Falling in Love with Firenze

Cathedral @ Night
The Firenze Cathedral under a full moon.

Just got back from an awesome trip to Italy! It was my first trip within Europe since moving to Spain and I will remember it forever. Italy is a beautiful country! The architecture, the food, the wine, the people, and the language combined make for an incredibly romantic and magical atmosphere that I have never encountered before.

I travelled with three other friends from work at CYPE, and we had a blast. We flew into Bolonia, rented a car and drove to Florence (Firenze) and Pisa. Here are the trip’s highlights:

  1. Parking! It took us at least half an hour to find parking and it involved manoeuvring into impossibly tight spaces and bumping into both cars in the front and back. One parking job required the re-location of a dumpster.
  2. Driving! Italian Drivers drive wherever there is space on the road without much regard for traffic rules or street markings. Mopeds are often seen tailgating ambulances and whizzing past gridlock by driving in the centre of the road.
  3. “Tonight’s Going to be a Good Night” by the Black-Eyed Peas. We heard it at least 2 or 3 times a day.
  4. Ordering 1 L of red house wine with dinner every night.
  5. Finishing an entire bottle of Limone liquor on our first night.
  6. Waiting for 2 hours to see a 20-metre… uh 6-metre tall statue of David.
  7. Getting lost in the walled city of Lucca.
  8. Always being the last ones to eat in restaurants at night, and always finding restaurants closed for lunch at 4pm.

You can also check out a multitude of pictures in my gallery.

Rafa Near Firenze
Raphael overlooking the city of Florence at sunset.

Buenos Días

Wow! Time flies. On Tuesday I will pass the three-week mark here in Spain. I just woke up not too long ago as last night was Fiesta Night! Wondering what a Fiesta is? It usually starts with a big dinner at around 10pm, followed by some drinks. At around 1 or 2 in the morning, you head to a few nightclubs and dance until around 6 or 7 in the morning. Afterwards, it is common for people to go for breakfast near the beach. Last night I only made it till 4 in the morning, but I still have plenty of time to build up my endurance.

A week ago, I had a dream that I left Spain still not speaking much Spanish. I made it my priority to find a way to take Spanish Lessons, and next week I’ll start with my first Spanish Lesson at a language school in downtown Alicante. It should work well as my current schedule at work allows for a 2-hour lunch break, and from now on, one of those hours will be a Spanish class. I hope to learn quickly since I’m always immersed in Spanish. All my co-workers speak Spanish, I have to occasionally read and translate Spanish documents, and the documents I produce are in Spanish as well.

Work at CYPE is really enjoyable so far! The working environment is great: everyone dresses casual, other engineers are always more than happy to help out when you run into problems, and the work is very self-driven. I am really surprised at how much responsibility and freedom I have after just two weeks here. I spent two days getting trained on how to use the software, was shown my desk, and was told to go through the American Steel Code (used to determine if steel structures in the USA are safe to build). CYPE’s software uses these codes to analyze CAD models of structures and report any problems to the user. In my first week, I found a few small errors in the code and began working with a programmer right away to fix them. In my second week, I was asked to train a new intern to use the same tools I was using to get his job done.

In other news, I’ve booked my first two trips!

From October 2-7, I’ll be travelling to Bologna, Pisa, and Florence with some co-workers. The round-trip flight from Alicante cost me 40 euros (although my friends got the fare for 20 euros), and we’ll be renting a car when we’re there so we can drive around and explore. Look for a post upon my return!

From November 21-24, I’ll be travelling to London and meeting up with some friends who are working in Switzerland. I managed to get this flight for only 20 euros with Ryanair 😉

While I haven’t booked it yet, I’m also planning to travel to Malta to spend Christmas with my family and friends for the first time in 18 years.

That’s all for now. Check back soon for more updates!

One Week in Alicante, Spain

It’s been just over a week since I first arrived in Spain and I think I am finally settled in. With the help of Nicole, another EngSci student here on PEY, I was able to find a large room with a newly installed hardwood floor, TV, desk, and private ensuite bathroom for just 280 euros a month. Not only is the room nice, but it’s located right in downtown Alicante, just minutes away from the beach and nightlife, and it’s across the street from work! Here are some pictures:

A typical day in Spain goes something like this:

7:45am – Wake up after my cell phone alarm has gone off for the third time.

8:00am – Check my e-mail.

8:20am – Eat a quick breakfast.

8:28am – Leave home.

8:31am – Arrive at my desk at work. The mornings are usually not the most productive since I’m still tired, but I usually figure out what it is that I need to accomplish for the day.

11:30am – 2nd breakfast! In our office at CYPE, everyone works in “boxes” or clusters of 6 people. Every box tends to hang out together, except for my box which splits up and goes with people from other boxes. Since I’m new, everyone wants me to join them, so I tend to rotate which groups I eat with. 2nd Breakfast consists of walking to a nearby cafe and ordering a “tostada media con tomate y un cafe con leche” which is a toasted panini-like bun topped with olive oil and crushed tomatoes, usually seasoned with garlic, salt, and pepper. “Cafe con leche” is basically the Spanish equivalent of a cappucino. 2nd Breakfast costs anywhere in the range of 1.90 to 2.20 euros depending on where you go.

12:00pm – Back to work. I usually get the most work done in this period of time since I would have just had a coffee.

2:30pm – Lunch break! I typically go home for lunch since it’s just 2 minutes away. Sometimes people from work go out to eat at a nearby restaurant, and sometimes I’ll go to the supermarket to buy fresh bread with which to make a “bocadillo”.

3:30pm – Return to work. Sometimes I’ll take another hour for lunch and return to work at 4:30, but then I have to stay an extra hour at the end of the day.

6:30PM – Home time, unless I took a 2-hour lunch. Also, on Fridays, we skip lunch and leave at 3:00pm. During the summer months, we get out of work at 3:00pm every day.

7:00PM – Go for a run by the beach. There’s a nice 6K route along the water.

8:30PM – Start cooking dinner (unless Nicole is cooking for me… we tend to take turns cooking for each other).

10:00PM – Do stuff on my computer (like upload pictures, respond to e-mails, and update my blog).

12:00AM – Bed time.

As it’s now midnight, it’s time for me to go to bed.

Adios! Here are some pictures (I’m now experimenting with Flickr):

(Almost) Virtually Exploding Buildings

Professor Bentz with Drew and I
Professor Bentz with Drew and I.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to work with a prominent Civil Engineering professor at the University of Toronto. Professor Evan C. Bentz specializes in structural engineering, and his work focuses on developing software to aid in the analysis and simulation of structures. Professor Bentz has an incredible personality, great sense of humour, and can talk about almost anything to almost anyone for as long as he is able to talk and someone is able to listen. Some of the most interesting and random conversations of my entire life were had last summer in Professor Bentz’s office. This was my first research position, and I really lucked out because I got to work with some incredible people, and ended up doing something I found enjoyable.

My main projects this summer were centred around making Professor Bentz’s software run more efficiently and accurately. The software suite includes Membrane-2000 and Response-2000 for modelling walls, beams, and columns, and Augustus for assembling elements into a structure and running tests on them.

One particular project involved writing a Visual Basic script to accept data from a large spreadsheet database of experimental test results for beams and convert individual tests into a series of input files that could be read by the software. This allowed for an automated way of verifying the simulation test results with real data. Once completed, the macro generated all necessary files in under a minute for over 2000 entries, whereas it probably would have taken a year to do them all by hand.

My next project  was meant to push Augustus to its limits by designing and testing a model of a 20-storey apartment building in the Greater Toronto Area that Professor Bentz had previously done some analysis for. After three weeks of interpreting design drawings, mapping out the geometry of the structure, and defining all the structural elements, I excitedly pushed the button to run the tests and the software crashed. While it was disappointing not to get any results, it ended up leading to my most interesting and challenging project.

The core issue, or so we believe, with the Augustus software not being able to run the tests on the building was that the data that the software reads in is not stored efficiently. The software performs its analysis using the “Stiffness Method”, which is an easy way for a computer to calculate displacements on large structures. Every node, or point of interest, in the structure is represented by a number stored in a matrix. The matrix contains all the information about how each node has displaced as the tests run.

This issue lead to the development of a Genetic Algorithm (based on this blog post) to try and optimize the matrix before any calculations were run. After banging my head on a desk for about a week, things started to click, and the development began to progress fairly rapidly. By the end of the third week working on the project, we started getting some positive results that the Genetic Algorithm we implemented performed better than more traditional methods, but took significantly longer to execute (especially for matrices greater than 100×100 in size).

After spending a week on optimizing the algorithms used thanks to MATLAB’s handy profiler, the operation time was cut down significantly and our program could compute matrices up to 500×500 in size within a minute, even on a slow (1.86 GHz) processor.

The Genetic Algorithm project was the focus of a presentation I made at the Undergraduate Engineering Research Day at U of T, mainly since the use of genetic algorithms was such a novel and interesting approach to solving the matrix bandwidth reduction problem. The presentation, which was developed from 10pm – 3am the night before (since we only got results the same day) went very well and I was awarded the prize of a top presenter.

Overall my research experience was fun, challenging, and a great way to spend my summer. While I was paid roughly the same as when I was the Site Director for an entire YMCA camp, I had far less responsibility, got to work with some brilliant and dynamic people, and enjoyed the great flexibility in working hours that the academia world offers. My research team had very little supervision, and the vast majority of our work was all self-driven. The best part of the position was that I was constantly challenged. Whenever I began feeling comfortable and in control of a project, I was thrown something else that seemed impossible in the beginning, but was always successfully accomplished in the end. Furthermore, this project will serve as an excellent lead-in to my PEY work term in Spain with CYPE Ingenieros, and has opened the doors to future thesis work when I return to Canada in 2010 to finish my degree.

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Preparing for a Professional Experience Year… in Spain!

A shot of Raphael in the Sicilian countryside.
Raphael in the Sicilian countryside.

It was two summers ago when visiting my family in Europe that I first got the travel bug. At the time, I had just finished my first year of Engineering Science and dreamed of working in Europe for a summer. The prospect of learning a new language, being immersed in another culture, and having the freedom to travel to many fascinating places has always excited me.

When it came time to decide if I was going to do a Professional Experience Year (PEY) term in third year, I came to the conclusion that I would either find a rewarding international experience to pursue or continue on to fourth year and complete my degree. As a student of the Infrastructure Engineering program, there were great opportunities to work in different countries and I applied to jobs in the both the United States and Europe.

Last December, I was hired to complete a 12-month work term in Alicante, Spain starting in September 2009. I’ll be working with a local Spanish engineering firm called CYPE Ingenieros, S.A.. My main focus will be on the expansion of a CAD software that can automatically verify if the designs for a structure meet the building code in the country where it will be constructed. I’ll be succeeding another Engineering Science Infrastructure student, Geoff Frost (0T9+PEY), who has worked at CYPE since September 2008. While I can’t share my PEY experiences yet, you can follow me on my journey by visiting my blog at http://raphsammut.ca/.

Raphael receiving his first place prize at the Canadian Engineering Competitions in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Raphael receiving his first place prize at the Canadian Engineering Competitions in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

In addition to finding work abroad, I was able to fulfill my appetite for travelling during the school year as well. This past winter, I competed in the University of Toronto Engineering Kompetitions (UTEK) and won first place in the Engineering Communication division for my presentation on emerging applications of RFID technology. This led me to compete in the Ontario Engineering Competitions (OEC) in Guelph where I won second place and qualified for the national level of competitions. At the Canadian Engineering Competitions (CEC), held in Fredericton, New Brunswick, I built upon all the feedback received from the earlier competitions and won first place along with a sponsorship to attend the first National Engineering Summit in Montreal held last May.

Currently, I am working with Professor Evan Bentz as a summer research student. My main projects have been related to the development of Augustus, a software suite that acts as a post-processor for the Finite Element Method (FEM) analysis of structural elements. Augustus has recently been expanded to allow easy modelling and simulation of entire structures.

Website Established


RaphSammut.ca (and RaphSammut.com) is now the home of Raphael Sammut’s personal blog.

I’ve been meaning to set up a site for some time now, and decided to get something together this summer while I’ve still got lots of spare time.

I’ll be updating this portal fairly frequently with entries, pictures, and other media as great experiences occur in my life. I’ll also have to catch up a fair bit with some events from the past that deserve publication.

Some exciting entries to look forward to:

  • A summary of the first National Engineering Summit held in Montreal from May 19-21.
  • I’ll be taking a trip to Vancouver during the last week of July for a 5-day camp in the Squamish Valley (near Whistler).
  • A bike trip (still in the works), likely in the Niagara region.
  • Business Ventures! Yes, I’ve started my first business and have many more ideas brewing. Stay tuned for updates.
  • A 12-month work term in Alicante, Spain with CYPE Ingeneiros (and lots of travelling, too!) starting in September 2009.
  • Reflections, as inspiration strikes me.

Until my next post,