Check out Soundtracker, like Pandora for Italian music


As someone who has a hard time remembering what it was like to listen to music before you could hit “shuffle” or curate a digital playlist, I’m a big fan of automated music recommendation and Internet radio service Pandora.

But that streaming service offers almost no Italian music, whether you want classic folk, pop power ballads or moody dubs in dialect.

Enter Soundtracker,  launched in 2010 by two Italian entrepreneurs. Best part: it offers a lot more than just Italian music and the interface is in English.

Register for the site (it’s free) and start listening to artists you know before stone-stepping to those you don’t.

Start with Pino Daniele and you’ll soon be listening to Quintorigo, Almamegretta, 99 Posse and Bandabardo’.

Not sure how the algorithm works, but  it seems a little more freewheeling than Pandora — starting with 70s melodic rocker with a social conscience Fabrizio De’ Andre station got me to an aggro hip-hop number from Caparezza in under four tracks.

You can also download it as an app for your iPhone, Windows Phone 7 and, if you’re so inclined, share your location and tracks with your friends.

Buon ascolto!

Can a toe provide the answer to Mona Lisa mystery?

Excavations at Sant'Orsola.

Experts digging around a former convent in Florence have unearthed a big toe that might belong to Lisa Gherardini, the subject of Leonardo Da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa painting.

Little is known about the real life of the noblewoman said to have posed for Da Vinci, but she is thought to have died in the 1540s in Florence’s Sant’Orsola convent.

Last month, experts started digging around Sant’Orsola in hopes of finding the remains of Gherardini.

Working on the project are two of Italy’s famed art super sleuths, Francesco Mallegni, the anthropologist/detective who famously brought to light Dante’s Cannibal Count and Silvano Vinceti.

So far, in the first tomb excavated under an altar, the only significant remains are a bone fragment, probably of the big toe of a left foot. Mallegni told daily La Nazione that it might belong to a woman and provide enough DNA material to identify Gherardini.

Research will continue with ground-penetrating radar in the central part of the church where they believe there may be other crypts.

The large Sant’Orsola complex dates to 1309, ceased its life as a convent in the 1800s, then became a tobacco factory before being used by the university up to the 1950s. It stood semi-derelict with its windows bricked-up until restoration work started in 2010.

Art sleuths hunt for Mona Lisa’s bones

Hoping to solve the mystery behind Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece Mona Lisa, scientists in Florence are looking for the bones of his presumed model,  Lisa Gherardini.

Working on the project are two of Italy’s famed art super sleuths, Francesco Mallegni, the anthropologist/detective who famously brought to light Dante’s Cannibal Count and Silvano Vinceti who found painter Caravaggio’s remains.

Little is known about the real life of the noblewoman said to have posed for Da Vinci, but she is thought to have died in the 1540s in Florence’s Sant’Orsola convent.

The large Sant’Orsola complex dates to 1309, ceased its life as a convent in the 1800s, then became a tobacco factory before being used by the university up to the 1950s. It stood semi-derelict with its windows bricked-up until restoration work started in 2010.

“Using ground-penetrating radar we have already identified a crypt under one of two churches in the convent, the search will start from this spot,” Vinceti told daily La Nazione. “Given the architecture of the building and manuscripts of the nuns who lived there, we believe that the crypt was used to guard the tombs.”

Researchers hope to finally solve the ongoing mystery about the model with the mysterious smile: over the years, historians have theorized that the woman was in fact a self-portrait of the painter or perhaps a young boy.

How could they prove it?

“If we find anything, the DNA of Lisa Gherardini would then be compared with DNA from two her two children, Bartolomeo and Piero Del Giocondo who are buried in Santissima Annunziata,” Mallegni said. “Only then could we go back to her facial structure and compare it to the painting.”

Europe Tests a New Tsunami Monitor

Geostar, Europe\'s TsunameterAccurate, timely tsunami alert systems have proved more elusive than the Loch Ness Monster, but a new prototype testing the waters in the Atlantic may change that.

Three-ton Italian-designed Geostar (Geophysical and Oceanographic Station for Abyssal Research), set down about 150 kilometers off the coast of Portugal in the Gulf of Cadiz, has been monitoring movement and water pressure since 2008.

Geostar squats 3,200 meters below the surface on a site known for tectonic twinges — the epicenter of the 1755 Great Lisbon Quake and resulting tsunami — where researchers expect at least three or four small seismic events during testing.

Ocean bottom seismometers and pressure sensors in the station detect both quakes and changes in the height of the water column, this one-two approach may help better determine which quakes result in killer waves. Continue reading

Researchers Find Symbols in Mona Lisa’s Eyes: Mystery or Hoax?

Can you make out the “L” and “S” in her irises?


I’ve been following the story of Italian research team delving deep into Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”

La Gioconda, as the painting is called in Italian, has always been a mystery. Still, I’m not so sure this find really sheds any new light on the 500-year-old masterpiece.

Silvano Vinceti and team claim to have spied the letters “L” and “S” in her eyes and the symbolic number “72” in the background.

Don’t get me wrong: I love using tech to pore over old paintings, whether its Leonardo’s “Last Supper“or Caravaggio’s “Bacchus.” (One editor, assigning yet another story on Leonardo, joked I was on the “Dan Brown beat.”)

When you look at something a few hundred years old with a level a detail previously unavailable, something interesting always turns up.

In this case, though, Vinceti and his team are working off high-definition scanned images from a company called Lumiere Technology in Paris, which specializes in digitizing artworks, and then processed by a lab in Rome.

The lack of transparency (pun intended) about the processing is what makes me skeptical.

When his colleague Stefania Romano sent me the press packet with the image, I couldn’t make anything out. Before writing back to her asking if they had another image, I looked at their website. In the image you see above,  the letters in her mysterious eyes are much clearer – making me wonder which one is the correct shot and whether they’ve been manipulated or not.

Vinceti told AP that a Roman lab “digitally excluded reflexes and other colors in the eyes in order to isolate the letters and make them stand out.”

The Leonardo experts they interviewed were also skeptical about this latest discovery.

If they’d only put the hi-res image online even temporarily – like art digitizer Hal9000 has done – or made a video of the stripping process, we could all see whether there’s really something behind those enigmatic eyes.

Social Media? Italians Prefer Chatting in Cafes

If you’ve spent any time in Italy, the results of a new survey won’t surprise you: Italians still prefer socializing in person, usually at the neighborhood cafe, to social media.

Some 1,200 people polled by apéritif maker Sanbitter — via Facebook — found that most Italians still prefer to discuss the matters of the day in person at a cafe first before heading online to update their far-flung friends and relatives about it.

What are Italians hashing out over  caffe’ macchiato or a glass of Prosecco before tweeting about it?

Nearly half (48%) are talking politics, 42% discuss sports (read: soccer), while work, gossip and shopping are about the same (37%, 35%, 33% respectively). Last but not least, movies 25%.

Social media will get a strong foothold in the boot country, probably sooner rather than later. There are already more cell phones than Italians and the national penchant for updating via SMS messages has produced everything from poetry contests to price checks and charity efforts.

And, let’s not forget, the Italian fascination with social media led to the first movie ever about Facebook, a 2009 romantic comedy of errors called “Feisbum.”

Caravaggio’s Bacchus Seduces in Hi-Res Imagery

By Nicole Martinelli Tourists have long crowded in museums to admire Caravaggio’s Bacchus, but a new 3.4 billion-pixel image of the painting allows for an amazingly detailed look at an old master’s work from your computer screen.

It’s the first in a series of super-high-resolution digital versions of masterpieces from Italy’s Uffizi Gallery, including Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and the Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci.

This image of Bacchus makes Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s revolutionary realism — as seen in the gritty fingernails of his reclining model in the sensual painting nicknamed “drunk Bacchus” — easy to zoom in on and linger over.

Minute details usually mulled over by art historians, such as the rumored self-portrait of the artist reflected in the wine decanter, are just a few clicks away. The Tuesday launch is a kind of love letter to the Baroque bad boy, believed born on this day in 1571.

It’s the latest project from HAL9000, a company specializing in art photography that captured a high-res version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper three years ago.

Continue reading

Italy’s New Driving Laws: Go Faster, Just Don’t Drink

The Italian government recently passed a series of strict new driving laws that will affect locals and tourists on the roads in the Bel Paese.

A few of the new rules to keep in mind:

  • DUIs. No more jail time for drivers with a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.08 to 0.05 (already stricter than many places, including the US) but fines are a lot heftier, ranging from 500 to 2,000 euros. (In lieu of jail time, there are plans to institute community service and driver’s ed courses.) Those fines double if you cause an accident and your car can also be impounded for up to 180 days. If you cause an accident with a BAC of 1.5, your license will be suspended for two years. If your driver’s license is suspended for drunk driving, forget about driving anything for awhile. You can no longer drive a scooter or mini car (like an Ape), either. Drivers under age 21 or anyone who hasn’t had a license for more than three years cannot drink alcohol and drive — period. Fines for these drivers with a BAC of “zero to 0.5” start at 155 to 624 euros, double if they cause an accident and increase along with BAC levels exponentially.
  • Drugs. Jail time has been doubled for drivers found under the influence of drugs, from three to six months. Convicted drug users will have their licenses revoked — instead of suspended as previously — if they are found at fault in an accident. Police officers will also have drug-test kits with them instead of taking suspected drug users in for hospital tests.
  • Speed limits. The speed limit remains 130 km/h speed limit (80 mph) on most Italian autostrade, but shoots up to 150 km/h on autostrade with “tutor” speed limit cameras installed.
  • Scooters. Now required to wear goggles or eye protection “where necessary.”  Scooter licenses will also require a practice driving test.
  • Bicycles. Cyclists are now required to wear reflective vests at night.

As far as I know, the complete law hasn’t been published in English yet. The Transport Ministry has a complete list of all the articles in the law, you could do worse than use Google Translate on it meanwhile.

Photo used with a Creative Commons license, thanks to cruelgargle on flickr.

High-Tech Referee Help for Soccer

It won’t be able to change the contested calls in the World Cup, but scientists at Italy’s National Research  Council are working on a host of non-invasive solutions that would help referees judge games.

In Bari, at the Institute of Intelligent Systems for Automation (Issia), researchers are perfecting a prototype system that has already been tested on the field for games of the Udine team.

It’s basically about 10 high-speed cameras in what are typically referee blind spots. There are four cameras aimed at catching “phantom” goals and either six or eight to judge those ever-shifting offsides violations.

The high-speed cameras capture about 200 images per second and are fully automatic. They can record, process and transmit video sequences in just a few seconds and send results wirelessly to the linesman.

It’s about time to end these hair-pulling, damning-the-ref moments, right?

But until now there has been a lot of resistance to implementing these systems.
Back in 2004, I wrote about a similar computer-based system that Italian researchers were hoping the national teams and FIFA would adopt for Newsweek.

I had no idea that it would be such a controversial story — with Italian league officials refusing to speak about it and the FIFA flak brushing off the idea of tech referee help by saying, “Football is a game played by humans that should be judged by humans.”

Another concern — that didn’t make it into the article —  was that these systems would be so expensive that some countries wouldn’t be able to afford them, resulting in a de facto major league based on economics. It would ruin the global aspect of the sport if the games were judged more precisely and differently in just a handful of countries where the game is played.

After forcefully resisting technology, now at least FIFA president Sepp Blatter is willing to consider it, telling AP it’s time that “we have to open again this file, definitely.”

Video: Italian Hand Speak

Inspired by Sara Rosso’s video of Italians dancing with their hands, I took my Flip HD out to Milan’s Piazza Duomo to capture a bit of hand jive for practice.

A couple of random observations: most of the pairs, for as much as they vary in age, sex, etc., have one person doing the talking and the gesticulating. Non-Italians often think everyone here flails with their arms as they speak, but as you can see, the movements are more like punctuation: concise, controlled, specific.

My favorite is probably the guy near the metro stairs who “draws” elaborate figures while entertaining his friend. This guy really did quite a dance around with his arms and was hypnotizing to watch.

This was a lot harder to shoot than I would’ve thought: even in Milan where you can easily stumble out for a cappuccino find yourself in a fashion shoot, a movie set or someone’s holiday snaps, people are aware you’re filming them. (Sara turned her camera on some relatives for those great close-ups).

I’d like to shoot a companion version in Southern Italy for contrast — next time I’m closer to the Boot heel I will — but I expect that there it’ll be even more challenging to get close enough with such a small camera.