#ReadMe – His dark materials

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Have you ever wanted to read a book for the longest time and never got around to do it? Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials holds a special place in my heart, as it was recommended to me by a very dear friend more than a decade ago. Why didn’t I read it for all this time? Various reasons, but finally this past summer I decided to give in and immerse myself in what I can only define as the most tantalizing reading experience of 2016.

If you’ve ever read fantasy book series such as The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, you will definitely understand how truly immersive fantastic worlds are: they just suck you in and take you for a spin. No wonder this is one of the most loved books of the past century, listed on every must read list you can get your hands on! It’s a great read for kids and adults alike, even though it does have very different levels of comprehension and analysis according to the reader’s proficiency in science, philosophy and religious studies.

The story is divided into three books: Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass in some countries), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, and tells the adventures of Lyra Belacqua and her companions in their mission to ultimately save the universe. The plot is complex and lengthy and you can find it elsewhere, but the point is that as the storyline progresses, the whole universe unfolds like a fractal: the more you delve in, the richer and deeper it gets.

When I set out to write this review I was a bit uncertain of what to write: the only useful thing I had to say was “Read it. It’s awesome!”. I found the moral grounds of the trilogy deliciously solid, because although the story is definitely fantastic, it is based firmly in positive values like friendship, honor, love and loyalty, which reverberate across the pages in the actions of several characters, however (apparently) distant from the main plot line. The infringement of these values in the form of treachery or outright betrayal is always punished by leveraging the characters’ bad behavior against them. It’s a universe of definite moral balance, where nothing happens for nothing, which I think is a great thing to teach to young children. It’s one of those books that one feels very strongly about, one way or the other: it’s like a litmus test, you never know how those around you truly feel about it, and it always makes for great conversation.

There has even been a sad attempt at a movie transposition for the first book, with an outstanding cast and a terrible execution. I would never have imagined that a Christmas fantasy movie could freak out Christians to the degree that it did. And here’s where it all gets interesting: people are scared of this book. So scared, in fact, that while some would love to see it burn, others frantically write essays and articles in the attempt to expose the author’s alleged propaganda for atheism, or publish guides directed to Christian parents on how to talk about the books and movie with their children. Just think of the despair of a Christian parent trying to explain the eternal love between two angels who are, presumably (at least in the books), male!

trilogyMany of these scared fanatics have criticized the lack of factual accuracy regarding the Magisterium in the books, completely disregarding the fact that the church depicted in this fantasy world is not the Catholic church, nor any other church on Earth for that matter. One must remember that the plot line is fantastic in the most strict sense of the term – we’re talking about a book where a boy cuts slits in the fabric of the universe to open doors to other worlds using a magical knife! However, the dynamics of power and control are quite familiar to anyone who has ever read a newspaper or has a minimum of knowledge of the Catholic Church’s history. Presumably what makes Pullman’s writing so scary for Christians and Christian parents in particular is that it shows a Church that is very similar but not quite the one that has been blindly instilled in young children, which makes it easier for them to analyze, criticize and – most terrifying of all – reject.

When searching for articles criticizing the book, author and movie, you will find almost two million results in English against a little more than 42K in Italian: an interesting indicator of the fact that Catholics worldwide are even more indoctrinated than in the country that hosts the Vatican City. I read dozens of these articles so you wouldn’t have to, and here are a few selected bits that caught my eye.

Pullman’s most dangerous error concerning the Church is probably too subtle for younger readers to spot. Because the trappings of Catholicism have been retained by an essentially Calvinist belief system, the story suggests that theological differences among Christians are meaningless. What matters most to the Church is power and control over the masses. This is Karl Marx’s old canard that religion is the opiate of the masses, repackaged for children.” – I’ve read this a number of times and I still can’t understand why that should be a bad thing. Perhaps it is, if you’re trying to teach your children a version of reality that denies (or simply silences) centuries of history and philosophy.

But wait, there’s more: here are two of the most terrible, horrible sins of His Dark Materials, according to a Christian scholar.

  • Endorsement of relativism as an acceptable system of belief
  • Depiction of the Catholic Church as evil, and religion in general as obscurant

Again, I have difficulties understanding why this should be a bad thing. They’re both true, which makes the Christian desire one of forgetfulness (forget the massacres, rapes, invasions and killings perpetrated by the Catholic Church, forget the children abused by priests even as you read these lines, forget the money laundering and criminal involvements of the Vatican). A veil of silence that Philip Pullman dared to raise using an artifice of fiction, a connivance that His Dark Materials has destroyed by making children ask questions, so many questions!

I sometimes wonder if these parents ever read the Bible to their kids, and I mean the whole thing, not just the bits and pieces that they like and make for cute illustrations. They say that the Bible is the longest book Christians have never read, and in the vast majority of cases it is true. If ending a plague by making a gift of magical golden hemorrhoids or the idea of forcing your daughter to marry her rapist are OK for you, then the story of His Dark Materials should be OK as well.

Another strong critique is against the “daemons”, animal embodiments of inner-selves, that make the story “too endearing and likable” for kids, who would therefore be more prone to accepting the teachings of the book. I’ll leave the absurdity of that claim to itself, but I confess I completely lost it at “I must impute to the His Dark Materials series, whether in novel or film format, an NC-17 rating for its power to destroy one’s worldview.” Why not? Why not accept change, discussion, why not admit that maybe we’re wrong and that our worldview actually deserves to be destroyed in order to make a better one? These people are so afraid that their kids’ castles in the air will come crumbling down that they’re willing to deny, lie, hide and justify anything. A book that is capable of destroying such a mindset, I call “brilliant“. An author who is able to make kids think with their own brains and recognize abuse and horror when they see it, I call “hero“.

Bottom line, read it. It’s awesome.

#ReadMe – Emma

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“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” wrote Jane Austen, the author of Emma. Admittedly, not the best of beginnings.

Have you ever even heard of Emma? Many Jane Austen wannabe enthusiasts rave about Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion (indeed, all very pleasantly sounding titles, the kind that make you feel well-read), but few people have heard of, let alone read, Emma. This book is another one I’ve stumbled across because it was on each and every list of must read classics, and who I am to argue with generations of readers and literary critics who undoubtedly know better than me?

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” The whole plot is in that incipit: having no worries and no true problems to keep her busy, Emma finds pleasure in matchmaking and in the company of her friends and family. Civil conversation, subtleties of society, blunders, offenses, all make for the development of the characters and the evolution of their circumstances.

Although the author herself defined Emma as an unlikeable character, we learn to love and appreciate her good heart as she learns to understand her limits and errors, along with the consequences her actions have on those surrounding her. Of course, you can find the complete plot elsewhere, but the point here is that for a modern, young reader, the story is dull. The not-so-adventurous tales of walks and dinners and teas and the fineries of 19th century etiquette do nothing to spark the enthusiasm of an audience who is used to strong emotions, explosive, fantastic storylines and predictably unpredictable plot twists.

emmaEmma is a school of society as Mozart’s Così fan tutte is a school of lovers. The main question that arises from attempting to read it would be “is it still relevant”? Are the goals, aspirations, thoughts, manners and occupations of these aristocratic families from the English countryside still in any way relatable to today’s readers across the globe? The sheer amount of amazing television transpositions of the work would point towards an enthusiastic yes, although, as Professor Robert Eggleston so egregiously points out in his article on the matter, “neither the television production nor the other adaptations of Emma killed off […] students’ indifference”.

The issue here arises from an erroneous interpretation of literature as an activity with the exclusive intent to entertain and amaze. A literary scenario saturated with this kind of content leads unseasoned readers to judge the great books of the past with the same criteria, expecting them to be the equivalent of some sort of Wunderkammer at their disposal. The power of Emma stands in the human aspects of the people involved: in order to get the best out of it, one must purge all the hystorical, social and economical elements of discrepancy with the present, which make the characters feel foreign and distant. Emma and her entourage are all human beings with the same basic motivations and goals in life as anyone today. The means and circumstances change, but the core remains the same across the centuries. It’s a masterclass in relationships and etiquette that doesn’t bore you to death by listing the rules, but rather shows you what happens when those rules are broken. A “teach-by-example” distillate that well disposed readers will find useful even in today’s day to day interactions, on the one crucial condition that they don’t start rolling their eyes halfway wishing for the agony to be over.

Emma IS relevant today, one must only be humble enough to see it. However, the didactic function of literature seems lost on (way too) many readers, especially the younger, inexperienced ones. I could not put it more clearly than Professor Eggleston himself: “When I suggested that [the students] might want to reconsider their presuppositions and judge the work according to different standards, such as its effectiveness as a didactic work, they were horrified. This standard of judgment presupposed that literature was designed to instruct, and that was insufferable.

There is a lot to be learnt, and a lot to be understood about human nature. Are you skeptical about this book actually being something of interest for you? Possibly true. Do you think it’s an outdated, dusty novel that nobody should care about anymore? Hopefully I’ve managed to change your mind with reasonable arguments. Are you in doubt about reading it? Understandable, but just take a leap of faith and give it a chance. You will most probably find that it is closer to your experience than you might suspect.

#ReadMe – Wuthering Heights

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One of the first thoughts that came to my mind after reading Wuthering Heights was: “If Emily Brontë were alive today and she wrote this kind of stuff in a school assignment, her teachers would call social services in a heartbeat.

My first encounter with Wuthering Heights occurred in high-school, when our English literature teacher introduced us to this gloomy classic. Although she started with the best intentions, her efforts were promptly met with vague indifference that shortly turned into outright ridicule. The lesson included some short clips from the 1970 movie, with Cathy screaming “Heathcliiiiiiff” from the top of her lungs while running among the moors:  apparently it was hilarious for a class of 16 year olds, it became a catchphrase and Wuthering Heights was exiled to the realm of “WTF, nope”. So much for disclosure.

Essentially it remained filed under the “boring stuff” mental category until quite recently, when I decided it was time to catch up on some reading and chose to explore a few “must read classics” lists. Without fail, I would find that Wuthering Heights was on every and each one of these lists. So here we are talking about it, which can only mean that I have been thoroughly persuaded.

wuthering_heightsExplaining the plot of this book is no easy task. The timeline spans three generations, children are named after their parents, characters come and go, and to make things even more complicated, the whole story is told years later by a servant who we may suspect is (and was) partial to the events and people involved. You can read the complete plot here, if you wish, but if we were to boil it down to the core, the three decades story all spins around Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship, which poisons and wilts everything around them. They are one, and everything that goes well or most commonly bad in their liaison reverberates in others’ lives. Even death can’t put a full stop neither to the folly nor to the toxic consequences of this unholy union of selfish souls.

Make no mistake, Cathy and Heathcliff are not a lovable pair. Each in their own way, they’re all out for themselves and will stop in front of nothing and nobody to see their goals achieved. The reader grows to despise them although some of their choices are – if not embraceable – at least understandable. The air at Wuthering Heights is thick with all the wrong things: first with jealousy, then with revenge, finally with hate, and the consequences are dire. The inhabitants of the house learn the subtle art of inflicting mental and emotional pain with every step they take and every word they speak. This is where I thought about what would happen if Emily were to live today: descriptions of such a dysfunctional family nucleus would send even the most distracted social worker into a frenzy. It feels all wrong, as you read it: every verbal exchange ends in failure, and the pain emerging from this impossibility to communicate without hurting the other is almost palpable. It’s almost like an ante-litteram example of the hedgehog dilemma.

Wuthering Heights is the emotional equivalent of quicksand. Even actions started with the best intentions end up damaging relationships, and the more effort they put into it, the more the situation deteriorates. In the end, it’s a draining read. It would be unredeemable but for the ending: Heathcliff’s death and young Cathy’s efforts lead to a slow but steady healing of the wounds that had been inflicted for decades. The union of Cathy and Hareton is almost like those small, delicate flowers one can sometimes see growing obstinately in concrete cracks. All the odds are against them, but there they both are, undoing all of Heathcliff’s efforts to sow disagreement and coldness. Looking back to the final part of the book, it’s almost as if their love is the light that kills Heathcliff’s darkness, and him along with it. With no more reason to live, he drifts into madness and finally dies.

The main question for me is: why is Wuthering Heights still so popular? It’s on top of everyone’s must read lists, it was made into a movie at least a dozen times, despite its chilling and anything-but-romantic story. Its influence is so wide that even A England, an indie nail polish brand, has dedicated an entire collection to Emily and Wuthering Heights. The interest around the work and its author is still so strong that in August literary biographer Claire Harman stated that Emily Brontë may have had Asperger’s syndrome. Shortly afterwards, Emily Willingham dismissed the claim by bringing reasonable biographic data into analysis and basically calling bs on Harman’s statement. Not that the catfight in itself matters: the point is, even 168 years after her death, Emily Brontë is still capable of raising questions and, most importantly, stirring powerful, vivid emotions.

I wonder how many of today’s authors will be able to do the same.

#ReadMe – Moby Dick

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Reviewing the classics is a really hard thing to do. Decades, sometimes centuries of readers have analyzed, criticized, perused, read, re-read, got inspiration from and loved these books. One feels a bit overwhelmed when attempting to give a personal opinion on a masterpiece such as Moby Dick. It would be wise to leave these tasks to the professionals. BUT I’m by no means wise, reading this book is something I’ve wanted to do for ages, and now that the mad and most desperate study is done, I’m extremely excited to share my thoughts with you.

Moby Dick is a story of unredeemable despair. Captain Ahab’s quest to find the white whale reminds me of the passion of another literary hero of ancient times:

“‘not tenderness for a son, nor filial duty
toward my agèd father, nor the love I owed
Penelope that would have made her glad,
‘could overcome the fervor that was mine
to gain experience of the world
and learn about man’s vices, and his worth.”

mobydickHowever, what moves Ahab is not Ulysses’ curiosity, but vengeance without compromises, a blind mission that can only end in death for him and those around him, even if this means that he’s leaving behind a young wife who loves him, along with their newborn child. His folly knows no religion, no affection and no devotion other than to the God of vengeance. He thinks he will kill the beast, but as the story progresses and becomes bleaker and devoid of hope, the reader starts to understand how it is going to end. The signs are all there, it’s like watching a movie and seeing the killer approach his victim silently. You can only hold your breath and ride it out, there’s no use screaming, no use trying to alert them. Ahab is doomed, and you know it from the moment of the first encounter with Elijah, the prophet, who warns Ishmael against joining the Pequod. The book is so thick with symbolism that if you’re interested in a more detailed analysis it is worth reading books like “A companion to Herman Melville” or “Why read Moby Dick?“.

The body of the Pequod’s narration is structured along the lines of other great books of the past (for some reason Chaucher’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron come to my mind): a series of twelve gams, encounters with other ships. The first encounter gives no useful information regarding the whereabouts of the white whale, but as the story proceeds, each gam takes them closer to the killer monster. The 12th ship they encounter is in extremely bad shape after unsuccessfully fighting the beast. This is another turning point where the reader understands what’s happening: the first ship was intact, the twelfth was half destroyed… which means that the Pequod will suffer even a more nefarious fate, it will be the one to sink, complete the picture of increasing ruin. So there you are, sitting with Melville’s masterpiece, saying to yourself “there is no way this is going to end well“. And it doesn’t. Spoiler alert, everyone dies except for Ishmael, who’s telling the story. Ironically, he survives by hanging to an empty coffin, another cluster of symbolism I’m not even going to attempt to explore.

I do confess I read this book in its most beautiful Italian translation by Cesare Pavese, and this is the translation I recommend to anyone who would like to read it in Italian. The English version, with its profuseness of maritime and whaling terms, was too much even for me.

Which brings us to the conclusion of my review, which is also the answer to the question I’m always asked about Moby Dick: “Should I read it, is it any good?”. Well, yes and no. What I found is that people either hate or love Moby Dick, there is no middle ground. Even D.H. Lawrence, who defined it a masterpiece, also wrote that “Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby Dick. […] One wearies of the grand serieux. There’s something false about it. And that’s Melville. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays!”. For some people, threading through pages and pages about the anatomy of the whale, the taxonomy and the techniques of whaling just feels like work. Some editors publish abridged versions with the boring bits cut out. Some people love the whole thing so much that they organize monthly reading groups so they can read and re-read it. Some say that – as many other great masterpieces – Moby Dick gets better when it is re-read. It is probably true, but I haven’t tested that affirmation myself.

What I do know is that it is a must read if you are a book lover. It is a story so popular, so entrenched in people’s collective imagination, that you cannot avoid putting it on your reading list.

So that you can wear T-shirts like this.

#ReadMe – Europolis

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“Sulina, where the old Danube loses its name and waters into the sea.”

I’m pretty sure I’m treading safe waters in saying that none of you have ever heard about Jean Bart and his incredibly obscure novel, Europolis.

Since I moved to Italy, I’ve had a strong desire to keep in touch with my motherland’s literature, partly because I wanted to maintain proficiency with the language, partly because the style differs from anything else I’ve ever read. You can have an idea of English literature and its well furnished manors, Russian literature with tragedy and loss, German, Spanish, French. But Romanian literature is something altogether different, and unfortunately translations don’t give it justice. It’s not that you can’t understand it, you simply miss the taste of the raw, versatile expressions of one of the most interesting melting-pot languages in Europe.

The plot is a story of redemption, greed, seduction, envy and finally death. In a city consumed by the idea of business, money and getting rich overnight, news about the return of a long gone adventurer sends everyone into hysterics. They think he’s coming back wealthy and willing to invest, which is why he is received with every honor. Unfortunately, the story is a sad and definitely not thrilling one: the man had been jailed for all those years, and the beautiful woman he’s brought along is his daughter. I can almost hear the shocked gasps when everyone saw that she was a mulatto. Poor and with no support, for them death is the only way out. A teary, cruel story painted on the canvas of Sulina. 

So why are we talking about this? Because I went on a three-day trip to Romania at the beginning of May last year, on a few hours notice. Undoubtedly one of the most incredible experiences of my life (so far, at least) and a sudden plunge into my ancestors’ origins and lands, deep into the heart of the Danube delta. Of course, a visit to the city that lies “where the old Danube loses its name and waters into the Black Sea” was mandatory.

europolis_1_fullsizeSo let me tell you a bit about Sulina, one of the most cosmopolite towns in the world during the 1920s. Home to the European Commission of the Danube, it was a true crossway of languages, origins, commerce and traffic at the beginning of the century, a golden time that is frozen forever in the pages of Europolis, published in 1933. Jean Bart, although very French-sounding, was actually a Romanian author whose real name was Eugeniu Botez. So while visiting Sulina, I went searching for its book, the book that talks about the town and its glorious past, well buried under the tired skin of a town that has lost both its shine and its glamour. We left our boat docked under the cool sun in a freezing breeze, curious faces of children staring at us.

The whole town seemed to float in eternity. We visited the museum, and the old lighthouse. I climbed steep, dangerous steps to reach the top, where I couldn’t understand whether it was the strong winds or the amazing view that took my breath away. You could see Sulina stretching back, close to the water, hugging the last breath of the Danube as it flowed into the sea. You could feel the centuries of history lying under your feet, so powerful and awe-inspiring it almost hurt. It was like seeing myself as a tiny part of a gigantic puzzle I knew I belonged in, and my blood rushing in my veins matched the rushing waters of the river.

Maybe the most amazing part of it was visiting the maritime cemetery. I had been informed there were people of all sorts buried there: princesses, pirates, ship captains, Ladies and Lords. Unlike other cemeteries, which are mostly orthodox, this one is divided into sections, to accomodate the dead of all faiths and religions. With grass barely giving way to soft sand, while clouds gathered above our heads, we read tombstones and unwillingly let our eyes water. One above all, the tomb of a young, brave sailor who challenged the waters to save a young lady Margaret. Right next to it, the tomb of lady Margaret.

We left the cemetery, silent and cold, while it started to rain. That evening, after drinking wine and eating fresh fish, I lied on my bed, reading Europolis. It had nothing to do with the old, tired town I’d seen in the afternoon. It was the image of past glory, and it felt like rummaging in the pictures of an old duchess, feeling more and more amazed in seeing how splendor can fall into oblivion.

I have no idea whether you will read Europolis. It is probably one of the least known books in Europe: a small pearl I enjoyed putting on my necklace.

#ReadMe – The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks

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Have you ever heard of Henrietta Lacks? You might have heard her name in the news during the past few weeks, when a Tennessee-based parent named Jackie Sims has made it her mission to get Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks banned in her son’s school system because of content of “pornographic” nature. An outrageous and frankly ridiculous demand, considering what the book actually is about. Which is where I come in!

Earlier this year, on March 8th, my Facebook timeline was filled with lavish praise, pictures of flower bouquets, chocolates and such, but the one post that really caught my eye was IFLScience’s one about Henrietta Lacks, the immortal woman who saved millions of lives.

Intrigued with the description, I found out there’s a book about her story, so I left all other reading aside and started devouring page after page about this poor black woman who died in 1951 in immense pain and leaving five kids behind.

henriettaIt would seem a straightforward story: a black patient goes to the hospital, her cancerous cells are biopsied and doctors decide to try and grow those cells in an attempt to produce an immortal cell line. There were absolutely no laws regulating tissue management and rights at that time, so Henrietta had no idea that her cells had been preserved, let alone that they were being grown in a lab!

The rest is history: Henrietta’s cells, known as HeLa to the scientific research community, were the only ones that survived and kept on thriving, successfully creating what is now a golden standard of cells used to test all kinds of new vaccines and drugs. They were sent to space, exposed to radiation, blown up, used to test the polio vaccine, bought and especially sold at a very high price by medical companies. They allow researchers to do tests that would be impossible to perform without a human being.

One vial of HeLa can go from 100$ to 10.000$ based on the type of genetic modification the cells have undergone, but Henrietta’s family hasn’t seen a dime of the immense cashflow the cells have generated during the past 60 years. Not one cent, nothing at all. They can’t even afford medical insurance, and the saddest part of all is that they don’t really understand what HeLa actually is.

Ms. Skloot tells the story of the Lacks family with intricate delicacy. The second part of the book, which details her friendship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, is also the account of a writer trying to build trust where others have only offered deceit. It gives a feeling of how impossible it is to make things right for the Lackses at this point, after they have been lied to, exploited and abandoned. An utterly unfair outcome caused by a severe lack of regulation that now is steadily being resolved, but which unfortunately will offer no benefit to the Lacks family.

All in all, it is a book worth reading if you want to know more about the story of these incredible cells and the legal consequences they had all over the world in terms of tissue management, patient privacy, use of biopsy tissue for research: to sum it up, what happens to the bits and pieces people leave behind in the doctor’s office. But most of all it is an account of human pain and suffering, and how they have helped ease the pain and suffering of millions across the globe, making Jackie Sims’ request even more ludicrous. I hope the book will continue to be read and studied in schools, and I hope students will ask keep asking questions about HeLa and their incredible story.

Thank you, Henrietta.

Buy the book!

The WebSummit is dead, long live the WebSummit!

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WebSummit 2015 has come and gone, and apparently it’s a wrap for Dublin. At least for the next edition, Europe’s hottest tech conference will be taking place in Lisbon. For those of you who weren’t in Ireland last week, this decision has been surrounded by an enormous unrest in the Irish media, along with speculation around Paddy Cosgrave’s persona, so much so as to reach the proportions of a full blown scandal. There are many articles you can read if you want to dig in deeper.

My two cents on the matter: the only difference location is going to make will be for the actual location. For all those flying in from the rest of the world, flying to Dublin or flying to Lisbon doesn’t make any difference. It does for the city that is going to be hosting tens of thousands of attendees willing to spend their money in hotels, restaurants, pubs, gadgets, souvenirs, trips and tourist attractions of all sorts. I tried doing to math with some friends and we came up with a very conservative figure of 50+ milion euro spent during the WebSummit event ridden week alone.

But before we look into the future, I’d like to tell you a little about how the 2015 edition winded up. The short answer is “awesome“, as it always is. As for the long answer, there are a few points that deserve a little bit more detail.

The rapid increase in attendees during these last few years has been greeted with much excitement and well deserved pride by the organizers. However, the sheer volume of people makes it impossible to even see everything, let alone talk to everyone. It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time, making the “WebSummit” an abstract concept, something that each attendee experiences in very different ways. It’s probably what makes it the rich event that it is, but it can get challenging at times.

teamdavosThere were many celebrities around the conference, and those of you who know what a massive Game of Thrones fan I am will understand my excitement when I heard that Irish actor Liam Cunningham would be doing a press conference. I couldn’t go away without some photographic evidence.

Let’s get to the shining stars of the show: I’ve talked with quite a few startups this year, tried to read descriptions of many more, and was even surprise pitched on the spot while wandering through the RDS. Some of these you will see soon in the Interviews section of this website, others I found present a fundamental issue: they’re trying too hard to turn niche specific strategies into tools without considering B2B in their revenue streams.

What I mean is that they try to become the “killer app” and set their goal on customer acquisition and B2C, which is of course not wrong. What I think is lacking is their understanding that most of the times their goal should be getting into business with companies which might find their idea interesting to integrate in already existing systems, both as investors and as business partners. This would bring benefit both to the company (which finds itself holding a valuable piece of modern technology in their hands) and the startup itself (which has the security of funding and the stability of solid ground to stand and expand on).

One of the questions two young startuppers asked me was: “How do we choose our sales and marketing manager? We have the budget to hire someone, but we don’t know what to look for. We’re developers.” Of course: these guys are not HR specialists and don’t have a degree in psychology nor the experience needed, but they do face a true challenge, and one that I believe is insufficiently addressed at the moment.

I’ve seen investors in disguise as attendees, new-to-this-market investors who need guidance in choosing the right startup to fund, successful startups which have now grown into flourishing companies and many truly inspiring young talents. You can see there’s a fire in their eyes that keeps them going, and that fire excites me as nothing else does.

Were you at the Summit? What were your thoughts about it?
Let me know in the comments!

#ReadMe: Giuseppino – From NY to Italy, the story of my return home

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A few months ago I found out that Joe Bastianich was about to publish a new book. I’d been following his work for a few years already, especially his participation as a judge in MasterChef USA, so I asked his publisher UTET whether they could provide me with a digital copy of the book (which they very kindly did).

I confess I devoured it in a matter of hours: “Giuseppino” is one of those books you can’t lay down until you’ve found out how it ends. But it’s so much more: Bastianich traces back his difficult family history with the utmost delicacy, starting with the escape of his grandmother Erminia from Tito’s dictatorship, continuing with the stay in Italy and the new life in the United States, putting the personal experience inside an extremely complex historical and political context.

A troubled and frankly unexpected story in a man I only knew as a successful restauranteur and a TV character as competent as he is impossible to please. His fame as an incredibly exacting judge on MasterChef precedes him, in the American version long before the Italian one, where I can say without hesitation that his brilliant spirit and his just intransigence (but also, let’s face it, his initially uncertain grasp of the Italian language) have brought him a fame that is similar to the one he’d earned himself in the States.

giuseppinoI admit I didn’t believe Joe had so much to say, nor did I know his story, which he tells with lucidity and a lot of affection. His is a family of strong and tenacious women, starting with grandma Erminia and continuing with his mother Lidia, who have undoubtedly inspired and guided him to the research of what his destiny is and has always been: that of a wildly successful “restaurant man. Not a chef, like renowned Lidia, but a business man in a field that is indissolubly tied to his roots.

The story of Italy and the United States interweaves with that of Joe’s family: from Istrian refugees to Italian immigrants in an alien and incomprehensible NY, a lot of work, many sacrifices and a unique determination. It’s difficult to read history pages trying to put oneself in the shoes of people who actually lived those times, but here we see a glimpse of that world through the hopeful (but also uncertain) eyes of someone who left everything behind in search of a new life and new opportunities.

The book is structured fundamentally in two parts: the first is an incredibly emotional account of the “going”, the flight of the family from Istria and the slow, laborious building of a living in a new world; the second part contains the “return”, the travels that brought Joe to discover his homeland. A bond that strengthens with each iteration, a bond that Joe instinctively craves (a proof of which is his burning desire to bring MasterChef in Italy and participate as judge, in spite of the economical contraindications this decision would have).

I would go so far as to say that the book closes the “circle” of this return to the origins in a perfect Jack London style: his success in MasterChef, Crozza’s parody, his increasing presence in Italian magazines, newspapers, blogs and even advertising only confirm a role that can only be defined as central in the food industry of Italy (although, again, Joe is not a chef).

I don’t know of many TV characters who managed to cross borders and language barriers in such a structured manner, becoming a stable reference in two countries divided by an ocean. Joe has managed to bring MasterChef from the USA to Italy and he has managed – together with Oscar Farinetti – to bring Eataly from Italy to the USA. A culture, food and wine cross-contamination that cannot avoid having long term consequences, if we consider the popularity – literally – of the topic.

In the end, Italians like Joe. He’s described as a non conformist, but maybe what surprises people is his lack of patience towards who wastes other people’s time and resources by failing to seize great opportunities. Someone even said that as Joe’s skills in Italian increase, his “character” on MasterChef becomes less and less funny, less interesting, less worthy of being watched. Anyway, it’s worth discovering how he got there, and the book is a great way to do just that. Along with providing food for thought (and why not, some motivation) to those who are willing to listen. Besides, if a Wall Street broker manages to become a wine producer in Italy, everything is possible.

Or isn’t it?


The prestige and the disappearing ethics of social media engagement

By | Social media | No Comments

“Everyone underestimated him, but you’ll never believe how this kid surprised everyone! Click here to see what he did!”

Raise your hand if you’ve never seen a post like this one before on Facebook or any other social network you fancy. Yeah, I figured. You’ve probably seen thousands of them: most of them are sponsored posts that lead you to ad ridden websites where you need to fight your way across pop-ups and videos that start playing on their own just to see the one piece of content you were interested in, the kid who did something that surprised everyone. In most cases, if you do get to see it, it will be an utter disappointment. You close the tab and continue hunting for more, trying to find that special something.

So what’s going on here? Someone once said that the true scarce resource nowadays is attention. We spend a significant amount of time interacting with content online because, in the end, we want to be surprised. We genuinely desire to be swept off our feet and just for one instant, be carried away into a world that is better, where dreams are fulfilled and ordinary people secretly have heavenly voices.

On the other side, there are companies and people who have an interest in feeding us this kind of content. Or at least to convince us that they have it. In the end a Facebook post functions exactly like a magic trick: it has the pledge, the turn and the prestige. The pledge is the ordinary, sloppy kid; the turn is, of course, the revelation that the kid has some surprising ability; while the prestige… well, you need to click on the link for that.

Now, if we’re dealing with an ad driven business model, the moment you click the transaction has already happened. Whether you like what you’re seeing or not, it doesn’t really matter. The ad has been displayed, money has changed hands and the deal is done. Of course, if the content is truly interesting it has some chances of going viral and gathering even more visits, but as the amount of content available online increases exponentially, this is becoming less and less relevant.

So what do community managers do in order to convince you to make the magic happen? It’s actually simpler than we like to admit. We push your buttons, because in the end most people are sensitive about very similar things: condemnation of those who harm animals, children or women, social justice, property damage, taxes, religion, sex… but also the desire to be surprised we talked about earlier. So basically we just need to take one of these topics, build the post following the magic trick pattern and the deed is done. All that’s left to do at that point is the fine tuning based on aggregated analytics data in order to make sure that future posts will convert even more. That is, a higher percentage of those who see the posts will eventually click.

Some time ago I read an interesting post about the “soul crushing job of content moderation” and the words stuck and resonated in me. What it lacked, however, was the story of those who actually create the content on behalf of organizations or companies. You scrape the news in search of something that you know will touch people’s consciences and you craft a post that you know will make them angry, or sad, or spark some sort of disdain. Your goal becomes making people uncomfortable, and giving them the means for relief by clicking and interacting with your content. This is basically it. If you’re good at it, you’ll see turbulent comments and numerous conversions for whatever your call to action was. (And you’ll probably have made the the world a better place.)

Of course, this is not true for all content on social networks. There is a recent trend in companies that put a strong highlight on values, with eye-watering posts that make readers sigh deeply. Remember that saying, that people won’t remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel? Well, turns out it works like a charm in advertising as well, and many a bottle of champagne has been sabered after the conclusion of campaigns built around these principles.

But what does this do to the people who are behind the scenes, the copywriters, the content editors, the interns? Those who learn how to leverage human emotions in a way that yields no true value for the user, whose index becomes the extension of the company’s business plan. The young social media editors who grow cynical and bitter?

It’s not it, though: all this should also make us think about our audience as well. We know almost everything about them. We know their age, their sex, their interests, their relationship status, their religious and political inclinations… but are they truly only the sum of their targeting connotations?

And most of all, isn’t the current situation a self fulfilling prophecy? Humans respond coherently according to how you treat them. What if we stopped the click-baiting strategies? Would we reach the same target audience? Probably not. Most probably there would be much fewer people getting lured into these kinds of techniques, we would get less visits, but at least they would be consistent and interested.

Are we sure it would be such a bad thing?

Meet me at the WebSummit in Dublin!

By | Events, WebSummit | No Comments

It’s been one year since my first adventure at the WebSummit in 2013, my first time on my own at such a huge conference! It was hectic, but also one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

Which brings me to the next point of discussion: I will be in Dublin for the WebSummit 2014 from tomorrow, November 4th, until Saturday, November 8th! My bags are packed, my camera is ready, and I have 500 freshly printed business cards.

So meet me there! I’ll be around interviewing awesome startuppers, taking pictures and of course exploring Dublin one pub crawl at the time.

See you in Dublin!