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#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!
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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!

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#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?

BUY THE BOOK

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The prestige and the disappearing ethics of social media engagement

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“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?

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Meet me at the WebSummit in Dublin!

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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!

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Kindle, digital publishing and the hard battle between sense and sensibility

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A few years ago, during a frustratingly long car trip, I had an interesting conversation about ebooks, ebook readers and the future of an ecosystem that was just blooming at the time and still hadn’t had the chance to show its true colors.

In that occasion I made a prediction that actually turned out to be quite accurate: “we will soon have a device that is like an ebook reader, uses the same e-ink technology current ebook readers do, will have a lit screen, and a battery life of eight weeks like the current Kindle.” At the time the answer I got was a dry “impossible“, and in fact the object I was describing was more of a science-fiction fantasy than reality. And yet, a few months later Amazon was presenting the first Kindle PaperWhite: I gloated silently, and the ebook reader market exploded for real.

Fast forward to today, a little more than one year later: Amazon launches its second generation Paperwhite, much more silently than the spectacular keynote that marked the first one, and now that it is finally in my hands, I had to say a few words about this extraordinary piece of technology.

At the Internet Festival in Pisa, in an half-empty room with participants who couldn’t wait to leave for dinner, I listened to Antonio Pavolini say something fascinating about connected TV and different modalities of content fruition. In our time, the true scarce (and thus valuable) resource is attention: and this is the exact same reason why cinemas haven’t suffered substantial losses, and the experience of watching a movie at the cinema is still considered something worthy of being paid for handsomely. You pay in order to be closed in a dark room, with no other stimuli than those presented by the movie, a situation where you are actually forced to canalize and concentrate your attention and what you’re seeing. A deprivation of the exceeding freedom and attention dispersion among  the numerous screens available in your living room.

I couldn’t avoid tracing an analogy between what Antonio explained with great precision regarding the fruition of multimedia content, and what I observe regarding reading. Rivers of ink have been spilled to discuss the paper vs. digital matter, the balance of advantages and disadvantages, and even apparently irrelevant collateral elements, but that are still capable of a strong emotional impact linked to the reading experience (do you remember “the perfume of paper”?). David Orban, in an interview we did a while ago, told me he slowly came to terms with the idea of parting with his physical books by sending them to 1dollarscan.com, a service that scans books and only gives the digital version back to the owner, while the physical one goes to recycling.

CEK BOOKENTHUSIAST - My CaptureThe point is that human beings seem to have a very hard time giving up an experience that is so deeply hardwired in their memories and habits. Not one of today’s adults has ever had the chance to hold an ebook as a child. What I wonder, when I hear someone bring up sentimentalisms and nostalgia when speaking about books (and why paper books are supposed to be better than their digital counterparts), is whether we’re not looking at the whole matter from the wrong point of view, whether this isn’t an entirely emotional problem, rather than a rational one. It’s about the experience, not the tool per se. If this is the case, then no type of technological improvement will ever be able to solve the issue, because it’s being tackled from two very different points of view. In terms of practicity and savings, buying ebooks is undoubtedly the most convenient solution for the consumer. no more overflowing shelves, no more books to dust, lacking space, books that are nowhere to be found right when you need them most, higher prices because the production of paper versions is more expensive, and so on and so forth.

The ebook reader as an object is in a position of true strategic advantage in this scenario: on the one side it solves the problems of space, book cost (ebooks are often sold at a fraction of the paper version price), availability of books at any time, even on the go, the possibility to do quick searches by keywords, write and save notes, share with friends on social networks, etc. It allows users to have that extra something that makes the book truly transparent, a resource that can be accessed with ease.

But what truly makes the ebook reader special is, IMHO, what makes it similar to the paper book: first of all the e-ink screen, that somehow recreates the sensation of reading a “real” book, but most of all the focus of attention Antonio Pavolini talked about. Unlike a tablet, that offers a vast choice of use, an ebook reader allows you to do just one thing: read books and documents. Period. It is an immersive experience that excludes the possibility of easy distractions (unless you’re holding an iPhone with the other hand, in which case my whole argument becomes mute).

It is this characteristic that has determined the success of such a best selling gadget. It hits a slowly transitioning market, that wants but doesn’t want, stuck in the past (rich of autobiographic, emotional, sentimental, romantic elements) but still projected into the future (characterized by a more rational, pragmatic, mechanic vision).

So my question is: what will be the effect of this precarious balance between reason and romanticism in the creation and development of new technological tool meant to make our lives better? What type of evolution curve will we see, if the factors we’ve briefly seen here have allowed an object as the ebook reader not only to exist, but to obtain a stable place among our daily use objects?

Discuss.