Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The sidewalks of Prague

From May 17-20, 2006, I visited the city of Prague, in the Czech Republic. It is a truly drazzling city with countless buildings of great beauty. I also found myself captivated, however, by the sidewalks of Prague. Click here to views the photos I took of a number of the sidewalks. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

I think the sidewalks caught my attention so dramatically because my views on ornamentation in architecture and public space generally have been changing. I used to be a "form follows function" kind of guy: I appreciated the clean lines of modern design and scorned elaborate designs that didn't seem to really do anything. If it isn't "doing" anything, then why waste time, effort and money building it?

Then I came across the writings of the architect Christopher Alexander. Alexander has developed a healthy dislike for modern architecture and believes that it is possible to come up with a "pattern language" that is universal and can help us design and build structures that improve our quality of life on multiple levels.

Alexander has in recent years published his "Nature of Order" series of books, which argue for the place of ornamentation in our architecture and other aspects of human creativity. I have come to agree and urge you to check out his writings, especially: The Timeless Way of Building and the Nature of Order series.

These sidewalks not only reflect a wonderful aesthetic, but also a very smart practicality. In Chicago and many/most US cities, the sidewalks are slabs of concrete. Very dull and in many ways not all that functional. With the extreme temperatures of Chicago, the concrete usually cracks shortly after it is laid in place. And in the many tree-shaded sidestreets of Chicago's numerous neighborhoods, roots cause the most delightful disruptions in the straight surfaces of the sidewalks.

Prague has similar problems with tree roots and wide fluctuations in temperature. Their "mosaic" sidewalks offer something of a solution. As temperature changes cause movement in the ground, the individual cubes will shift and sometimes pop out, but they are easily repaired, since the damage is much more localized.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

KUMU: the sparkling new Kunst (Art) Museum of Estonia

On Friday, I finished five days of straight training: talking for almost 6 hours each day, repeating the same seminar (and jokes....just hilarious!). I spent Saturday wandering around Tallinn, the capitol of Estonia. It is a beautiful city, with a large, incredibly well-preserved Old Town that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I started the day by heading to KUMU, the sparkling new Kunst (Art) Museum of Estonia. It is a remarkable building with an excellent array of creativity. Whenever I visit a city for the first time, I always seek out the main art museum/gallery. I believe that one of the most human (that is, beyond mammalian) acts is to create, and art (a creation that is generally not tied to concrete purpose or objective, as compare to, say, an automobile or microwave machine) is the most direct expression of the mind (of course, functional objects often are works of art as well). I feel so fortunate to have been able to visit places like the Prado, London's National Gallery, Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, and many more over the years.

The most striking of all the works I saw at KUMU was Ever is Over All by Pipilotti Rist. Here is a description of the work: "In Ever Is Over All, a young woman in a light blue dress merrily walks along the street with a huge, colorful, long-stemmed tropical flower in her hand. She smashes the flower into the windows of parked cars as she passes them."

That sort of captures a part of the work. At KUMU, it was projected onto two walls of a large room (each wall perhaps 25 feet in length). One wall shows the woman strolling down the street and occasionally and clearly with great exuberance smashing a car window. The other wall shows a field of the flowers the woman is holding (not that it could really be one of those flowers, as it pretty smoothly breaks through car glass). As and after she breaks a window, the woman is enraptured. A policewoman walks by at one point and salutes her. And rolling over all the action is very melodic, slightly haunting music.

I found it very exhilarating. I hope at some point it will be fully viewable from the web; do check out her website to see some of her other pieces. I took a fifteen second clip of the piece, but I don't want to post it without her permission.

OK, it is now 7:45 PM, and the sun is still very high in the sky. Time to venture forth once again from the Radisson and wander the Old Town.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Letter from Scandinavia and the Baltics

I write to you from Tallinn, Estonia, Room 1818 of the Radisson SAS looking out over the Old City, as the sun sinks over the Baltic Sea. Very nice....

I am on a whirlwind sweep through Scandinavia, doing Best Practice PL/SQL seminars for Oracle Corporation in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Riga and Tallinn (Estonia). Then I have two days off and head over to London to give a two day, "Best of PL/SQL" training, followed by two days in Prague (same seminar) – both also for Oracle. I stay an extra day in Prague to see at least a little of this city, and finally after a bit less than two weeks I head back to Chicago. It is the longest I will have been away from family and home for years, and I don't much like that....

Interest in PL/SQL in northern Europe remains strong; attendance at these seminars exceeds any I have done in these countries in recent years. In Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and Riga, I presented to a combined audience 340 developers and DBAs!

I had a bit of a rough start, though. I boarded the 10 PM SAS flite to Copenhagen on Saturday night and expected to fall asleep immediately. After an hour or so, I realized that sleep wasn't coming because I was feeling sick. Turns out, I had caught a stomach flu. Not the most delightful way to travel 8 hours over the Atlantic. Well, two days and zero solid foods later, I am feeling fine, eating and exercising as usual. Whew. Glad that is put behind me.

I wasn't sure what telephone service back to the US from the former Soviet Union would be like, so I decided to finally sign up for Skype service. I bought myself a PC headset, and one for my somewhat technophobic wife, Veva. I installed the software on each of our computers and tested it before we left. It works great! I have since called her each night (her mid-day) through my laptop. Incredible technology. The sound quality is astounding, both computer to computer and using SkypeOut, which allows me to call her cell phone at a ridiculously low cost. And I just in the airBaltic magazine that Skype was developed largely by four Estonians. Perhaps I will run into them in Tallinn....

Another big step for me on this trip is that I finally broke down and bought an MP3 player. First, I tried the Sony Bean. I love its compact form, but its one-line screen (yes, that is not a typo. Just one visible line of text at a time) was beyond the capabilities of this middle-aged programmer. So I traded that for a Creative Zen Microphoto. 8GB capacity and a slide bar that I still have lots of trouble with, but is at least manageable. I loaded up some 50 CDs, added Shure e3c noise canceling headphones, and I was so ready to liven up by hours at the airport and on planes (I am, after all, traveling on nine different airplanes in 10 days) with my favorite music.

But then reality set in: I don't really like having anything stuffed into my ears or even covering them (those Bose noise cancelling headphones work very well, too, but they make my head ache). So I haven't been using my wonderful gadgets at all....I now plan to return them all when I get back to Chicago. Ah well....at least I have managed to load up my music collection on my computer. I find that I am perfectly satisfied to play my music through the relatively "tinny" speakers of my Thinkpad T42. Listening to Clapton's Unplugged right now.

By the way: for those who are not able to attend my lectures in Scandinavia, you can still download and check out the presentation by clicking here.