What I did on my Summer Vacation

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Travel, Structural Engineering, and Tech Startups!

With school starting this week in many parts of the United States, at this moment millions of students are completing the traditional first homework assignment of the school year: writing an essay entitled “What I did on my Summer Vacation”.  During my childhood, this exercise was always considered to be the best way to transition us kids from the lazing, fun-loving, carefree boys and girls of summer to the laser-focused, hardworking achievers of the other nine months of the year.  What better way was there to get me to slide back into work mode, than thinking about the hours I spent scavenging through the neighbors’ trash, looking for parts to build a go kart (summer before sixth grade)?  Or recapping all the time spent researching, via trial and error, the optimal grass-mud mix for sunbaked bricks, as I tried to build a full-scale replica of a Sumerian ziggurat in my back yard (summer before fifth grade)?

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For years that essay always served well to kickstart me into higher gear.  And you know, I can probably still use something like that today…I’ve slacked off a bit on the blog this summer, and it’s time to get back in the swing of things.  So with a nod of appreciation to Miss Kola, Mrs. Barlow, Mrs. Brandt, and the many other teachers who gave me this assignment in elementary school, I present to you, my fellow classmates – “What I did on my Summer Vacation”.

This summer I went on a vacation that engaged my three passions: world travel, structural engineering, and tech startups.  The trip took me Istanbul, Turkey; Tbilisi, Georgia; and Yerevan, Armenia.  Georgia and Armenia became countries #86 and #87 in my quest to reach 100 and qualify for membership in the Travelers Century Club.  At my current pace, I expect I will reach my goal in 4-5 more years.  But now on to the more interesting stuff…

I’ve always found Istanbul to be a structural engineer’s wonderland.  Ancient ruins still survive everywhere: the Theodosian Walls from 400 AD, the Basilica Cistern from the sixth century.  The skyline of Istanbul is dominated by the most elegant of engineering structures: domes and minarets, specialties of the great Ottoman engineer/architect Mimar Sinan.

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Mimar Sinan – I’m proud to stand
before him and say “Mühendisim*”
(*“I am an engineer”)

But my favorite structure in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia.  Built as a church by Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great in 537 AD, with its dome greater than 100 feet across and 180 feet high, it remained the largest enclosed building in the world for close to 1,000 years.  Today, nearly 1600 years after its construction, it has survived earthquakes, fires, riots, wars, and conversion from church to mosque to museum.  It reigns today as a testimonial to the enduring innovation of the engineers behind it: Isidore of Miletus and his nephew, Isidorus the Younger.

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Hagia Sophia, Yours Truly

Revolutionizing architecture not only because of its size, but also due to its unique means of combining the rectangular structure of the Roman Basilica with the dome of the Roman Pantheon, Hagia Sophia is one of the landmark structures in architectural history.  But equally important is its significance in the world of seismic design.  Located on the North Anatolian Fault, Hagia Sophia has survived centuries of  powerful earthquakes which felled many newer buildings.

The secret behind that success?  It is all revealed in this episode of PBS’s Nova, which chronicles the findings of Eser Çaktı’s research team at the Earthquake Engineering Lab at Boğaziçi University: it seems that the forward thinking designers of the Hagia Sophia developed many techniques that anticipated those used by modern earthquake engineers, and which should ensure survival through earthquakes far greater than any that Istanbul has ever experienced.

SV-4Scale model of Hagia Sophia on a hydraulic shake table,
about to get hit by a megaquake

After Istanbul, it was on to Tbilisi, and more interesting structures.  The charming capital of Georgia offers a comprehensive overview of the area’s structural history, showcasing medieval fortresses and churches, the most modern bridges and public buildings, as well as everything in between.

SV-5 Downtown Tbilisi – the old to the modern

In Yerevan, Armenia I got a chance to satisfy my third area of interest – tech startups (besides being CEO of the CloudCalc startup, in my spare time I mentor software startups at the Surge Accelerator in Houston, TX).  While there I had the opportunity to visit the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies.  This non-profit facility, founded by the American tech entrepreneur Sam Simonian and his wife Sylva in 2011, has taken on the task of creating a generation of technology entrepreneurs.  Whereas before, Armenian youth did not have many tech role models or opportunities to immerse themselves in the world of software, now they have the coolest place in the Caucasus.

Tumo employs a stealth strategy.  It first baits the trap by setting out hundreds of computers equipped with the latest apps, and then opens its doors to the 12-18 year olds of Yerevan.  Once the teens have experienced all they can as consumers of technology, they are approached with a proposition – would they be interested in learning how to become creators of that technology?  The center offers curricula – free of charge – covering such subjects as software development, digital design, 3D printing, digital recording, etc.  From that fertile environment, tech entrepreneurs are expected to emerge, who will then rent co-working space from Tumo, which will help defray the cost of continuing to offer free access to the center.

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Next gen tech entrepreneurs discovering their fortes

The effect is viral – the more students that experience Tumo, the more the word gets around and others want to do so as well.  Already demand around the country has increased to the point that Tumo is opening branches in additional cities.  According to Caucasus expert Professor Katy Pearce of the University of Washington, in the first three years of Tumo’s existence, the number of Armenians who reported using the internet on a daily basis increased from 14% to 37%.  Chicken or egg?  It hardly matters, as Tumo is either helping fuel the increase or providing the tech-savvy generation that will be able to serve the demands of that increase.

SV-7My host at Tumo, Hayk Galstyan – thanks for the tour!

Travel…structural engineering…and tech startups…and that’s what I did on my summer vacation!

OK, engineers, summer vacation’s over, and it’s time to get back to work!  There’s no better way to work than CloudCalc, the scalable, collaborative, cloud-based engineering software.  www.cloudcalc.com – Structural Analysis in the Cloud.

By Tom Van Laan

Copyright © CloudCalc, Inc. 2015

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