Battery

Here is a new challenge. I normally write in the morning, before waking up the kids. I never have more than thirty, maybe forty, minutes. Sit down, look at some notes I have typed the day before, anything new on my mind after the night? The clock races. If I am not done by 6:50 we'll be late again. Writing more than 500 words is a painful process, I published something yesterday I wasn't happy about. I should be better at throwing out an entire draft and start from scratch when it just doesn't work. Writing short is different. Open the editor, even the phone is just good enough. The cursor is blinking, what time is it already? Today I wanted to write about visions and narratives. I had this conversation the other night and I realised something about how I tend to make decisions, it would make for a good short post. Not today though. As I am typing these words, my laptop tells me I running out of battery, the charger at work - thank you apple. I will push "save and publish" now, it's 6:42, I am on time, for once. 

Netflix and the intermediate step

We see a lot of attempts these days to take us through a new technological leap. Voice computing and AR are two noticeable examples. In these moments, it is easy to follow a linear path: first, something doesn't exist, then you get a crappy version of it, then a better one and then it works. 

From a pure technology point of view this makes sense, nothing is born in its perfect version. Things, however, gets more complicated from a user - or usage - point of view. We are sold dreams that don't exist, and that annoys us. A good example is a few attempts I have seen recently to capture meeting notes by listening to conversations. We are too far today from a sufficiently good version of this, and I am also asking myself whether this is something I would ever want. 

But this is not the point. If we imagine the perfect experience as being one where: you meet with your colleagues, you start talking through the agenda, you agree on next steps, you stand up and leave the room and, magic, all notes are perfectly there - what is then the intermediate step? 

To find the answer, we need to look at Netflix. In its early days they already had a clear idea that streaming would be the future, but where did they start? The didn't offer a crappy streaming product, the sent DVD's to people. Here is what Reed Hastings says about that: 

"We always viewed the DVD by mail as a digital distribution network, and then we knew eventually... that's why we called the company Netflix and not 'DVD by mail'" 

This is the perfect intermediate step. 

Digital is getting physical

I look forward to a future where digital and physical mix and where we go back to have a mostly physical life, but digitally enhanced. 

There are a lot of good reasons to worry about that, and I have listed some in a previous post. Leaving this aside for a moment, there are also many reasons why we should be happy that our inescapable digital future that has so far sucked us into two-dimensional glassware will finally spit us back to the three-dimensional world where we belong. The future that awaits us is one where we freely utilise data generated by living in a world of bits to make choices in a world of atoms. 

An interesting example comes, not surprisingly, from Amazon whose CEO is on record saying that there is nothing "new" about opening physical stores and that the focus of the company will always be delighting customers and if customers want - also - physical stores then this is what Amazon will do. 

This recent tweet with photos taken from one of the first Amazon bookstores shows where the potential lies.

Data tracked from our digital interaction with amazon and kindle is used to create innovative classifications and smart in-store signage. Just judging from these photos it seems already a better way than "history", "politics", "fiction" or simple alphabetical sorting. It is worth noticing that Amazon can do this because we have now been buying books on its website for a long time and that, since introducing kindle, it has been also able to track what we read, what we highlight, what we finish and what we don't (and where we stop in those cases). 

Again, forget about how creepy this all sounds when we really think about that - this part will have to be solved, at least I hope [1] - and think about a future where the same level of tracking can be embedded in our physical world. The optimistic view is to see that as the time where digital loses its advantage against physical. I want to be optimistic. 


[1] Every time I think about this I see no alternative to a system where we have private ownership of data combined with the ability to give third parties access to it. 

A cultural history of...

There is a type of book or study that I often look for but seldom find. In my imagination it's called "a cultural history of.." and it's a kind of travel guide to the mentality of a place. 

Countries, large regions and even cities, have a distinct mentality. It is more than "traditions" or "cultural events" and it goes beyond a collection of ethnicities, religions and sub-cultures. A place's mentality is a persistent yet invisible fabric that guides the people living there toward a certain type of recognisable macro-behaviour. It transcends individual beliefs and political views, and it applies to the newly settled just as much as to those who have been inhabiting a place for generations. 

When I wrote about California as the "land of dreams" in my previous post, I meant the distinctive DNA that ties together Hollywood with Silicon Valley, going back to the Gold Rush and passing through surfing culture of the South and counterculture of the North. A mentality is the product of a place's history and the history of the people who lived there. However, a traditional history book will only give you the input to understand a mentality. These books are normally a sequence of events and don't spend too much time trying to understand how each event is related to the next (beyond a strict causality) and how they stratify and ossify to produce a place's mentality. 

If you move to Rome today, you will see Roman ruins next to baroque fountains next to churches dating to the beginning of Christianity next to the balcony where Mussolini declared war next to a monument erected for a Piedmontese king which is also the tomb of the "unknown soldier" from the first world war. The innate sensibility of its people, their invincible cynicism, their allergy towards authority, and the sense of tragedy mixed with comedy that pervades every conversation, cannot be grasped without understanding this past. 

I wish there were more books and travel guides that could help the foreign visitor and the occasional expat to a better understanding of this "mentality". You cannot understand a place without grasping how its people think, even when they don't know they think like this. 

Land of dreams

Last weekend I watched Empire of Dreams, the 2004 documentary on Star Wars (you can find it on youtube). I was never one of those huge fans of the series - of the two Harrison Fords I loved Indiana Jones [1] more than Han Solo. The documentary though is really great, the epic of Star Wars being even better than the Star Wars epic. 

George Lucas is a Californian entrepreneur, and this is no coincidence. As I was watching pieces of the documentary with my daughter and discussing a future trip to Los Angeles, I couldn't avoid talking about dreams. Everybody has them. We have stories in Italy that are in no way less heroic and dramatic and grand as the story of Star Wars, Apple, Pixar and many other Californian dreams. But our stories follow typically a different trajectory: a young person starts working on the factory floor and goes through a series of hardships, he emerges as a smart fellow with ambitions bigger than working for others, over time he accumulates enough savings to break out and start his own firm, the firm develops from tiny workshop to global giant[2]. 

George Lucas dreamt about making a space movie. He wanted the ability and independence to produce his own story but needed the money to do so. He gets a budget from Fox, gathers a group of unproven, and mostly unknown, actors and special effects makers, bets on innovation that doesn't exist yet. It is a story of vision, near-death failures, last minute sprints and fixes and ultimate overwhelming, unexpected success. A great Californian story. 

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[1] Riders of the Lost Ark is still one of my favourite movies. Nothing can beat archaeology mixed with history mixed with religion mixed with magic. And that soundtrack... 

[2] With few differences, this is the story of Ferrari and Luxottica, among others.

Love, shame and The New Yorker

I have never bought a copy of The New Yorker. I have read a number of articles over the years, and mostly liked them, and I have often thought about subscribing, without ever finding the courage to do it. The other day I saw an old issue on the table of a café. For I moment I decided to grab it, put it in my bag and read it on the flight home. Then I thought of what my father would think. 

My father runs a construction company. He has done that for his whole life after taking over from my grandfather who took over from his father in law. When my grandfather died my father was 32, he took over a company with more than 100 workers and a complicated financial situation. Back in those days, employing people was a pride and a responsibility[1]. Construction, like manufacturing, needs people of all kinds. The entrepreneur - in the Italian North-East trained on the shop floor more often than in school - a few engineers and architects, middle managers - if you are big enough, which is rare - and workers[2].

Visiting the construction sites is a daily ritual. Owner and workers know perfectly well about their different roles, and what that means. There is no illusion of equality and yet no tangible feeling of the opposite. As you arrive, the most visible symbol of status is left in the parking lot. Once in, differences fade. Your shoes carry the same mud, your hands are dirty with the same dust. You drink the same coffee - in the old days often mixed with red wine - and the fanciest place you can retreat to is a container turned office, where cigarette butts rest sadly in small plastic cups. 

It is partly the job and party, I guess, the town. I come from a small provincial town in the north of the country where everybody goes to public school and we don't really have an intellectual class. There are lawyers and doctors and other people with a degree. In my family, it is me and my mum - an English teacher. My father started but never finished. Education is not measured in habits or social circles - that's more of a big city thing. It is rather a matter of taste: the books you read, the place you visits, what you know of history and art. 

Contemporary art is where I often draw the line between education and intellectualism[3]. "Education" is the ability to appreciate the beautiful. Intellectualism requires a jump in sophistication, the one required to appreciate most contemporary art. You go to a museum or a gallery - by itself a deliberate act - and walk through art pieces whose meaning is rarely confined to what the eye can see. Classical art is more democratic and more popular, religious art in particular. It is exhibited or directly painted in churches that you can simply visit. Churches themselves are pieces of art meant to be seen and visited by everyone. Even today when most visitors are there more for the frescos than for the mass, churches attract the blue-collar tourists, the one arriving by bus with their home made sandwiches, the ones that don't really care about staying at an Airbnb so that they can experience local cafes at brunch time. 

My love-and-shame relationship with The New Yorker is all here. It is the struggle between what I like and what I fear becoming. I have moved abroad, I live in a city, I have recently been to the cinema to watch a documentary about some Japanese female divers from a remote fishing village. What do I have left in common with the workers in my father's construction company?   

Where the gap between my father and them was more about wealth mine is more about taste. Food and restaurant tastes, wine choices, books, the nearly complete elimination of tv from my life. Maybe all of this is normal and that's just the way it works when you decide to leave your hometown and do something else with your life. 

Maybe. I remember a story I used to listen to when I was a child. It was the story of this boy who is too good and then one day he wakes up with a pair of wings growing out of his back. He is becoming an angel. He then starts doing all kind of bad things, but he overcompensates and he becomes a devil instead, with tail and all. Finally, he manages to get back to normal. From that day he will again be a good boy, but when it is time to go to bed, just once in a while, he will skip brushing his teeth. That subscription can wait.  

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[1] Since we are in 2017, the company doesn't employ that many people anymore. A couple of full-time staff in then office and contractors for the actual work. Since we are in Italy, the company is always on the brink of death. Everything related to the old days is coloured by nostalgia. 

[2]An under-explored topic in the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service and information one is the erosion of social diversity at the company level. In tech companies most people have similar status and education, there is little difference between them. When that exist, like in the case of uber drivers, it's pushed out of the company. 

[3] Not meant in a derogatory way. 

What I have been listening to

As a father of one, two, and now three, I find inevitably a bunch of house chores waiting for me every day when I get home. My infovore dna would rather have me reading or writing something and that's when I started to fall more and more into the podcast rabbit hole. 

There is a lot of potential in the medium and I see more and more people waking up to that. There is also a lot of repetition, the typical podcast format is the interview (or dialogue) and the same people get interviewed a lot, especially in tech/VC circle[1]. Some producers are experiencing with new narrative forms (Serial the most famous of them) but I can see in my habits that information/learning still has a preference vs entertainment. 

Discovery and recommendation play a different role for podcasting than blogging. First, there are fewer podcasts produced than posts written on a weekly basis. Podcast are also more resource intensive and the barrier to entry are still higher than "just" writing. A newsletter curating podcasts is less useful that one curating written content (a form of curation that has exploded in the last couple of years). People follow (subscribe) to specific hosts rather than picking and choosing one episode at a time. It is rare that the unknown host produces one memorable episode among many not-so-memorable ones. Consistency is much more in the hands of the host than it is in the hands of the blogger. And so on. 

With this in mind, I decided to start noting down what I listen to every week. It might end up being useful for somebody to discover new content or just for me as a sort of journal stimulating some reflections on where podcasting is going. Let's see. 

Ok, already now this is an issue. Since I listen mostly on my phone (like most people I guess) I don't have an easy way to find links to podcasts I have listened to on my computer. I am now browsing a podcasting app as activity record and wondering how to copy/paste those links into this post. Sounds pretty stupid but here we go, immediately an impediment for podcast curation on the written web. 

Update. I figured that I could just move to editing this post on my phone, copying links from my podcasting app and pasting them into the editor in my mobile browser. Fail again. When I paste the link the url is, obviously, that of the specific app I am listening with. This means if my readers don't have that app they are stuck.

Update 2. Luckily, the people at breaker (the app I am using now) have an open web version where you can listen to the podcast without downloading the app, so the experience of clicking through their link is not that terrible. I'll stick to using their links, they are doing a very good job and you should give it a try.  

So, this week:

a16z: "From Hidden Figure to Sonic BOOM" https://breaker.audio/e/16959840

Funny enough, I listened to this just a couple of days after watching "Hidden Figures", the movie, with my daughter. I didn't know about this story, it's a very good one. 

99% Invisible: "251- Negative Space: Logo Design with Michael Bierut" https://breaker.audio/e/16512648

I listen on and off to 99PI. Roman Mars' voice is the closest I get to guided meditation. This interview is exceptionally good.

The Ezra Klein Show: "David Chang, head of the Momofuku empire" https://breaker.audio/e/4005921

This is another thing about podcasts. Once you discover a new show, you can spend a lot of time going back through old episodes. A good show is likely to have produced consistently good episodes and I like to binge on the once I found one. 

The Ezra Klein Show: "Tyler Cowen explains it all" https://breaker.audio/e/17276142

See above comment. This is one is even more, a cross reference between two shows I like a lot recently. First listen to Cowen interviewing Ezra Klein, then to the reverse. Podcasting is a small circle. There is a passage around 18:58 about weaknesses and strengths that I really loved. Writing more about that soon. 

The Twenty Minute VC: Venture Capital "a16z's Balaji Srinivasan on Why There Is A Financial Incentive For Truth In VC & Why The Best VCs Invest In Founder To Make Them Richer Than Themselves" https://breaker.audio/e/5044338

I must admit I have been "snobbing" the 20m VC for a long time. Mostly because I try to get a break from VC/Tech/Startup stuff when I am back home, but also because of the style of the interviews. Just a matter of taste I guess. I have to concede that guests are great and they very often drop invaluable knowledge. Like in this case. In this episode, Balaji says something extremely interesting about pocket of values in outdated regulations. Regulatory arbitrage has been the source of (at least) 2 multi-billion dollar businesses in the past years (Uber and Airbnb), what else could be there? 

How I Built This: "Power Rangers: Haim Saban" https://breaker.audio/e/17170719

This story is just incredible. Haim Saban is the impersonification of hustling (in the positive sense Haim, don't worry). This quote says it all: "The biggest hits I have had in my life has been always as the result of significant and repeated rejection. So every time i have an idea where people tell me 'don't do that', I think 'ups, I am on to something'".  (please allow quoting sound bites!!)

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[1] Incentives play a role here. Lots of new tech podcasts are coming up since techies are the main early adopters of podcasts. All new podcasts try to interview famous tech people (mostly VCs) and they, in turn, have a strong incentive to be interviewed (ego plays a big role too). We end up with multiple podcast hosts trying to boost their visibility by interviewing a smaller number of successful people. The result is a lot of repetition and also a good number of dull episodes where the status gap between host and guest is so high that the entire thing ends up being more an exercise in adulation instead of a true dialogue. 

After us

Homo Sapiens, by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, is an exceptional documentary. If you are lucky enough to catch it, you will find yourself looking at footage of abandoned places for 94 minutes straight. Not a dialogue. No soundtrack. Rain dripping through a broken ceiling, a gust of wind blowing papers around a deserted classroom, flapping of wings when a pigeon flies through an empty warehouse, croaking of a frog in an abandoned mall. 

The goal is to make us feel what earth will look like once we are gone. We are told nothing about the places we see. Not a hint to why they have been abandoned, letting nature regain its ownership. Nothing about the stories, the tragedies, that forced humans away. That's not the point. It is not about the single place. We are left with the feeling that humanity is gone, forever, from everywhere. Nobody seems to bother. There is no one that could. Wind blows, frog croak. Unperturbed by the lack of us - or because of that - nature goes on with its existence. Waves crashing on the shore, birds shrieking in the sky. Who liked these people anyway? 

And yet there is so much of us in the movie.  Without seeing a single living person you can still feel our presence. A symbol in a broken congress hall reminds us of wars, tragedies, broken dreams, people chanting at parades, man enchanting the masses at a rally. Computers, servers, a radio antenna pointed at the sky, tell us about our dream to conquer nature, on this world and on others. Cars, magazines, supermarket trollies, a water slide, a swing - tools for our distraction, for entertainment. You cannot miss our uniqueness, our arrogance, our ambition. Only humans bend nature to their will, at least in this visible way. Once gone, we leave a heavy trail of concrete, steel, broken glass and wires everywhere. It looks ugly, but then, no one is there to care about beauty and ugliness. 

Out of the screen and into the theatre a second experience unfolds. It doesn't happen that often that a group of us is asked to sit quietly for 94 minutes staring at nature. A few fall asleep. It's Saturday afternoon and we are all tired. My mind is left free to go around. I look at the details on the screen, think of thoughts I wrote above. Think of something else, then back to the screen. Where is this place? What happened to all the people? Time is up, light's on. We sit in silence for a while, aware of our presence like rarely before. We are the master of this world, and then again, after us no one will care. 

 


The gift of empathy

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom

David Foster Wallace

Empathy is a gift. A hard one to acquire and a difficult one to maintain. Not only does it make us better people towards others, it also helps us overcoming our own challenges: appreciate what we have and who we are, put our own difficulties into perspective. 

We learn empathy through time. Through our own sufferings and those of the people close to us. Stories are great shortcuts into empathy. Can you watch "Grave of the Fireflies" and not feel love for all the children? Can you read Life and Faith and not feel compassion for humanity? If only for this reason, pick up a book, and read. 

Protectionism and the internet

My friend David Galbraith talks often about the lack of a meaningful European internet company. He has a point. After all, if the single largest economic area (by GDP) in the world hasn't been able to produce a truly global internet platform almost 30 years into this revolution, it is probably worth asking some questions. 

The reason why we too often avoid the discussion is that it requires to bring up some uncomfortable topics. Protectionism is among those. A taboo word for many people, generally associated with xenophobic sentiment of the new right or old school nostalgia of the left. There is sufficient evidence by now that trade wars don't bring much good. There is less evidence that (some) protectionism is by the default bad. After all, most advanced nations in the industrial world got a chance to develop their own heavy and manufacturing industries at a time where infrastructure itself created some barriers to trade. Low friction means high gravity, and gravity means concentration. 

After WW2, Import-substituting industrialisation became a popular term for emerging countries willing to catch up with more developed nations. The main idea was that by limiting access to foreign manufactured goods you could stimulate the birth and growth of a local industrial economy. The result was mostly disappointing. Not because goods could not be manufactured (or not with sufficient quality) but because "industrialisation" means more than just "manufacturing". We tend to associate it with a large span of social and economic changes which go well beyond what a factory can spit out.

Taken from a pure output point of view, it would be fair to say that China got the internet economy right. Better than Europe at least. By being closed to the US internet giants, it has created the condition for true native platforms to emerge. Europe, on the other hand, has assumed that industrial trade philosophy could be ported to the internet. That fighting excessive concentration could be sufficient to limit the power of internet monopolies. We all know how it went. 

We are left with the question of whether a more protectionist approach to the internet would have benefitted Europe more. I don't know. At the end of the day, the same argument could be made by each European country. "Why doesn't Italy have an internet giant like (insert country of choice)??" I prefer thinking that there is a European way to the information economy. Something that fits more with our value and our heritage. We can still build that, it can be our import-substituting digitalisation.