The global financial meltdown and you

Consequence number one of the meltdown we’re going through is for pension funds assets and anything that was invested in a less than extremely conservative portfolio. We thought, as we read about the changing nature of work and about retirement as an obsolete notion, that most of us were unlikely to truly retire; we know now, instinctively, that there will simply be less money around for retirement.

For a while, there will be less money for funding new ventures. Less institutional money and less leverage; equity flows by angel investors will continue trickling in. There will be less money for M&A, but more deals in distressed situations. There will be less money for polluting the planet, and less money for cleaning it up.

And there will be less money for charities, non-profits, arts and culture.

“Pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive” (more from David Foster Wallace)

DFW has been quoted, and perhaps read, more in the short time since his untimely death than in the previous several years. To the risk of subjecting you to the risk of overdosing on his words, dear readers, here is the moral and rhetorical climax of his now-famous commencement address at Kenyon College:

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth.

Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. [...]

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.

Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. [...] And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom [...]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Web mood: more awareness, more censorship

Strange days here in Italy. The global financial maelstrom seems to be receiving less attention than the final death throes of an airline that should have been put out of its misery years ago. I am afraid we have not fully understood the implications of the financial meltdown on our lives.

The Web has been abuzz lately with the story told by Barbara, the proud mother of an autistic four-year-old child, who was mistreated to the point of humiliation at a kids’ event sponsored by Carrefour; Barbara was driven to tears by being told “If he’s not normal, you shouldn’t take him out in public”. Barbara’s original blog post drew almost 800 comments, the story spread like wildfire, and the company called her to offer their apologies. I hope that this helps each and everyone of us to practice more awareness in our daily lives. A weird-looking kid? Could have been my child, or yours.

The case of blogger Sergio Sarnari, which I thought would be thrown out of court, is instead winding its way through our legal system; as may will recall, he was sued for Eur400,000 by a furniture company for a blog post describing its disservice. Sergio wrote he would post the proceedings as soon as his lawyers allowed him to, but apparently it is not yet a prudent thing to do.

In the meantime, a Sicilian court had published the motivation behind the ruling that shut down “Accade in Sicilia” (“It happens in Sicily”), a blog by Sicilian journalist and historian Carlo Ruta, in late 2004.  In the meantime, he has been sued several times for defamation, for practising what elsewhere would simply be called “citizen journalism”. According to judge Patricia di Marco, based on a 1948 law, Carlo Ruta’s blog was “stampa clandestina”, or unauthorized press (something that could probably shut down 99% of Italian blogs). Here is Carlo Ruta’s appeal for freedom of expression, and here is an association that supports him and collects donations towards his legal costs.

No More Infinite Jests

David Foster Wallace was found dead in his house after apparently committing suicide.

I shied away from his writings at the time of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, being there enough hideousness in the world as it is. But he had kept me enthralled (for two long holiday weeks) with Infinite Jest, the definitive novel about addiction; interested with A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; and entertained with The Broom of the System (to my knowledge, the only work of fiction to ever feature a publishing house by the name of “Frequent and Vigorous”).

It would be wrong to say I am going to miss his writing. I think I am going to miss this: once every couple of years, the publishing industry comes up with a new dazzling star of such brilliance and originality that the “genius” label is liberally applied. Often, they are very solid writers. But I don’t think that Dave Eggers is a genius. Jonathan Safran Foer is not a genius. D.B.C. Pierre is, most definitely, not a genius.

David Foster Wallace, I believe, was as close at it gets to genius these days. And that’s, I think, what I’m going to miss.

Update: here is a post by Ben Casnocha on David Foster Wallace a a teacher.

From philosophy to robots: Fiorella Operto

Yesterday I had the chance to listen to a talk by Fiorella Operto, Vice President of the School of Robotics in Genoa, which she co-founded in 2000. Robotics, as she said, is somewhat unlike other technologies because (outside of SF) it has not yet confronted a crisis: it hasn’t yet had its own Chernobyl, its Bhopal, its Exxon Valdez, its Hiroshima. And we should try to keep it that way.

How so? one way is to develop the field of roboethics. The other is to demistify robotics by teaching it to young people. Specifically, to young girls. This is the mission of the Roberta project, an initiative started at the Fraunhofer Institut to train teachers in teaching science, technology and IT by having the kids build and program real robots. It is a long-term investment in trying to close the gender gap in scientific education, and Fiorella Operto is spearheading it in Italy.

Operto’s academic path started in philosophy, and she was active in science dissemination before turning to the challenge of robotics. Yesterday, she was chosen as the “Technovisionary 2008″ and awarded the “BlackBerry Women and Technology Award” within the Women and Technologies conference. Go Fiorella!

Timeless advice for the workplace

It’s interesting to see that recent college graduates who are women keep discovering the same things that women have been discovering for the last 25 years or so. Have we not socialized this information enough already? Freelance journalist and author Hannah Seligson, born in 1982, wrote in the New York Times last week (thanks to MC582 for tweeting the article):

In my own case, I realized that I needed to develop a thick skin, feel comfortable promoting myself, learn how to negotiate, stop being a perfectionist and create a professional network — abilities that men are just more likely to have already.

In other words, learn the rules and play the game. Too many talented young women opt out of the game too soon, out of discomfort with new behaviors. I happen to believe they not only shortchange themselves, but also let other women down. What do you think?