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Saturday, June 11, 2005

Funiculì Funiculà

I just got back from my trip to Italy. The last few days were quite interesting. Being too busy to blog while at a Digital Communities conference in Benevento is something I lamented about earlier. Yes, pure irony indeed! Now that I'm back home in Scarborough I can afford all the time I need to catch-up and review the ins and outs of the trip.

The conference was an unusual event, in many ways. To begin with, the conference started and ended in Naples, which is about 100km away from the Universita' degli Studi del Sannio a Benevento, where the main academic sessions took place. This created the opportunity to visit the ancient city of Naples and some of the surrounding areas, like Pompeii and Ischia. I thoroughly enjoyed the visit to Napoli Sotterranea and the adjacent remains of the Roman Amphitheatre, but the real highlight of any trip to Italy has to be the food. Where else can you get mozzarella made from buffalo milk? And where's a better place for a Neapolitan pizza?

The Campania region of Italy is quite beautiful. Naples is not exactly the best first impression anyone who has never been to the country can get. Luckily, I visited Italy about four times in the early 1990s, so I had a broader context for my experience in the so-called "armpit of Europe". Deciding to spend the first night at a small hotel in Piazza Garibaldi was probably not the best decision. The square is very busy and noisy because it's also home for the main train station and the Market District. However, this makes it very colourful, and in many ways reminded me of Istanbul or certain parts of New York City, or even Berlin just after the reunification.

A sense of danger and grittiness that comes from cultural clashes and the natural disharmony created by the vast chasm between extreme poverty and great wealth. Moving to a small B&B in the Chiaia District for the days at the end of the conference in Naples was a wise decision. Naples is a vibrant city that doesn't necessarily leave a good impression on first time visitors, but I believe it has a worse reputation than it deserves.

Benevento is a typical country town in southern Italy. A city of 60,000 people located in the Apennines east of Napoli. Nothing too special about it except its long history and heritage sites. The local university has an impressive engineering department. This is understandable when one considers that two major centers of scientific research are also in the area. Toni Sant at MARS in Italy - June 2005The Digital Communities conference included extensive programmes at both the Mediterranean Agency for Remote Sensing (MARS) and the Centro Italiano Ricerche Aerospaziali (CIRA).

Both these facilities opened their doors wide open to the conference participants and it was quite impressive to see how sophisticated satellite image gathering has become (at MARS) and how crash-tests are performed on all sorts of aircraft. Part of CIRA's research includes work on three-dimensional immersive environments (also known as virtual reality) that is quite similar to what my colleagues at HIVE do at our own University of Hull. As a subscriber to NASA'S own remote imaging newsletter I was familiar with the work presented at MARS but incredibly impressed by the amazing surroundings (on the edge of Benevento) where the agency is housed. Their satellite dish is housed at the top of the colourful structure you see me standing with in the photo I've inserted here. It was good to see scientific things I care about presented in a different environment from my own, even though the more time I spent in Italy the more I managed to reconnect with my Mediterranean roots; something I don't think I managed to do so well during my last trip to Malta.

The academic program at the conference opened another door for me. Although I've attended many academic conferences in the last eight years or so, this was the first multidisciplinary conference I attended where the glue that holds everything together is not directly associated with performance, media or popular culture. Many of the participants are geographers, but there were also architects, urban planners, lawyers, education technologists, and engineers, among others. I was not the only presenter who comes from a creative media background. Enrico Maria Milic is the founder and editorial director of StudentiMediaGroup, which operates on lines similar to the MaltaMedia Online Network. The editor of the Journal of Urban Technology was also at the conference, and a number of papers from the conference will appear in an upcoming issue of his journal.

Now I need to rest a while to shake-off the road from my system. My brain is still saturated with last night's band tunes in Piazza Plebiscito. I also don't want to write blog entries that are too long. Tomorrow I'll write about my presentation at the Digital Communities conference.

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