Defying Gravity

Winter PalaceHello from sunny St Petersburg. Yes - it really is sunny, although cold. The temperature hasn't risen above freezing since I arrived more than a week ago, which is probably a good thing since once it does the accumulated snow turns to a black sludge, making it impossible to stay clean.

The majority of the Java SE TCK development team is based here in St Petersburg. Sun has had a long history in Russia, and the TCK team was one of the first to be located here.

We actually had two groups, one in St Petersburg and the other in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Both were employed indirectly as contractors rather than as full-time Sun employees. In the middle of 2004 we decided it was time to open a permanent office and to hire people directly. We currently have more than 300 people in St Petersburg and we're still growing.

Kirovsky Zavod metro station In an earlier blog entry I talked about the difference between artisans and engineers. In Russia the emphasis is definitely on engineering. The rigorous scientific and mathematical training our engineers receive makes them particularly well suited for conformance testing. We're fortunate to be able to hire from such a pool of skilled talent.

St Petersburg is a wonderful city to visit at any time of year, with some spectacular architecture. I like to walk around the city center (the Winter Palace is five minutes's walk from my apartment) but it's also fun to travel by metro. The system is very efficient - trains run every three minutes or so - and some of the metro stations are very impressive architecturally. (In Moscow, apparently, they are even more beautiful - this site has lots of photos.)

Socialism: the Vostok rocketOn Sunday, rather than walking I made a couple of trips that were particularly enjoyable.

During the afternoon I visited the Museum of Space Exploration and Rocket Technology in the Peter and Paul Fortress. It's a small museum (I like them that way, so I can fully explore without getting sore feet) dedicated to the history of rocket technology. There are a variety of rocket engines on display, and also scale models of various spacecraft and surface-exploration vehicles. (They also have the actual landing capsule from the Soyuz 16 spacecraft.)

Vostok EngineFor anyone who was brought up on science-fiction from the 1950s and 1960s as I was this is a wonderful place to visit.

I found the rocket engines from the pre space-flight period (the 1930s and 1940s) almost more interesting than the "real" engines. These seem to have been constructed using techniques similar to those used by the master mechanical and hydraulic engineers who built steam-engines during the nineteenth century. (Another of my favorite museums is the Museum of Science and Industry in my home city of Manchester, England where you can see a variety of beautiful steam engines.)

I was surprised how "simple" the devices seemed to be (lots of tubing, nuts and bolts, valves, and so on.) I don't want to pretend that you could have constructed one of these devices in your home workshop, but they definitely seemed much less "modern" than I expected.

There was also a wonderful array of electrical generators that was used to demonstrate the feasibility of electrically-powered engines such as those that are used today for fine navigational control in spacecraft. It would have been right at home on the set of a Frankenstein movie.

Swan Lake ballerinasIn the evening I experienced another kind of flight during a visit to the Mariinsky ballet (known as the Kirov during the Soviet era). This company pretty much defined the classical ballet repertoire, and they've been doing this for 250 years. The experience shows...

I saw Swan Lake, which is probably the archetypical Russian ballet, and it was wonderful. The dancers seemed weightless as they soared into the air. (The precision engineering of the ensemble dances was also pretty impressive!)

Swan Lake: prince jumpUnlike in the US, ballet and opera are genuinely popular art-forms. You don't have to book months in advance, and ticket prices are very reasonable. Highly recommended.

I return home to California next weekend, but I'm already looking forward to my next visit to St Petersburg, which will be during the White Nights summer season.





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Patrick Curran


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