A Trip to Italy

March 29 to April 5

I traveled to Italy to speak at several events. Rather than present the usual boring chronology, I’ll simply post some impressions:

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Italians have square butts.

My hosts… hostesses?… hostpersons?…hosters?  I felt coddled in their care.

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They put me up in a really swanky hotel...


An enigma lay inside the hotel. There was a hole in the roof on the south side of the hotel, and at noon each day the image of the sun would be visible on the floor. Its exact position depended on the date; over the course of the year it moved along a line marked on the floor. On the left is a photograph of the line.

The line, it turns out, was not precisely parallel to the walls; apparently, when they laid the foundations, they got the orientation off by a few degrees. 

Particularly striking was the fact that the constellation markings on the floor, indicating which constellation the sun was in at the time, were wrong. I have placed an idealized graphical representation of what the line should look like on the right.

On June 21st, the sun’s image should be at the very bottom, and through the rest of the year, it should move upward, reaching the very top on December 21st. At that point it should begin moving downward. 

Note how the constellations are paired; these represent the fact that the matching constellations are at the same celestial declination. 

But here’s the rub: the constellations on the floor were NOT paired as in the diagram. I don’t recall the precise layout, but the constellations were offset by a LOT. Thus, Cancer might be matched to Aquarius, while Virgo was matched to Sagittarius.

There are two possible explanations. The first would be the precession of the equinoxes, which case the constellations on the floor would represent the situation around 4,000 years ago. I cannot imagine that. The second explanation is that the astrological signs of the zodiac — as opposed to the actual constellations — lag the actual positions by about a month. For example, the astrological sign for Gemini covers the period between May 21st and June 21st, but in fact the sun enters Gemini on June 21st. So that explanation doesn’t work, either. I think that, at this point, the only thing for them to do is to tear the whole thing down and start over. 

However, they can’t tear it down. In order to tear down any structure in Italy, one must obtain a fistful of licenses, each of which can cost a great deal of money. One must also spend a great deal of money providing for proper disposal of the rubble. For this reason, Italy is dotted with old ruined structures that are left standing because it would cost too much to tear them down. And why are the licensing fees so high? Because Italy is a crowded country with little spare room. It makes perfect sense to Italian bureaucrats.

As a consequence of the crowding, every square inch of the country has been shaped by the hand of man. Everywhere I went, I saw artificial terrain. Forests had trees of the same species and age, laid out in perfect rows. I longed to see something truly natural, a space where nature had run wild and free, but alas, there is no freedom for nature in Italy, except in their national parks. 

Everything about the trip went perfectly, right up to the end. As I departed Michele’s car at the airport, the damn holster that I had recently purchased for my iPhone fell off my belt and I left without it. My old holster, which had finally worn out from years of use (I have an iPhone 5) had never once fallen off my belt, but this one slipped loose after just two weeks. I posted an appropriate review on Amazon.

The second disaster came when I reached San Francisco. I had 85 minutes to make my connection, but everybody involved with that airport is callous. Immigration had hundreds of people and only three inspectors to check passports. It took me some 40 minutes to clear Immigration — and I was in the lane for American citizens. Foreigners had an even longer wait. You’d think that Immigration would be able to read the airline schedules and have an appropriate number of inspectors on hand. When I entered Italy, passing through Immigration took about ten minutes. The Italian government is faster and more efficient than the American government — talk about the ultimate insult!

But the airport was just getting warmed up. Exiting Immigration, I was dumped into the unsecured portion of the airport, requiring me to go through security all over again — and of course, the security lines in America are longer and slower than anywhere else. It took me another 30 minutes to get through Security. And of course, I had to walk a long, long ways to get to my gate. The end result was that, even though I never paused or stopped for anything of my own volition, I missed my connection by three minutes. 

In most situations like this, you simply get a seat on the next flight out. The next flight was in five hours, which is not a big deal. However, the people at Customer Service spent twenty minutes trying to find me a flight. The next flight out was full to capacity. So was the one the next morning, and the one after that, and the one after that. After much snooping around, she managed to get me the last seat on the flight the next evening. She also put me on standby for the last flight that night, but she warned me that the odds of my getting a seat were low. 

At that point, I had reached the end of my tether. This is the THIRD time that United Airlines has stranded me. Of course, they weren’t going to pay for me to stay at a hotel; it wasn’t THEIR fault that I missed the connection. I had been up for 22 hours by this point, and I was furious. Then and there I decided, NEVER AGAIN. I am never going to get on another airplane in my life. Well, maybe, if there were a good enough inducement, like getting the Nobel Prize for Game Design. Or… well, I don’t know what else could induce me to fly again. From now on, I use Skype to teach people.