Italy, day 1


Our trip from Ireland to Italy was a relatively short hop, only about 1200 miles and we landed at the Linate airport near downtown Milan around 11:00 a.m.. Our friend Silvio was there to meet us and took us to his home where we’d be staying for a few days. We’d stayed with Silvio and his family on several occasions when we visited Italy previously.

I first met Silvio in 1992 while working on a product known as a ‘headspace sampler’ for HP in a division that is now part of Agilent Technologies. I was an R&D engineer for HP and Silvio worked as the chief electrical engineer for a company in Monza, Italy which had developed a headspace sampler that is an input device for Gas Chromatographs. The HP division where I worked was located in Avondale, Pennsylvania and we were looking to expand our product line by offering a new headspace sampler with an HP brand name but we didn’t want to design one from scratch. This kind of deal is quite common and often times a product will be customized and offered for sale through a company other than the one that designed it, especially if the company has better brand recognition than the OEM (original equipment manufacturer). In the case of the headspace sampler, we made some changes which included re-designing the keyboard and user interface prior to offering it as an HP product. It was a commercial success and the relationship, as far as I know, continues to this day and the product has had a number of updates over the years.

A headspace sampler is an automated sampling device that takes samples in small vials (usually about 40 ml) and incubates them at a controlled temperature to get the volatile compounds to fill the space above the sample. Then the headspace sampler pierces a rubber seal on the top of the vial with a syringe and pulls out the gas over the sample, i.e., the ‘headspace’, and injects it into a gas chromatograph. The sampler can have many vials and run the samples unattended into the gas chromatograph for days at a time. The gas chromatograph separates the compounds in the gas and analyzes them with a detector to determine the concentrations of various compounds. A headspace sampler is typically used when the substance cannot be effectively vaporized. Generally speaking, most samples are injected into a gas chromatograph as liquids and then vaporized in an injector which is at a high temperature. But not all substances will vaporize properly. Anything that contains solids is a candidate for a headspace sampler to help measure the volatile compounds it contains.

One of the more interesting parts of that program was getting to go to customer sites to see how the product was being used. I found the police lab in New Jersey quite fascinating. We installed a unit there and I talked with the chemist responsible for drug testing. Since blood cannot be vaporized because it contains cells, headspace sampling is an ideal way to check for the presence of alcohol and other drugs in blood. When I asked the lab technician how frequently he found drugs in blood, he said that almost all of the blood samples gave positive results. I guess that makes sense since a person’s blood would be unlikely to show up at a police lab without some reason.

I’ve since moved from Pennsylvania to Colorado to work on HP’s data storage products, but it’s still gratifying to know that the program we worked on together many years ago resulted in a product line that is still around. We have managed to keep in touch with each other over the years with periodic emails and visits.

Silvio and his son Davide visited us last October and we began discussing a possible trip to Italy since it had been a long time since we’d been there. I believe our last trip was around 1998. We had also promised some of my relatives in Ireland that we’d come back soon after having visiting them in 2003. So we decided to visit both countries this time and take at least 2 weeks off which turned into nearly 3 weeks. As I mentioned in a previous posting, we also planned to visit Brussels and Amsterdam on this trip.

One of the things we talked about for future visits was the possibility to do a motorcycle ride in Italy. Silvio had asked his insurance company if his coverage would apply to loaning his bike to a friend and found out that it did. Renting a high performance motorcycle in Europe can be a hassle with high daily fees and high insurance rates. It’s also impossible to adjust your schedule should poor riding weather make it impossible to take the trip at time you’ve reserved for it. They want the money in advance, too.

Shortly after arriving at Silvio’s home, he gave me a familiarization ride on his Honda VFR-800 by having me follow him through the streets of Monza while he used his son’s motorbike to visit a local store. After I got back, he decided to have us follow him for a longer ride which ended up in Lecco, which is at the southern tip of Lake Como. I quickly realized that in Italy motorcycles pass cars at every opportunity and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. The cars will even move over to give some extra room up so you can pass. If they don’t move over, you can use the stripe down the middle of the road as your ‘passing lane’. It seemed like a very aggressive riding style to me, but like they say, “When in Rome… or in Monza… that matter… :-).

Terri rode on the back of the VFR-800 to Lecco and it was a good indoctrination to the Italian style of motorcycle riding. I was impressed with the horsepower of the VFR-800. Even though my BMW R1150RT has more a larger displacement engine (1150 cc vs. 800 cc), the VFR has neck-snapping acceleration and a very high red line that allows it to keep up with sport bikes more easily than I could with the BMW. I looked forward to putting the bike to the test when we got to climb up into the Alps… but that would have to wait for another day.