti’s origins:
  1. The Paphlagonian theory, which places their origins in Northern Turkey, with subsequent migrations up the Balcans and into today’s Veneto region in NE Italy.
  2. The Lusatian theory, which places their origins in central Europe (after a migration from the East) settling into modern-day Lusatia, a region at the intersection between Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany (East Germany).
There are also well-known historical mentions of the Veneti (possibly an unrelated Celtic people) in other parts of Europe, especially in Britanny (Vannes).
We hope that The Genographic Project and the National Geographic Society will sponsor this follow up study which, while it won't contribute to the rebirth of today's city of Venice, should shed some light on the long-dead ancestors of the inhabitants of the lagoons.

Orate pro nobis
("O meio do go?")

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Eagle, the Lion, the Arm and the Hammer

WPI's President Berkey, his wife Dr. Cathy Berkey, and the VP for Development and Alumni Relations, Dexter Bailey spent three days in Venice this week. It was a great pleasure for me to host the first WPI president to visit Venice in the 20 years of existence of the Venice Project Center (VPC).
It also gave me a chance to get to know the distinguished visitors on a personal level and to share with them the successes of the VPC, as well as my dreams for the next 20 years of the center.  It was a really enjoyable and fruitful experience.
The visit started with a relaxing dinner at the Corte Sconta restaurant, near the Arsenale and a short walk from the hotel where they were staying.  At dinner, we discussed some of the main highlights about the work that WPI students have done for Venice since 1988 with the goal of "leaving Venice better than we found it".  I was positively struck by the keen interest President Berkey showed for our program, and for its impact on our students and on the City itself.  As dinner progressed, I had a chance to put forth to the president an idea that I had previously discussed with WPI trustee Stephen Rubin.  How great would it be to offer a full scholarship to a young Venetian to go to college at WPI for free?  What if we did the same at all of our global project centers?  The repercussions would be immense!  These alumni would create a permanent bond  between WPI and our project sites, which over time would foster a thriving alumni network in all the countries where we operate, with exponentially positive consequences for all.  President Berkey really liked the idea and I plan to spell it out in full detail in a memo to him after I return to the US at the end of the year.
Since they brought the sunshine with them, our esteemed visitors had a chance to see the city in its glory on the following day.  During a leisurely walk from the Arsenale to the Frari church, I showed them some of the highlights of the city and introduced them to the great work completed by the 500+ WPI students who have traveled to Venice over the past two decades.  It was a beautiful walk on a beautiful day.  They even had a chance to walk on the acqua alta planks since St. Mark's square was slightly flooded...
As a crowning climax to the walk we were treated to a backstage tour of the Venice State Archives, with its 70Km of shelves containing the history of Venice's Republic in the form of government records handwritten on parchments dating from before the year 1000 AD to 1797, when the Serenissima fell to Napoleon.  Readers of this blog may recall reading about our long-term efforts to develop an online application called uScript that would allow the cumulative transcription of ancient manuscripts, thus allowing historians to tap into the wealth of knowledge contained in the Venice archives.  We still have a $350,000 grant application pending with the National Endowment for the Humanities to bring the effort to fruition and a team of WPI students is continuing to make progress on this endeavor this term in Venice.
Following a meeting with the archive's director, who pledged full collaboration in this joint effort, the highlight of our visit was when we were shown original handwritten letters sent by none other than Benjamin Franklin, one of the most famous founding fathers, and John Adams, the second president, of the United States of America.
These most prominent of all Americans, were writing to the Doge to request a commercial treaty between the ancient Venetian republic and the newly independent colonies across the ocean.  It was enlightening to read the letter from Venice's ambassador to Paris that accompanied the American request, who begged for permission to communicate to the letter writers (who were utterly unknown to the Doge) that "at least the letter had been received and read"...  Apparently the republic had better things to do that to pay heed to these rebels from across the pond... Funny how the tides of power have turned in just 200 years!  Who knows what the balance of power will be in 2209?!
After another great meal at the Zucca, we enjoyed a complimentary taxi ride, thanks to our former project sponsors Consorzio Venezia Motoscafi, who later picked us up for the gala dinner at the Stucky Hilton Hotel.

The dinner was attended by all 27 of the current Venice Project Center students, plus a number of distinguished Venetian guests, including Dr. Pierpaolo Campostrini of Co.Ri.La., Dr. Franco Fiorin, director of the Mobility office for the City of Venice, Prof. Vincent Corruble, of Paris VI University, Dr. Emanuele Dal Carlo, founder of the 40xVenice movement, and Tyler White of the Santa Fe Complex.  One former Venice alumnus, Douglas Leenhouts, who worked on the Sounds of Venice project in the summer of 2003 was also in attendance.  The dinner was excellent and President Berkey's speech, praising the work of the students who have attended the Venice Project Center over the past two decades, was an outstanding conclusion to this very successful visit.
We all look forward to many more official (or personal) visits from WPI notables in the years to come...
Let the Eagle and the Lion be united by the Arm & Hammer!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

the President visits Venice!

It's official!

The President is coming to Venice this fall on an official visit! He will be bringing a message of Hope and Progress for our beleaguered city that this week has seen its population drop below the 60,000 mark.
Could this visit inspire us to look for real alternatives to the mass tourism economy that monopolizes our lives? Could Venice really become the new capital for "immaterial production" as was once again discussed at "Venezia Camp 2009" this past weekend? Or are Venetians doomed to extinction as many fear? Are we going to become mere amusement park entertainers hired by Disney to give visitors a verisimilitude of authenticity?

Are we expecting too much of our president?

We shall see.

President Berkey of WPI will be hosting an alumni event in Venice on Thursday November 12, 2009, to mark the end of our 20th anniversary celebrations. He will be in attendance, together with his wife Cathy and Dexter Bailey, WPI's Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations.

This is the first time a WPI president visits the Venice Project Center, so it will be an honor for us to have a chance to show him, and all alumni who will attend the event, what we have accomplished in our twenty-one years of operation since the distant 1988, when we humbly started our quest to "leave Venice better than we found it". I think we can confidently say "Yes we did!" and, with his influence and stature, we also hope that he can help ignite the next phase of our pursuit for a lasting legacy in my hometown: Venice 3.0. A new era of applied research for Venice, based on the solid foundation of knowledge that we have established thus far. A legacy that will hopefully outlive me... and the president.
Can we inspire a radical new direction of progress in this gem of human artistry and engineering and inject new hope in its dwindling population?

Yes we can! (and we will...)

(Obamicon of Pres. Berkey courtesy of Kyle Miller)

All prepped and ready to blog

Today marked the arrival in Venice of 27 WPI students who will be here until December 19. It is the final group to officially mark the end of our protracted, multi-year 20th anniversary celebrations. As indicated in my blog entry at the beginning of the preparation term, these teams are tasked with completing some long-standing project themes, as well as with breaking some new grounds to set the stage for the next 20 years of projects in Venice.
The students have moved into their apartments, which are located in the more "Venetian" sestieri of Castello and Cannaregio and they have probably already had their first gelato and panino... (and who know what else?). Having learnt our lesson from last year's flood, we did not rent any apartments on the ground floor this year...
It is always fun to see the wide-eyed students, finally setting foot in the city they have been reading and studying about for the past two months. Venice is such a surreal place... even for me.
Tomorrow, we'll have our first group meeting at the Settemari club, and then the projects will begin in earnest. We have an exciting array of topics this year, all of which have been blogged about by the respective teams as they prepared their project proposals back in Worcester.
I will dedicate a new blog entry to each project in the days to come, as the teams zero in on the full spectrum of activities to accomplish their respective missions.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lost in translation - being Italian in America

Last week, I was invited to speak at a conference in New York City, organized by ILICA (Italian Language Inter-Cultural Alliance). The full title of the conference was "Saving Venezia & Protecting New Orleans. The MOSE project. The debate surrounding Italy's most innovative technology." and it was held at the Manhattan campus of St. John's University. The proceedings were punctuated with a series of sumptuous meals prepared by imported Venetian chefs from the Trattoria Bissa da Rocco in Mestre, coordinated by Andrea Tiberi, an Eatalian chef operating a successful wine bar in New York.
Two thousand pounds of fresh fish and other products (like radicchio chioggiotto) were flown in from Chioggia for the event. The mayor of Chioggia, Romano Tiozzo, accompanied the cargo shipment to personally ensure that it arrived safely to the event. He was not the only notable present at the conference. We had the pleasure to meet the Italian Consul General in NYC, Francesco Maria Talò, and the ambassador's advisor Alberto Gallucci, and heard the voice of the mayor of Salinas, CA, the American capital of radicchio production. The conference was hosted by Cav. Vincenzo Marra, president of ILICA, and Prof. Anthony Tamburri, Dean of the John Calandra Italian American Institute.
In the quarter century that I have spent in the U.S., I never really had much of chance to interact with Italian-American institutions. I always thought that they were the province of Americans of Italian descent, but not for "true" Italians like me. Meeting the members of ILICA, I was surprised to find out that many of them were actually born in Italy -- as I was -- and had lived in the U.S. for most of their adult life -- as I have. Just last week, I renewed my "green card" (which might explain the "green again" in my enigmatic tweet) and was re-awakened to the fact that I am an alien in a country that I consider "home"... I discovered that my green card had expired while trying to embark in a flight from London back to my home in Spencer, Massachusetts, this summer. I was traveling with my son Nicolò, who could get onto the flight with no problems, because he has an American passport (despite having been born in Venice like me). This bureaucratic snafu, combined with the recent controversies surrounding my role as chair of the planning board in Spencer have convinced me that I should apply for citizenship in the country where I have spent the majority of my adult life (i.e. become "evergreen" as I obscurely stated in my tweet). Meeting the members of ILICA made me realize that I really am "one of them" for the first time in my life, and the outcome of the conference confirmed that I am really more American than I thought...
Given the subtitle of the conference that explicitly mentioned the "debate" surrounding the construction of the MOSE project, I though it would be useful to elucidate for the audience the nature of the controversies that accompanied the project for three decades. Despite having made clear both in the slides (below) and several other times during my remarks (which were fortunately videotaped by i-Italy cameramen) that I was simply relating the history of the opposition to the project, which have all been resolved (as I repeatedly stressed), and not presenting my personal views, those who did not speak fluent English in the audience were left with the impression that I was personally against the MOSE project. Very unfortunate indeed...
Ironically, the very last question I emailed to Prof. Tamburri, as I was preparing my slides, was whether they were expecting me to present in Italian or in English. Given the name of the hosting institution, it was a legitimate question, and Prof. Tamburri replied that I should present in English. As it turns out, this was probably a fateful decision since what transpired at the conference clearly indicated that my presentation was "lost in translation" due to language barriers on the part of the delegation from the Consorzio Venezia Nuova (CVN) and the Magistrato alle Acque, headed by Mr. Patrizio Cuccioletta. Their vehement reaction with ad hominem attacks to my personal and professional integrity left me and others in the audience stupefied. It was embarrassing display of unwarranted defensiveness on the part of those who were invited to the conference to represent the "best" that Italy has to offer as far as cutting-edge engineering.
Given the tenor of my presentation, where I actually praised them for their technical skills (slide 10) and expressed clearly that the controversies were "resolved", as well as my faith in the effectiveness of the barriers to achieve what they were designed for (slide 31), it should have been amply clear that my intentions were purely informative.
Quite naively, in retrospect, I was hoping to incite discussion that would take us "beyond" this project to solve the outstanding issues that are of concern to average Venetians like me (slides 73-104), by expressing my hope that we could devote a commensurate amount of attention and funding to these other pressing challenges, thus creating opportunities to develop levels of expertise that could be exported to the rest of the world as the CVN is doing already in its field. These important discussion points were completely waylaid by the puzzling rebukes proffered by Mr. Cuccioletta and Mrs. Brotto, who seemed to be responding to some "other" presentation to those who followed and understood where I was coming from with my remarks.
Although I did not really take personally any of the comments that were made, I was truly disappointed at the missed opportunity for a real "debate" about these matters of crucial importance to Saving the Venetians. While one could possibly understand the obsequious deference to the prestige of the Venetian authorities on the part of some of the spectators, some "neutral" English-speaking members of the audience also seemed to have gotten the message wrong, and were thus intent to "shooting the messenger", despite my repeated re-statement of the informational (and impersonal) nature of my historical retrospective on the vicissitudes of the project. I will leave the readers of the blog to draw their own conclusions based on the included slide show.
It is disconcerting to me that my crucifixion on the altar of full disclosure ended up sidelining the excellent presentations by Marylou and Jerome Bongiorno and John Day, whom I hold in high esteem. The Bongiornos were instrumental in getting me invited to this conference, after having met me at the Wingspan workshop they organized for the development of their WaterMark film project in 2005, where I also met John Day, who presented to us the similarities and differences between the New Orleans and the Venetian situation. I also fear that the knee-jerk reaction that we all witnessed may have marred the potential for future collaborations between the Venice Project Center and ILICA, especially as a potential sponsor of our planned descent of the Hudson and circumnavigation of Manhattan with Venetian row boats in 2012.
All in all, this experience has cemented in my mind the fact that I am really more American than Italian at this point: truly an "American Italian", i.e. an Italian who has been americanized, which is slightly different from being an Italian American, i.e. an American of Italian descent. Regardless of the labeling, we all have more in common with each other than with Italians who only come to America to visit and are unfamiliar with the nuances of the American language, as well as with the spirit of open debate and transparency that are parts and parcel of American culture. It seems to me that to avoid embarrassing diplomatic incidents in the future, Italian Americans (and American Italians) should create a counterpart to ILICA, which we may want to name ELICA, an institution that will promote the diffusion of English Language to help Italians understand the Culture of America.
Having spent the last couple of years to fully release all of our 20 years of research for Venice through our Venice 2.0 anniversary initiative, I think ELICA may be just what we need to propel us together into this new era of open discourse and away from the closed-minded provincialism that is so 1.0 and has prevented the Italian genius from shining again in the world spotlight for far too long.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Wood Boat Mainiacs

Thanks to the extraordinary hospitality of my friends Anne Witty and Jonathan Taggart, I have had the luxury of sailing in Maine for two beautiful long weekends this month. I had forgotten just how wonderful the Maine coast really is, with its archipelago of granite mountaintops covered with hardy pines. It's truly like sailing in the valleys of the Dolomites long before the last Würmian glaciation that created the Venice Lagoon. The last time I had done that was about 25 years ago when captain Scoop (Paul McAskill) and I "sailed naked" (meaning with no instruments - it's too cold to remove your clothes up there) from Boothbay to Acadia national park.
Given that there are at least two plausible claims that the Mondo Novo (at least the Northern part of the continent later named after another Italian -Amerigo Vespucci) was discovered by Venetians before Columbus, either in 1398 by the Venetian brothers Antonio and Nicolò Zeno, or in 1497 by Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), all of whom are thought to have landed somewhere Down East, it was fitting that I should bring a gonfalone of Saint Mark to be flown on Nereid's mast on our voyages up and down the very same coasts that my fellow Venetians first viewed 500+ years ago.
I met Jonathan, who is a heritage conservator specializing in bronze objects, in 1996, when I gave a talk at the National Institute for Conservation in Washington DC, following which he joined me for a couple of Earthwatch "expeditions" in Venice, when we were cataloging and (thanks to him) restoring wellheads and bells across the city. Anne has been a curator for several maritime museums, including Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon, and, more recently, for the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine.
Given their backgrounds, and their love for Venice, it is not surprising that our sailing trips generated a wealth of ideas about how to join forces for the documentation and restoration of the collection of traditional wood boats salvaged by Arzanà, a Venetian association which has sponsored a number of Venice Project Center projects on the topic in recent years.
The general idea is to document the lines of the boats in the Arzanà collection using time-tested manual methods and then compare the measurements with the results obtained using more modern techniques such as laser scanner (which we hope to borrow from our LTS friends at Ideagroup) as well as the structured light techniques being developed by my friend Steve Guerin in Santa Fe, at the Redfish Group. Once we have obtained the lines, we would turn them into CAD drawings and save them for posterity, which would open up the possibility of reproducing the boats in the future.
We promptly discussed all of these possibilities with the editor of Wooden Boat Magazine, Tom Jackson, over dinner with his wife Corinne, before we sailed together up the Eggemoggin Reach on our first day on the water. Later we also talked to wood boat legend Willits Ansel, who suggested to involve another expert, Greg Rössel. Meanwhile, Jonathan has signed up for a one-day workshop on Boat Documentation at the Calvert Marine Museum connected with the Museum Small Craft Association annual conference on October 7. This group is appropriately responsible for the publication of the classic book on Boat Documentation...
Given the strong ties that these experts have with the Wooden Boat School in Maine, we are exploring the possibility of getting a replica of one of the Arzanà boats re-built in time for the 35th anniversary of the Settemari Association in the summer of 2012, when we plan to take our rowing club to the US for a whole month, parading our diesona and a small flotilla of Venetian boats down the rivers Charles (Boston), Hudson (New York), Schuylkill (Philadelphia) and Potomac (Washington), thanks to the planning provided by teams of students from SUNY Cortland's program in Sports Management, under the guidance of another old friend, John Meehan, who is tenured at Hudson Valley Community College.
Just yesterday, President Obama gave a key speech on innovation at this very college. He would be proud of the innovative ideas we developed with our old friends as we floated around Maine.
We will make sure that we wave at him when we pass the White House as we parade down the Potomac on our brand new, Maine-built, Venetian boat in 2012!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The WPI Santa Fe Project Center is born

Over the summer, WPI's Provost John Orr gave the green flag for the creation of the WPI Santa Fe Project Center (SFPC) so today all six of our pioneering students who blazed the trail this past spring were at the WPI Global Project Fair, manning the first official Santa Fe table, where dozens of sophomores stopped to ask them questions about the Center they helped create. In the upcoming weeks, I will be offering a number of Information Sessions where interested students will be able to hear more about the new center, so they can decide if Santa Fe is where they want to complete their Interactive Qualifying Project in term D (March-April) of 2011.
Meanwhile, I have also been actively recruiting an interim contingent of about 12 students to bring to Santa Fe this coming spring of 2010 for the second round of preliminary projects just ahead of the first official group of 24-28 the following year.
I will be interviewing for the 2011 season when I fly back from Venice during Thanksgiving week for my customary marathon interview sessions to recruit the new breed of Venice, Boston and now Santa Fe students for the next academic year. The connection between Santa Fe and Venice, which was further cemented by Steve Guerin' s recent visit to Venice for the delivery of the Boat Traffic Simtable to the City's Traffic department, will be strengthened by the upcoming collaborations on several of the new Venice projects which we are developing this term. Simon Mehalek, chief technical officer of the Santa Fe Complex will travel to Venice this fall to be "scientist in residence" at the Venice Project Center, supporting all of the projects that will conclude the protracted 20th anniversary year for the VPC.
Finally, I am also recruiting WPI seniors to work on technical Major Qualifying Projects that will help us break new grounds in our quest to create an Ambient Platform for urban maintenance, management and planning based on the principles of City Knowledge. These joint research efforts will be conducted both in Venice and in Santa Fe, offering projects and internships in the summer and in the terms when the two centers operate (B in Venice and D in Santa Fe).
In true City Knowledge spirit, we should issue a birth certificate for the newly born Santa Fe Project Center!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Venice 4.0 (B09)

This project will distill the most salient results from 20 years of VPC data, and will also harvest additional available Venice data, to create exciting, interactive online infographics that will encapsulate the main trends in the city. The data will support decision-making and policy proposals by the 40xVenezia.
One of the goals of this project is to "beef up" the accomplishments section of our Venice 2.0 website (under "Best of..."), but an equally important goal will be to create graphics that are easy to update sustainably in the years to come, once more up-to-date or more accurate data becomes available.
We expect the team to really learn from the most advanced graphical tools out there, by emulating the best examples of information design that are available on line and in press.
The team will coordinate with the "Venice 4.0" team of the 40xVenezia to set priorities that are aligned with the most urgent issues on the table.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Public Earth (B09)

This project will continue what the PreserVenice team accomplished last year for public art and will expand the work to the rest of our heritage catalogs which also include palaces, convents, churches, bells, belltowers and church floors.
The main goal of this project is to release all of our public art data to the web (following the model of Public Earth), after having organized, integrated and validated every VPC dataset, starting with the main Erratic Sculpture information, but making sure to include the long-neglected Belltowers, Bells and Church Floors.
The team will work with Public Earth to upload as much information as suitable for that site, but will primarily expand the current PreserVenice site with the intention of moving the maintenance of the information to crowdsourcing and with the goal of actually inaugurating the non-profit organization to begin collecting funds for the restoration and maintenance of the public collections of art in Venice and its lagoon. In this context, the team will interact with MIT Ph.D. candidate Laurie Zapalac who intends to study PreserVenice for her doctoral research at MIT.
The team will collaborate with the Regional Government of the Veneto to package the information for their archives as well.
The team will also experiment with the creation of an "ancient GIS" map based on the DeBarbari birdseye view of the city in the year 1500.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Mobility (B09)

Part of Venice's uniqueness derives from its being completely devoid of cars. Moving around in Venice means either walking or taking a boat. Every student going to Venice will get a boat pass (called imob) for the public transportation boats (ACTV), but once they get to Venice the will also discover that walking is often faster than taking a vaporetto or a motoscafo. Crossing the numerous bridges in Venice can be a problem for anyone with some kind of mobility impairment, which may include young mothers with a stroller, or tourists with large suitcases, as well as elderly people using a cane or a walker. WPI has developed the methodology still used today in Venice to collect boat traffic data, so this project team will summarize what we've done so far in the realm of boat traffic, with particular attention on its negative impacts, like moto ondoso and noise, water and air pollution, but will also explore pedestrian traffic as well, where we have not done much thus far.
This project will investigate pedestrian mobility as well as boat traffic and integrate them into a sustainable framework for the modeling of all mobility in Venice, using advanced autonomous agent models , with primary applications in the management of public space, event planning and emergency response. The team will incorporate its findings into the existing Venice Simtable system with assistance from Redfish, the Santa Fe Complex and VPC staff.
The team will touch upon all of these areas in terms of literature review, and will pursue as many of these lines as possible, upon consultation with the advisors. The team will plan the pursuit of the remaining research ideas for future student teams.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Veninomics (B09)

The team working on this project will study the various economies that interact in Venice, with a primary focus on the evolution of retail stores and on tourism and all related businesses, both formal and informal.
It is clear that the primary economic force in Venice is tourism, but questions remain as to how much of the wealth generated by visitors actually stays in Venice and percolates through to the citizens and to the local government that provides key services, such as public transportation, garbage removal, local policing, safety and security. This team will begin to answer this key question.
The team will revamp our ongoing series of projects on the Retail Sector and design a web application that will allow anyone to contribute information about what store was located where and when starting after World War II and until today. The online application will initially contain the data we have collected to date. Technical assistance will be provided by VPC staff as needed.
Keeping in mind that this is going to be the first of several projects in the years to come, the students will also explore the semi-formal (souvenir stalls and carts) and informal (illegal) economies such as the network of Rom beggars, the bag peddlers from West Africa, the flower sellers from Bagladesh, etc., in an attempt to quantify the various sub-sectors of the tourist industry, starting -- of course -- from any published literature on the subject.
Moreover, the team will leverage the information collected by Forma Urbis on the plateatici (e.g. restaurant tables in the squares) and include an economic assessment of the value of each square meter of tables and chairs that are placed on "leased" public space, possibly suggesting a new pricing scheme based on the paper published by Prof. Carrera et al. a few years back.
Based on existing data, as well as newly collected information, the team will also investigate the actual costs of Acqua Alta (high tides), both in terms of damage and loss of property/merchandise, as well as in terms of lost productivity and sales due to flooded streets and compare these costs (over a decade, say) to the loss of revenue experienced after 9/11 or during the ongoing global financial crisis.
The team will touch upon all of these areas in terms of literature review, and will pursue as many of these lines as possible, upon consultation with the advisors. The team will plan the pursuit of the remaining research ideas for future student teams.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ships (B09)

In the 20 years of research at the Venice Project Center, we have never explored the workings of the Venice Harbor, which has historically represented the maritime essence of Venice's commercial enterprises. This year, we will inaugurate a series of projects focused on this long-neglected topic.
The team will gather as much publicly available information about the schedules of cruises that make a call in Venice throughout the year and incorporate the ships' arrivals into the Venice Boat Traffic model developed by the VPC in conjunction with Redfish in Santa Fe.
The team will monitor how passengers disperse through the city once they disembark from the ships, either on foot, or with taxis (boats and cars?) or otherwise. The outflow and inflow of passengers from and to the ships will be quantified and an assessment of the planned "people mover" that will connect the harbor with Piazzale Roma will be conducted. The information about the movement of cruise ship tourists will be incorporated into the pedestrian model being developed by the Mobility team.
In addition to that, the team will explore the positive economic impacts of the cruise ships, in coordination with the Veninomics team, as well as potentially harmful consequences of moto ondoso (direct and indirect), noise, vibrations and water and air emissions from the engines. The team will analyze available data and coordinate with Simon Mehalek of the Santa Fe Complex to determine what monitoring devices could be used for additional measurements, while trying to identify sources of funding for the initial proof-of-concept and for a full implementation in future years.
Finally, the team will also explore the social implications of shipping, especially in relation to the disturbance it may cause to inhabitants of nearby areas, both in Santa Marta and along the Riva dei Sette Martiri.
The team will touch upon all of these areas in terms of literature review, and will pursue as many of these lines as possible, upon consultation with the advisors. The team will plan the pursuit of the remaining research ideas for future student teams.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Post Postmortem (B09)

We have been developing a "Postmodern Postmortem" initiative since 2007, and this project will make tangible strides into the implementation of the concepts developed thus far. In essence, the postmodern postmortems are intended to:
  • interact with all 5 senses (touch, hear, see, smell and taste), and exercise the 6th (intuition)
  • represent concrete issues impacting the quality of life of Venetians
  • enthrall and titillate the passers-by with whimsical and beautiful street installations
  • engage the viewers into discovering the underlying theme through a "secret" game that explains the whole project
Thus far, we have identified 12 installations that would fit the specifications, but we'd like to get up to 20 for our 20th anniversary. We would like to attract installation ideas from artists around the world and in particular we'd like to engage the talented folks at the Santa Fe Complex.
This project will not only develop a mechanism to advertise the project on the web, but also implement, test and install as many of the pre-existing concepts as possible, using appropriate hardware such as Arduino or Sunspots, connected to our Venice server.
With the help of the VPC staff, and technical assistance from Simon Mehalek of the Santa Fe Complex, the students will solve any logistical issue associated with each installation, and design a system that will achieve the desired effect deploying minimalist sustainable technology in the field.
The team will also fully script and develop an overarching Augmented Reality Game (ARG) -- or Urban Reality Game (URG) -- to tie the 20 installations together into a "meaningful" experience for the viewers.
It is expected that the team will explore how to attract funding for the projects, while investigating the details of how to deploy the full complement of 20 installations in connection with the upcoming Venice Biennali (Architecture-2010 or Contemporary Arts-2011)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Unearthing Venice's Genealogy (B09)

This is the first posting for the new WPI undergraduate projects (IQPs) that will take place at the Venice Project Center in term B09 (October 25-December 19, 2009). Six more postings will follow to explain the remaining research projects that will take place in Venice this fall.
This first project will follow up on last year's "Origins of Venice" IQP, which was tasked to explore the origins of the city and its inhabitants, using archeology, genetics and ancient manuscripts.
This year's project will take the matter a bit further, by:
  1. Designing an "archaeological web-app" that will allow the gradual accumulation of reusable Archaeological Data, which could be "modeled" and visualized by exploiting the potential of the Santa Fe sandtable for the interactive exploration of "archaeological" risk.
  2. Continuing the collection of DNA samples in the context of the Genographic Project and developing a grant proposal for the full-fledged examination of the "origins of Venetians".
  3. Promoting the development of uScript and continuing to detail its scope, functionalities and diffusion mechanisms.
As expected, this line of research will continue over multiple years and will yield important information in due time. It is part of the Venice 3.0 project...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Venice B09

It's an exciting year for the Venice Project Center. We are completing the 20th anniversary (Venice 2.0) and moving towards the next one (Venice 3.0). Thus, the projects we are tackling are to be viewed as trailblazers for longitudinal series of projects stretching into the future.

Here are the Venice B09 projects in a nutshell:
  1. Origins -- to find out how the city of Venice evolved and where its inhabitants came from;
  2. Postmortems -- to highlight the main challenges confronting Venice with a web of embedded art installations that obliquely reference each issue in a "game" of interactive innuendos scattered throughout the city;
  3. Ships -- to investigate the cruise-ship industry in Venice and its consequences -- on moto ondoso, on related tourist business as well as on the quality of life of the citizens;
  4. Veninomics -- to study the retail evolution and to assess the local import of the various economies at play in Venice: hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenirs, and other retail as well as informal economies like the "bag sellers", "flower sellers" and similar phenomena.
  5. Mobility -- to sustainably model Venetian mobility, both pedestrian and waterborne.
  6. Publicearth -- to organize and release the public art datasets collected by the VPC.
  7. Venice 4.0 -- to encapsulate existing data into fungible and actionable infographics to support the cause of the 40xVenezia.

Friday, August 14, 2009

National Geographic (again)

In the current (August) issue of National Geographic Magazine, both Forma Urbis and the WPI Venice Project Center are credited for two maps that accompany an article about Venice, entitled "Vanishing Venice". The two maps show the proliferation of hotels in Venice in the past decade and the effects of flooding in Venice. The credits are in the lower right corner of each map. The Italian version of the magazine, also out in August, has Venice's story on the cover (whereas the English version highlights a Yellowstone story).
Curiously, the Italian cover story is entitled "Venezia Sotto Assedio" which is the exact same title ("Venice under siege") as the National Geographic Video that featured me as the host, and is apparently still airing around the world after eight years (last reported on Tasmanian TV).
A very interesting addition to the print versions is an online interactive map that allows the user to use a slider to see how much of Venice gets flooded with different tide levels. The VPC and Forma Urbis are credited in the online version as well.
Counting both the Italian and English versions of the magazine, this is the fifth time that our work has been featured on National Geographic, starting with a photo of a youthful Fabio surveying the canal walls with a boatful of students in 1999.
And, hopefully, it won't be the last...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Meno 1: epigraphs, epitaphs and chronograms

Well, another year has passed and today I turned 48. It was a good day overall, though the past year was tough for me. My dad got me a very tasty birthday cake, which said "Meno 1" (minus one) on it. Despite the flawed arithmetic (vis a vis my 50th birthday), I found the sign appropriate. There is one person missing from my life this year and I felt it. I also took it as a "memento mori", reminding me of how at any moment I could be one breath away from the aldilà. I also will use this as a mantra to catch myself thinking too much about the next thing to do, and to consciously take one step back from the future and return to the now.
Living in the now, as I am fond of doing, makes both past and future less significant and possibly less real. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the passing of time when the day of your birth cycles around the sun one more time. It's an infinitesimal tick in the humongous clock of the universe, but somehow it feels important in my world... That's how self-referential and special we make ourselves out to be, knowing full well that we are but brief manifestations of some underlying vital energy that makes us all really quite identical in the face of our epheMeral existenCe, which in the end will be aptly suMmarized by a smalL dash (an "em-dash" perhaps) separating the years or birth and death on our epitaph.
Thankfully, I have two more years available to make a legitimate contribution to the 40Xvenezia, before I mIgrate to the yet-to-be-created spinoff, the "Cinquanta per"... but I also have many decades ahead to contribute to Venice and the world before I catch up with my friend Bruno Nogara, who was born on the 28th of July, just one day before me, in 1920. I take solace in seeing him walking and talking and working still at the age of 89, after having been a scuba-diving paratrooper in WWII and a rugby champion, occupations that are almost as physically punishing as being a tour guide in Venice, as he still is to this day... It was good to have a celebratory spritz with him to remind myself of the possibilities ahead.
Later in the evening, after Kseniya Hewitt gave my mom (Wilma) a present to thank her for giving birth to me (a really touching Russian custom), I ran into an old friend of mine from my Sant'Elena youth, Geto (Giorgio) Rampazzo. Having experienced one of the greatest upheavals in my life this year, I could really empathize with my old buddy when he told me the heart-wrenching story of how his mate died in her sleep right next to him... The unimaginable pain he must have felt, made me realize how fortunate Nick and I are to be able to still talk and joke with Jackie, even though we do not live together any more. It's hard to fathom a harder blow, yet Geto lives on, in sadness, visiting her grave every week. As ephemeral and un-special as we are, it's impossible for us to be detached when momentous events affect us or those we love. It's inevitable (and necessary) to be human some time, and accept all our vulnerabilities and fears.
And so, Bruno, Geto, Cino, Wilma, Jackie, Nick and I continue to live on, moment by moment, in the now, which is still where it has always been, just minus one steps before the future that we are always so hopeful and fearful about...