Monday, August 06, 2007

Florence to Rome

Knowing I would be leaving for Rome later in the day, I set my expectations low: il Duomo and one museum (of course, soaking up as much ambiance as possible).

For breakfast I stopped by a small market, which I later found was unnecessary: plenty of places in Florence have cheap breakfast. Though the upside of eating market food is you run into other vagabonds on the street trying to find a place to sit and eat. At the entrance to one of the bridges I met Tara and Mallory. They happened to be eating a similar breakfast and we also shared a similar pace when it came to our city-hopping rate. The main danger with the side of the road in Florence is due to the buses: when they turn the corner you are certain you will lose your legs and be crushed. Fortunately the turning radius is wider than they initially let on.

Walking to il Duomo I remember best the smell of leather from all the tourist hungry street vendors. At the Dome itself I remember best all the tourists with their cameras, taking the same picture. I got in line to walk the 450+ stairs to the top and thought about this second impression some more.

I think we need a philosophy of travel, in the same way we have a philosophy of science. There are some really pressing questions worth asking:

  • What does it mean to be a tourist?
  • Why do we disdain "touristy" place, and what makes them that way?
  • Why travel at all?
  • Is it worth taking a photo when it has been taking so many times before?
  • At the end of our travels, what are we left with?

I think these questions first came to me in Paris, seeing crowds around the Mona Lisa and playing "spot the tourist" with Pierre (perhaps I was under the influence of some existential philosopher's ghost). But waiting in the long line to il Duomo I had some more time to reflect. I'll pepper these entries with "answers" to these questions as I dream them up.

The path up the Dome is really confusing. There are plenty of circular staircases, but it stops intermittently for longer hallways and right angles. Then, halfway up, you circle the base of the dome itself and follow an even more confusing path with slanted walls, narrow hallways, and steep stairs. I liked how the brick layers had to adopt unusual diagonal patterns to create the actual dome.

At the very top you step into the sunlight, which is the best part. Especially feeling the wind at the top on a hot dry day. I'm pretty sure it's the highest point in Florence, you can see everything (anything more than a block away). That was my simple lesson from the dome: when you're on top of something big, it can be hard to see the things nearby. I sat up there for maybe twenty minutes appreciating the view of the city.

After descending, because it was so hot and water wasn't cutting it, I had my first Gelato in Italy. It was a piccolo limone from this crazily lit place called "Festival del Gelato".

Walking around afterwards, browsing the windows of stores on main streets, I made some notes on what binds Western culture (as best I could tell from the cities I'd visited): food, materialism (more pronounced in America than Europe), and Harry Potter. The last book was released while I was in Lyon, and it seemed like everyone was advertising it.

Not meaning to, I found Luggia di Lanzi — a semi-enclosed square adjacent to a large piazza. It was filled with wonderful sculpture, and since it's Florence these weren't just any sculptures but most were second century AD. I get the impression that the city is overflowing with art.

I walked next to the "Firenze Mvsei", containing the Palatine gallery and modern art gallery (amongst others). Since I was in Florence just to be ironic I went to the Modern Art gallery first. There was a great exhibition with all these dresses and concept art for modern theater. The Palatine gallery had a ton of Florentine and related art, mostly paintings.

There were plaques with descriptions to introduce each of the rooms, and as the end of the 19th century approached they started a big discussion about the role of "reality" in art. I had an idea for a manifesto a few days earlier that dealt with this issue. It would say something about the futility of attempting to capture "reality" in art — whether with photography or film or anything. There is an illusion that photography captures reality better than painting, and that film captures reality better than photography (film with sound more so). In fact the "reality" we're trying to capture is a subjective experience, and not until we can record and induce those experiences directly will we be able to capture "reality". In the meantime, anything goes. Any sense pairings and content pairings. I'm not saying that any of this would be pleasant, just that's it's all equally "real" — which is to say, it's not "real" at all.

The other thing the Palatine gallery reminded me was how little I know about any city I've gone to, and how little I know about art especially. I think it's best for me to play critic and philosopher rather than historian.

From the museum I went back to the train station, where I picked up my backpack and got on the train to Rome. There was some sort of movie being filmed on the platform so I had to walk around the crew. No actors I knew, just an Asian girl that was strolling in and out of the shot, waiting for "action".

From the first moment off the train I could tell things moved quickly in Rome. At the end of the platform I met the endlessly kind Giovanni Giametta, a friend of my uncle's. We walked to his car and raced off to the hotel he'd booked for me through an old friend from Boy scouts. The hotel was once a cathedral and monastery that had only recently been renovated.

In Florence I had first hand experience of the fabled Italian driving, and was cautious when Giovanni first launched out of the parking lot, but once we got to the traffic everything instantly made sense. There is a "flow" to Italian driving that's hard to see from the sidewalk. There is a reason there aren't many lines painted on the Italian streets: the lanes are created and destroyed on the fly, everyone adapting to the situation at hand. It's like they've transcended the need for certain road regulations by acknowledging that any rule has limited use, and the road is far too complex to impose a single standard on (or maybe they're all just equally crazy). They tend to stay on the right and stop at major lights, but besides that most everything is fair game. Giovanni added, as I mentioned these things to him, that it would be nice if they had something like in America at four way stops for determining the order.

From the hotel we went to Giovanni's house (really a multi-building mini-villa near the main park in North Rome) to visit his wife and some family. On the road I was thinking about how fast Rome seemed, faster even than New York City. But sitting down for a few minutes outdoors at his place — this is when I realized Rome is slower as well. Or at least it can be.

Giovanni took me out to a very nice restaurant called "Scala", his "kitchen away from home". Everyone knows him there, and they managed to find us a table even though they were "full". This kind of social engineering always amazes me. We had some great appetizers, then an octopus pasta I really liked (but Giovanni thought was "eh"). I'm also not the best judge of food on as an empty-stomached traveller. We finished with a pasta Giovanni recommended, which was tasty as well but seemed very simple. Then again, the best always seems effortless (whether it's an Olympic athlete pulling off some maneuver or a chef preparing a dish).

We discussed a variety of topics over dinner, from the Italian character to the graffiti problem in Rome to a little stand on the corner of the street that's become famous for a single drink. After dinner he took me to the stand, where they serve "Lemon Coco". It's basically just southern Italian lemons squeezed and mixed with sugar water and coconut juice. Possibly one of the most refreshing drinks ever.

We went back to his house and I tried speaking half Spanish and half English with his wife while he sorted out something else. When he was done he took me on a whirlwind evening tour of Rome — the Colosseum, Roman Forum, the view from the Spanish embassy, the Vatican, etc. Around ten the traffic got worse and my full stomach was getting the best of me, so we called it an evening. I gladly crashed on the huge hotel bed, a very welcome alternative to the hostels I'd been staying at up to this point.

Adaptive Pubs and Markets

In Brussels I saw a market where every price was displayed on a small lcd beneath the product, which also calculated the price per liter or kilogram. I imagine these were manually updated whenever the products were switched. Imagine if, instead, they were continuously updated as people bought or didn't buy the product. If fewer people were buying them, it'd be cheaper to encourage a purchase. The same idea, inverted, could be applied to pubs: instead of happy hour the prices would just go down as more people bought drinks.

The standard scheme (more demand yields higher prices) would encourage people to buy things they normally wouldn't, and browse for things that others might not have noticed. The inverted scheme (in the pub) would encourage people to bring friends and congregate at specific times.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Information via Arbitrary Objects

Anything that conducts electricity can be used to send information. Different objects have their own resistance, frequency response and noise sources. When I was experimenting with sending nonsynched video (where it is sent without a synch, and then "tuned" upon reception) through spring reverb, I also sent the video through a cup of water. This should work from one side of a pool to another, so long as you account for the water's resistance. What would be more interesting is to transmit between two separate faucets in the same house (ultimately connected at some point), or through a tree trunk.

Video as a Panorama Source

There have been some exciting developments in deriving three dimensional geometry of a space from collections of photos (popularized recently by Microsoft researchers), and tools for stitching photos into panoramas are old news. But I'd like to see a tool that stiches video into a panorama in real time (but also producing a final still image). It should account for any panning, rotation or zooming of the camera.

One approach would be to continuously deform the image in various ways: shifting the x/y position, changing the size, perspective and skew deform on both axes, and rotation. Once the deformations are known, it becomes a search problem for the minimum difference between the deformed image and where it overlaps with the previous image. Alternatively, x/y/z position (z being zoom) and all three degrees of tilt could be used — which only takes 6 dimensions instead of 8.

Update (10/22/07): This was first done in 1993 by Steve Mann.

Symbolically Guided Science

Einstein's famous equivalence e=mc2 is a fairly simple symbol sequence. Given basic constraints such as unit agreement it could be discovered quickly using random search. The hard part is interpreting — the semantics. Assuming that some grand unified theory exists, one that's elegant, perhaps we can develop an automated search for it constrained by simple requiremenrs like unit agreement and some formal semantics describing observed behavior? The few theories that match observations but make unexpected predictions could be presented for further consideration by humans.

Audio Respatialization

With a few video cameras you can capture a full spherical panorama of a space. This gives you enough information to recreate any view from that position (i.e., any orientation from a fixed position). We can do similarly with four microphones for audio.

This only allows reorientation though, repositioning is harder. Techniques for determining the geometry of a space from a limited number of viewpoints using computer vision are still in the experimental stages. As far as I know, we don't have any analogous computer hearing algorithms for determining the structure of the "sound scape". (Anyone who's practiced Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening will understand experientially our ability to derive sonic structure).

I imagine we could triangulate the position of every sound given the right number of microphones. It takes four microphones to make one spherical module. Each module will give us an angle for every sound (or rather, the sound at every angle, up to some resolution). With two modules we can then reconstruct the distance of any sound based on the two angles. That is, we would have a complete recording of a space from which we can derive the sound received by a virtual directional microphone at any location and any orientation.

The problems will be similar to those encountered by the visual correlate: boundaries, shadows (back faces) and reflections (crucial for enclosed spaces) will be poorly represented.

By pairing two spherical camera modules with the audio modules we could record, for example, a parade — which we could later walk through, seeing everything in 3d and hearing an accurate binaural representation from our current position and orientation.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Bern to Florence

This morning I woke up to the sound of Thisan having a loud conversation with Marvin. I had earplugs in, so I'm pretty sure everyone woke up to the same sound.

The whole day went by quickly, but the morning especially. I had breakfast, said goodbye to Toni and Becky, and went to the train station. It was an hour until the police office opened, so I reserved tickets for the train and sat in a tucked away corner for the remaining half hour. The police were really efficient and concerned but stoic, it was great. We finished in just enough time for me to run to the train.

The train first ran from Bern to Brig where I made a transfer. In my opinion, the scenery goes downhill once you get out of Switzerland (no pun intended). Brig to Milan was the next leg. Milan didn't make good impression on me from the train station. Milan to Florence was the last step. Upon arrival I rushed from the train station across the Arno river to a hostel I'd read about. Unfortunately, the hostel was full — this is the first time that's happened to me. But I'd rather have that happen every so often than keep track of where I'm going to be in two days, booking in advance.

It's worth mentioned how sketchy the entrance to the hostel was that I ended up staying at. At first, you just walk past it, not realizing there is a door or a number. Then, once you see it, you're certain it couldn't possibly be a hostel. In fact, the door only takes you to a narrow courtyard, offering a few more doors and hallways as possibilities. If you guess right, you have to ascend fifty long anonymous stairs up two flights before arriving in a large space with deteriorating frescoed walls.

The girl helping me with a bed said it's a church that's been renovated for use as a homeless shelter in Winter and hostel in Summer, which is perfect. So long as the homeless can find it. They didn't build anything permanent it seems, but everything is clean and well kept, and everyone who works there is friendly.

The only dorm mate I met was from Colorado. He had been biking and was traveling with a very small backpack. Later he explained this was because all his clothes had been stolen. Twice. There was someone else staying in the room but I never met them; they returned after I fell asleep and left before I awoke.

What was left of the night I just spent sitting on the bank of the river eating a sandwich and fruit I made from some supermarket supplies. It was a slightly cool evening — in retrospect, a non-representative beginning to my stay in Italy.

Friday, August 03, 2007


The internet access I bought the day before wasn't working anymore this morning. Which was disappointing — it was supposed to work for three days. The front desk called the company managing the wifi and we found out the credit card didn't go through. I think I may have mistyped some info, so note to self: if you're desperately in need of internet and have no money, as a last resort you can mistype your credit card "confirmation number" on the back of the card.

After I told Becky and Toni about Paul Klee, they decided they were interested in the seeing museum — so we planned to meet there at 1:00. In the meantime, I did my laundry and they visited the Einsteinhaus. I met two more Aussies in the laundry room. They're everywhere, and seem to travel in pairs.

The museum was pricey (I think 16 or 18 CHF) but worth it. We looked at everything in the permanent collection and temporary exhibition. I think Toni's favorites were the puppets. I love how Klee paired titles and images, and explored so many possibilities without worrying too much about the outcome. At least that's how his work feels to me. When we were done we got some food from the restaurant there and went to a stage where there was a puppeteer improvising with replicas of Klee's puppets. It was incredibly entertaining — kids and adults alike laughed at each "skit" featuring a different puppet or pair of puppets. A lot of it you didn't need to know German to understand, testifying both to the skill of the puppeteer and the composition of the audience.

Rain clouds were gathering outside, but they didn't look gloomy yet. We took the bus back to Central Bern and checked if the museum of theater was still open (Becky and Toni study theater). It wasn't — though there was a guy who told us "it's not open tomorrow either, but if you come at 9:00 am someone might be here to let you in anyway." In most big cities in America that would sound sketchy, but here it is a reasonable business practice for a museum that doesn't get much traffic.

As we walked back to the hostel the rain picked up. We were basically drenched by the time we got back. Or at least I was, Becky and Toni had rain jackets. It was warm, so I didn't mind.

We walked into the room somewhere around 6:00 pm. My laptop was no longer sitting where I left it charging. I looked around the room a bit, went upstairs to the internet area to see if someone borrowed it, and finally just sat down to fold my laundry from earlier. I was in disbelief, so I hadn't said anything yet. When I finished my laundry I went to the reception desk. No help, really. I knew I couldn't do anything but try and narrow the time down by asking people when they where around and last saw it. The worst part is that when you've been robbed, everyone looks like a thief. Even after playing cards the day before.

Becky, Toni and I went out for dinner, settling on a Chinese place. I had a Thai dish, which was strangely authentic for a Chinese place in Switzerland. I asked Becky and Toni more about their school and the people they study with. This lead to a conversation involving me contributing some thoughts from Sartre, and them giving examples of how people act in groups, and why leaders are necessary. It was a good existential yet practical conversation.

Back at the hostel we talked a bit more, some other people came and went, but it wasn't long before we crashed. Which is good, considering my attention was pretty well diverted.