Saturday, September 18, 2010

Venice flowers and gondolas

I've been lazy, but have a bit of time on this, our last night in Florence, so will post some pictures I wanted to show you.  We've just returned from supper at Quatro 4 Leoni, our favorite restaurant.  We have bookended the trip by eating there on our first and last nights, plus my birthday and another time in the middle.  Because we don't have a phone here, we are not able to make reservations, but have been successful in getting a table by getting there early at 7 or 7:30, often inside because the outside tables are all reserved.  Tonight it was threatening rain and has been dripping off and on all day, but all the indoor tables were reserved.  They warned us that we'd have to leave if it rained; their canopy is not entirely over the outdoor area.  Anyway, we found a mostly-covered spot and had a great supper, sharing their special salad, a pasta with black truffle sauce, and a broiled swordfish fillet with spinach.  Just as John was paying the bill, the rain started, we put on our rain gear, and headed home.  The timing was perfect.

Venice seems to have many more flowers and trees and gardens than Florence.  Lots of window boxes, and walking the tiny streets, you can often peer into beautiful courtyards and gardens.  Our hotel room looked out over such a courtyard, and I enjoyed watching the older gentleman from the across the way walking his beautiful garden paths early in the morning, pulling a few weeds, and making sure everything was perfect.  His wife hung up some laundry, and meanwhile, another woman on the third floor began to clean her windowsills and polish her huge windows.  We don't have a picture of that courtyard, but these are from our walk later that day.

The other scene that was fascinating to watch was the gondola repair yard.  It's one of only three left that builds and repairs gondolas in the old fashioned way.  At the time we arrived, a couple of gondolas needing repair "pulled up", and watching the interactions between the workers, gondoliers, and bosses at the boat yard was quite absorbing.  A virtual soap opera, particularly if you let your imagination run wild.  One of the customers was a stereotypical big-mouth grouch who alienated the first workers he encountered and then had to wait his turn while they pulled another boat out of the water ahead of his.  By the end of our time there, however, they all seemed to be working together, the boss had given estimates on both boat repairs, and the grouch was even smiling once in awhile as he chatted with the workmen. 

Chaio and arrivederci from Italia ! 

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Yesterday we rented a car to see some countryside, specifically the Casentino Valley, which is reputed to be one of the most beautiful places around, home place of Michelangelo and Dante.  We went to the monastery at La Verna, the place founded by St. Francis, where he received the stigmata.

We rented from Europcar, a big chain, that had the most convenient location, and deliberately did not shop around for rates.  This is vacation.  We got  a Fiat Panda.  After reserving it, I realized I had forgotten to ask for a manual transmission, which is often hard to get in US rentals, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a five speed manual.  It was a real pleasure to drive, very responsive to controls and very solid feeling.

(This picture was not taken in Florence!  It is at La Verna.)

Traffic in Florence is different from other places I have driven, more like Boston than Lynchburg, but quite nice.  Everything flows smoothly, no sudden jerks or surprises, but you just have to move with the flow.  I was reminded of bubbles floating down a stream, drifting in little swirls and eddys sometimes, chaotic and random on large scales but always smooth and predictable over short times and distances.  The motorcycles make their way through, going about twice as fast as the cars, passing through narrow gaps to weave between cars, but all smooth and predictable.  Don't jump when one appears at your bumper and in an instant he is past and gone.  The lanes marked on the streets represent guidance, not fixed requirements.  One area reminded me of a square in Sommerville, Mass., where before the traffic engineers went crazy with dividers and such there was just a big area of two or three acres, all paved, with seven streets coming in at odd angles and directions, and no painting on the road to confuse people.

When we got out of town, the traffic was fairly light.  The roads we went on had speed limits of 70 (kph, =50 mph) but I mostly went 30 to 50.  The corners are (mostly) not marked with maximum safe speed, and I enjoy the cornering on winding roads, but there were sections where I didn't get up to the posted limit for a long time.  Much of it was reminiscent of highway 501 over to Buena Vista, and then suddenly it was like Montana or someplace in the Rockies.  And one especially nice stretch was like the road to Hana, in Maui.  This is the general view of the valley

The monastery at La Verna was very nice.  I don't really know what term to use.  Civilized.  Calm.  Peaceful.  Encouraging of contemplation  They have had a lot of visitors over the last few hundred years, but it isn't a tourist trap.  They are serious about their religion.  You can just wander around as you like, no guides, no admission charges, maps on some walls and explanatory plaques.  Here is the monastery from part way down the mountain

And here is a section of the cliff face where St. Francis liked to meditate.

The cliff face, and some other small chapels and chambers, are all a ways from the main monastery, and are reached through a corridor that has windows overlooking the valley on one side and frescoes of the life of St. Francis on the other.  The frescoes have all been redone this century, but I especially thought this one captures the spirit of the whole complex.

Some of the new frescoes already have graffiti scratched into them.  I think the graffiti in this one actually add to the general forlornness of the image.

Back at the main monastery there is a basilica, which looks like many churches in Italy except that it is largely dedicated to San Francesco and has a lot of large della Robbia glazed terracottas.  Among them, of course, is an Annunciation, a very nice one.

So it was a good day, and we returned to Florence without incident.  We had a map of how to get back to the rental agency.  You need to take the right roads to get there, because it is in the restricted traffic zone, and all license plates are photographed as you enter, and the agency needs to be able to explain to the police why it was OK for you to be where you were when you were.

We were sailing along fine in a broad boulevard that loops around the center of town, recognizing landmarks as we went, no problems until it turned out that we had to go around three sides of a square, which functioned as a kind of giant traffic circle, and I lost count.  We were in 4 or 5 lanes of traffic all going the same way, and I was in the left, ready to make the left into the center of town.  I thought I saw our road go off to the right, and I had to get right to get out of the traffic square, so I got out and thought I was headed back where we came from.  But then I saw an old fort go by on the left, and knew we were on the right side of town but too far out.  Then we passed the train tracks, and I took the first right.  But that street had no left turns, because of the traffic, and no rights because of the tracks.  All the street signs are for pedestrians, too small to read from a car, and we were going too fast anyway, being rush hour.  I finally made a U-turn when there was a gap in oncoming traffic, and Pat spotted a street sign she could read and find on the map.  We were just about where I thought,  so we worked our way through some of these triangular and otherwise "squares", taking roads in generally the right direction and studying the map and catching signs as we could, until we got to the side of the train station.  One block over to the right was the street we were to take into town (Via della Scalla), so I took a right and got to Via della Scalla only to find out that here it was one way the wrong way.  So we went back out, using stop lights to consult the map and finding two ways back over to the station.  It's a good thing there were two ways, because the first was blocked off from traffic and only used by trolleys.  But we made the second and went back down by the station.  I was trying to read and remember street signs, and started to make the same wrong turn again, but Pat stopped me so I just kind of looped into the wrong street and back out, and popped into a gap in the traffic.  When we got to the street we needed, I waited for pedestrians as people always do here, but they looked puzzled and the bus behind me blew his horn (very unusual).  Oh, a traffic light.  Go.  So we got back to la Scalla and here it went both ways, so we turned into the center of town.  There we counted streets and saw the bridge and were doing fine, but in this part of town there are very few cars and the tourists don't watch for them, so it was a little slow.  But we got back to the car rental 15 minutes before it closed.  Good thing I allowed over an hour in case something happened on the way back.

I told the rental agent it was an exciting town to drive in, and she just smiled.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Day in Florence

This morning we planned to go see the Badia, a church that started off as the oldest convent in Florence, founded in 978.  We have had a hard time finding out when it is open, because it is under reconstruction and the new temporary entrance, through a monastery, doesn't have any time posted.  We had seen it open for services, no tourists allowed, but there was a sign inside about when tourists were allowed, a few hours Monday afternoon.  The slight problem was that we didn't remember what it said.  We had one time written down, but was it from that sign or one of several contradictory books?  We couldn't quite remember whether it is open from 15 to 18, or from 13 to 17.  So we got there about 13,30 (European for 1:30 pm) and found the door open but somebody standing there saying it was "Chuiso", which we have learned means closed.  His English was limited to "I don't speak English", so I replied that my Italian is limited to "Io non parle Italiano".  But we finally figured out that it is open tomorrow 8 to 12.

Oh well, check out some other places.  State museums are closed Monday, but churches are mostly open.  So we went by the Accademia (closed) on the way to see if San Marco was open (it wasn't).  The Archaeology museum is down a couple of blocks (also closed) next to San Annunziata (open 8 to 12 and 1430 to 17) and it was now 13.  But across the square was an open door so we went to Ospedale degli Innocenti.

Ospedale degli Innocenti was an orphanage, and it has a very nice museum that isn't mentioned in our guidebooks.  It wasn't crowded (only 2 or 3 other people there at any time), the pictures are not under glass, and they don't yell at you for taking photos.  There are lots of Madonnas and children, of course, and they are still in business with child care classes etc.

They have this Botticelli that looks just about like a Filippo Lippi in the Uffizi.  It turns out it was about the first thing Botticelli did when he was an apprentice to Lippi.

There is also a large Adoration of the Magi by Ghirlandaio, said to be one of the masterpieces of that quarter century, showing Flemish influences.  What I noticed is that the style is a lot like his frescoes, but because he had so much more time than for tempera than anyone can take painting on fresh plaster, he filled in all kinds of tiny detail like the northern European paintings.

Notice the gold embroidery on the edge of the red cloth.  Most of the really old paintings have this, and it always looks like some kind of script, rather than just decoration.

Then, when we left, San Annunziata was open, but they had a mass going on.  The schedule lists eight masses a day, but this time wasn't one of them.  The church is named for an Annunciation that was painted there, so I just had to go in and look.  The painting was at the back, a good 100 feet behind the congregation, so I took a couple of pictures.  The story is, the painter couldn't get the face of Mary, but when he went to sleep, an angel came and did it for him.  People were so impressed by this that the city wall was moved to include the church.

The picture is covered with glass that hasn't been cleaned in awhile, which suppresses the colors.  The figure of Mary has a crown and a jeweled vest which are solid, three dimensional, apparently added to the painting in a display of piety.

Then, since it was now 1530, we decided to stop by the Badia on the way home, just to check.  It was open!  The thing that hits you when you enter is this crucifix by Giotto, hanging in mid air against a dark background.  Amazing.  The more I see of 16th and 17th century art, the more I like the 13th and 14th.

Well, I'm not sure it is Giotto, because if it were, something here or in a guide book would almost certainly say so.  It has Jesus with his eyes open and both feet nailed separately, something that was changed after St. Francis had his vision of the eyes closed and both feet on one nail, at the time he received the stigmata, about 1224 I think.  So this may be older than Giotto.  But it has most certainly been very carefully restored.  Maybe I can learn more about these the next time I hit the upstairs gallery of the Accademia.
There was also this Madonna and Child on the wall.  Taking a picture to get some of the sharpness (not all, by any means) requires a solid support, avoiding too much glare requires the right angle, and getting both requires getting so far away that telephoto is needed and even more solid support.  So I spent some time on taking this, and have straightened out the perspective angle using Gimp.  I say all that because, somehow, working at getting a picture helps me remember it much better.

They also have some frescoes in a back orange garden that they are quite proud of and someone told us they are the only things here worth seeing.  But I just can't care that much about flaky old pictures of the life of St. Benedict.  To each his own.

When we left, it was raining, so we stopped at a grocery store on the way home to get pasta and sauce and cheese and rucola and chicken for supper.  Which turned out great.  It is still raining, Pat has done the dishes while I typed this, and we are about to play Scrabble.

Life is good.

Monday, September 13, 2010

More Venice

After deciding to skip San Marco, we just went wandering.  One of the suggested things to do in Venice is just get lost, which is easy to do.  I don't like to get lost, and we had two good maps, so we didn't get lost much.  The maps didn't quite agree on a lot of streets, and I came to the conclusion that they left out streets under six feet wide unless they were a major connection between features on the maps, and we went down streets where approaching people had to turn sideways to pass.

When we got to Florence we though the streets were short and narrow and confusing.  After Venice, Florentine streets seem wide and straight and well laid out.  Here, Pat is sitting on the top step of a bridge that goes to a music hall, apparently.  From the same spot, turning left, I get the next picture.

The theater and the side of the bridge are to the right.  The canal splits and part goes goes right, beside the theater.  Behind us, the canal and the path I'm on turn again.  Ahead, on the left, you can see the path and another bridge.  See the next picture for an enlargement.

You see there is an intersection (left branch not shown), a jog to the right, and then a bridge at another angle.  Follow to the top of the bridge, and

from the top of the bridge you look down into an old square.  Many or most old squares have a disused well in the center.  The wider square in the far wall is one of the streets out of the square, but we took the one to the right,

which leads on to more bridges, streets, and canals.  Some of the streets just dead-end at canals.

That man is rowing a gondola.  I took several pictures of the oar-post or whatever you call it.  It has an intricate shape, with each part for some particular use.

A few observations about environmental matters

From the first day of our visit, we were aware that things are different here.  Lorenzo, our apartment manager, mentioned that we would want to turn off the air conditioner when we were away, saying that "it's not like the U.S.- electricity costs three times as much".  As an economics major, I still believe in the power of price to regulate human behavior.  I've just now looked up per capita consumption of electricity, and Americans use 2.4 times as much electricity as Italians.  Our washing machine here is a little front-loader that seems very efficient, as it cycles on and off repeatedly and takes about 2 hours to complete its cycle.  Lorenzo then mentioned that of the 140 apartments he manages, only 2 have clothes dryers.  Hanging up clothes with clothespins brought back childhood memories for both of us, and we realized that it was something our girls never learned. 

We have inadvertently saved natural gas also by having a semi-functional hot water heater!  The setting for being "always on" does not work, so we just use the booster setting meant for the heating system when we are ready to take a shower.  And you really can wash dishes with just detergent and lukewarm water.  No big deal.

As for waste generation and recycling, there are pluses and minuses.  We love to shop for groceries wherever we travel.  And there seems to be just as much excess plastic in packaging here.  But the grocery store charges 3 cents for each plastic shopping bag.  And those bags are the size that fits into the tiny wastebaskets in the apartment.  Small waste containers do encourage compaction of waste.  And at least here in the inner city, we can take our little bag of garbage down to the alley any night after 8 and it has disappeared by the next day.  I was tickled by the street in Venice where everyone put garbage outside their door in Gucci or Armani gift bags.  There are also large blue dumpsters of course in some alleys for the restaurants and regular residents.  But I have seen only a few plastic-only or glass-only recycling bins.  I did see those containers in the railway stations.

And speaking of the trains: our tickets on the high-speed (125 mph) to Venice stated that "this trip saved about 26 kg of CO2".  Isn't Google Translate wonderful?  It doesn't say compared to what....

Italy consumes half  as much oil as the U.S. does per capita.  Taxis, electric mini-buses, police and service vehicles are the only ones allowed in our (tourist-oriented, within the 1175 A.D. city walls, or most of the 1268 walls) section of Florence.  But there are lots of bicycles and motorcycles and a bus system that is heavily used.  Commuters of all types, including ladies in sophisticated office dress, use bicycles and motorcycles.  There are a couple of electric vehicle recharging stations, including one just off the piazza outside the Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi.  The street sweeper vehicles and many of the garbage trucks that ply the inner city are electric powered and no bigger than a minivan.

And one final observation.  Italy built quality structures starting hundreds of years ago, and they are still here!  It is interesting that some of the fanciest hotels are in the stone towers built by families in the 12th and 13th centuries.  Our little rooftop loft and terrace has a 360 degree view that includes the Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi Gallery, Orsanmichele Church, and Duomo.  This building was rebuilt after the World War II bombings;  when the Germans pulled out they tried to wipe out all of the bridges across the Arno except the famous Ponte Vecchio, one block from our building.  They knocked down buildings to block access to the bridge, but most of the towers were too strong and survived.  There are lots of antennas and satellite dishes and a cell phone array near us, but all of the construction cranes are on old buildings, and they're not building junky new stuff. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

More Thinking about Thinking

WARNING:  There is almost nothing in this post about Italy, and no pictures.  It's just stuff I have been thinking about for the last few decades.

I take it for granted that the brain has evolved to help us make sense of the world, involving some trade-off between the two goals of maximum accuracy and minimum uncertainty.  Maximum accuracy leads to rapid automatic assessment of sensory information and its similarities to past experience, and the possibility of more leisurely analysis of the less-obvious.  Minimum uncertainty means the willingness to make snap decisions and act on them, rather than worrying about the subtleties of the situation.

Based on my experience with control systems, I believe the first problem the brain faces in interacting with the world is to detect the presence or absence of something.  Once you can do that, you can develop a processor or analyzer to determine the magnitude of what has been detected, and what else it is related to.  So the yes-no, true-false system is basic, and that has developed into our capacity with logic.   The analysis of how-much leads to mathematics on one hand,  and to analysis of the relationship to other things on the other hand.  Relationships between things tend to be similar to other relationships between other things, so metaphor and analogy are the basis of much thinking, and the same neural processes can be reused in many ways.

All this is was evolved and culturally developed in dealing with, first, the external world of things, and second, the relationship to other people.

Starting with the world of things, it is interesting to see what happens when we run into things that never happened to our evolutionary ancestors, that do not follow the same rules.  I am thinking here of quantum mechanics.  The world of the very small (electrons and photons and such) is well understood in the sense that we have mathematical theories that predict exactly what will happen in a given experimental setup.  It is poorly understood in the sense that the rules just seem flatly impossible to our instinctive ways of thinking.

The basic puzzle of quantum mechanics is the wave-particle duality.  Classically, every object is a particle or collection of particles.  If you know where it is now and how it interacts, you can calculate where it will be in the future and where it was in the past.  There are, of course, experimental limits to just how accurately you can do that.

In quantum mechanics, it turns out that the mathematics of the classical model does not work to make predictions from the present to other times.  The mathematics that has been found to give accurate predictions of quantum systems effectively assumes that the particle is some kind of (manifestation of some kind of) wave that travels in time, with all the interference patterns and lack of specific location a wave has, which can give only statistical probabilities about where it will be in the future.  Then, of course, when you detect the particle again, measure its position, it is a particle that is at some one point in that probability distribution and not at any other.  All that is required to derive this is the recognition that the limit on accuracy is not just an experimental limit, it is a fundamental feature of nature;  theories assuming that every thing can (in principle) be specified to arbitrary accuracy are incorrect.  These quantum theories lead to funny ideas when people try to make sense of them, and I believe that is because our brains aren't built for it.

There is a popular model, or interpretation, which most science writers seem to believe, which says that the probabilistic wave is all there is until someone looks at it, leading to speculations about the fundamental role of consciousness in creating reality.  To counteract that interpretation, there is the famous Schroedinger's cat.  A cat is put in a box with a radioactive source, a detector, and some poison.  When the detector catches a decay particle, the poison is released and the cat is dead.  If you wait a suitable time, there is a 50% chance the cat is dead, but you don't know until you open the box and look.  But if you really believe the model that says the system isn't defined until you look, then before you look the cat is in a kind of "superposition of states" and isn't either really dead or alive until you look, because the detection of the decay particle is only probabilistic until observed..  This was intended to illustrate the fallacy of that interpretation, but is now seriously represented as something that would actually happen.  Einstein is supposed to have asked someone "Do you seriously believe that the moon is not there if no one is looking at it?"

The reason this model is taken seriously is because any theory that says things really are deterministic, not just probabilistic, has to be able to match the experimental results.  The probabilistic models match experiment, and anything else would have to be more complicated without changing experimental predictions.  One of the books I have brought on this trip, which I am slowly working on, is a book about "hidden variable" theories.  They are called hidden variables because the variables which specify exactly what will happen must be hidden from view, unable to be specified and measured.  If the "hidden variables" weren't hidden from view they could be specified and measured, and then the theory wouldn't match experimental results known to date.  It was written in 1956, and I bought it 30 years ago.  One of the things it says is that future experiments might be able to distinguish these theories.  I think that might now have been done.

One of the subjects much in the scientific news lately are various experiments that show that faster-than-light-speed communication might work, because it is possible to prepare wave-particle pairs (photons) that then separate themselves, and you can do an experiment on one of the pair which amounts to forcing the wave function to collapse, giving a specific value to both the particles, and the other particle takes on its complimentary value faster than light could travel from one to the other, so the second somehow knows instantaneously what the other has done.  That is presented as really weird and exciting, but only within the wave-collapse-generates-values model.  Normally, a requirement for faster than light communication speed is taken to indicate a serious impossibility.  I think this experimental result is, rather, an experimental demonstration that a hidden variable theory is needed and the existing quantum mechanical theory is simply wrong in asserting that the unmeasured values are truly undefined until observed.

The point of all this is that modern science has demonstrated that either things are really not determined until you look, which makes looking somehow special, or that things are determined but if you know some of them the others are inherently unknowable, but it is possible to choose which is which.  We aren't built for that.  To think about things we need theories that somehow tie everything down.  We need a solid foundation to work from, and if we are given an incomplete set of information we will complete it in some way that matches some pattern that seems plausible.

This has no relevance to our trip to Italy, except as a partial answer to the question of what I am thinking about in addition to circa-Renaissance religious painting.  I am concerned about how we create mental representations, or modes of thinking about and understanding, for things that are unquestionably real (in some sense of the word reality) but outside the direct range of our senses, and therefore outside the range of our evolved mental modeling capabilities.  They are things that we can model and think about only in terms that are generally a metaphor or analogy to our real concern.  A basic problem in communicating these ideas is that the available metaphors don't really fit because they are derived for different subject matter.

One of our basic needs is to see things in true-false, yes-no pairs.  What must we do to become comfortably able to deal rationally with ambiguity?  I say rationally, because the emotional responses are all automatic and hence based on the evolved models, and the evolved models simply do not cover the range of the phenomena of interest.  With practice, quantum mechanical thinking can become normal, and the "How can it be like that?" response dies out, or at least is repressed enough to let us get on with the analysis of what is happening.  Then the intuitive recognition that something is right or wrong, based on whether or not it matches the expectation of a mental model, can work with the derived and learned model without being tied to the automatic involuntary models.

We can somehow satisfy the felt need for a firm basis for our beliefs by regretfully giving up the idea of a solid foundation of unquestionable truth, and replacing it with a global positioning system which we can use to navigate between familiar landmarks. 

The method of analysis and understanding by observing the phenomena and deducing relations without grounding them in a concrete physically intuitive model should work for other things, as well as quantum mechanics.  So that's part of how I'm looking at pictures in Italy.

A Side Trip to Venice

On Thursday Sept. 9 we set off on an overnight trip to Venice.  It is just 2 hours away on the 125 mph high speed train.  (The 175 mph trains do not operate on this run yet.  250 mph trains have been ordered for delivery maybe 2013).

I thought I might get some pictures, but for the first half hour, to Bologna, the train spends only two or three seconds at a time, several minutes apart, out in the open in the bottom of deep valleys.  All the rest is underground.

After Bologna, to Ferrara, it looks a lot like the Snake River Valley, flat irrigated farm land, with clusters of Lombardy poplars along streams (we may have actually crossed the southwest corner of Lombardy) and big wild olive trees that look just like the Russian olives in Idaho.

(The foreground gets a little blurry at 125 mph.)

The Venice train station looks like other train stations

but when you walk out the front door you are on the Grand Canal and need to catch a boat to the center of town

The Grand Canal has only three bridges, and no sidewalks.  Our ride on a genuine Gondola was just a cross-canal ferry for half a Euro each. 

This is a view of a typical church.  There are lots of them.  This one is Chiesa San Moise, the Church of St. Moses.  The Roman Catholics decided that all the old testament prophets shouldn't be in hell,  even though they weren't Christians, so when Jesus descended to hell before the Resurrection he must have rescued them, and turned them into Saints in the process.  Venice is the only place with churches devoted to old testament saints.

 Here is the altarpiece in St. Moses, a huge carving of Moses receiving the ten commandments.

A little further down the block, or several blocks, we came to the Piazza San Marco.  The entrances to the square are streets that just tunnel through the first two floors of the building that surrounds three sides of the square.

The square is full of people and pigeons, and is the largest open area in the city.

The Basilica of St. Mark (San Marco) and the attached Doge's Palace have exteriors that are hard to believe, even in Italy.

Unfortunately, so are the crowds.  We considered standing in line for an hour or so to get in, but decided against it.  Instead, we just wandered around for the rest of the day and the next day, to see what there is to see.  That is the next post.

The line for admission is in there someplace!