Monthly Archives: August 2015

Walking Tour of Rome

In an effort to engage the kids in a bit of history, Shari managed to find a walking tour, for kids, around Rome. It was pretty good.

 I was amazed to find out that most of the ruins were buried as little as 100 years ago. So most of them have been excavated since. 

The guide had some good pictures of the original buildings, whose ruins we were looking at. I must grab such a book once we get back home. Most of my knowledge of Rome comes from Asterix and Obelix comics (which are awesome). 

  
    
 

After checking out all these ruins, I’ve been pondering what the common characteristics of these ruins is that makes them tourist magnets today. If you think about it, they are all extravagant architectural masterpieces commissioned at enormous expense in an attempt to immortalise the various emperors of Rome, who were not nice guys on the whole. The colosseum itself is, by today’s standards, a horrific place; the real world inspiration for stories such as The Hunger Games. 

So perhaps if we want to building something today that people will want to see the ruins of in 2000 years, then it should:

  • Be big. 
  • Be seemingly impossible to build with the technology of the day. 
  • Celebrate some kind of egomaniac who runs the place
  • Represent a society that is very different to the viewers. 

I can’t think of any modern artefacts that fit the bill, off the top of my head.

Rome’s Zoo isn’t Nice

We visited Rome’s Zoo, Bioparco. It sounded like a good idea at the time, especially as the kids are not particularly interested in old buildings. 

It was hot. And humid. Not a good recipe for happy kids, or happy animals. 

Watching the animals made us think that it was more like a prison yard than a nice environment for the animals. We saw some miserable baboons fighting, and some brown bears fighting. We also saw the saddest and loneliest elephant ever. 

Makes us appreciate zoos like Taronga Zoo and Australia Zoo more. 

  

The Pantheon is a bit Worn

 This is the Pantheon in Rome. It’s old. I thought I’d look for the signs of age. 

  

The first sign of age is that there are a bunch of holes above the pillars at the entrance. These used to hold on an ornate eagle or something. Probably stolen some time over the last 2000 years. 

Even massive granite pillars get cracked and repaired after a while. 

    

Graffiti done by some pesky humans. 
  

It’s pretty well maintained inside, where it is still used regularly. 

 

I like that the ancient Romans designed the aliens from Space Invaders a couple of Millenia ahead of their time.

   
The walls outside haven’t been included in the restoration efforts over the years. But it does show that the nice neat straight edge Of the wall is just the facade. The inner part of the wall is a mess of irregularly shaped rocks. 
 

It’s the back of the Pantheon and half a giant pillar has gone missing, every statue in the wall is gone, and most of the fancy carved stuff has also fallen off. 

Pretty impressive construction effort really. 

All Roads lead to Software

Rome is old. Most buildings look like they are about to fall down, yet they don’t. Every structure has been repaired a million times. Often a single building is mix of old and new; as the owners have extended them piecemeal over a long period of time as needed. It seems like chaos when you first see it. But it shows a very pragmatic approach to building and maintenance. If a building needs extending, it is extended only when needed. If something needs repairing, it gets repaired so that it is good enough – just. 

One of the effects of this “as needed” maintenance approach is that if it isn’t needed or used, then it’s not fixed and eventually goes away. This implies that everything that remains working, is used and needed. There are many things that seem to be designed specifically for ease of maintenance too. 

The roads are a good example. The narrow alleys and roads of Rome are cobbled stone. In many places they are not even concreted together. At first I dismissed it as a quaint hangover from centuries past. Then I saw some workmen doing some roadwork, fixing some pipes or something. They simply removed the stones, did the work, and replace the stones like lego bricks. This left the road looking like new. In Australia, our “modern” roads are very nice and smooth when they are new, but after a few years, the inevitable road work leaves them with large chunks cut out of them and poorly matching bitumen repairs.

 The lack of concrete between the cobbles provides somewhere for the water to go. There are no gutters on these old roads, so the road is the drain too. 

The cobbled roads look primitive, but have some sophistication about them. They are still around because they work as roads, and are easy to repair.

If software was a road, then many systems are like the modern roads we have in Australia. They are very pretty when they are first made, but as soon as any work needs to be done on them they become an ugly mess that doesn’t work too well. 

I think a Roman road is the model we should aspire to. It is built for change. It isn’t always obvious how to make software so that it can be changed later. Usually, it comes with experience. Often it is quicker to make software that doesn’t handle change as well. But with experience comes the necessary cynicism and the knowledge deep in the pit of your stomach that the requirements will change. They change because we don’t know enough about them when we start. Usually we have to guess the areas where change is likely. 

If we did know everything about it, then the program probably wouldn’t be worth writing anyway. You only need to write software if it doesn’t already exist to do the job you want. So by definition, engineers should always be doing stuff they have never done before. So we should plan for the unexpected. 

Minor Adventure in LA

I don’t know much about LA. I’ve been at a conference while Shari and the kids explored LA.

I was quizzing an Uber driver about LA and he was telling me about the University of South California (USC), which is a fancy private university where you need bucket-loads of cash to get in. The campus of USC is apparently in a really dodgy area with high crime. Then I was told about not getting off the freeway at the wrong spot because then you enter the “bad neighbourhoods”.

Perhaps he was just trying to scare the ignorant Australian, much like we try to scare tourists about Australian animals trying to kill them all the time.

Anyway, I picked up the “mini” van at the airport and decided to use Waze (a GPS navigation app on my phone) to beat the traffic back to the apartment. Waze is great at beating the traffic, but often takes you down weird back streets to do it. So I was driving in a big city on the other side of the world, on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car, in a minivan that has its own postcode, trying to concentrate on navigation directions down the back streets of LA. I kept thinking, “are these the bad neighbourhoods?”, “is it going to be like a bad movie? Some gangsta with bad rap music is going to do bad things to me?”. Of course, the answer was no. But it did add an extra level of fun to the trip.

Later, I went to the local Target to grab some milk and a bottle of wine (yup, wine in Target). They kindly gave me a bag to carry everything home. I walked past security guys telling a homeless lady to get down off the 2m high pillar with all her belongings. About half way home, I thought “I hope this paper bag doesn’t get wet. These bottles are heavy. No to worry, these bottles won’t leak”.

Wrong.

Cold milk bottles = condensation = wet bag = bottles falling all over the ground. I made it to just before the encampment of homeless people in tents on the overpass. So I put the bottle of wine in my pocket, carried the couple of half-gallon bottles of milk and walked past the encampment like it was the most normal thing in the world to be doing.

Los Angeles – Day 1

Los Angeles In brief:

  • It’s a very, very big city.
  • It’s not pedestrian friendly
  • The 800 degrees pizza restaurant is awesome
  • The supermarkets are about what you would expect. Lots of sugar, but very similar to Coles. No vegemite, no Weet-Bix.
  • Hot, but not oppressivly. 
  • Apartment that Shari organised is pretty good, one of the best places we’ve been in yet. Kids enjoyed the pool.
  • Visited the LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). It was fun exploring with Max. The Girls enjoyed painting lots of pictures. 

   

   

Now I’m off to register for a conference! It’s the Human-Computer Interaction International 2015. I’m quite looking forward to it.