Author Archives: Aaron

The sleeping cats

I live with two cats. One of them is a black female. Her name is Holly, after the main character in the superlative movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The second one is a male cat, grey/bluish, named George after the fantastic George Costanza in the TV show Seinfeld. They are siblings.

Holly and George have a strange relationship with me. I think they have a plan to drive me crazy. The main issue is that we all have a completely mixed up sleeping pattern. It’s out of sync. When they sleep, I am awake. When I sleep, they are awake. The main difference, though, is that I don’t bother them when they are sleeping, while they seem to enjoy bothering me while I am sleeping.

Here are a ​few things they like to do only when I am sleeping. George is a big fan of the kitchen cabinet. One would think that he likes to stare at the cabinet, but that’s not the case. George loves to open the cabinet, or even better he loves trying to open the cabinet. Many times, while sleeping, I hear him scratching the cabinet and then trying to open it, banging its door back and forth. He is doing this because he is searching for his treats. He might have seen me some times pulling the treats box out of a cabinet and now he thinks each and every cabinet might contain something good. He is on a hunt, opening cabinets like a kid opens the little windows on the advent calendar the days before Christmas.

Holly is not interested in cabinets. She enjoys crying out loud in the middle of the night for no reason. I think she is studying cardiology and wants to test how fast my heartbeat can go when she wakes me up with a big “meooowww”. The funny thing is that every time it’s enough for me to call her and she immediately​ stops meowing and starts walking towards the bed, happy like a baby. I still have to understand whether she is meowing because she wants to wake me up, or whether she is trying to tell me something (maybe she wants me to go to the other room).

It’s always fun to sleep half an hour a day and see what the cats will do this time. And maybe tomorrow, while they are sleeping, I’ll just try to open some random cabinets and I’ll scream for no reason. It might be that they will realize how nice I can be while they are sleeping.

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Life before internet

Next week I will start teaching Cyberlaw at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. This will be a wonderful experience for me. I love teaching and meeting smart and interesting students. I also have a deep passion for technology and the way it interacts with law.

While preparing my notes for the first class, I was thinking about the tone to give to the class and I was wondering if my students will be tech geeks, normal tech users or even tech newbies. The course does not have any specific technical requirement and it welcomes any kind of student.

While thinking about this thing, I realized that most of my students will be in their twenties right now. This means they were born in the 90s, most likely in the very first years of that decade. Given that the internet really started to grow and get in touch with normal people with the advent of the world wide web and given that the introduction of the first web browser, Mosaic, is from 1994, this basically means that when my students never lived without internet. For them, internet is normal.

This made me remind how it was to be a tech geek when internet was not here. It was pretty fun, mostly because it sounded like visiting a foreign planet: everything was new and completely different from what we were used to.

The first thing that I remember was my father bringing home an old 300 baud modem. This was a weird device that connected to the computer. If you wanted to login to a local bulletin board system (the BBS), you had to pick up the phone, dial a number and plug the phone into the modem. Everything was pseudo-digital and mostly analogic. When I say “plug the phone”, I don’t mean connecting a cable to the phone’s logic board. I mean physically plugging the phone in two big earphone-like things that were supposed to listen to the weird noise coming from the phone, and translate it in digital signals. Pure science-fiction!

Connecting to local BBS was fun. I exchanged messages with other users, downloaded software (it took forever to complete a download) and…super cool…downloaded the first online porn. What you could do at that time was downloading photos of naked girls. The problem: it was taking forever to download a single photo. Nothing compared to the HD streaming of today’s porno websites!

When the internet finally came, I remember talking to my father about this. Internet subscriptions were pretty expensive at that time, and I finally convinced my dad to buy one plan as a business thing for his company. We were supposed to share the login of the internet provider and I agreed to use the internet only a few minutes per day (you still had to dial a phone number, and phone calls were pretty expensive).

But here is the problem: at that time there were no search engines. How did you know which websites to visit? Well, you had to buy a magazine on the newsstand. I used to purchase one called “.net”. This magazine listed the links of new interesting websites. Every time one new issue of “.net” was released, I run home to visit the new websites listed on the magazine. It was like going for a treasure hunt when your friend gave you a map!

Good old times.

Nowadays internet is given for granted, people have unlimited data everywhere (at home, on their phones), speed is blazing fast and we live connected 24/7. An incredible improvement in such a short time!

When too much is too much

You might think this is going to be an important post, something touching hot topics in the news. Well, you can read something else, if this is what you expect to see here today 🙂

This is one of my self-discipline posts. When I have to force myself to do something, I feel it’s easier if I commit publicly. This helps me picture the goal in my mind, and it gives me something to look back at, in case my self-discipline is not working.

Today, I need to set a goal concerning my comic book purchase habits. I have recently checked, and I have tons of unread volumes and comic books in my house. This is usually not enough to make me stop buying new comics. Having said this, I don’t want to become a hoarder and I want to enjoy reading my comics, not just collecting them.

This is why, starting today, I announce that I will not purchase any new comic book, either single issue, volume or digital, until I finish reading all my unread comics. This includes books loaned at the library. This does not mean that I need to read all of my comics. It is OK to purge the comics I don’t like, but I have to get rid of them. The only exception to this commitment is for the Italian comic books that http://fumetto-online.it sends me once in a while and for the Comic Bento subscription I recently started.

I’ll update this post regularly to keep track of the commitment.

The real problem of internet is not Google but free services

Marco Arment recently posted an interesting view on the decision of Google to close the company’s Google Reader product. While I enjoyed reading the article, as I do most of the times I read something authored by Marco, I don’t agree on its focus and I think that Marco gets the wrong conclusion from his analysis.

In summary, Marco connects the closure of Google Reader to the death of RSS and he warns us about Google, Facebook and other big websites’ attempt to centralize internet and its services. Marco concludes his article by saying:

That world formed the web’s foundations — without that world to build on, Google, Facebook, and Twitter couldn’t exist. But they’ve now grown so large that everything from that web-native world is now a threat to them, and they want to shut it down. “Sunset” it. “Clean it up.” “Retire” it. Get it out of the way so they can get even bigger and build even bigger proprietary barriers to anyone trying to claim their territory.

Well, fuck them, and fuck that.

I think that the real problem of internet is not Google (and other big websites) but the existence of free services online, under the current tech framework.

Google did not kill RSS. It killed the best cloud syncing system of RSS subscriptions.

RSS is the protocol that websites use to provide their readers with an easy way to follow any update on the website. Instead of asking readers to connect to their websites using a browser and manually checking whether the content of the website has been changed, readers use an RSS client that automatically connects to the websites’ RSS feed and retrieve the updated information, presenting it in a unique UI.

The benefit of RSS has been huge at the time of its invention. Before the RSS, users had to manually check each and every website they followed. After the RSS, users were able to fire up their preferred RSS client and received all the updates of all the websites they were following, all with a single click and in one single window. Pretty cool.

With the advent of mobile devices such as the iPhone and the iPad, the need to access one’s own RSS feeds on multiple devices became important. This is why Google Reader became successful. Google’s product was the first and best example of a cloud syncing system for RSS feeds. Users could store all of their favorite RSS feeds on Google Reader and could access them from anywhere, with different devices all synced together. If I read an article of Marco’s blog on my Mac, the same article would have been marked as read when I accessed Marco’s blog on the iPad or on the iPhone. If I added a blog to my feeds using my Mac, I would have found the articles of this feed when accessing my RSS client on the iPad.

In view of the above, it is clear that Google did not kill RSS. This protocol is still there. Google killed one of the best RSS clients that exist on the internet and it killed the best cloud syncing system for RSS feeds.

Google Reader costs money to maintain

Marco says that Google Reader did not require maintenance and that its cost was small, compared to the cost of other projects that Google is running. While this may be true, we have to remember that Google is a for-profit corporation and while maintaining the code of Google Reader may have not required a lot of work, we have to consider the cost of maintaining a cloud storage for all the subscriptions of all users and the cost of allowing incoming and outgoing API bandwidth. Sure, I am not expecting here a huge cost but it is still a cost and a corporation has the right to evaluate whether it makes sense to continue wasting money.

Also, while the management cost of Google Reader may be a fraction of the total operative costs of the company, I am sure no other smaller company would be willing to absorb this cost. Alternatives to Google Reader, such as Feedly, Digg and so on must find a monetization system if they want to be able to support their own products, otherwise they will fail and they will bring down with them all the users that have migrated to their systems after the closure of Google’s product.

No product can survive without monetization. Sure, a protocol can survive, but RSS itself does not allow any user to follow blogs. You need a client and, more important, you need a cloud syncing system. You need a product.

This brings me to the real scope of this article.

Internet services should not be free

Internet spoiled us. I remember that when I started using internet, at the beginning of the consumer’s adoption of the ‘net, I was shocked at the idea of having so many things to read for free. While before the internet I had to go to my local newsstand to buy a magazine, now I was able to read articles, news, etc. for free.

The s.c. web 2.0 further spoiled us. We started using for free many services, like blog platforms, photo sharing systems, etc. We give it for granted that we have free access to these tools. In some way, we think it’s our right to have these services for free. But this is a major mistake.

As I said before, products can’t exist without monetization. Some of the above mentioned tools, like Flickr or Gmail, continue to exist because their owners benefit from displaying advertisement on these products. In some way, we are indirectly paying for these services by allowing Google et similia to use our information to drive relevant ads to us. Some other tools, like Instagram, can provide us with free services, free products, because they sold themselves to Facebook. If they did not sell to Facebook and if they did not find any monetization system, they would have closed business soon.

These products can be profitable without charging their own users only if they reach big masses. This is why Facebook, Google and company have to concentrate and centralize their services. This is not a bad thing itself, it’s just a survival necessity. Some of these products by themselves would not collect enough users to become profitable under the advertisement model. We can’t complain that these companies are concentrating these services, as long as we want these services to be free.

How to pay for internet services?

So far, pay-for-use internet services have not been successful. We have seen several attempts to solve this problem. Flattr, for example, tried to introduce a system where users can donate money to their favorite bloggers or website. I don’t have data but I don’t have the feeling that this system has been successful, I don’t personally know anyone who uses it or adopted it. App.net is another example of services that we would think should be free (see Twitter) and that someone is trying to charge us for. Again, I don’t have data but I think, from what I read around, that App.net is doing well but it is far from becoming a massively adopted tool and an alternative to Twitter.

I think that the main problem is still the one mentioned above. Users are spoiled. The average user does not want to donate money to his favorite bloggers and does not want to pay $5 a month for a service such as App.net when he can get for free something more popular such as Twitter. But then we can’t complain if Twitter starts using our personal information to drive relevant ads to our account or if Twitter removes beloved features.

The solution?

I think there may be two different solutions to this problem.

  1. We need to change our mindset. We need to realize that if we want a product, we need to pay for it. Free internet can’t continue on its current basis. Sooner or later even the biggest corporations operating on internet right now will have to consider whether they can get enough money for the services they are providing for free. Also, this solution does not solve an ancillary problem: as long as you allow a corporation to control a service, the corporation will be in the position to shut down the service, change its features or affect in other ways the service;
  2. The real solution would be to build a system where any cost associated to a service is supported by users, directly or indirectly. For example, I look at Bittorrent as an example of a solution. Bittorrent allows users to avoid paying for cloud storage, you don’t need anything to share a file with someone else, you don’t need a cyber locker, nothing. Think about decentralizing the Google Reader cloud syncing system between computers using a Bittorrent technology. Think about the same kind of technology being the framework for an open source service such as Twitter. I am not an expert on these things but the feeling is that crowdsourcing could be a solution to internet’s current problem. The sooner we adopt this solution, the sooner we will avoid a predominance of big corporations controlling services and content online and we will be finally in total control of our beloved services.

What do you think?

Living in Japan

Almost five years ago, I decided to leave what I had in Italy and I moved to the United States. The basic idea was to experience life there for a year, while studying to get an LL.M. degree at UC Hastings in San Francisco. The experience was so amazing that I decided to stay there indefinitely.

Five years later, I had been lucky enough to experiment again with the idea of leaving your place to try another place. This time it will be for a much shorter time but the time will be enough to experience life in another country. In fact, for a couple of months I will be living in Japan, Tokyo, where I will teach International Business Transactions at Temple Law School.

Moving to another country reminds me the excitement of seeing new things, before these things become normal. I recently observed how everything in the US feels like home to me now. I remember how impressed I was about anything, during the first days of my arrival: from small things, such as the shape of yogurt containers, to bigger things, such as the respect for disabled people. Nowadays I don’t even notice these things because they are now part of my regular day.

Now in Japan everything is new and I am flooded by surprise and I love it. I will use my blog to report all the strange new things I will see. I have plenty of time to observe them, two months is the perfect time to experience ordinary life in a country.

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Bootcamp and egg whites

Almost three years ago I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I had a very interesting job offer which would have given me a unique professional opportunity and I was kind of excited about this. Unfortunately some last moment issues, connected to the visa status I had at that time, did now allow me to finalize this project and the job offer vanished under my eyes.

This was a hard hit on myself. At that time, I just finished my Master in Laws, I finished my job at Twitter (which I loved) and I was in a new city, without any friends and without a job. I started sending tons of resumes everywhere but unfortunately my visa status did not allow me to find any position. It was a sad period for me. I was spending the whole day sending emails to potential employers and every rejection letter was a heavy stone dragging me down and down.

I needed a shake and I have to thank one dear friend for giving me this shake. This friend of mine invited me to join a bootcamp on the beach. I did not even know what “bootcamp” meant. He explained to me that he was exercising three times per week on the beach together with a trainer and some other people. The bootcamp was early in the morning, 7:00 am. At the beginning I said yes just as a way to make my friend happy and because the idea of doing something so early seemed like an adventure to me…and I love adventures.

Well, that day was the beginning of a new phase in my life. Big Mike’s Bootcamp helped me to get the shake I was looking for. I started attending the bootcamp every two days. I made new friends (Mike today is one of the best friends I have here in Los Angeles), my body completely changed and I even added some new adventures, such as the participation at the Tough Mudder competition.

I am so happy about what this Bootcamp has done to me, that I always talk about it (and this post is an example of it). The fact that I talk so much about this Bootcamp has created a very funny situation with my dad. Before continuing into this post, you have to know that my dad is a very busy person and he always have tons of things floating in his mind. The consequence of this is that he picks only parts of the discussions we have on the phone.

Lately it seems like he started picking up only all my discussions about the Bootcamp. I swear that we also talk about many other things but his mind seems to filter all these things and retain only the information about the Bootcamp. As I previously mentioned, I go to the Bootcamp three times per week, for an hour, from 7:00 am to 8:00 am. Time to get back home and take a shower and I am ready to start my day at 9:00 am, three times a week. The other days, when I don’t go to the Bootcamp, I start my day at 7:00 am. This means that the Bootcamp takes only a small fraction of my time.

Well, you would be surprised at how many times, while talking to my father about my current professional status, he tells me: “If you want to have success, you should focus on your career and stop spending the whole time doing the Bootcamp”. In his mind, thus, I workout 12 hours per day, every day. Maybe he thinks my goal is to win the next Mr. Olympia. This is funny, but things even get funnier.

Another thing on which he has been focusing lately is the one time that I told him I had egg whites at breakfast. Egg whites are not popular in Italy, the country where I am originally from, and when I mentioned him that I ordered an omelette made with egg whites, he asked me why. I told him that egg whites are healthier and do not contain cholesterol. He was intrigued by this fact, given that he is very careful in what he eats. The only problem is that from that day on, he started asking me thousands of times if I had recipes for egg whites, how I usually eat egg whites, how do I cook them, etc.

If you combine his focus on my Bootcamp’s attendance and my only time I had egg whites, you realize that in his mind his son living in America does not conduct a normal living. His son, I am sure he believes this, is kind of a strange guy who spends his time going on the beach early in the day, every day, exercise on the beach at least 5 to 6 hours and then he comes back home at noon, cooks egg whites omelette, drinks liquid egg white, then goes back on the beach where he keeps on exercising until the sun goes down and finally comes back home for the night, where he enjoys a tasteful meal based on…you guess…egg whites.

It is amazing how filtering things can bring you to these kind of strange and crazy assumptions.

Well, typing so many things made me hungry. Time for an egg white sandwich 😉

Y Combinator, circa 1977

The wonderful offices of Coloft, in Santa Monica, CA

Today I was walking to my favorite Starbucks in Santa Monica, on Broadway and Lincoln, and I passed by one of the most interesting and cool places in town, Coloft, an open space for startups. While peeking through the windows of Coloft, I saw a guy working there on his desk, with his Macbook Air laptop, headphones on, etc. What I just witnessed was the perfect example of the idea of startups that we have today: big open spaces, laptops everywhere, good decorations on the walls, guys working hard while listening to some cool music, etc.

This stereotype of startups’ offices mostly comes from the fact that many of the big startups’ offices really look like this. I have been very lucky to work at Twitter for one year, from 2009 and 2010, and I call tell you that Twitter’s offices were exactly the same. Big desks, open space, Mac laptops everywhere, cool decorations, fancy headphones and amazing music.

One of the desks at Twitter’s Offices in San Francisco, CA

The reason why many open spaces or collaborative spaces and most of the startups’ offices look the same is very simple and it can be explained in two ways: (i) first, people believe that in order to replicate success, you have to follow the steps of the ones who had success before you; (ii) also, this kind of offices represents the way young and smart people really work and how they interact with each others (you need open spaces because you want to get in touch with all your co workers to share ideas, you want equal spaces because you believe each and every employee is a member of a sole team, you listen to music while you work because it helps you to focus, you love wonderful decorations because you are a creative person, and so on).

I love love love this kind of environment and the way Twitter’s Offices were was one of the reasons why I deeply loved every day of my experience there.

Then something hit me. While everyone today talks about Twitter, Facebook, etc. as the examples of tech startups, we can’t forget that the idea of tech startup really started in the 70s, thanks to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the two gurus who built Apple Inc. from scratch in Job’s garage. So, basically while today the mythos is to create your own startup in a coffee shop or at a collaborative space, in the 70s I am quite sure that everyone tried to replicate the success of Apple by working in garages! The different environment makes sense. At that time, personal computers did not really exist, internet was just a dream and that’s why a space such as the one at Coloft would not have worked.

Then I thought about Y Combinator, the king of incubator programs in the World. While Y Combinator does not offer, per se, collaborative spaces to the startups that they admit in their program, Y Combinator’s name blends so well with the stereotype of nowadays startups that I am sure 99.99% of the people that think about this program automatically picture their offices exactly as the offices of Coloft, Twitter, etc.

This is why, ladies and gentlemen, I present you with a picture I just got from one of my most recent trips back in time 😉 I took this picture in Los Altos, CA, in 1977.

Y Combinator, circa 1977

In the picture you can see a young Paul Graham while he is waiting for the next bunch of applicants for his brand new incubator. In the back, you can see the collaborative space of Y Combinator at that time, a series of garages ready to be used by the lucky candidates to create amazing things and imagine the future. These garages, of course, are a perfect replica of Steve Jobs’ garage. Each startup admitted will receive an investment in the amount of $4,600.00 (the 1977 equivalent of the average $17,000.00 that Y Combinator gives to startups). All candidates will have a chance to tour the local Xerox’s offices to find inspiration. On the final day of the program, candidates will have a chance to present their ideas in front of a panel of potential investors, such as Very Young Chris Sacca and Young Ron Conway.

And remember, the deadline for application is expiring soon, you should submit your ideas asap.

*just to be on the safe side, this post should be considered as ironic. I have no intent to offend anyone