Category Italy

An experiment in Microfunding and new forms of giving

Late last week we kicked off a drive to raise $25,000 for http://www.charitywater.org/ — a non-profit that brings clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. We launched this over Twitter — in partnership with Pistachio and Tipjoy.

In the first 24 hrs we raised $944 from 144 people. As of today — Saturday — we have pledges of $1400 from 213 people, a total of about $2600. This is amazing, the money is going to have a very real impact on people’s lives. Unclean water is the cause of about 80% of disease. 43,000 people died last week from bad drinking water. $2600 in 48 hours is an amazing start, all raised over the Twitter platform. Of the $2600 about half of it was raised via Tipjoy. Here is a live update of the pledges to Charity: Water (@Wellwishes) via tipjoy, and the payment (vs. pledge) rate.

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You can add a $2 gift right here:

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In terms the approach it feels like we are scratching on something radically new here. It intersects with a set of trends I am fascinated by: dynamic community formation and participation, the now web or real time cloud and micro-lending or in this case micro-giving. Laura Fitton (@Pistachio) has written about this before, as have others — its giving me a lot to think about as we head into the Christmas season and the snow falls here. A payment rate of 83% is astoundingly high.

We also put together a little video of the launch of this effort. Laura is testing, Chartbeat, an un-released product from betaworks — it can track the traffic surge from Twitter to Larura’s blog post. If anyone wonders the effects of Twitter this little video says a lot. Watch what happens 20 seconds in.

Laura had a technical reaction to the video:

holy AWESOMENESS.

chartbeat is going to be INSANELY valuable. that is SO cool.

Keep it Chunky, Sticky in 1996

Fred Wilson’s keynote this week at the Web 2.0 conference will be interesting. He is doing a review of the history of the internet business in New York, the slides are posted here. History is something we don’t do a lot of in our business we tend to run forward so fast that we barely look back. I shared some pictures with Fred and I am posting a few more things here.   I also found a random missive I scribed I think in 1996, its pasted below. I was running what we called a web studio back then — we produced a group of web sites, including äda ’web , Total New York and Spanker.


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äda ’web’s first project created in the fall of 1994 — Jenny Holzer’s, Please Change Beliefs. This project is still up and available at adaweb. The project was a collaboration between Jenny, ada and John F. Simon, Jnr. I learnt so much from that one piece of work. I am not putting up more ada pieces since unlike the other sites it is still up and running thanks to the Walker Arts Center.

Total NY sends Greg Elin across country for the Silicon Alley to Silicon Valley tour. Greg and this project taught me the fundamentals of what would become blogging

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Man meets bike meets cam … Greg Elin prepares for Silicon Alley to Silicon Valley. Don’t miss the connextix “eye” camera on the handle bar!?!

1995, Total NY’s Cosmic Cavern, my first forway into 2d+ virtual worlds, a collaboration with Kenny Scharf. This was a weird and interesting project. We created a virtual world with Scharf based on the cosmic cavern the artist had created at the tunnel night club. Then within the actual Cosmic Cavern we placed PC’s for people to interact with the virtual cavern. Trying to explain it was like a Borges novel. He is a picture of Scharf in the “real” cavern, feels like the 90’s were a long time ago.

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Some other random pictures i found from that era:

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Keep it Chunky, Sticky and Open:

As the director of a studio dedicated to creating online content, a question I spend a lot of time thinking about is: what are the salient properties of this medium? Online isn’t print, it isn’t television, isn’t radio, nor telephony–and yet we consistently apply properties of all these mediums to online with varied result. But digging deeper, what are the unique properties of online that make the experience interesting and distinct? Well, there are three that we have worked with here the Studio, and we like to call them: chunky, sticky and open.

Chunky
What is chunky content? It is bite sized, it is discrete and modular, it is quick to understand because it has borders. Suck is chunky, CNET and Spanker (one of our productions) are chunky. Arrive at these sites and within seconds you understand what is going on–the content is simple, its bite sized. Chunkiness is especially relevant in large database-driven sites. Yesterday, my girlfriend and I were looking for hardware on the ZD Net sites (PC Magazine, Net Buyer etc.). She had found a hardware review a day earlier and wanted to show them to me. She typed in the URL for PC Magazine but the whole site had changed. When she looked at the page she had no anchors, she had no bearings to find the review that was featured a day earlier. The experience would have been far less frustrating if the site had been designed with persistent, recursive, chunks. Chunky media offers you a defined pool of content, not a boundless sea. It has clear borders and the parameters are persistent. Bounded content is important; I want to know the borders of the media experience, where it begins and where it ends. What is more, given the distributed, packet-based nature of this medium, both its form and function evokes modularity. Discreet servings of data. Chunks.

Sticky
Some, but not all, content should stick. Stickiness is about creating an immersive experience. It’s content that dives deep into associations and relationships. The opposite of sticky is slippery, take basic online chat rooms: most of them aren’t sticky. You move from one room to another, chatting about this and that, switching costs are low, they are slippery. Contrast this to MUDS and MOO’s which are very sticky: in MUDS the learning curve is steep (view this as a rite of entry into the community), and context is high (they give a very real sense of place). What you get out of these environments is proportional to your participation and involvement, relationship between characters is deep and associative. When content sticks time slows down and the experience becomes immersive– you look up and what you thought was ten minutes was actually half an hour. Stickiness is evoked through association, participation, and involvement. Personalized information gets sticky as does most content that demands participation. Peer to peer communication is sticky. Community and games are sticky. People (especially when they are not filtered) are sticky. My home page is both chunky and sticky.

Open
I want to find space for me in this medium. Content that is open, or unfinished permits association and participation (see Eno’s article in Wired 3.05, where he talks about unfinished media). There is space for me. I often describe building content in this medium as drawing a 260 degrees circle. The arc is sufficient to describe the circle (e.g.: provide the context) but is open to let the member fill in the remainder. We laugh and cry at movies, we associate with characters in books, they move us. We develop and frame our identity with them and through them–to varying degrees they are all open. Cartoons, comedy, and most forms of humor, theatre, especially improvisational theater, are all open. A joke isn’t really finished till someone laughs, this is the closing of the circle, they got it. Abstraction, generalities and stereotypes, all these forms are open, they leave room for association, room for me and for you.

So, chunky, sticky and open. Try them out and tell me what you think (john@dci-studio.com). Lets keep this open, in the first paragraph I said I wanted to discuss the characteristics that make a piece of online content interesting, I did not use the words great or compelling. I don’t think that anything online that has been created to date is great. These are still early days and we still have a lot to learn and a lot to unlearn. No one has produced the Great Train Robbery of online–yet. But when they do, I would bet that pieces of it will be chunky, sticky and open.

Ok enough reminiscing, closing with Jenny Holzer.

Choice, end to end control, distributed innovation and that iphone thing

A lot of chatter about the iphone — just read Dave Winer's piece — lots of conspiracy theories about how real the Job's demo was and people are starting to focus on the question of how closed the platform is.  Jobs has said that the platform will allow third party development but it will be "restricted" and managed — like ipod games.  Apple believes that in order to get a product into market — out of the box — end to end control of the hardware and software experience is the easiest and fastest way to deliver something that works to users.   This worked in the case of the ipod — it wasnt the first MP3 player to hit the market, it was just the first to work as seamlessly as it did, from the device to the pc.   There are smart phones of many flavors out there today — but they all require a lot of setup, maintenance etc.  The iphone is clearly going to be different — take a look at the Pogue's list of what is does and doesnt do.    

Last year I lived in Italy for six months and I made some notes about what an insanely mobile the country was — 57M people with 70M cell phones.   There are more mobile phones here than fixed lines, estimates are that 18% of the population have cut the cord (chk). Kids and couples walk around listening to cell phones playing music, like 30 years ago people would walk around listening to a radio.    Someone we know was chatted up by a waiter at a restaurant — for follow up, he offered her a SIM chip instead of offering his phone number.   SMS is everywhere and its far more conversational than in the US. The rates and pricing plans push people to SMS.    Wifi is fairly available and the cell co's are clearly nervous about voip / skype – 3 (Hutchison Whampoa) has an offer in market for $15 a month unlimited voip calling to over 25 countries from your handset.    And in Italy Apple has next to no presence (as of 06 they had no stores and next to no market share).  In Italy Apple has next to no presence (as of 06 they had no stores and next to no market share).

Over time the iPod functionality needs to merge into the phone.     Yet Apple has created a business model that is based on tethering hardware to software and reaping all of the margins on the hardware.    The result is that music that I have "bought" on iTunes isn't transportable to other non apple devices.   I really haven't bought it, its a rental agreement – with the a right to listen to that music on 5 apple pc's / devices.  Jobs knows that the ipod is close to its peak and its time to move the ball — the question in my mind is whether open and unlocked alternatives — palm, symbian, rim and even linux phones can out run Apple. 

The pressure points are in my mind (a) apple's dependency on the ipod and its related business mode — the iphone needs to have everything the high end ipod has (focus will be on music, video and phone — watch how they execute on core ipod features (eg: access to itunes store from the device (which today is not available), music and video sharing (also not available)) and then non ipod functionality.    The phone is a messaging device, music and ipod functionality needs to balanced against great messaging capabilities — voice and text (Phones outside of the US are used more for messaging that voice — calling them phones is a cultural artifact — they are messaging devices with voice as a secondary features)   (b) apple's tie to cingular (2 years), and the associated restrictions this brings with it (re: no voip, open wifi roaming, no HSDPA/3g, requirement for a 2 year contract, no unlocked alternative etc.)  (c) the tension between a closed end to end platform with controlled innovation vs. an open platform with distributed innovation and lastly (d) the execution of the hardware / device and the lack of a keyboard.  If this is mostly a media device Apple will miss the broader market. 

I have no doubt people will buy this product — it seems like a beautiful piece of hardware and simply postioned as the highest end ipod it will find a market —  just like the nano or video ipod.  But neither the nano or the video ipod defined a new category — they were devices in a long stream of innovation that started with the orginal ipod.   The iphone needs to define a whole new stream of innovation independent from the ipod.  And the business model will likely also have to evolve — in more developed markets (south korea the flip has occurred to a subsription model, $5 a month for all the music you want / can eat).     I am going to be watching the pressure points listed above to see whether similar to the ps3 vs. Wii the lowend offer some real alternatives, without all the restrictions that Apple's business model now imposes on it as the category leader – the mobile world needs to see some real innovation and what I saw last week suggests that not going to come from Apple. 

Supersized

It has now been two weeks now since we came back to the US and I am still adjusting. There are many differences but getting away for a while also lets you see things you dont usually see when you get back. For one everything is so large here. Food is an easy place to start — I am not talking about jumbo drinks in movie theaters or fast food — its everywhere, meals here, food here seems larger than life. From muffins to croissants, to venti's to basic portions served at restaurants. It seems that portions of pretty much everything have grown substantially in the past 20 years. I didnt appreciate this before coming back here, I didnt see it, or the movie.

Another observation is in reference to the landscape, the architectural landscape. There is a temporariness to so much of the architecture and the buildings here on the east coast of the US. This isnt only in Manhattan — all over the east coast. It gives one the impression that everything can be changed, it makes the landscape seem more dynamic and in flux. In Italy so much of the landscape feels permanent — yes, there are stretches in Italy where urban or suburban sprawl looks and feels no different to the US but so much of it is old, so very old and the oldness of it, the fact that people have worked, touched, walked and groomed it for hundreds if not thousands of years is evident even in the smallest of things.

Rocks, dripped

An example. Back in Italy there was a drain that ran down the side of our house. Someone a long time a go, likely a long long time ago, had placed a handful of stones underneath where the drain ran off into the soil. A handful of rocks placed under a persistent drip to stop a whole from forming in the ground. These stones looked like they had been literally melted by the drip, drip of the drain. There were countless examples like this, little instances of man's interaction with the landscape marking time. At some level I wonder whether this relationship to time cuts both ways — yes its something that grounds one in a space and gives a space depth of experience, but I suspect its also a reason why change happens so fitfully in Europe. Back here in the US the newness of everything is a testament to constant change. So much is dispensable, and temporary giving the individual a clear sense of how he / she can effect space and change and effect the world.

Packing up and heading home

Time to go home

Heading home, with yellow dog

Hi

My one and half year old son calls a phone a “Hi”. When you answer the phone in the US you usually say Hi or Hello. Here in Italy you say “pronto” or “ready”. I remember when I was young hearing a story that in France there were people who thought you had to say “allo, allo” when you answered the phone to make it work.

Duck

At around 5.30am a duck flew into our bedroom window. I got up and there was a crow perched on the side of the balcony watching the duck jump up and down smacking itself into our window. Every so often the crow would screech, as if he was yelling take a look at what this duck is doing.

History, Mussolini

We were driving up in the hills near a small town called Mezzegra yesterday. Outside of a villa there was this small cross with Mussolini's name it. Someone had placed flowers by it. As the photo's of Mussolini on wine bottles suggest he is far from demonized. A wikipedia search turns up that this is where Mussolini and his girlfriend were executed before he was taken to Milan.

Note, he was caught in Dongo on his was to Chiavenna where he was trying to board a plane to Switzerland. Weird, this is so close to Switzerland, he could have driven or walked from Dongo or Mezzegra.

Local, how local can you be?

 Happydent
Living here in Italy has made me consider what defines the boundaries of local and how my concept of local is changing.     Here everything is very local – local to a degree I hadnt appreciated to date.  By local I mean within the region we live in Italy (Lombardy) and more often than not the 20 sq. km around us.   People here think local, produce is local, relationships are local.   Many of the people who live in the tiny village we are in have never left Lombardy.  Very few have ever left Italy.  Most people dont speak a word of any language other than Italian.   Considering that we are 15 mins away from the Swiss border, 45 mins from Milan, 3 hours from Florence, this surprised me.    
People seem to relish how local life is here.   Last week someone was explaining to me that much of the milk that we buy here is from cows about 15 mins up the road.   Some friends told us that each year they pick olives from their olive trees and take the olives to Lenno where a local producer of olive oil (great oil btw) weighs them and gives them bottles of oil in exchange for the olives.   There is a trade off made between choice and quality.    There is often little choice, each item comes in a flavor determined mostly by what was available.  What is fresh.   But while daily choice is limited there is more variety.  

There are vegetalbles that we have never seen before.   One day back in Feburary my wife bought at the market a green vegetable that was somewhere between asperagus and an artichoke. Often we cant even get the name sorted for some of these items — different people seem to call them different things — the name for this one was erbetta, another one is called la barba dei priest  (the priests beard).   In the US there seems to be a need to replicate experiences, a need for consistency (are these needs or are they artifacts of a culture of consumption that makes us think they are needs?). Here there is little need for this.    Life maps pretty tightly to the seasons, one month its brocoli the next its appargus and thats about it.  It strikes me that is a lot more texture to a life lived like this.  

Down the street there is a butcher who sells among other things butter. His butter unlike anything I have tasted before. I cant really explain it.   The combination of the texture and the taste is unbelievable – its butter like nothing i have tasted.   Made just up the road.   Maybe I dont pay enough attention to taste — I never thought there could be so much diversity in a thing like butter.  I thought butter was butter, now I differently, so do my kids, they will ask us, butcher's butter please.

 Brands here are hyper local.     Go to a resturant and order sparkling water — what you get wont be Pelligrino,  there is barely a Pelligrino bottle to be seen around here.   Its local carbonated, spring water. And pretty much every restaurant we go to has a different brand.   Go the the supermarket (let alone the local aliementaire) and pretty much everything is local.  Not only produce, the basics — kitchen paper, trash bags, wine, drinks, yoguts etc. etc. most of them are Italian brands.   Glad bags, no can do,  wrigleys gum, no such luck (try Happydent, fabulous branding.) …  Maybe Italy is too small a market, non english spearking etc. for the multinationals to have paid it much atttention.   Most of the trade barriers have been levelled with EU membership.   But local is what people want, its what they trust. People spend a lot of time in their communities and so much is done just the way it has always been done.  

If you expand the concept of local to include a local online community I wonder if this is more what markets will look like in the future.   Another way of thinking about the tail vs. the head, but the tail vs. the head analysis is about how the tail is becoming more accessible from a cost standpoint.  Here the trade off's that are so compelling re: scale and efficiencies have not been made.

Water?

The water in our town of approx. 150 people went off today. We inquired as to when it was going to get turned on again … we were told was “when they are done working on it”…

Would you drink from here?

Metadata without some trail of heritage / trust can be problematic

Seasons and vegetables

Broccoli season is over. Its strange and wonderful to be living in a country where vegetables are truly tied to the seasons. I am so accustomed to boundless choice available in NYC. No more broccoli for a while — asparagus it is. Spring is really here, almost 70 today.

Sky in Europe

This register piece is worth a read on Sky’s realtive position in europe — the presumption that sky will dominate multichannel video in europe is held by pretty much everyone here.   Surprising given the progress of IPTV — and the fact that many IPTV providers are figuring out that a me too service isn’t what IPTV is going to be about.   Just like cable differentiated itself from broadcast, IPTV is going to have to differentiate itself from satellite and cable.

What technology I am using at home in Italy

A couple of friends have asked about what technology we have setup here in Italy. A summary with commentary below.

Connectivity wise we are using ADSL. Cheap, fast european ADSL. We see speeds of 3-6Mbps with very few drop off’s and little maintence. Our provider is Telecom Italia, we have the Alice service. I would have liked to have tried Fastweb but outside of Milan Fastweb is essentially an ADSL reseller — the FTTH offering is in the Milan metro area. Price wise ADSL has several tiers — the lowest is approx. $25 (with promotions etc.) and the highest includes wifi router and voip and is around $38/mnth after promotions. These prices are in line with France, UK and Belgium. Interestingly upload speeds seem to be as much of a selling point as download speeds.  Finally, to share some of this bandwidth goodness I am testing a Fon access point — not a lot of data on it as yet, will post some commentary when I know more.

Telephony wise we have setup a mix of wireless and VoIP options. For calls within Italy we use our cell phones or the home pots line. For cell phones we are using our US phones with Italian prepaid SIM cards. SIM provider is TIM. Coverage is pretty good but not as good as I expected (europeans often complain about US cell service, saying it soo much better here). In buildings, particularly old Italian ones with thick walls, you have no service. Voice service is pricey – driving much of the the text/data usuage. Data usuage is very interesting. SMS is threaded in a manner that I havent seen in the US. And there are many features that on the SIM card that pre load on to the cell phone interface. Most of them are TIM promotional features — local information search for taxi service, or a voice based search/information service (both of which get loaded into your phone book). There are group chat services, some content and entertainment and also payment services. Payfor me lets you pay or SMS funds to another user — either by entering a phone number or by sending an SMS. The phones take full advantage of the simplicity of a text based interface — I have seen far fewer attempts to push usuage into a browser / graphical experience. Likely one reason why next generation/3g adoption has been slow. On the subject of 3g I havent yet tried the wireless VoIP offering from 3 Italia, will post when I do.

Fixed line VoIP wise we have both Vonage and Skype setup. I brought over our Vonage/Cisco ATA box and it was up and running on the network within minutes. It works fabulously well. Offers us a local (917) number for people calling from the US. Almost no issues with quality or drop off. Amusingly our vonage 917 number must have gotton scrapped recently we have started getting telemarketing calls — after 3 years of vonage usuage in the US with no telemarketing calls and now we are getting calls here in Italy from US vendors (consider that these calls are orginating from call centers outside the US, thinking that they are dialing a US resident, an instance of how strange telephony is becoming now that switching is decoupled from location). Most of our usage on vonage is back and forth to the US. Skype is great for calls elsewhere and multiparty conference calls. I got a Linksys cordless skype phone that works fabulously well. Full access to the address book etc. Drop off and quality of Skype calls is good but not great — big difference between quality of Vonage vs. Skype. Note Alice does offer VoIP as part of its ADSL package. As you might expect its not heavily promoted and the main selling point seems to be personal phone lines — it comes with 5 lines / phone numbers. I havent tried this service.

Video wise we arent watching much italian TV. We are using Sling and a couple of IP video services. Sling works surprisingly well. Its an amazing and strange experience to be sitting here in Italy navigating our Tivo box in NY. Its facinating the degree to which I associate interfaces with place — getting on the Tivo from here makes me feel physically like I am in NY — as I said before, its weird. Quality is fairly good, it works great for talking head stuff (jon stewart etc.), less good for drama but its pretty much only the Soprano’s that we watch drama wise. Note we dont watch much TV in the US, and we watch even less here. But I was surprised by how well Sling does work. The quality bottle neck is mostly because of the upload limit on our broadband connection in the US (the stream we recieve is on average 250-300k). That said if we wanted to watch sports, or any fast moving image — the sling experience wouldnt be great.

Outside of Sling I have tried pretty much all the movie download services. Performance is mixed but lack of quality films has been pretty consistent accross services. This is changing (given recent collapses of the DVD and online window) — and now the quality and price of the services are going to compete head on with p2/ bittorrent alternatives. Vongo / iTunes are the best US services I have found. Do note that most of these services are blocked to non US IP numbers so they only work when connected via a VPN. Italian IPTV is starting to blossom. There are services available via the PC and there are services available to the TV. The PC based service is mostly pay per view — there are prepaid card options that are blended with telephony offerings. The TV based service retails as a complete package for $60/mnth — this includes ADSL, telephony services and a basic TV line up. While I havent tried the service it doesnt seem as advanced as Illiad’s offering in France.

I am also watching a fair amount of short/chunky video from youtube, rocketboom and its kin, but thats a whole other subject.