The roots of the subprime mortgage crisis, and everything that followed. From a David Foster Wallace article

One reads David Foster Wallace‘s long-form journalism collected in Consider the Lobster slowly and with care, knowing there won’t be any more of his pieces for Harper’s, The New York Observer, Premiere and so on. (Incidentally, Gourmet, the magazine that commissioned the title story, has recently ceased to exist, too.) One of these pieces, appearing in this collection in its full uncut glory, got a brief revival in the 2008 elections: it is “Up, Simba”, where DFW got to cover on behalf of Rolling Stone none other than John McCain on the campaign trail in the 2000 Republican primary, which McCain lost to George W. Bush after a non-inconsiderable amount of “negative advertising”.

“Host”, the piece that closes the collection, profiles for the Atlantic Monthly a conservative radio talk show host named John Ziegler working at KFI in Los Angeles, and it is insightful and probing and sad. I just wanted to notice one little thing, and point it out to you. When the host is off the air, the writer’s ear does not tune out to the mindless chatter of the advertising segments. The writer keeps listening. And (this is 2004) he observes that there is quite a bit more of a certain type of radio advertising than there used to be.

As of spring ’04, though, the most frequent and concussive spots on KFI are for mortgage and home-refi companies. In just a few slumped, glazed hours of listening, a member of this station’s audience can hear both canned and live-read ads for Green Light Financial, HMS Capital, Home Field Financial, Benchmark Lending. Over and over. Pacific Home Financial, Lenox National Lending, U.S. Mortgage Capital, Crestline Funding, Home Savings Mortgage, Advantix Lending, Reverse mortgages, negative amortization, adjustable rates, APR, FICO… where did all these firms come from? What were these guys doing five years ago? Why is KFI’s audience seen as so especially ripe and ready for refi?,, Union Bank of California,, on and on and on.

I don’t want to attribute any prescience to DFW’s words. While he might be read as implying that nothing good would come of it, this may very well be just our interpretation as readers in 2010, with the privilege of what we know today. As a writer, he merely observed and reported. May we observe the world around us with the same open-mindedness and insight.

iPad 3G review: my first impressions

I haven’t stood in line for concert tickets or anything like that in years. Yet, last Friday, April 30, around 2pm, I got a good book out of my backpack and sat down in the line outside the Apple store at the Stanford Shopping Center, three hours before iPad 3G sales started, to make sure I could buy one. (They are not yet shipped outside America, and preordering one for delivery to a friend’s house in California would have ensured delivery by May 7, with a chance that it would only arrive after my departure – although, eventually, I did read reports of iPads ordered online being delivered as early as the same Friday morning.) The line was full of friendly people, bottles of water were supplied by the cheerful store staff, and the time passed merrily enough. The store closed at 4pm for preparations, and when it reopened at 5, the first customers in the line were welcomed in with a round of applause by the blue-shirted store employees.

After using the iPad 3G for a few days, I think it’s a winner. (Ha – I know that’s easy to say now, after Apple has sold the first million iPads, although mostly WiFi only, in less than half the time it took to sell the first million iPhones.) I may not be the most sophisticated customer, but still, the device surpassed my expectations. Here are my observations so far.

Form factor. The screen resolution is a pleasure and the size of the device will define a new standard for women’s purses. I carried the device with me all day and, while my bag did feel heavier than usual, I probably won’t carry a laptop anywhere ever again. Buy the Apple iPad case – it folds back to give the device a nice angle for typing or reading when set on a horizontal surface – and beware of neck strain: after the first couple of days, my neck felt odd. The virtual keyboard works better than I expected, and I will probably only take my iMac keyboard along for the ride on trips where I plan to write a lot. I did not have to take the iPad out of my backpack at security controls at San Francisco and Heathrow airports. (I did, however, switch it off in those last 10 to 20 minutes of each flight, when you have to switch off all electronic devices.) But all in all, the only thing the iPad does not do is let me read comfortably in the sun – for the beach, I think it’ll still be e-ink or good old paperbacks for a while.

Content. As a naive European, I was shocked to find out that you can go to Netflix or access the iTunes store in America and – yes! – download movies. Like, good movies. In America, you don’t have to mortify your digital consumption patterns. I purchased Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild”, a movie I’ve wanted to see ever since reading Jon Krakauer’s book, for $9.99. In the Italian iTunes store, the only movie I’ve ever been able to buy in years is the iPhone version of  Alina Marazzi’s excellent documentary “Vogliamo anche le rose” (a bargain at €1.59), which I watched on my way to San Francisco and recommend passionately. It is, however, a bit of an indie production: and we need the majors to get into the game. We need to buy books in iBooks, or something similar, regardless of where we are. We need Hulu to be available worldwide. As Fréderic Filloux wrote: “Release windows, regional rights restrictions no longer make sense […] Most of us are global consumers who want one thing: being able to flash our credit card and buy every single piece of dematerialized cultural or informational good we want.”. We need, in short, content owners to take the lead in reversing the Balkanization of the Internet. Apple, as a gatekeeper, is right there with the content owners and shares their responsibilities.

Language. It’s a pain to type in two languages on the iPad, unless you switch the language settings back and forth all the time, because the English spellchecker is so annoyingly aggressive. Alternatively, set auto-correction to “off”.

Applications. There’s no way around it: the iPad sets a higher bar for apps. When the browser is as good as Safari is on the iPad, apps may become, well, less relevant. On the iPhone, for example, I often use the LinkedIn and Facebook apps, because they do what’s just right for the size of the screen. On the iPad, they look tiny and cramped – and they don’t have an iPad version yet: but is it needed? I’m much more comfortable using the LinkedIn and Facebook sites from the browser. Even Gmail works just fine in Safari. I am starting to believe that applications will evolve – from a way to simplify the user experience by stripping out features to, on the contrary, a way to enrich the experience via immersive environments, exclusive content, or unconventional storytelling.

Browser. I have little to add, other than to say that tabbed browsing is missing. We need it. I hope it comes soon.

Multitasking. Coming soon.

Camera connector. This accessory was not available in either Stanford or San Francisco, and the Apple site currently says it ships in 2-3 weeks. Get it on its way, Apple. We need it.

3G. A must, if you don’t live in a place that’s blanketed with free WiFi (and Italy is, for political reasons, quite the opposite). You may try AT&T’s international roaming in order to be fully functional while you procure your local MicroSIM card, but it’s expensive (I ran through a medium-sized plan in the first 24 hours or so). Also, to buy an international AT&T plan you need to buy a domestic AT&T plan first (the fine print: “If the Domestic iPad Plan expires prior to the completion of the International iPad Plan, all usage, domestic and international, will be deducted from the International iPad Plan until such time as that iPad Plan expires or another Domestic iPad Plan becomes active (i.e. if you cancel your Domestic iPad Plan after ordering an International iPad Plan, U.S. domestic data usage will be counted against your International iPad Plan, until you order another Domestic iPad Plan.)”) Apparently, if the good souls who curated the Wikipedia entry are right, “Unlike the iPhone, which is usually sold locked to specific carriers, the 3G iPad is sold unlocked and can be used with any compatible GSM carrier.” Since roaming works, I trust that I’ll find a “compatible” local network.

In sum, I am impressed with the iPad. I think it is about 70% consumption device (that’s why content availability will be so important) and 30% communication and creation device. Or 70% lean-back, 30% lean-forward. It’s the first in a product line that will surely keep evolving and mutating, and that will go far. I only wonder what the next few years will bring.