Floods Mean Surf’s Up in Venice, Italy

Dutch wakeboarder Duncan Zuur took to the waters of Venice the other day.

Not Venice Beach California, but Italy’s famed La Serenissima. Zuur made a blink-and-you-missed it four turns around the city’s famed St. Marks square before calling it a day.

How did Zuur pull it off? With the help of a sponsor, naturally.

Once in Venice, Zuur’s team waited for the waters to reach about 4 1/2 feet (1.35 m), then sprang into action. They pulled a 20 horsepower motor winch from a hiding place, setting it up under the square’s arcade.

One team member, appropriately clad in rubber boots, pulled the winch cable across the square, then handed one end to Zuur.

Zuur, who in the meantime had suited up, surfed across the square. Four elegant turns later, Zuur’s feat was applauded with a standing ovation from surprised, waterlogged tourists.

Speed was key: the stunt was up and over so fast that police patrolling the square didn’t take notice.

Floods, known as acqua alta in Italian, have long been a problem in Venice prompting solutions such as the Moses floodgate project and text-message alerts. This year, the flooding reached over five feet, the worst it’s been in 20 years.

Italian Bureaucracy Gets Emoticons

Italy’s Public Functions Minister Renato Brunetta, who outed slacker state employees, is now on a crusade to bring service with a smile to the Bel Paese.

His strategy? Use emoticons, those little happy or unhappy faces used to show emotion in written or message form.

“My dream is to have a system that allows emoticons in real time by people using any public service, ” he told Italian newspapers.

Plans are to have a trial system in place, much like the one China used during the Olympics, in the next few months. (I saw this in action a few months ago visiting Shanghai, travelers could instantly rate the immigration clerk, though most of us were too intimidated.)

Anyone who has stood in line in an Italian post office or withered in a police station waiting for a stay permit, will understand the appeal of giving immediate feedback on service.

Given some say in the matter, the Italian public could be all smiles. That is, while they zap state employees with those angry little faces.

“Heart Pod” Slows Troubled Tickers with Music

Music be stills rapidly-beating hearts — even those damaged by heart failure, say Italian researchers.

Using an mp3 player that looks a little like the iRosaryheart pod, Gianfranco Parati, head of cardiology at the Italian Auxology Institute, first tested the device on himself and fellow researchers. They tried it while atop Italy’s 4,000-meter high Monte Rosa to see if listening to music that synchronized and then slowed heartbeats would help the heart work more efficiently.

“We started with the idea that slower breathing would have specific physiological effects,” Parati said. Among them, he added, were slower, deeper breathing which uses more of the alveoli, thus improving the quantity of oxygen in the blood.

Then the team conducted a study on 24 patients who had suffered heart attacks. Half of them used the device. In less than three months, the 12 patients who practiced slow breathing (for 15 minutes, twice a day) had a significant improvement in heart pumping capacity, blood oxygen levels and other symptoms when compared to the group receiving traditional therapies. At the end of the study, patients who were “treated” with music were diagnosed with a less severe class of cardiac insufficiency.

The “heart pod” works like this: when the patient breathes, the movement of the chest presses against an elastic band. The computer emits musical tones that mimic spontaneous breathing intervals, 15-18 times per minute. After a few minutes, the music changes causing the patient to slow breathing down to just four or six times a minute.

To see whether music makes tickers reach pianissimo under stress, Parati and his team will try out the device on Mount Everest.

Italians Price Check Via Cell Phone

Killer Tomato? Prices higher than expectedCash-strapped Italian consumers can now use text messages to tell them if the price is right.

Euro-pinching shoppers thumb in product names — from pasta to produce and parmesan cheese — and a text message speeds back with the average retail price for North, Central and Southern Italy.

Called SMS Consumatori (SMS consumers), the three-year program, organized by the Agriculture Ministry, is free to users.

SMS Consumers started two years ago with a three-month test run, offering info on a limited number of fresh produce; it’s back bigger, sleeker and with more bells and whistles, sort of the Ferrari of text message price watches.

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Melting Glaciers Get Blanket Treatment

Presena GlacierTo stop Alpine glaciers from melting, Italian scientists want to cover them with blankets.

Large swaths of reflective polyester and polypropylene material will protect the Presena glacier this winter, making it look slightly as if it had been tee-peed, in an effort to help the ski mecca retain its cool. Two years ago, Swiss neighbors started blanketing the alps to prevent slippage.

“When we first heard about covering the glaciers, we wrinkled our noses at the idea,” says Claudio Smiraglia, president of the Italian Glacier Committee. “Now we want to know if, when and how it works.”

The Presena cover-up comes after University of Milan researchers studied the blanket effect on a patch of the Eastern Dosdè glacier, 2,740 meters high and the tallest glacier in Lombardy.

Initial results gave those involved the warm fuzzies: after 90 days under the 150-meter-area covered by the white blanket , the protected snow and ice sheet were 1.90 meters thicker (about 6 ft. 2″) than uncovered portions.

Whether blankets are a viable way to keep the Alps in their place remains to be seen.

“We must be very cautious, about possible applications in the field of land management and natural hazards,” said Jean Pierre Fosson, director of the Foundation for Courmayeur Safety. “We must take into account the costs and environmental sustainability. If it takes helicopters or other mechanical means to put down the blankets and take them back up, energy consumption and CO2 emission will increase.”

Melting glaciers are especially felt in this part of Europe, doomsday predictions have them warmed away to nothing by 2050.

Image via flickr.

Italian Town Takes English Lessons

Spoleto -- now speaks English?There will be no more shoulder shrugging when tourists ask directions in the Umbrian town of Spoleto: officials have decided it’s about time locals here learned English.

Though known for hosting the international Festival of Dei Due Mondi, the locale of 38,000 could use a language boost, according to the city culture councilman.

The answer? A program called “I Speak Spoleto” featuring American movies. A square in the town center hosts free outdoor flicks until mid-September. It’s the first in an ongoing series of language programs for business people, the police department, administrators and everyone else.

The ambassadors of English-language culture include: “Grease,” “Saturday Night Fever” and the “Blues Brothers.” These old faves will seem new to Italians watching them in English for the first time — at least in the case of “Grease,” the songs were translated in italiano, too.

It’s a timely idea: Italians aren’t the most linguistically agile in the EU when it comes to English, under 30% have any knowledge of it and 60% aren’t able to hold a conversation in English. Giuseppe Roma, head of the national census bureau, Censis, recently called it a “sad situation,” adding that languages aren’t taught well in Italy.

So kudos to Spoleto for trying out something new and fun, but one wonders, however, just how much help the French accents will be in “Ratatouille,” the film showing as part of the English for kids program.
Image courtesy @Nina.

More from the archives:
That’s amore: Italy’s favorite word
Italians Fight Flood of English Words
40% of Italian Words “Extinct”
Kids to Adults: Please Use Better Italian

Hipster Smog Mask for Bikers

Urban Mask

Italian home design company Seletti created hipster smog masks for urban cyclists with skull and cross bones or check prints.

Retailing for €7 (about $11), the Urban Mask has an “active carbon filtering system” which can remove ozone
but can’t do much to cut through the fug of a million belching Fiats.

Though the use of masks is debatable, at least this one looks cool, and who knows whether spotting this kind of warning symbol in the rear view mirror while stuck in traffic might lead car drivers in Italy’s fashion capital — one of the world’s most polluted cities — to think twice.

Snack Trip: Magic Mushrooms & Nutella

NutellaThe drug of choice for young, club going Italians: psychedelic mushrooms dissolved in Nutella.

Found under cow patties in mountains near work-hard, play-hard Milan, these red, polka-dotted Amanita muscaria shrooms are plentiful. Dealers mix about 10 of the fungus in a jar of jam or the famously addictive hazelnut spread Italians consider a national treasure.

“We older consumers have eaten these mushrooms for ages, thanks to the hippies who passed down the knowledge. Nowadays mixed in with sweet stuff, the young kids go for it too,” said “Mauro” a drug dealer/factory worker interviewed in leading daily Corriere della Sera.

Though possession and sale of the mushrooms is illegal in Italy, business is booming. A jar of the psychedelic snack goes for 16€ (about $25).

Popularity of the DIY hallucinogens has increased thanks to stricter controls on discotequers drugs of choice like ecstasy, said Francesca Assisi, a toxicologist who also recently published a book outlining all the species of hallucinogenic mushrooms in the Lombardy region.

It’ll be hard to think of those famed after-school Nutella parties the same way ever again.

Image courtesy cv47al