UTA Magazine
Sweet home Albania
The high-profile resident of a high tech house wouldn't mind returning to his native land, except he's having so much fun here

As a child, Denis Gjoni never needed a remote control to watch television.  His sole viewing option in communist Albania was the state-run, you’ll- see-what-we-want-you-to-see network, and it was available only six hours a day.

Denis Gjoni

Growing up in communist Albania, Denis Gjoni heard nothing but propaganda about the United States. Now a computer science and engineering senior, he's one of UTA's most active and visible students.

Just buying a television—as well as most other household appliances—required permission from the government. Most citizens were prohibited from owning a car. Children wore red scarves to school, reinforcing their allegiance to the Communist Party.

Such was pre-democracy life in this pint-sized slice of the Adriatic coast that had isolated itself during a half-century of repressive rule. Still, Gjoni (pronounced Joanie) was happy living in what was considered the poorest and most backward country in Europe.

“It was like The Truman Show,” said the 23-year-old UTA computer science and engineering senior, referring to the 1998 Jim Carrey movie about a family living a seemingly idyllic life. “You don’t know any better, so you make the most of what you have.”

The only son of engineer parents, his family had more than most. They lived in the southern Albanian city of Fier in a house with all the amenities of a typical American home. But others lived primitively.

Indoor plumbing was the exception in the country’s rugged interior. Food often was scarce, and much of it came from Italy and other western European nations in the form of emergency relief.

Archaeologist Karl Petruso, professor of anthropology and associate dean of the UTA Honors College, was among the first Americans to visit the Balkan country after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. He encountered an exotic yet traditional society cut off from the world, even from neighboring countries of like ideology.

“The poverty assaulted you. For all intents and purposes, it was a preindustrial society,” recalled Dr. Petruso, one of three UTA professors granted access for an archaeological project from 1991-98. “Communicating with the United States and finding equipment and supplies to purchase—everything from vehicles to lumber to food to toilet paper—were major undertakings.”

After embracing democracy and casting aside its xenophobia, Albania has advanced at warp speed. One byproduct has been the increased opportunity for students like Gjoni to study abroad.

“As a child, it never entered my mind that I’d be going to college in the United States,” he said. “I had heard about the United States because it was called the imperialist America. It wasn’t somewhere you wanted to go because you thought it was bad.”

Land of opportunity

Half a world from home, life is good for Denis Gjoni.

He buys whatever he wants (funds permitting, of course). He wears any color he chooses. When he feels like watching TV, he channel surfs until one of his 200 stations beams something interesting.

He is now so dependent on remote controls that he never touches a light switch in his apartment. That’s because devices regulate almost everything in his one-of-a-kind campus research dwelling, the MavPad. The ultra-wired smart home features 150 sensors in three living zones (kitchen/bathroom, living room and bedroom) controlled by one central computer and several smaller ones.

“The home learns the activity patterns of its inhabitant and uses this information to automate functions,” explained computer science and engineering Professor Diane Cook, who secured a National Science Foundation grant to fund the project. “This reduces the burden on the inhabitant and saves on costs for running the home.”

For example, say Gjoni consistently wakes at 7 a.m., then turns on the coffee pot, his computer and the television. MavPad can learn the routine and perform these tasks for him. His lighting and temperature preferences can also be automated.

Sensors in the ceiling know when he walks from one room to another, sits on the couch or lies on the bed. Bathroom sensors can tell if the toilet or sink is overflowing and initiate a command to turn off the water.

“I’m sure communist Albania would have loved to have this installed in every house,” he said with a smile.

One of three Albanian students enrolled at UTA in fall 2004, Gjoni is a skilled researcher. In 2003, he and a colleague presented their work on controlling mini-blinds for optimal plant growth at the prestigious Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Applications in Spain. They were the only undergraduate students selected to participate.

He helped program some of the devices in the smart home and troubleshoots problems. He hopes to do research on a health monitoring system while he’s there. But what really makes him the ideal MavPad resident is his man-about-campus status.

No man is an island

Unlike his native Albania, Gjoni is no isolationist. He’s president of the Honors College Council, program director of Student Congress and a member of the Joint Council of Engineering Organizations and Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.

He was among the University’s most recognizable students long before his photograph graced a UTA billboard along Interstate 30 in Arlington.

“I don’t have a lot of time alone,” he said. “I like to get involved. When you interact with people, you can benefit academically and socially from them.”

Gjoni has done both, Petruso says.

“Denis is active and outgoing. He’s a high-achieving student in a tough CSE program. He has distinguished himself by taking full advantage of the co-curricular and social opportunities provided by the Honors College.”

That’s just the type of student Dr. Cook wanted to live in MavPad. But the wired environment sometimes cramps Gjoni’s social life. Maybe it’s the warning sign that greets visitors. “Entry into this apartment indicates explicit consent to monitoring and data collection of your activities within,” it begins. Talk about a buzz kill.

“The sign scares some people,” he admits. “But it doesn’t scare them away. Since there’s no audio or videotaping, most people don’t go running out the door.”

Sometimes they never make it to the door. His fraternity brothers, for example, aren’t keen on dropping by their friend’s high-tech home.

“Everyone seems to think there’s been a conspiracy to plant secret video recorders all over his apartment,” ATO President Zach Walker said. “There are all these wires and strange objects hanging from the ceiling. Motion detectors? Yeah, right. It’s just a matter of time before a video of Denis surfaces on eBay without him knowing it.”

Scheduled to graduate in May, Gjoni is weighing his options. He wants to get a master’s degree in computer science, then go to law school and specialize in intellectual property. But he loves research, so becoming a professor is also a consideration.

Part of him wants to return to Albania; part of him wants to stay in America. His current status allows him to remain in the United States as long as he’s in school, plus one year of training after he graduates.

“Family and friends are important, as well as being able to speak my native language,” the Albanian-, Italian- and English-speaking Gjoni said of returning home. “But it’s easier to find a job in the U.S. The pay and the possibilities are better. And my best friends are here now.”

Although he speaks to them often, the separation from his parents hurts—as does an inability to watch his favorite team play his favorite sport.

“I’m still disappointed that I can’t get Albanian soccer matches on TV here,” he said.

Even remote controls have their limits.

— Mark Permenter

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