Archive for April, 2006

End of the Semester and Other News

Saturday, April 29th, 2006

So, the end of another semester is upon me. This one is slightly different from previous ones, however. Olin is graduating its first batch of seniors EVER. And I’m next. If that’s not a little bit freaky, then I don’t know what is.

I can’t believe that we’ve already come to this point. It doesn’t seem like very long ago that I was moving into West Hall for freshmen orientation. Now, the senior class (including many of my friends) will be leaving to pursue very promising opportunities at Oxford, Standford, MIT, CMU, and many other businesses and institutions. I’m happy for them, but I can’t help but realize what it means: I’m next. Next year I’ll be a senior, and that’s a little bit scary.

In the meantime, we’ve moved over into the CrazyEndOfSemesterTime, so I’ve been busy finishing all of the projects and assignments for my various classes. Here’s a rundown of what I’m working on for the end of the year:

  • Sci-Fi: The final project is writing my own science fiction short story (~5-6 pages) and then analyze my own story within the various frameworks that we’ve been learning about throughout the year. My story is called “Filterware”, and it’s almost finished.
  • Math: I’m researching and writing a self-directed paper on the Four Color Theorem for my “6 Theorems that Changed the World” class. The actual proof of the theorem is a little bit intense (it requires a computer to solve the final ~600 configurations), but I’ll be focusing more on the history and controversy surrounding this seemingly simple statement: Any map of regions on a plane can be colored with only 4 colors so that any regions sharing an edge (more than a point) do not share the same color.
  • AHS Capstone Prep: I’m finishing up the proposal for the AHS (Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences) Capstone that I’ll do a year from now. I’m planning on researching the history of online personal publishing (blogging in particular) and creating a final report in the form of a creative website.
  • Dynamic Interface Design: For the final project in my Wellesley art class, Jesus F. and I are collaborating to build an interactive cellular simulator. The cells will obey rock/paper/scissors-like rules to decide whether they will kill, do nothing, or reproduce when two colors collide. Users will not have direct control, but will be able to create and destroy colors as well as introduce color-changing hormones into the system. It’s basically an interesting AL simulation, made to look pretty with a lot of mass-spring systems.
  • Research: I’m working on finishing a semantic web / RDF powered physical media sharing web application for my school. I’m using an implementation of the Fresnel specification that my friends Chris M. and Katie R. developed. We’re also writing up what we’ve done over the semester in practical application of these specifications and submitting it to a semantic web conference.

Besides all that, Brian, Brendan, Dean, and I are ramping up for our summer plans. We were offered seed funding from Y Combinator as part of their Summer Founders Program to start our own small web business. It was a tough decision, and I ended up deciding to turn down an offer from Google in order to do it, but we’re really excited about this opportunity. I figure, you can only afford to take career risks like this while you’re young, so if I’m ever going to start my own business, it should be now. This essay by Paul Graham really says it better than I can. The four of us will be living in Cambridge and working like mad all summer. Look for more news later on!

Finally, I just wanted to show off a juicy photo of my new monitor setup. I just purchased a second 19″ Ag Neovo flat-panel to go with my original one, so I now have a combined total of 2.6 million beautiful pixels. It’s really going to streamline graphic design and coding workflow for this summer. Pretty.

my monitor setup

That’s about it. Don’t expect any more updates from this space until sometime after Expo and finals are over. Maybe I’ll write a post once graduation rolls around and we’re moving into our Cambridge apartment. Summer is almost here!

Draft commencement address

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006
The following is a crack at a speech I wrote to read at graduation. I’m posting it to get it off my desktop. I’m cleaning my desktop to avoid doing real work. I need to finish my Olin Self Study and I am a long way from doing that. It has caused me by far the most stress of any class this semester and I have very little to show for it. Of all the things I have done in my senior year my OSS is the least favorite of all the stuff I have had to do.

2006 Commencement greeting

"On behalf of the Class of 2006, I welcome the students, faculty, staff, our partners family, and friends to Olin's first commencement.

By an interesting coincidence it was 1735 days ago when I stood behind a microphone under a different tent at 1735 Great Plain Avenue and like the other 30 first students who were first on campus, I had to introduce myself. Naturally I talked about how anything could be fixed with duct tape or WD-40. Today after what is probably the most unothodox engineering education attempted in modern history I can stand here and admit I know better.

For all of us in the Class of ’06, whether we were the 30 here opening day, the 14 spread around the world or the 32 still applying to colleges who were drawn to the shiny static-proof envelopes, it has been a long journey.

While I may have counted the number of days I can’t count how many hours of sleep were lost or how many romances began and ended during my time here. I can’t count how many times I forgot a negative sign, how many times the magic smoke got out, how many cups of caffeine were sacrificed for the greater good or how many times I cried.

This won’t be one of those.

These last few years in a word, were intense. But as the student greeter I’m not here to dwell on them. We’ve known since we’ve been here this day would come, and we’re never going to forget it. Nostalgia will come soon enough without my help.

We may be making history but history in my eyes isn’t made by people who dwell on how big what they are doing is. History is made when people are not content to sit, think, complain and settle but by people who for some reason cannot live with themselves unless they stand up and do something.

I have a moment here to do something meaningful so let me thank all of you for doing whatever you have done to be a part of this. Thank you for helping every one of us who called Olin home to become harder, better, faster and stronger than we were when we moved in.

Thanks for trusting a bunch of kids to help build a college and for giving us a hand when we needed your experience, your wisdom, or the listening ear of a friend. Please don’t get too comfortable and don’t let this be the end. Continue to do the crazy things you do for as long as your body and your spirit will allow.

Once again welcome, thank you, and for as long as you ARE, may you continue to DO.

Processions

Saturday, April 22nd, 2006
Here in Salamanca and throughout much of Spain all of last week was quite the spectacle. Starting the Friday before Good Friday, there are religious processions everyday. Different ‘cofrades’ each have their own specific manner of dress and doing the processions. Some of them start during the night at 9pm. Others are during the day, and few are early in the morning starting at 5 or 7am. Each procession has one or more ‘pasos’ which is kind of like a float. It’s decorated with flowers and candles and usually has a statue of Jesus or of Mary. They’re carried by people all during the procession, and some of them had over 100 people carrying them. Many of the processions remember the walk that Jesus took bearing the cross, and a few do a Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross) as they go. Even the people here know that the cofrades look like KKK uniforms, but are quick to point out that they’ve been doing this much longer than that, and they had these uniforms before the US even existed.
Others are more normal in dress. This was my favorite procession which passed over the Roman Bridge.On Easter Sunday, many of the cofrades march in a a procession together. One paso with Jesus and one with the Virgin meet in the Plaza Mayor and ‘dance.’ It was something to see. There were also people in traditional Salmatine dress that danced. The plaza was packed and there were a number of TV stations there as well. My favorites were the processions that left early in the morning because they were less of a tourist spectacle. No one gets up at 7am here. It’s still dark at 7, it’s getting light at 8, and sunrise has got to be somewhere around there. Crazy Spain . :)

Living a Moral Existence

Thursday, April 13th, 2006

How does one define living the moral life?

Not long ago, the college hosted Big Conversations, a day to think about what's important in life. In preparation for the day, posters were put up to raise awareness, asking "In 25 years will your children ask why you didn't do more to stop genocide?" These posters specifically meant to bring up our actions with respect to human rights bring up larger issues. We live in the top 10% of the world in terms of privilege, which grants us general isolation from such issues as genocide, but also isolates us from extreme poverty and inequity in the world. Life is comfortable in the first world, but how much should we be concerned that this comfort is limited to the first world? How do we justify spending money on a new CD or a bottle of wine when the same money could drastically improve someone's quality of life? Perhaps even save a life?

Moreover, the United States , as an industrialized nation, produces more than a proportional amount of waste in the world while consuming a more than proportional share of the natural resources. As we near peak oil, Americans continue to drive inefficient vehicles. As global warming becomes more of a reality, instead of a theory, Americans continue to demand high levels of electricity. How should we be approaching resource allocation from a moral point of view? Do the advances made by Americans justify the vast amount of resources consumed and wastes produced? Does the future of our planet matter or can we leave the consequences to future generations?

Educationally, people in the United States have access to an unfathomable amount of resources. With internet access commonplace, the entire world of information is open to American students. How can we expect other, less privileged nations to compete on the global level without enabling them to have similar access? Further, even in the United States , the quality of education is not consistent. Some students attend failing schools that rarely pass standardized testing, while other student are privileged to a world of rich private schools or individual tutoring. Even at Olin we are aware that we've been given the chance to get an excellent education that is not available to everyone. Should we feel guilty for having the privilege of a stellar education? Should we be working to narrow the knowledge gap both domestically and abroad?

What is our responsibility to others? Are we allowed to ignore social problems that we don't see on a daily basis? Should we be nationalistic when trying to solve social problems? How much help should we give versus how much we should expect others to help themselves? The modern world is full of causes, which should we care about and how should we act if we do care?

Cheating in Life

Wednesday, April 12th, 2006

Just now Enron executives are coming under trial. These people made millions of dollars in personal wealth while driving the stock price up through devious means. In the end, the company crashed to the ground, leaving many workers without pension plans, which were heavy in Enron stock. Some of these executives, it seems, don't even consider their behavior to have been wrong, pleading innocence to charges brought against them. What could have motivated these people to commit such serious crimes? Further, how could they possibly view their actions as anything but a crime?

In the same way that large corporate scandals are committed, people cheat on their taxes or accept too much change from the corner store. These seem like mundane actions, in the latter case, not even a crime, but when widespread these acts add up and point to a societal cheating problem. There is an "everyone's doing it" mentality is cheating at life, just as there was in the realm of academic cheating. Why shouldn't you cheat on your taxes if you know people richer than you doing it? Don't you need the money more than they do?

As these many of these cheating issues tend to be financial, a lot of times there's also a feeling of entitlement. In the current economy, there's a large gap between the very well compensated and the unskilled working class. This gap leads to people, often rightfully, thinking they are under compensated. Should they be allowed to compensate themselves a little to make up for the money they deserve to be making? Is it o.k. for the corner mechanic to lie about the service on your car if it's what allows him to make ends meet? These people are often only cheating to compensate for the rising cost of living and their poor socioeconomic status, so could it be right?

If we allow the economically disadvantaged to get away with their financial wrangling, how do we justify the Enron and WorldCom executives of the world? Some of these people were cheating only to maintain the status quo at the company, which often benefited themselves financially, but also meant jobs were not lost and the economy was not affected. The deceit was never meant to be a long term solution, many claim that they expected to recoup losses shortly, but found it became a cycle to overstate earnings in larger and larger ways to maintain the same appearances. Do the motivations behind these crimes matter? Does saving jobs in the short-term offset losing people's pensions in the long-term?

Philosophically, some of these instances of cheating in life could actually be justified. If we are to believe Hobbes in his belief that every person should protect themselves, most of the mentioned cases of cheating are doing precisely that. To further Hobbes case, he is often writing about the government being corrupt and not watching out for the people, so they must watch out for themselves. This philosophy would squarely agree that tax evasion is not only a justifiable action, but also could be considered the right action. From a utilitarian standpoint, some of these acts are more justifiable than others. Victimless crimes, such as small scale cheating of a company where no one will specifically feel the financial burden, are hard to argue against. The cheating obviously benefits the cheater in a net positive way, and often benefits the family of the cheater, too. Tax evasion might also be argued a victimless crime - the government doesn't miss a couple thousand dollars when the federal budget is in the trillions. Other crimes, such as the large scale corporate fraud seen with Enron may benefit everyone in the short term, but in the long term negatively affect a much wider range of people ranging from employees who lost their jobs to the state of California , which suffered power deficits and extremely high energy prices. Further, none of these instances of cheating is universalizable, all would cause a collapse of the system which enables them.

It seems that the small instances of cheating, almost consistently philosophically wrong, as too easy to mentally justify in other ways. How do you justify these types of cheating? Is tax evasion right? How should our society work to rid ourselves of the mindset that we are entitled or that everyone else is doing it?

This post is based upon readings from David Callahan’s “The Cheating Culture”, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkin’s “The Smartest Guys in the Room” and statistics from the Budget of the United States Government.

Academic Cheating

Tuesday, April 11th, 2006

Academic cheating is one of those phenomena from which Olin students seem fairly isolated. When's the last time an Olin student asked to copy answers from your test? How many of the Honor Board case abstracts from the past four years have to do with cheating? (Three, if you were wondering.) Does this mean that cheating doesn't happen at Olin? Probably not, but it could be both an indication of less academic dishonesty and many fewer chances of being caught. With estimates of academic cheating around 80% of the standard student population, can we really imagine that our rates of academic cheating are close to 0%? Are there ever times when it would be considered reasonable to cheat? Moreover, at Olin the honor code states that all cases of academic dishonesty must be reported to the Honor Board, but other schools often have no such policy. That requirement notwithstanding, are there good reasons to not report academic dishonesty? Does witnessing cheating, but leaving it unreported make the observer guilty as well?

Several studies have been done to address many of these issues and attitudes among students. Usually in response to drastic accusations of cheating or high profile cheating cases, various university professors surveyed their classes to gain an understanding of the student mindset with respect to cheating. Some of the results are particularly surprising from the sheltered academic environment offered by Olin.

The possible reasoning behind cheating ranges from the seemingly realistic increasing pressure to succeed to the more difficult to believe reason that it's o.k. in the absence of an honor code. In a study by Thomas Carter conducted almost 80 years ago, the most commonly accepted excuse for cheating among his students was a fear of not passing, which carried other, related consequences like falling behind classmates. This line of reasoning is still applicable today within any environment, but even more so in a small community such as Olin. Other reasons are often a little more difficult to relate to, but still seem somewhat reasonable, like the meme that "everyone else is doing it", nervousness, sense of obligation to the college, or no respect for the professor. Even so, these reasons don't necessarily make it right to cheat, just comprehensible.

From a moral philosophy standpoint, there could be several ways of evaluating the merit of academic cheating. Utilitarianism and other outcome based philosophies would evaluate the outcome of cheating, some on an individual basis and some altogether. In these philosophies, one would have to consider the happiness of all involved - would the cheating student be happy with the resultant higher grades? Probably, but would the non-cheating students be happy is there is a relative grading scheme or curve? Probably not. Further, would the professor be pleased to find that the knowledge the student purports to have is really falsified? Would the professor still feel comfortable enabling the student to take higher level courses or work in the field knowing that the base knowledge was not the student's? Again, this would probably be considered negatively by the professor. Outcome based philosophies would probably not approve of cheating. For maxim based philosophies, cheating could be considered like lying, it would most likely never be considered correct. Further, if considered from the view of universalizability, cheating is hard to justify. If everyone cheated, the academic system would come up with news ways of evaluating students that were more difficult to fake. The one philosophical system which would wholeheartedly support cheating would be Hobbes, whose philosophy breaks down to doing what is best for oneself. The problem with utilizing this philosophy in this case is that if everyone is doing what will benefit themselves most, the academic system would cease to function, as in Kant's test for universalizability.

With cheating generally considered wrong, the moral dilemma shifts to reporting students who are witnessed cheating. When studying why and when students report cheating, it was found that students are more likely to report cheating if the result is just loss of credit, rather than expulsion. Students generally don't want to drastically punish their fellow classmates, which makes them wary to report cases of academic dishonesty. Further, there is a disconnect between what students feel is right and what students will actually do. Although 57% percent of students surveyed considered it right to report students for cheating with a penulty of expulsion, only about 30% actually would report such academic dishonesty. Although the possible punishment is important, there is also some disconnect between knowing what is right and acting upon it. The students surveyed gave many reasons for thinking that reporting cheating was right, from it being for the good of the student to having a duty to society, but the reasons for not reporting are more interesting. The most popular reasons for not reporting cheating, even though they consider it right to report the cheating are that cheating is its own punishment and that tattling is not an acceptable behavior. Some students, on the other hand, feared retribution or considered a private punishment a better solution. The difference between thought and action is terrifically interesting, but points to the frailty of human nature and intricacies of philosophy of the mind.

When considering reporting cheating within the contexts of various philosophies, reporting cheating is a much more challenging moral dilemma than cheating in the first place. From a utilitarian evaluation, there is no clear answer. It could cause the cheater incredible unhappiness if reported while bearing the potential for unhappiness to the reporter through retribution. On the other hand, it could be good for the cheater, ultimately making them a better person, while benefiting the entire class by more fairly representing the grade distribution. When considered for universalizability, it still seems like it could go either way, with reporting, it seems like cheating would quickly become a much more clandestine activity or become eradicated, while without reporting it seems like it would maintain the current status quo, which is generally working. Either way, it's difficult to say which is right, which may be what's leading to the disconnect between thought and action.

Is there an ethical imperative to report cheating whenever it is witnessed? What are the reasons to report or abstain from reporting cheating? Is there a better way, perhaps, to prevent these dilemmas in the first place?


This entry was written based upon Barnes' "Student Honor: A study in cheating", Carter's "Cheating as Seen by College Students", statistics from www.plagerism.org, and David Callahan's book, "The Cheating Culture."

Tortilla…how you taunt me so

Tuesday, April 11th, 2006
Now that I've settled in for the most part, I've been trying to cook a few 'Spanish' dishes. I'm starting easy, and there are a few things I can do that don't really count as cooking that do count as Spanish. This includes beans and chorizo, bread at every meal, nesquik for breakfast, and flan....mmm...flan. Tortilla should be simple. It's potatoes, eggs, onion, and salt. Here was my first attempt.
There was definitely room for improvement, but it tasted right. Unfortunately the second time turned out much worse. Third time's a charm? So I'm not much of a cook. It's probably good though, because we haven't much of a kitchen, nor cooking utensils.

Also wanted to post the picture of the birds that live on my clothes line for Dad. It's not a great shot. I like them. It's kinda nice to just have them there in the midst of the city. It's not the same as the birds on the feeder with the woods back home, but it's better than nothing.

Cheating

Tuesday, April 11th, 2006
Cheating is a moral dilemma that faces college students regularly, but is perhaps particularly interesting in the case of Olin students. We are an honor code school, which should mean that students are more honorable than at lesser institutions, but the honor code also provides us with many opportunities to cheat. Professors trust us and feel no qualms about letting us take our test wherever we please, monitoring our own use of external resources, and limiting our own time. Are we really to be trusted? Are we cheating? And can cheating ever be justified?

Outside the academic context, cheating the system becomes a much larger societal force. The Enron scandle dominated the news outlets for months with stories of cheating investors and employees out of millions of dollars. WorldCom and Tyco both have similar stories of corporate cheating, showing that Enron is not an isolated case; corporate cheating could be more widespread than previously thought. Cheating in the business world certainly can't be contained to these large cheating scandals, it must exist at less severe levels. Just among office workers, it seems that small instances of fraud, such as stealing office supplies, are commonly accepted.

Even outside a business and academic context, cheating is purvasive among everyday, average people and activities. People cheat yearly on their taxes to keep their hard earned money from the government. People cheat to gain promotions or raises at work. People will return items to stores after use, or even switch price tags on items in order to say a few dollars. There seems to be no limit to the cheating behavior present in everyday life.

I admit that cheating is a tempting proposition; it seems like there are so many chances to cheat that are "victimless" crimes, what motivates us to be honest in these situations? What keeps me from opening my Chemistry textbook during my next exam in order to look up an answer that I forgot? What keeps my parents from cheating on their taxes in order to get a refund from the government rather than giving up more of their money to support governmental programs that are already in debt? What harm does returning a slightly used tea pot do?

Cheating seems like it should be such a straightforeward moral dilemma, most people probably say it is uniformly wrong. If that is the case, why do so many people committ acts that could be considered cheating? When is cheating justified? What factors should play into a decision to cheat? Do we need to cheat to survive in modern society?

Lying to Yourself

Monday, April 10th, 2006

Self-deception is a tricky topic. I know that I am lying to myself on a daily basis, probably dozens of times per day, but I believe these lies, so I don't really know what I am lying to myself about. Only later, when things fall apart do I see the erroneous beliefs I had been grasping. This situation has happened repeatedly in my life with judgments on skill level to things I believe I fundamentally desire or could do without. From a philosophy of the mind and psychology standpoint, the logistics of self-deception are an interesting phenomena, but from an ethics standpoint the fundamental cause is the truly interesting issue. When people lie to themselves can it be innocent, or is it an indicator of a deeper failure of morals? Further, what kind of implications does this have for all other judgments a person makes?

Self deception seems to come in a number of different forms, but in general has to fit the definition that a person both has the knowledge to realize that the thought or belief is false, but refuses to acknowledge this, instead acting on and truly believing the opposite. Pretending to believe that something is true does not qualify and must be excluded from this definition. Basing all forms off this definition, self deception could be a form of wishful thinking, delusion, faith, or even weakness. Each case would be considered differently from a moral point of view.

Wishful thinking seems like a common type of self-deception; everyone wants to believe that they are better at x skill or have more familiarity with y task than is actually true. When actually believed, this kind of self-deception is often also considered the most innocent. In many occasions it only affects the person with the false beliefs, and sometimes even then does not negatively affect the person. This mild form of self-deception also has the tendency to be short-lived, making it even more innocent. A person suffering from wishful thinking still maintains their ability to judge other issues and ideas as they are in actuality.

Delusion as the basis for self-deception is much more serious than wishful thinking. Delusion implies that there is a deeper mental disconnect happening that perhaps is causing a widespread pattern of self deception, often with very little control involved. Although, again, without control this is a seemingly innocent activity, the delusion is a sign that the entire perception of reality may not be real. For this reason, self-deception based upon delusion implies that other decisions may not be sound either. A person suffering this kind of self-deception can not be considered completely responsible, but neither can they be trusted to make sound moral judgments in other areas.

Faith is a touchier form of self-deception; many people would reasonably argue that faith is not a form self-deception at all. Faith can be seen in two ways - either it can be considered to go against evidence, as perceived by those who do not have it, or it can be considered beyond evidence, an argument often made by those who do have it. The latter would, for obvious reasons, not see faith as a form of self-deception, while the former would seem faith as a direct denial of logical evidence. In motivation, faith is a belief borne out of a respect for a higher power than ourselves. It can hardly be stated that such religious beliefs are malicious; to the contrary, religious beliefs often include tenets of understanding and non-violence towards others. In most cases of faith, it seems that the intent is innocent. With respect to being allowed to make other moral judgments, faith alone is not enough to prove that a person is incapable of making sound ethical considerations. While specific religions will often influence actions in a manner that is not considered moral by all (e.g. killing in the name of religion), faith itself seems pure of motive and not necessarily influential in other moral judgments.

The case of weakness appears very clear cut. Weakness, almost by definition, is not considered a good trait. A weakness of will leading to self-deception can not be positive for the person involved. Further, it reflects badly on the person's ability to make other moral decisions, as was the case with delusion. As a society, we tend to attribute trust to people who have the moral will to face ethical decision and situations that are not easy in an honest manner. People who have a weakness of will cannot be trusted in the same fashion.

Can people who are subject to self-deception be trusted? When and why?


This post is based on "Self-Deception" by Paula Boddington and "Lying to Oneself" by Rafael Demos, as well as readings from Sissela Bok's "Lying : Moral Choice in Public and Private Life".

Rome

Tuesday, April 4th, 2006
Sorry, this is going to be a long one. Bear with me…

I was blessed to have the opportunity to spend last week in Rome . I went there with a group of ‘jovenes’ (young people) from my church, San Juan de Mata. It’s run by the Trinitarians (a religious order) who also have a house in Rome , so we were fortunate enough to stay there for the week. During the week, we moved very slowly as a group, often having to stop and wait for one or two people (out of twelve) to shop or look at something. By the end of the week I found this infuriating, especially since Thursday morning we were going to see the catacombs, but were too late. Then we were going to go back when they were open in the afternoon, but were too late, and then were going to go Friday morning, but guess what? Too late. Argh…me hacían loco. So now that that is out of my system, I’ll try to do no more complaining this entry.

On the flight there I got my first view of the Mediterranean . Hopefully some day I’ll see it when I’m not in a plane…maybe a boat or from the beach. We flew over 3 islands on the way there (Minora, Majorca, and Corsica?). Landing in Italy was the same as landing in Spain at first. It was kind of surreal for me to think that here I was in Italy . It was a pleasant change from Spain though. It was very green and there were farms all around, and except for some mountains in the background, it actually reminded me very much of home.

Sunday we went straight to the Vatican Museums which have free admission the last Sunday of every month. This meant the line was huge and we waited for about 2 hours, but you can’t beat free I suppose. The main motivation for going to the museums is the Sistine Chapel. We didn’t spend nearly enough time in the chapel (5min?), but it was still amazing to see. Just as amazing was running into Heidi there. Heidi is a Wellesley student whom I know through Bible Talk at Olin. She’s been studying in France since September and was visiting Rome that day with two Wellesley friends studying in Cordoba . It was terrific to see a familiar face. Even though I’d seen Madge and Jo not too long ago, it definitely made my day. :) How crazy is that? Randomly run into someone you know while in Rome …crazy…still getting over that one. Of course there’s the famous panel with God and Adam. There’s also one two panels down that I guess is semi-famous. It depicts a wrathful God on the right and God turned and flying away? on the left. As Heidi pointed out, we got to see God’s butt. Hah.

Also had my first view of the Piazza di San Pietro ( Pla za of Saint Peter ) and the Basilica of Saint Peter. It was incredible to walk into the plaza through the pillars and just to think that I was actually standing there.

Monday we went to the Colosseum. This was another one of those crazy moments just because it’s so famous. It’s something you see so much of, but it’s always in a different world and suddenly you’re in that world. It’s fairly imposing even as worn as it is. It’s impressive to think what it must’ve been like when it was new and viewed without the modern buildings around it. Right next to the Colosseum, we saw the Foro Romano and Palatino. They are the ruins of the Roman Forum. They don’t look like much now, but from the hill it’s quite the view. Also saw the Altar della Patria, a monument to the first King of a unified Italy . It’s ginormous for a monument. It’s so much bigger than anything around it, that it’s easily viewed from any vantage points in the city. I don’t know why exactly, but I found it fascinating. There are also two guards and lit flames in the front. They guard the tomb of the unknown soldier, just like we have in Arlington .

Tuesday we were privileged to see the Vatican Gardens . The Trinitarians there had made reservations to us. We were told that they only admit 100 people a day, but I have to think it’s 100 people at a time. Either way, it worked out nicely that you can wander and see the gardens without it being swamped with tourists as is the rest of the city. (Granted this is Vatican City and not actually Rome .) The Gardens were pretty and had a good view of the Basilica from the back. The church in the cemetery of Vatican city also had this interesting statue in it. Not your typical Catholic church adorning material, but interesting at the very least. In the evening we visited the Trinitarians main house and met the leaders of the order. One was an Indian man who studied in Baltimore for many years. We enjoyed speaking English for a while.

Wednesday we had our audience with the Pope. It wasn’t a private audience inside the Basilica, as this is all but impossible, but the Trinitarians had managed to get us tickets to the audience Wednesday morning in the Plaza. The plaza was gated off with guards and getting in was like going through airport security. The readings and his message were given in 5 or 6 languages…can’t quite remember (Italian, English, German, Spanish, something that sounded like Russian to me, but I wouldn’t know, and maybe something else). In Spanish, the Pope gave a special welcome to the Young People from San Juan de Mata in Salamanca Spain . Had our group on the list I suppose. It was kind of exciting, but more like a huge pep rally than anything else. The one thing I hate about large groups is how it always works that we’re sitting and everyone can see decently well, then some people stand and then everyone has to stand. Next people are standing on chairs and then everyone is on the chairs…excellent. We all had a better view when we were sitting…. Anyway, yes the red speck is Benedict XVI.

Thursday had an Italian meal. Panzerotti Ricotti e Spinaci con Condimenti de Gargonzola e noci. Ricotta and Spinach filled ravioli in a gorgonzola cheese and walnut sauce. OMG….still drooling and now I’m hungry. Also got to see the Basilica of Saint Paul. It has a gigantic statue of Saint Paul in the front wielding a sword and looking (as Fran pointed out) much like Gandalf. Anyway, David told me the sword represents both the word of God and also the fact that Paul fought for Christianity (though it wasn’t called that yet) in the diaspora. The inside was done in a much different style than any of the cathedrals I’ve been in. It’s extremely ornate and there’s lots of gold everywhere. It also has a portrait of every single pope ever up near the ceiling. It’s quite impressive really. Also here's the Castille Sant'Angelo and the River Tiber.

This guy's now on the crest of Rome. It's the wolf feeding Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome. Kinda weird if you ask me, but they seem to like it.

Then Friday after our failed attempt to see the catacombs I finally decided to keep walking the next time they stopped to shop. It paid off. We were all planning to climb the cupola (dome) of Saint Peter’s. We were more than a mile but less than two from it, and we were going to take a bus. Anyway, over so short a distance, I got there 1.5 hours ahead them. They were (guess what?) to late to see climb the cupola as the line was too long. Andrew got to see it though, and it was an amazing view of the city. The Americans behind me were tripping out as we went up and couldn’t figure out why the walls started to slant and curve sideways as we were trying to climb up the stairs. Yes, it did crazy things to my perspective and was hard to balance, but kind of made sense. We were after all climbing up a dome, no? Between the interior and exterior walls, I expect there wasn’t a whole lot of extra space for stairwells. The Plaza of Saint Peter from the top of the cupola was precious.

Saturday I came back home and was exhausted. Though at many points annoyed during the trip, retrospect makes things better, and I really had a fantastic time. I can still hardly believe I was there. Still have to go back someday to see the catacombs. I hear they’re great.