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!!)

--

[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. 

Judging


"Judge not
Before you judge yourself
Judge not
If you are not ready for judgement"

Bob Marley

There are many things I am not sure about. Many ideas I am working on which are flawed. I accept that as part of what we do. Being too judgmental, too early, doesn't help in the creation of the new. Yet I often envy the clarity of thought I can have when judging others. 

Every time I am listening to somebody else's idea, looking at a deck, discussing a strategy, I find it easy to spot issues, to suggest alternatives, to "show the way". I then turn around and look at my own stuff, always far from perfect. It sounded so easy when I was in the judging seat. A tune in my head: "Who are you to judge me and the life that I live..."  What right do I have to point fingers?

I see where this comes from, things are always easier far from the trenches. Down in the mud, it's about the inches, the small details, the circumstances. "I stumbled". "The rifle jammed". "I couldn't see through the fog". All true. And yet we need perspective. We need someone looking from the hill, observing the entire field, head free from the noise. It's not about being perfect, everybody needs perspective. 

We need this role play. I can judge you. I am ready for judgment. 






Becoming yourself

Too many people have been telling me about Chef's Table, the Netflix series, so I ended up watching a couple of episodes. What I like about stories of artists is the progression. Every artist - painter, chef, architect, writer - follows a personal path to discover her true self. Some artists are self-taught. The majority starts by being an apprentice to another artist. Chefs work in other chefs' restaurant, architects in other architects' studios. 

We tend to be surprised by stories of self-taught artists, Tadao Ando formed himself on books and observations, Jeong Kwan through the daily practice of cooking in her monastery. I am even more fascinated by those who broke out from their masters. Imagine being a young artist learning from Alain Ducasse, or Rem Koolhaas. How strong their influence, how easy to be shaped in their mould. And yet they find a way to become themselves. They start by taking their master's style in their own direction, drifting slightly away from the traced path. Sometimes the rupture is violent, a total rejection. More often, it is a gradual, painful, progression: adulation, imitation, deviation, realisation. 

Our life is a journey of becoming ourselves.  As soon as we are there someone else is just starting. 



Fabricating time

Every football fan knows that time is relative. If you are desperately defending your one-goal lead, every second seems an eternity. If you are trying to catch up, seconds keep gobbling minutes down. As a patological procrastinator, I should know that ten minutes never last enough when I am in a hurry. The more I speed up, the more time accelerates. 

The flip side is that you can fabricate time. If you are short of it, all you need to do it is slowing down. It is one of those rules that should be easy to remember: think of the logical answer, then do the opposite. 

The saying goes like this: 

“You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes everyday - unless you're too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”* 

Easier said than done. Yet true. 

I found a similar example in the Upside of Stress. When people feel overwhelmed by their tasks, and can't seem to find time for anything, the best remedy is to stop what they are doing and go help someone else. It sounds like the dumbest thing to do if we are up against a tight deadline. Until we remember that time is relative, and we can simply fabricate more. 

*I have never picked up meditating btw

Mediocrity, gravity and automation

Is there a role for mediocrity? and should we protect it? In a recent interview, Malcom Gladwell makes an interesting point:

GLADWELL: I wonder whether making the world safe for mediocrity is not a very worthy goal of teaching, not only because the people who’ll one day be good need to pass through mediocrity on their way to being good, but also that, like I said, it’s the gateway to experimentation. 

I have been thinking about this a lot. When friction is removed, gravity starts working. Everything is attracted to the centre, to a few people, institutions, and companies. Their mass increases further and so does their gravitational pull. Tech's "network effects" are one manifestation of gravity. 

Take the local college professor. When everybody can access the best content and lectures from the best professors in the world, who will care to listen to the local college professor? Gravity kills "average". This example displays clearly the gravity dilemma: access to the best professor is undeniably a good thing, but what about the local guy? When gravity can work unfettered there can only be a few winners. 

Automation is another factor contributing to the "end of mediocrity". Jobs based on simple, repetitive tasks are the easiest to automate, but also the ones people usually start their career with. How many times have you heard about somebody starting out making copies, delivering mail, bringing coffee or arranging boxes in the warehouse? This effect will have a big impact in professions where expertise acquired through time matters. Legal associates, for example, slave on menial tasks for their all-mighty partners while earning a right to sit at the client table and learn the trade. Today, however, clients are increasingly unwilling to pay for law school grads checking spelling mistakes in contracts. And they shouldn't, a machine can do that. Associates jobs are being slashed, but this leaves a question on how firms will train the lawyer of the future (the ones required to do "human-level" jobs). 

There is then a pet dilemma of mine: the supermarket self-checkout machine. We all hate it, but that's not the point. We know it is just a step towards an amazon go future. The point is the job it replaces.  Every time I go to the supermarket I can't see the social utility in replacing the cashier. It is a simple job that lends perfectly to high school students and people that would find it difficult to do anything else. I might save time (eventually) checking out by myself and the supermarket will save money (probably, and there is surely other places where more waste is allowed) but what about the high school student? what's left for them? A friend of mine pointed, rightly, to the arbitrariness of my rant. After all, how many jobs I am I trying to replace in my work at Founders? Why should the task of saving mediocrity fall on the supermarket chain? It is like reading Bill Gates arguing for a tax on robots. I mean, the man that automated more white collar tasks in the last century and, notably, created way more jobs in the process. 

There are no simple answers to these questions. I definitely don't have one. I am left with the thought that there is beauty and utility in mediocrity, and we should at least consider the risk we run but killing it. I am probably sliding into nostalgia, but I cheer my memory of the summer spent licking envelopes for my uncle. It paid my interrail ticket, will basic income provide for that as well? 

 




Inspirations and recommendations

I am always fascinated by the trail of inspiration leading from one idea to the other. The invisible thread that weaves books with articles with podcasts with experiences with travels with exhibitions with presentations. Even with business ideas. 

Considering how much I read and how long I have been using amazon, I am often surprised how ineffective its recommendation engine is on me. It might help that I have been sharing account with my wife for 15 years, and now with my daughter - I guess it confuses the hell out of it - but it is more than that. 

Recommendation engines try to infer what I will read next looking at my history and at what people like me have been reading. Even for data monsters like Amazon, they rely on internal knowledge: me and my reading habits, other people and their reading habits. It is better than nothing, and obviously quite effective looking at the success of these players, but incomplete. Most inspirations come from external sources: a friend's recommendation, an article you have read, a cue within one of the previous book, a movie you have watched. Looking at books alone, you can trace a path from one to the other and you can maybe try to anticipate what the next one will be based on the trajectory. But you will always be blind to what happened in between. 

I have always wanted to keep a log of this path. A sort of Ariadne's thread on which to weave the pearls I find along my life. I have begun working on it, starting from what I am currently reading and going backwards until my memory assists me. I ll post a link to it soon.