June 11, 2017

My "virtual and augmented reality" week: simply mind–blowing!

Seeking out new experiences - you know, they always tell you you need to "get out of your comfort zone" and "think out of the box" - last month I enrolled in a 5-day course on Augmented Reality, organised by Fastweb Digital Academy and taught by two young guys, Luca Raho and Alessio Marzoli, of Forge Reply, a company, within the Reply Group, specialised in videogame development and virtual reality projects.


I'm not a developer nor I work for a tech company. So you might wonder how I came about taking such a course. Let's start with what we all already know: digital tools and technologies are having a profound impact on the global economy. To make the most of these opportunities and stay ahead of competitors, companies in all industries need to recruit digitally engaged professionals.

Despite this urgent demand, levels of digital skills worldwide are staggeringly low. To tackle this issue, many initiatives have been launched and the Fastweb Digital Academy is one of these, with the additional benefit that courses are free to attend thanks to the financial support of Cariplo Factory.

This was an opportunity too good to be missed: I wanted to do something very strange and unfamiliar and that's why I ended up studying Augmented Reality.

As you would expect in any good course, we started with a bit of theory to understand the difference between virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

To put it simply, VR is a digital replica of the real world and you need some kind of headset to access it (such as google cardboard, Playstation VR, Samsung Gear VR). On the other hand, AR is about adding digital content to the real world. An example of AR I'm sure you know about, is Pokemon Go where your smartphone camera shows the real world around you but with the addition of a Pokemon.

AR software

How does AR work?

The second part of the course was very practical and I was introduced to the programming language C# and the software Unity, used to create 2D and 3D games. These lessons were very technical and, honestly, the most difficult part. In fact, it takes years of study to master a programming language. Notheless, it's always useful to be exposed to something new: now I know what a game developer does and all the knowledge and skills he needs to master!

In fact, to create a believable virtual world, you need to know about physics (if your character in the game throws a ball up in the air, this ball can't travel forever up in the sky but needs to fall back to the ground at a certain point), perspective and geometry (you need to know that objects far away from the camera must appear smaller) and then it's important to add the correct light so that objects have shadows in the proper position as they have in the real world.

While discussing these issues in class and having studied humanities at college and university, I could not stop thinking about Leonardo da Vinci and his studies on geometric perspective - just think about the perfect space he painted in the Last Supper - studies on colours when he painted mountains in blue tones knowing that this is how they appear to our eyes when looking at them far in the horizon and on lights when he added shadows to his figures to convey the idea of a 3d body.

I was introduced also to polygon mesh, a collection of faces that defines the shape of a polyhedral object in 3D computer graphics and solid modelling. With his fascination for geometry, the golden ration and the human body Leonardo da Vinci would have been a superb 3D modeller. The idea that shapes from the real world can be recreated with the use of cubes can also be found in Cezanne's paintings, whose works area at the origin of Cubism.

This brief digression into the history of art can just show how the humanities and the STEM subjects are not at all two worlds apart.

Let's go back now to AR to see how the "magic" effect is created. To put it very simply the software recognises a "marker" and then shows you the additional digital content. A marker can be anything: an image, audio, gps coordinates etc.

There's also a special type of markers, Vumarks (called like that because they were invented by a company called Vuforia. Vumarks are an evolution of bar codes. Vumarks allow the freedom for a customised and branded design while simultaneously encoding data and acting as an AR target.

my ar app

As there's no better way to learn than trying out things for yourself, the course tutor guided us in the creation of a simple AR application: choose an image and instruct the software to show a cube when it detects the target image in front of the camera. It sounds very easy to do but it's not, believe me!

As target image I chose the front cover of a book by Roald Dahl and instructed the software to show a blue cube when it recognised the target image in front of the camera. You can see the result in the picture to the right: it worked!

Area 360 - Applications of VR and AR

On the last day of the course we students headed to Lomazzo, near Como, to visit Area360 and experience first hand the latest headsets for virtual and augmented reality. Area360 is the Reply Center featuring laboratories dedicated to the development and testing of immersive virtual reality and augmented reality solutions. We definitely had fun!

In the photo collage below you can see me in a cave, a virtual reality room: it's a three-wall setting + floor and the virtual environment is projected on these walls. You need a VR headset to see it (and those cool slippers too!). The VR glasses also have "antennas"so that the computer knows when you turn your head and it projects accordingly images on the walls.


Apart from the obvious use of these technologies in the gaming industry, virtual reality is also used for design purposes and prototyping. Let's say, you're an architect working on a new office development. Thanks to virtual reality, your client can already experience the office, virtually walk into it and give feedback on how the design could be improved.

Virtual reality supports also companies making custumized products. At Area360 we were told that one of their clients is a luxury car manufacturer which makes customized cars. The manufacturer uses VR to show the future car owner how the car will look like, inside and outside, in order to get his approval before going into production.

Another interesting use in the health sector. For example, Forge Reply built a cave for the hospital Istituto Auxologico in Milan. The cave is used for cognitive rehab therapy.

Then I tried on also Microsoft Hololens (the headset I'm wearing in the main picture opening this post).

It's a device for mixed reality. Mixed reality lets the user see the real world while adding virtual objects. These virtual objects are anchored to the real world. Let's say there's a virtual castle sitting on top of your kitchen table: in mixed reality, if you walk around, the object holds its position on the table and if you get closer, the castle appears bigger to your eyes. It's not like in AR where the virtual object sits in front of your eyes and as you move around, just the real world changes around you. The virtual object stays the same with regard to its position and its size as perceived by our eyes.

For mixed reality to work, great computational power is required. As you move around, the software needs constantly and quickly re-map the environment around you and show the virtual object accordingly. In fact, with Microsoft Hololens you're "wearing a pc" as the device runs Windows operating system.

By the way, if you wonder what I'm looking at in the picture where I'm down on my knees, wearing the Hololens, it's a 3D car, perfectly defined in all its details. I could even see inside the cabin!

accademia carrara

Thrown into this frenzy of virtual, augmented and mixed reality, now that the course is over I'm still trying any possible device I come across. While visiting the Accademia Carrara Museum in Bergamo last weekend I took the augmented reality guided tour (picture to the right). It's a set of glasses which can show additional content in front of your eyes, while still being able to see the real world around you: just imagine something to be projected on a portion of the lens, so that you can see it right in front of you.

The whole device is not so comfortable to wear, though: a piece of hardware, the size of a smartphone, hanging from your neck, the glasses and the also ear pods....Nontheless, I'm very confident as these technologies are evolving fast and constantly improving the user experience.

Stay tuned for technology of the future!

Useful links

Fastweb Digital Academy

Cariplo Factory

Forge Reply

EU initiatives to tackle digital skills shortage

Official Hololens website

August 28, 2016

A library resembling a shopping center: Birmingham Central Library

Birmingham Library 2

During my recent holiday in England (Aug 2016) I arranged also a trip to Birmingham to meet a friend and thought it was a good opportunity to visit the new library. Opened in 2013 it is described as “the largest public library in the United Kingdom, the largest public cultural space in Europe and the largest regional library in Europe”.

As I leave Moor Street train station and head towards city center I'm immediately reminded of two aspects that for me really define the character of the city: it’s a just a massive shopping center and the place where you can see the highest level of ethnic diversity by simply walking across the streets, the whole variety of human types is just there.

Birmingham Library - entrance hall

So after making my way through the crowds populating the pedestrian areas and walking past some big construction sites I'm finally in front of the library: the building is stunning! Like a stack of boxes, wrapped in a kind of glittering metal lace and with a golden elliptical shape at the very top.

After taking a couple of pictures it’s time to enter: library shop on the right, library cafe on the left and then the main hall which its open foyer and escalators at the center, leading you up into a circular balcony at the top of a vertiginous book rotunda with more weaving flights of escalators…wow!

As I walk towards the Gallery for temporary exhibitions on the third floor I could not stop thinking that the library architecture resembles a typical shopping mall. I start wondering if the library could just be another example of the commercialisation of public spaces. Cuts to public subsidies make it hard for cultural institutions to make ends meet and force them to be more entrepreneurial. In a city already dominated by huge shopping centers it probably makes sense to build a library in a such a way that it might come across as a familiar space for the general public, especially for those who might not be regular visitors to libraries and other cultural institutions.

The Gallery for temporary exhibitions

The Gallery hosts an exhibition about Shakespeare to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. As I enter a member of staff greets me and after presenting briefly the display concludes by saying “Should you have any questions, I’ll be in near proximity”. That was one of those moment when I’m really impressed with the English language: a beautifully constructed sentence, way more refined that the common “if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask me”. None the less, it is definitely not an example of plain English, easy to understand for people of any educational background.

While I'm admiring the copy of the First Folio dated 1623 and learning that the library hosts the Shakespeare Memorial Library, a unique collection of books about the playwright founded in 1864, I hear twice the following PA announcement: “We wish to inform our visitors that they can enjoy 50% off all teas and cakes in the library cafe”. Oh gosh: like being in a shopping center…

Initially it was a shock but since the library needs to remain economically viable, it probably makes sense to exploit all the selling techniques typical of the retail sector. Actually the library is also full of signs promoting its “venue hire facilities”, which is just another way to secure additional income.

The lift: burn calories not electricity

Burn calories not electricity

My following stop is the Shakespeare Memorial Room on the 9th floor. I take the lift and two things catch my attention. The sign by the lift door (picture here) is simply great! Considering the widespread problem of obesity, that’s a good idea for a public institution to encourage visitors to exercise more and be environmentally friendly by saving energy. Just a little nudge that could hopefully go a long way.

That other amazing feature the library offers me is “uplifting quotes” in the lifts! As the lift doors close quotes from famous writers and poets are played. That is a really cool idea: it’s just a pity there's no display showing in writing the quote and its author.

The Shakespeare Memorial Room and panoramic terrace

shakespeare memorial room2

So finally I'm on the 9th floor. Walking first through a panoramic terrace with a stunning view over the city and the ongoing redevelopment I can then enter the Shakespeare Memorial Room. Right now I’m exactly inside that “golden elliptical shape” I saw from outside on top of the library.

Birmingham Central Library - panoramic terrace

The Memorial Room was designed by John Henry Chamberlain in 1882 to house the Shakespeare Memorial Library in what was at the time the central library. It’s a beautiful room in Elizabethan style with carvings, marquetry and metalwork representing birds, flowers and foliage.

When the central library was demolished in 1970s, the room was however dismantled and stored at the city’s depot. It was later re-built as part of the School of Music complex in 1986 and finally placed in this new library whose design was conceived knowing that a special “place of honour” was needed for the Shakespeare library.

The Secret Garden

Birmingham Central Library - garden

The next stop on my library tour is on floor 7 where according to the signage I should find a “secret garden”. And there it’s: dense planting and benches in a garden the runs around the perimeter of the library. That’s so refreshing to be able to relax and enjoy some greenery even if you’re right in the middle of the city center.

To conclude

Absolutely thrilled with my visit I start making my way towards the exit. Before leaving I finally notice that on third floor there’s a business center where it's possible to book an appointment to get free advice to start a business or on intellectual property issues.

In the country which had Margaret Thatcher and more recently David Cameron with his vision for a "big society" it should come as no surprise that a public library offers its visitors resources to be more entrepreneurial, which in other words simply means to rely less on the State taking care of you via social welfare.

Other resources

The library website: http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/

I've also found this interesting article on the similarities between libraries and shopping center. "Stores and Libraries: both serve customers!"

View here more photos of the library I took during my visit.

August 18, 2014

Down the memory lane at CBSO: a member of staff's view of the concert experience

I casually came across a paper titled "Views of an audience: understanding the orchestral concert experience from player and listener perspectives". It presents the results of a study carried out in Autumn 2010 to explore expectations of audience members of City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and also the players' view of their audience. I had a seasonal job in the marketing office of CBSO from April to August 2010. I was a subscription officer and managed the renewal campaign for the concert season 2010/2011. Hence, I read the paper with great interest!

art and commerce

The first issue that caught my attention was the well known problem of art for art's sake versus commercial awareness and how to cross the ever widening gap between artistic choices and financial realities. Many studies on orchestra players have highlighted a certain players' frustration for the fact that in an orchestra they can't express their personal prowess, they play as part of a whole, feeling a lack of autonomy. So players would like more opportunities for "chamber music" where they can achieve individual visibility and express their unique creativity but we know that a symphony orchestra must play orchestral music. This dissatisfaction is often invisible to the audience or even misunderstood especially by members of the audience who are themselves amateur musicians and gain enjoyment from performing in a group. Amateur musicians tend to value more the satisfaction of performing rather than the actual musical achievement.

So the problem is how to balance the need to provide artistic challenge for the players and give them space for individuality with the need to build a consistent brand identity for the orchestra and promote a concert program appealing to an audience. That's an hard task for professionals in leadership roles within an orchestra management team.

Another common problem among orchestras is the fact that classical music is perceived as a form of high culture and their audience tends to come from a very specific demographic segment, including many elderly people "aging out". Here the need to engage younger audiences and people from a diverse background, offering a repertoire that might be appealing to them.

In fact, audience members do not share all the same musical knowledge: some might be attracted to well known pieces, while others might enjoy a bit of experimentation. The paper highlights the fact that CBSO had embraced this issues offering for example a "first timer's guide" and I can say that this culture of fostering diversity is reflected also in the workplace. When I was offered the job at CBSO I wasn't sure whether I should accept it or not as I had no musical knowledge what so ever. I had no idea what to say if a potential concert subscriber had asked me for advice on concert selection or to comment on the quality of a musical piece.

Symphony Hall Birmingham

Anyway I then decided to take the risk and joined the team. As I got to know my colleagues I found out that many of them had a personal engagement with music. Some were amateur players, others taught music in schools or sang in a choir. I felt a bit uncomfortable....One day this aspect came up in a conversation with my line manager at the time, Eva Wuestum, and I took the chance to express my concern. She then draw my attention to another member of staff who also had no specific music-related expertise/knowledge and said that their marketing team is "mixed" in terms of expertise and profiles exactly as their audience is. Their audience comprised for example amateur musicians, regular concert goers who had attended for years but also first time goers. Each member of staff's contribution was therefore valuable in devising a marketing and communication strategy that could appeal to a broad spectrum of public. That was a great lesson on how marketing should be conceived.

To make the most of my time at CBSO I then started to attend regularly concerts together with a friend from South Korea. The typical programme for our evening out was a pub meal with burger and chips followed by a concert at the Symphony Hall. A rather peculiar mix of low and high cultural tastes! My friend was surprised to notice such an elderly audience and told me that in South Korean classical music is very trendy among young people. It's a way to show they embrace Western culture, perceived as modern and cool, due to its novelty.

Another great thing about working at CBSO was the background music in the office. The orchestra had its rehearsals in the hall at the CBSO center. Our offices were on the third floor of the building and I could hear the music, so nice... Those months of "intense" exposure to classical music have had their effect on me. I have developed an interest for symphony music and enjoy going to concerts in Milan where I now live.

Going back to the paper that has brought back to me all these pleasant memories, the most interesting argument presented was, from my point of view, the ongoing struggle to balance the social requirements typical of a charitable and publicly funded institution with the need to be financially viable, to pursue innovation and make both the audiences and players feel fulfilled in their engagement with the orchestra.

art for art

During my academic studies I had heartily embraced the idea of art for art's sake as a "guiding principle" but as I have progressed through my career, taking up a role with more responsibility within an art organisation I have to admit that my attitude has changed. The reality of managing an art organisation has proved to be a whole different matter from philosophical ideas studied at uni.

I still believe in art for art's sake as I guess this must be a shared belief of any person who has chosen a professional career in this field. However, I am now more aware of financial constrains and believe that the pursuit of creativity and innovation can make sense only if it is accompanied by sound management, keeping an eye on the "bottom line". I don't want art organisations to make a loss, I want them to thrive!

Click here to read the full article "Views of an audience: Understanding the orchestral concert experience from player and listener perspectives" by Stephanie E. Pitts, Melissa C. Dobson, Kate Gee and Christopher P. Spencer.

July 06, 2013

Milan and the Taraxacum88 lamp: a beautiful example of math in the city

taraksakon_2.jpgThe name of this lamp derives from the taraxacum flower which assumes the shape of natural sphere when producing its fruit . The number 88 refers to the year when the lamp was designed.


This lamp shows that an icosahedron, one of Plato’s shapes, is the one closest to a perfect sphere.

The structure is, in fact, an aluminium icosahedron made of 20 identical equilateral triangles. Each triangle holds three light bulbs and the final effect is a sphere!

Where to see it

Three examples of this lamp can be seen in the foyer of Theatre Dal Verme in Milan (address: via San Giovanni sul Muro 2).

The picture below shows the theatre foyer.


The design

This lamp was designed by Achille Castiglioni, a famous Milanese designer and architect who died in 2002.

lamp sketch

To explore further the structure of this lamp it is possible to visit the office/museum of Achille Castiglioni in Milan. Here you can see some sketches and some examples of the equilateral triangles used to make the lamp.

To see a beautiful drawing of an icosahedron I suggest also to visit the Ambrosiana library in Milan. The library holds in its collection the book De Divina Proportione, written around 1497 by the mathematician Luca Pacioli. Leonardo da Vinci made all the illustrations for the book. The picture below shows the icosahedron drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. The solid is also represented in its skeletonic version and it is easy to see that it has 30 edges and 12 vertices with 5 faces meeting at each vertex.

icosaedro Leonardo

July 22, 2012

Visual analysis: "Death or Assassination of Marat by Jacques–Louis David, 1793" explained

This painting was realized by the French painter David (1748 – 1825) during the French Revolution. David could well be defined as a political artist although his views shifted considerably throughout his life. At first he embraced passionately the revolution’s ideals but later became an admirer of Napoleon and supporter of the regime. He ended his life in Brussels in a self-imposed exile when the King Louis XVIII rose to power.


Subject matter

This is an historical painting, the genre prized the most in academies, the real locus of artistic power at the time. In fact, early paintings by David show episodes from Greek and Roman history and myth. However, later on in his career David proposed his own interpretation of historical paintings choosing to paint episodes taken from his time, as it is the case with this painting.

The subject here is Jean-Paul Marat, one of David’s friends, killed in July 1793 by a member of an opposing party. Marat was a journalist and a member of the National Assembly, an administrative body during the revolution. David was an active supporter of the revolution and campaigned strongly in support of the republican ideals. Among other things he was also responsible for organising Marat’s funeral, a pompous parade throughout the city whose purpose was the public display of a martyr of the revolution. This painting was part of this political propaganda.


To understand this artwork there are essentially two aspects to consider: first the style used by David, i.e. Neo-classicism, and secondly the artist’s purpose, i.e. turning Marat into a hero of high moral virtues according to the classical tradition. Neoclassicism as the name says was essentially a rediscovery of classical art from the Greek and Roman time. This style prescribed rigorous contours, sculptured forms, and polished surfaces and was based on ideals of harmony and austerity.

The composition is in fact arranged according to the classical principle of the golden section, a combination of horizontal lines (the bathtub edges, the top of the side table and the ledge where Marta’s head is resting) and vertical lines (the side table, the folds of the white cloth and the imaginary line that passes through Marat’s nose, down his right arm continuing in the fold of the cloth just under his elbow).

The painting is almost divided into two halves: the lower one with Marat, the bathtub, the cloth, the pieces of paper, the inkwell etc. and the upper half acting as a counterbalance as it is just an neutral background.

David’s composition is also very simple in terms of details: each object painted has a specific function, nothing is there as a simple decoration or to show the artist’s ability. We know Marat was murdered because of his wound bleeding and the knife lying on the floor. Quill pen and inkwell symbolize Marat’s work as a journalist while on the paper he is holding there is the date of his death and the name of the murderer. Obviously these last two details are David’s additions to support his propaganda.


Despite being based on an actual event, David has carefully planned the scene. This painting is not concerned with realism, it is not meant to be a snapshot of how things went. We could say that David presents us with a “carefully staged death” as in theatre. The sense of space is reduced to a minimum as David is not preoccupied with the rendering of a perfect perspective of a room but he is rather interested in idealising Marat.

The artwork is quite big (162cm x 128cm) as it was intended as an official commemorative painting. We know Marat had a skin condition and the only relief he could get was to lay in a bath from where he also used to work. The scene should then be set in a Marat’s bathroom. However, the room painted by David has nothing of a real bathroom: we can see just a bathtub. We do not know what is in the rest of the room, there is no door and no window. The back wall is empty and blocks the viewer’s eyes forcing him to focus on Marat in the foreground. Linear perspective is reduced to a minimum and can be seen for example in the representation of the tub which obviously needs to have a certain depth to host Marat’s body.


Marat’s body has no sign of the skin condition affecting him as David wanted instead to idealize his subject. Marat is shown in a classical position with his right arm and head taking opposed directions. It is reminiscent of Jesus’ position in the Descent from the cross by Van der Weyden (picture below).


The subject, although realistically depicted remains lifeless in a rather supernatural and monumental composition. Even David’s signature and dedication to Marat are done as a stone engraving typical of monuments. Marat’s body is partially lit by a light coming from the left as visible by the shadows on Marat’s torso and the shadow created by the piece of paper he holds. It is not possible to tell where this light comes from: rather than natural light it represents a kind of divine light illuminating a martyr.

The body is rendered as a solid and detailed form where you can see the muscles. His right arm is also painted with a careful modulation of colour hues, possible when using oil paintings as in this case. The backward part of the right arm is shown in full light but as you move towards the right it becomes brownish as that part is not illuminated, suggesting the roundness of the form.


For Marat outline was more important than colours. The scene is in fact carefully drawn in sober tones. The more brilliant colours are the white of the cloths, the green of the bathtub top and the yellow-brown of the side table. Despite being a murder scene, there is just a tiny little splash of red to represent blood as the painting was not meant to be dramatic and gruesome. Colours are quite saturated adding a solid consistence to the surfaces. Marat’s body could in fact well be of marble, with the bathtub representing also metaphorically stone grave.

November 08, 2011

Gallerie d'Italia: a new museum in Milan

In these years of financial crisis and very limited resources with some museums shutting down, others scaling down their operations and postponing development projects, you might wonder how it is possible that a brand new museum opens in Milan. There is a very simple answer: it's private. Behind Gallerie d'Italia, this is the name of the museum (literally Galleries of Italy), there is Intesa Sanpaolo, one of the biggest Italian bank, and Fondazione Cariplo, a bank foundation funding projects in the cultural and social realms.

The artworks, around 135 works from the Fondazione Cariplo collection and other 62 belonging to the Intesa Sanpaolo corporate collection, are hosted in the somptousus rooms of Palace Anguissola Antona Traversi and Bertani. Both historic palaces, dating back to the end of 1700, are located in Piazza Scala - yes, this is where La Scala Opera House is - and belong to Intesa Sanpaolo.

The Galleries opend just a couple of days ago, on 3rd November 2011. Entry is free until Spring 2012.

I went to visit on a Saturday afternoon to view for myself this "gift" to the city of Milan. The artworks on display cover the 19th century Italian art with a focus on Lombard paintings (Lombardy is the name of the county to which Milan belongs). The visit starts with some of Canova's plaster casts. Clearly these are just preparatory studies for the final works in marble but you can still admire the absolute beauty and harmony of the compositions.


Another room is devoted entirely to Francesco Hayez, the leading artist of Romaticism in mid-19th-century Milan, renowned for his grand historical paintings, political allegories and exceptionally fine portraits. The great majority of works on display might not be by internationally renowned artists, however, what I found really fascinating is that they offer a glimpse on how the city used to be. There are fine views of the Duomo and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and a room devoted to paintings showing the Navigli, Milan's waterways. They reminded me a bit of Venice. It is a real pity these canals were covered at the beginning of the 20th cent and nowadays there are just three Navigli left.

Then there are colourful views of the Alps both in spring and covered in show and paintings showing the lakes of Lombardy.

Four paintings by Boccioni hangs in the last room, marking the end of 19th century style in paintings and opening up to Futurism, an artistic and social movement which Boccioni embraced. Futurism focused on movement, energy and technology, ideas conveyed by using a very specific style of brush strokes as you can see in the picture below.


Finally a couple of curiosities about the museum. First there was classic music in the background in all the rooms! It created a very nice atmosphere, perfect for a museum visit. Though I'm not sure if this is going to have a positive effect all the time. When I visited, the museum was very quiet with a handful of visitors around but what happens when the museum gets a bit more crowded? Imagine crowds of visitors talking and sharing their impressions with fellow visitors on top of the background music...

The other very interesting innovation was that an art expert was available in all the museum sections. It wasn't for a special tour or anything like that but just a standard service for all visitors.

Taking all into account I was very pleased with the visiting experience: well done to the museum :)

October 23, 2011

What the EU has done for me

I love EUNo day can pass without hearing yet other scary news about the EU debt crisis: will we survive these woes? Hopefully yes! I would be very disappointed if politicians in Brussels let Greece to default and pull out of the Euro. However, I also feel a bit sorry for poor Germans: they have to pay for Mediterranean (Italians included!!) peoples who have a 'creative' attitude when it comes to book-keeping.

Leaving aside economic considerations about what is better for the whole economy of EU-member states, I'm more interested in the social and cultural dimensions of this crisis. In fact, I consider myself a EU enthusiast.

At the beginning of Oct I attended a workshop on "Intercultural Cooperation and its success factors" in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. It was organised by the local European Cultural Contact Point as part of its activities within the EU Programme Culture 2007. The Programme aims to encourage cultural cooperation within Europe, bringing to the fore the common European cultural heritage and encouraging the emergence of EU citizenship.

The workshop took place at the Europos Parkas, a beautiful sculpture park located in the outskirts of Vilnius. As I was taking a walk in the park during the lunch break, a thought came to me: the EU has brought me a lot of benefits and given me huge opportunities.

First of all, in 2006 I was selected to take part in the Leonardo Programme (it funds mobility initiatives to enable people to train in another EU country) and spent 3 months working in England for a local company. That work placement resulted in a job offer. This was just the first step into a 4-year experience in England, working and studying. In this respect being a EU citizen and enjoying equal rights as British nationals has made a massive difference to me. I have friends who are not EU-citizens or do not enjoy full working rights despite being EU nationals (that's the case for Bulgarian and Romaninan migrants), hence I know how hard it is to live and work abroad for them. In my case, the EU has made things much easier. From the point of view of employers, offering me a job didn't involve any extra paperwork and this is not a minor aspect as we all know that the job market is very competitive.

When I decided to enrol for a master degree at the University of Warwick, I was required to pay the same amount of university fees as British nationals, while non EU citizens pay almost double. Thanks to the EU I was allowed to study abroad in a top-quality university at a "reasonable" price.

Finally there's the workshop in Vilnius I just mentioned earlier on. It was a great opportunity to meet people from a broad range of countries, within the EU and outside. I've always found it fascinating to engage in conversation with people from other cultures so I was really happy to take part. It was also a great opportunity for networking as all participants were from the cultural sector. Furthermore, I was also entitled to have travelling and accommodation expenses paid, yet again thanks to EU funds.

I strongly believe in the EU project and hope it will stay in place and even move further so that other people can access the same great opportunities I've had.

Dear EU, many many thanks! :)

September 28, 2011

Some more pictures…..

Follow-up to Artistic road signs in Milan from Giulia's blog

The Angel and the Devil

Isn't it lovely? a devil with horns and the angel with halo

the sign of Cupid

Are you looking for love? Please follow the arrow but beware there's a speed limit (sorry for the picture, it's a bit blurred)

August 12, 2011

Good reads on the UK riots: a personal selection of articles with comments

Extract from Matt Grist's blog entry "No excuses, some remedies"


The first [factor to consider] is that riots in the UK always happen in August. Is this the heat? It is certainly easier to be on the streets in warm weather but 21 degrees celsius with sunny periods is hardly boiling point. The major factor here is that the school holidays are already three weeks in, and some young people have now had three weeks of completely empty days. They are going off the deep-end as a result.

So one thing that could be done is to end the six-week summer break from school beloved of teachers and the middle classes. It doesn’t suit some young people, whose attainment in school falls afterwards, and for some, whose nutrition levels drop dramatically away from free school meals and breakfast clubs. Distribute the holidays more evenly throughout the year and even extend the school year by two weeks.

The idea of blaming 'holidays' for these riots makes me smile. I know you can't make straightforward comparisons between counties as there're many factors to be considered, but still: in Italy students have 3 month holidays over the summer and they don't take the streets rioting. The solution proposed, to extend the school year, is just funny: let's keep them at school all the year round then! This would also create more jobs for teachers...I think Grist's solution is just another form of overt state control: youngsters are not trusted to be able to use wisely their spare time so let's keep them behind school walls.

And what is going to happen when these young people have completed their course of study? Taking into account the high unemployment rates, Grist suggests the government should take measures to create new jobs and improve training schemes to help youngsters develop the skills required by the market. So let's keep them under control, within a regulated environment either of the school or the workplace. Who knows what might happen when these people have time off, will they go wild as soon as they leave their workplace?

It just seems to me this is a example of the so called 'fear of the youth', where an entire generation is demonized and held responsible for the most hideous crimes and abuses. Furthermore, Matt Grist's comments are based on the assumption that the rioters were all aged 16 - 19. However, the defendants appearing in these days before the magistrates appear to belong to a much broader section of the population, very heterogeneous in terms of age (though it's true that they are definitely young and under 30 years old), personal circumstances, ethnic group etc.

On a different note is Zygmunt Bauman's analysis. He wrote that these rioters are "defective and disqualified consumers" and the problem is again social inequality. As society wants us to be first and foremost consumers, individuals are then defined by what they can buy and what they can't. "It is the level of our shopping activity and the ease with which we dispose of one object of consumption in order to replace it with a “new and improved” one which serves us as the prime measure of our social standing and the score in the life-success competition. To all problems we encounter on the road away from trouble and towards satisfaction we seek solutions in shops."

Obviously social inequality becomes a more pressing issue when the economy is stagnating and the government imposes severe cuts...which affects more people on a lower income leaving the wealth of the riches untouched. It's just appalling that the world's population of high-networth individuals has grown and the value of their wealth has raised too (Source: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2011/0808/focus-credit-meltdown-unemployment-brig-rich-richer.html).

The English comedian and TV presenter, Russell Brand wrote:

"Why am I surprised that these young people behave destructively, "mindlessly", motivated only by self-interest? How should we describe the actions of the city bankers who brought our economy to its knees in 2010? Altruistic? Mindful? Kind? But then again, they do wear suits, so they deserve to be bailed out, perhaps that's why not one of them has been imprisoned. And they got away with a lot more than a few fucking pairs of trainers.

These young people have no sense of community because they haven't been given one. They have no stake in society because Cameron's mentor Margaret Thatcher told us there's no such thing." (click here for the full article)

So we have a ruling class unable, or rather unwilling, to share the costs for this economic crisis: austerity measures are just for ordinary people. The better-off can maintain their lifestyle, their privileges won't be cut.

Some commentators also suggested that these riots put at risk the whole concept of the "big society": as the welfare state has been getting thinner and thinner, the gap hasn't been filled by people volunteering their time, skills and donating money....hence, we have seen social turmoil.

However, in these days Londoners and citizens across all the other UK have shown all their support to people and businesses affected by the riots. Armed with brooms, ordinary people have helped clean up the debris of riots, they have donated food, cloths and whatever was needed to people unable to return to their homes in the boroughs torched and looted by rioters.

Their efforts are certainly praiseworthy, they show people are willing to return to normality and the rioters are just a minority, not representative of the whole of society. However, I have the feeling politicians will turn all this to their advantage claiming that the solidarity people demonstrated is proof that the big society is actually feasible and the planned cuts to public services will remain in place.

August 07, 2011

Artistic road signs in Milan

It seems road signs in Milan are having a makeover and the result is quite amusing I would say..img_0247.jpg

This is however not an avant-garde initiative by the recently elected new mayor but the work of Clet Abraham, a French -born street artist, now based in Florence.

From a technical point of view the works are very simple, in the sense that they consist of just a sticker added to the original signs. The artistic intervention is not so overt but rather quite sober as it matches the communication style already adopted for road signs.

If you look at the picture on the right, you may notice that the man has actually been done in the 'matchstick style' used regularly to represent men in road signs. Hence, the sign does not come across as something utterly out of place. The viewer is then encouraged to 'accept' it as a sign communicating something important, which is actually the function of road signs.

The key aspect is the new meaning signs acquire. In addition to regulating our behaviour on the street by stating what we can and can't do, artistically-enhanced signs convey also an amusing message.

I think the original and the new message remain clear simultaneously. Hence I'm confident drivers can still interpreter the 'official message' of the sign without any risk for road safety.

Unfortunately, I also expect these signs to revert to their original aspect shortly since concerns for safety and legal aspects will inevitably have priority.

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