Category: Essays

Ellen Pao or the End of Internet Capitalism

Have you been following the Internet, lately? Its self-declared home page,, has been splattered all over the news after the interim CEO, Ellen Pao, caused a major uproar and finally had to resign.

If you’ve never been there, the idea of reddit is neither new nor innovative. Its users are grouped into named categories, called subreddits. They can post entries to the subreddits, and other users can vote them up or down. When you then go to the subreddit, the entries that have been viewed most favorably are on top.

This is an old idea. Slashdot, a site devoted to geeks, has been working like this for a very long time. Digg, which seemed to be advancing towards the top of the Internet, was pretty much the same as reddit. While the former is still limping along, the latter was sold at a fire sale and turned back to irrelevance.

It’s not only news selection sites that are affected, though. The same happened to places like MySpace, which ruled the Internet for a while and then disappeared into oblivion, to be rapidly replaced by Facebook. Interestingly, while the two sites came from completely different angles, they ended up being pretty much the same in the end.


Humans: a Sexual History and the New Moon Theory

Human EvolutionThere is an interesting principle in biology, named Haeckel’s Recapitulation Theory: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. In simple terms, that means that you can read the whole evolutionary tree leading to a species just by looking at successive development stages of the fetus. We start looking like single-cell individuals, “evolve” into bunches of cells, eventually “turn” into fish, then lizards, then monkeys, etc.

It’s not as simple as that, and the principle/theory has been refuted/rejected. But the idea has wider applications than just in evolutionary biology. In general, I’d say, the notion is that the behavior of the (averaged) individual allows reconstruction of the group’s creation/formation/development.

Humans are a weird bunch. We have all sorts of odd characteristics that make us stand out even with respect to our closest relatives, The size of our brains is what we are most proud of, but there is hairlessness, too; upright walking and long-distance running; our opportunistic digestive tract, not specialized for anything, and unable to digest anything that requires complexity; and more.

The picture that emerges is fairly clear: we evolved in a temperate climate with little seasonal variation, with a diverse food supply, none of whose components could be counted on in the long term. The ability to run indicates that we were group hunters, since we are not fast enough to outrun prey or hunters.

One of the things that is strangest about humans, though, is our sexuality. You see, life usually has two strategies: continual mating, where offspring is generated indiscriminately throughout the year; and seasonal mating, where sex happens at a specific time of the year.

Typically, the strategy picked indicates the environment in which the life form lives. If there is strong seasonal change, it is advisable to time pregnancy and birth so that it matches availability of food and environmental protection. If there isn’t, then it is smarter to have any sexual encounter be a chance for reproduction, since you don’t know whether there is going to be another day.

Humans, though, have the strangest method: our females are fertile for a few days every month, and infertile otherwise. That seems to be the stupidest combination possible: it limits the chance to reproduce without giving any obvious advantage in timing of offspring.


I HEART Janet Reid, but She’s Dangerous

I’ve been following the blog of one Janet Reid, literary agent. Well, she really has two blogs that I know of: the one I mentioned, and a second and much juicier one. It’s called Query Shark, and it’s a collection of queries and her comments.

Queries, in case you didn’t know, are the letters (emails) that authors send to agents. In them, the former request representation by the latter, by presenting a project. Queries are incredibly important, because agents read them first. If the query doesn’t interest them, then they won’t read the remainder of the message – typically sample pages.

But, really, you should go to the two blogs if you want to know how that all works. Especially because Janet (whose last name I won’t use because I just love her too much – NO STALKO!) is brutal, direct, and honest. She is the Simon Cowell of query letters. She won’t hesitate to tell you you are too fat to write a book (OK, not that…).

This is what she had to say (among other things) to a writer who self-published and languished in obscurity:


Privacy or Transparency? The Battle for the Soul of the 21st Century

NetherlandsWhen you drive at night through the countryside in the Netherlands, you notice something odd: people are sitting at the dinner table, watching TV, or getting ready to go to bed in their homes, and you can clearly see them from the street. There are no curtains, no shades, no privacy. Coming from a society that values the ability not to be bothered, the idea that everyone gets to see everything you do seems threatening.

Apparently, this transparency has its roots in Protestantism. You shouldn’t do anything you wouldn’t want others to see, and in the Netherlands you just don’t do anything you wouldn’t want others to see. Curtainless windows are just one example: I recall how weird it felt when I visited a swimming pool in Vaals, only to find out that the showers were shared: naked men, women, and children all in one room.

What this has done to the Dutch cannot be underestimated: they have become an incredibly tolerant and open-minded nation, one that is proud of its ability to live with just about anything that could be human nature. They are happy, they are free-spirited, and they are incredibly tall (not that this has anything to do with privacy).

On the other side of the Channel, the exact opposite. Since Victorian times (and possibly before), England has tried to shy away from controversy by allowing and forcing people to hide themselves. You are supposed to front a suitable facade and to do the things that belong to human nature in hiding. The defining keyword of this society is proper.


How Did the Mortgage Crisis Happen?

1. Introduction

digsThere is a branch of Physics called Catastrophe Theory. It deals with the way something that changes smoothly for a long time may get a sudden change, a catastrophe. The classical example is a pile of sand onto which you drop grain after grain: after a (long) while, the pile can’t sustain all the added sand and there will be an avalanche. How is it possible that something innocuous like adding a grain of sand will end up in an avalanche?

Catastrophe Theory explains that some systems have built-in inertia that can overcome a lot of pressure. In this case, the pile is composed of grains that have no desire to move, as they rub against each other and dislodging them would me overcoming the friction between them. Catastrophe Theory also explains that there is a crucial number for every system that says when the friction isn’t able to compensate for the excess pressure on the pile. Finally, catastrophe theory makes predictions about the likelihood at any point that the system collapse.

Catastrophe Theory, in other words, tells us all about the sudden change, except when it will happen. That’s too much to ask. It can, though, predict very accurately what will happen in the long run.

Catastrophe Theory also tells us that for a catastrophe to occur, there must be a cascading mechanism. That is, there must be a microscopic change that can trigger more microscopic change in a very short time frame. When that occurs, a chain reaction will cause the sudden change at the macroscopic level (the catastrophe). If there is no cascading mechanism, there is no catastrophe.

What does this all have to do with the mortgage crisis? Everything. You see, in the aftermath of the mortgage securities meltdown in 2007/08, we have found all sorts of culprits: from greedy banks to deregulation; from first-time home buyers to real estate investors; from CDOs to lax mortgage practices. Those are all wonderful explanations for a macroscopic change, but they don’t explain why the change was so sudden, so catastrophic.


Good-Bye, Steve Ballmer

By sheer coincidence, the two most influential computer people of the last decade are both Steves. One, Steve Jobs, is widely hailed as a genius. He started Apple, got fired, and came back to the rescue, making the company he inherited at the brink of collapse the most valuable company of all times.

The other, Steve Ballmer, took the most valuable company of all times and from a position of absolute dominance ran it to a state of also-ran. Mr. Ballmer, after years of the Internet wondering why he was still in charge, finally announced he was going to retire in a year.

But was it his fault? Is Steve Ballmer to blame for the loss of Microsoft’s monopolies in the same way that Steve Jobs is single-handedly responsible for the success of the iPod, iPhone, and the various MacBooks?

To answer that question, we need to look at what type of company Microsoft was. When Bill Gates created it, Microsoft was a smallish company with a knack for doing the same things as others, but better. Better, here, was defined by the business case, not by the technology. And for a long while, Microsoft succeeded with an ethos of being smarter than the competition.


The Infamous 2%

That is bound to be the most misleading title in the humble history of this blog. The 2% I am referring to are not related to the much more famous 1% of Occupy fame. They represent the standard allotment of shares given to the technical leader of an Internet startup.

In case you didn’t know, there is such a thing as a standard setup for a venture-backed software startup. Basically, the founders share according to contribution in roughly equivalent parts. People that join later (where later is loosely defined as “after the first funding event”) get a much smaller part of the pie.

In particular, a newly hired CEO get 10% of the company, while the CTO/VP Engineering gets 2%. Going against the grain of this wisdom is anathema to a VC, and if your company deviates too much from this scheme, it draws unwanted scrutiny.

The reverse also happens, and I have been asked several times to join a startup as founding developer and head of development, only to be offered no pay and 2% of the company. The deals I witnessed were particularly bad: once, a guy had a patent filing in hand and no intention to do much of anything for the new company, demanding I quit my job for the opportunity of getting 2% of the pie. Another time, a group of technically incompetent people had a vague idea of what they wanted, and thought that the guy that was going to make it all happen and shoulder the work was not worth more than one fiftieth of the company.


The Law of Wishing Well

Once upon a time, there were wells. Those were long, straight holes dug into the ground, usually with a retaining wall and a pulley. You dug until you hit fresh water and used that for drinking, bathing, watering the plants, etc. Some people thought that wells could be magic (they certainly could be tragic, e.g. if you fell into one and drowned). So they’d throw something (usually a coin) and make a wish. 

This is not about that kind of well. This is an article about people’s ability to wish well. My thesis is going to be that people wish poorly for a variety of reasons, and that it is incredibly important to analyze a wish and turn it well, instead of just implementing whatever it is the person wished.

I have had problems with this in my personal life in the past. You know the moments a wide-eyed and clearly not well-slept friend comes over and says you should be going on a wild adventure? And I look at him or her and say, “You really should go to sleep.” Infuriating, right?

Well, in my professional life the same problem has been much worse. Usually, that’s because I am several steps removed from the person making the wish, and by the time I hear about it, I cannot see the wide eyes. I just have a feature request and I scratch my head.


The Meta Romuli and the Mystery of St. Peter’s Crucifixion

Romulus and Remus suckled by LupercaAs some of you know, I started writing the successor to In the Mission, my first published novel. This time around, part of the action will take place in my home town, Rome (Eternal, not New York). Research has been going strong, with the week I spent in Italy dedicated for the most part to research the setting and the details of the plot. 

One of the things that stands out about Rome and its institution is the obsession with twins. Once the last (Etruscan) king was abolished, Rome created itself as a Republic with two consuls at its head. The basic idea was that since there were two, one could keep the other in check. This is centuries later reprised in the notion of two co-equal emperors (augusti) which segued into the separation of the one Roman Empire into two.

This obsession with twins stems with the very birth of the city, founded as it was by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. In a foreshadowing of how this twin thing was going to work out, one twin (Romulus) killed the other (Remus) at the founding. When Romulus drew the city limits of Rome, Remus hopped over them. Romulus, incensed, killed his brother. Apparently, 18-year-olds of the time were no more likely to restrain themselves than today.


The Euro Debt Crisis – Explained

euro_1It’s one of those moments in my life when people around me ask the same question over and over again. This time, it’s, “What’s wrong with the euro?” Since there are only so many hours I can spend explaining my version of the story, here is an article about it, and I hope this will answer some questions.

What Was Before the Euro?

I grew up in Europe, a child of a mixed marriage between an Italian and a German. They were not just citizens of their respective countries: my father and mother came from families that were deeply embedded in their cultures. When my parents fell in love, there was strong resistance to the marriage outside the culture. I can imagine the surprise that everyone felt when the marriage actually worked perfectly well for over twenty-five years, until my mother passed away.

One consequence of this mixed heritage is that I got to travel from one country to the other at least four times a year. We’d usually drive through Switzerland, which was the worse travel route, but it was prettier and my father loved the (car-sickness-inducing) hairpin turns going up and down the Alps. In the course of the years, we saw infrastructure improve: from the two-lane country roads that wound up and down the faces of mountains, we got to four lane roads that still looked like spaghetti on a hillside, to the amazing Gotthard tunnel that plunges right through the very mountain for the longest and most boringly dangerous route I could imagine.