Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Solstice of an epoch

On this winter solstice -- the shortest and darkest day in the northern hemisphere -- I am starting the 51st winter of my life.  I like winters, but there is bias against them and against snow. It's raining today, and only a small minority of us would prefer it to be snowing...  In Italy, age is expressed in "primavere" (springs) not in "winter" units.
In Venice, we measure the passing of years in barette, which many of my fellow-citizens would instinctively associate with hats (i.e. winter clothing), but "cinquanta barette" probably refers instead to the hash marks a prisoner would carve on the wall of his cell, tracking the passing of a year with a short little bar, until -- after four -- the fifth diagonal strike would bundle a lustre.  I have lived 10 lusters, so I hope my 11th one can be illustrious and not as lackluster as its most recent predecessor has been for me.
It's been a while since I last updated this blog and lots has happened.
Most recently -- last week -- the 8 teams of WPI students who spent term B (October-December) in Venice with me, successfully completed their projects and returned to the States, as I have dutifully done myself.  I am in Spencer right now, about to go to Santa Fe, to be reunited with Nick, who has been rather distressed by his adolescent love life in his difficult transition to adulthood. We will be spending the holidays together and will return to New England in mid-January right before his 21st birthday.
As the sun has reached its lowest arc today, but will henceforth bring us longer and brighter days, so it seems that our society may be reaching its ebb point and we may be living through the solstice of an epoch, which may inaugurate a new era of global enlightenment. It just may be so, but it's hard to witness epochal transformations from within, though we all sense major change is happening all around us.
Will a global governance system emerge from the ashes of failed countries?  Will humanity graduate to a stable adulthood after such a troublesome adolescence?  Let's hope so.

Will I blog again before Christmas?  Hmmm...  I doubt it.  So...


And enjoy this time of solstice.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Another term, another blog post.  Nick and I just drove back from Santa Fe via the "southern" route (I-40) all the way from New Mexico to North Carolina, then we took the Blue Ridge Parkway through the Appalachians and up to New England.  We had a good couple of months in Santa Fe.  Nick got accepted to the Santa Fe University of Art and Design (SFUAD) where he will start a degree in Contemporary Music in the fall.  I will be there in term A as well, courtesy of my dear friend (and dean) Rick Vaz.  I will get a chance to work on some academic papers and grants, while advising the preparation for the Venice teams remotely (via skype) with co-advisor Fred Bianchi, who will conduct the meetings at WPI and will no doubt inject his computer music background into our 8 fall projects in Venice.  We should have some really interesting topics this year!
It's going to be nice to be able to focus on research for one full month.  My esteemed WPI colleague, Seth Tuler, will be teaching the Venice preparation course and will join me for a couple of weeks in Venice this summer to get himself prepped for the prep.
The first official full contingent of 24 WPI students worked at the Santa Fe Project Center (SFPC) to complete 6 challenging projects at the newest of all WPI project centers this spring under the guidance of former WPI Provost, John Orr and myself.  Once again, we all benefited from the close collaboration with the Santa Fe Complex, who provided us with state-of-the-art facilities where we could conduct our projects. Executive Director Roy Wroth and Steve Guerin and everyone else at the Complex mentored our students and made them feel very welcome in Santa Fe.  The results of the six projects were very well received by all our sponsors, which included the Santa Fe Watershed Association, the City of Santa Fe (Dept. of Housing and Community Development), the Santa Fe Metropoilitan Planning Organization, the Santa Fe Trails bus system, the Santa Fe Indian School and Riversource.  In preparation for the final presentations, the teams briefly illustrated their projects at a very successful event that the WPI alumni office organized at the Santa Fe Complex with a couple of dozen WPI alumni in attendance, many working at the nearby "labs" at Los Alamos and Sandia.  It was a great convivial occasion to boost our collective esprit de corps.  John and I followed up with a marvelous dinner at the home of Cathy and Paul Kalenian, whose family supports the WPI Kalenian Award for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
By the time final presentations came around, the teams had honed their skills and were able to dazzle the audience with their brilliance...  David Coss, the mayor of Santa Fe was in attendance for some of the presentations.  The teams made us all proud and certainly set a high bar for future teams to aspire to.  We have already recruited 28 students for next spring, for the second official year of operation of the SFPC.
We had many dinners and get-togethers at the "treehouse" where Nick and I lived, overlooking Sun and Moon mountains, Atalaya and the whole city of Santa Fe.  It became quite a center for brainstorming and whiteboarding, especially after work.
I even had the honor of hosting a dinner there with nobel-laureate Murray Gell-Mann, the discoverer of quarks!  Among other things, Murray is a co-founder of the Santa Fe Institute, together with George Cowan (WPI '41).  We had lots of fun and laughter... and good food.  Murray is a living encyclopedia. He is a wonderful, jovial, fun-loving individual who can hold erudite conversations about any subject and in any language.  He even knew everything about the Origins of the Veneti! I look forward to more "Mondays with Murray" at the SMA treehouse when I go back in September... Speaking of Origins, while in Santa Fe I reconnected with David Comas in Barcelona to finish up the Genographic DNA tests to trace the mythical ascendants of the Veneti, based on our contacts in Wales, Britanny, Turkey, Lusatia and the Veneto.  I'll be sending out the follow-ups this week.
With Josh Thorp and Scott Wittenburg, we also made progress on DEW (Digital Earth Watch), our "virtual" Picturepost app for Android smartphones, which allows you to take repeat pictures from the same location to monitor climate change over time (funded by NASA).  We are developing a new version to be out next week, with new user interfaces, navigation, playback and more...
Finally, while we were in Santa Fe, the Innocentive Challenge was officially issued, with a $25,000 reward for the best algorithm to identify "real" potholes  from the data collected by our StreetBump app.  Mayor Menino of Boston and his office of New Urban Mechanics were behind the project, which continues to receive lots of media attention, most recently on Boston Channel 7 and on MIT Technology Review.  So far, well over 350 "solvers" from all around the world have taken on this challenge, which will end, fatefully, exactly on my 50th birthday, on July 29.
I will be celebrating my first half-century in Venice: leaving Boston on June 7th and returning July 31st.  Hopefully I will find more time to blog, now that even Steve has started to...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Street Bumps

It's been a bumpy road since the last blog entry.  I write this from Santa Fe after the end of the third quarter of classes (term C).  It seems that I can only find time to blog when WPI is on break these days.  Since the last blog entry, Nick and I were in Santa Fe once before, in early January, so I could set up the projects that are about to begin here next week, marking the official first term of operation of the WPI Santa Fe Project Center.
When we got back to Massachusetts a lot more happened to the car, to the castle, to Nick and to me, but I really don't want to continue with the litany of unfortunate events that have incessantly befallen our family since we left Venice back in December. Suffices to say that we're almost back to normal and happy to be away from Mass jinxes. Nick and I drove west once again for the annual pilgrimage to our Mecca and left the bumpy roads behind us.  Maybe it's the thin air, or the sunny vistas, or the elevation, or the people, but Nick and I really like to be back in Santa Fe.  It feels homey here.
Ironically -- and perhaps not so coincidentally -- this past month has also seen the announcement of the debut of StreetBump, our android app for the crowdsourcing of potholes in Boston, which I blogged about before.  The office of New Urban Mechanics of the City of Boston sponsored the app and announced it through a Boston Globe article on February 9, 2011, and the buzz caught on in major international websites (like Popular Science), as well as in very prestigious international technology blogs, such as Wired UK,  Slashdot (the Apple one!), Engadget and Techmeme, all the way to Il Sole 24 Ore, the main Italian business daily (the equivalent of the Wall Street journal in Italy).  Just today, I was interviewed for an article to appear on L'Organe, a francophone magazine in Montreal, Canada.  The list goes on...
Despite all the buzz, though, so far no journalist has caught on to the real innovation.  Everyone has been mesmerized by the mobile app, but the novelty here is not purely technological, but lies primarily in the crowdsourcing of the data, which allows us to not care about identifying the pothole on the fly, since we can statistically (or perhaps bayesianly) rely on the crowd to confirm its presence though repeat hits (or lack thereof) as more users travel the same roads over time.
The post-processing of our Street Bump data is non-trivial so there is going to be an Innocentive competition for the best algorithm to actually weed out the noise from the data and identify road anomalies.  With the upcoming Innocentive challenge, we are thus crowdsourcing the server-side post-processing and I am looking forward to seeing what "the crowd" can come up with. There is a total of $25K prize on this and I suggest that interested readers of this blog consider participating in the challenge.  Unfortunately, being one of the judges, I can't, which is too bad, because I think that Steve Guerin, Josh Thorp and I could probably come up with a good solution using entropy and other complexity techniques.  
In the meantime, the three of us have launched a new site called which may turn into a company once we have enough monetizable apps to justify it.  As part of our investment in the application, we will retain the IP (Intellectual Property) for StreetBump and will also have access to the winning algorithms from the Innocentive competition.  We will, however, release the current code as open-source, so in the end the whole project will be crowdsourced from "soup to nuts".
StreetBump has created quite a stir, but from my perspective it's a natural evolution of my PhD thesis on City Knowledge and all of the various WPI undergraduate projects I have advised in the past 20 years.  In fact, the original pothole mapper was a consequence of work we did in the early 2000's at the Venice Project Center, where I have been bringing WPI students since 1988, when we designed and built a "Moto Ondoso" (boat wake) measuring device for the City of Venice. The initial Pothole Mapper was a rather simple extension of the Moto Ondoso device, when I put on my "other" hat as Director of the WPI Boston Center...  It was a bulky device, with on-board GPS, accelerometers and a microprocessor, and lots of wires, all inside a weatherproof tupperware box.  This home-built Pothole Mapper device took three Major Qualifying Projects to complete, one of which was cited (first) in an MIT paper.  
More importantly, the original PotholeMapper caught the eye of Mayor Menino of Boston who wanted it installed in his SUV.  With the advent of smartphones, the StreetBump app was the logical next step in this decade-long evolution and it made sense that Mayor Menino would support its development, given its pedigree.   In fact, we may be going full-circle, since the gondoliers' guild in Venice has expressed interest in a modified version of StreetBump which will go back to its origins, by recording the moto ondoso that affects the traditional row-boats of Venice...  From wavy water to bumpy roads and back again. Wouldn't that be an appropriate final clincher to this project?   

Let's hope these apps make the waves and bumps settle down a bit.
Nick and I are ready for calmer seas and smoother roads as we settle into our healthier and most serene Santa Fe lifestyle.