Lorenzo & his humble friends

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

Category: ideas

Felix Helvetia!

Michael Wohlgemuth and Lars FeldFrankfurter have written a splendid piece for the Allgemeine Zeithung, which has been translated and published on PressEurop. The article starts from the simple observation that political representation and responsiveness is a matter of the structure that binds citizens and policy-makers. In a democracy, politicians ought to act on behalf of the people, and theoretically, the citizen is the true ruler. In practice, however, this is rarely the case.

Switzerland is one remarkable exception. Obviously there are many problems with Swiss democracy too. There is one thing, however, that works very well: referendums. Nowhere is direct democracy as pronounced as it is in Switzerland. Swiss law says that any issue can be put to a referendum if it attains 100,000 signatures to do so. The rules further state that for a measure to be nationally adopted into the constitution it has to get a majority of both votes and the number cantons that support the issue. Referendums are extremely common in Switzerland. Only in 2012, there have been 12. The results are rather clear and robust: when the citizens have a direct voice in how their own money is spent, regional authorities spend less on government. Political decisions can also be both prompted and revoked through citizens’ initiatives, if the citizens so desire. And any transfer of sovereignty to a higher level must be confirmed directly by the people. The question is: can direct democratic procedures like referenda and popular initiatives be recommended for other European countries, not least when it comes to European policy issues?

The answer is: not exactly. An EU-wide referendum on the introduction of eurobonds, the expansion of the bailout funds or further tax harmonisation would not contribute towards overcoming the “democratic deficit” in the EU. For one thing, democracy requires a demos, a European people that can create and express a European “solidarity” and a European public opinion. This is not on the horizon for the moment. The European democratic deficit starts at the level of the member states. This is where direct democracy has an important role. The right thing to do would be to apply direct democracy as it is traditionally and successfully practised in Switzerland: the citizens must be able to decide at a local level what is to be done with their own money.

Lentezza is a beer with friends

The last few weeks were hectic and I barely had time to sit down and talk. Who had a chance to spend a bit more time with me probably thought I was on drugs. (I was not).

I am not always like this. Already in 2011 I decided that if I had a newspaper, I would call it Lentezza. Here some thoughts I noted down on a small paper when travelling back from Lugano, where I went to visit Anna.

Avessi una rivista mia, una specie di inserto di riflessioni e parole, la chiamerei Lentezza. Lo ho deciso origliando conversazioni sul treno: viviamo, oggi in un contesto frenetico in cui mancano gli spazi per l’approfondimento e la comprensione. Tutto é veloce, breve, rapido. Le notizie si adattano al contesto: veloci, mai ragionate, raramente discusse. Sono stato fortunato e fino ad ora ho sempre avuto modo di ricavarmi spazi di riflessione lenti: gli incontri di redazione al giornale QT ne sono un esempio chiaro, quasi estenuanti nella loro monotonia, ma avvincenti nell’incedere senza un binario, senza pressione, senza fuggire. Insomma. Se avessi una rivista mi piacerebbe che fosse una lenta utilitaria che avanza piano nel paesaggio della campagna mentre in città centinaia di macchine sfrecciano da una parte all’altra senza badare a tutto quel che sta attorno.

In the last few weeks I definitely was one of those fast cars. Before getting into the loop, I knew it had to be this way and I do not regret one single thing. I love to be stressed and overwhelmed by work as long as I know I will be given the time to stop, think, and communicate. That time will come this summer. I am hoping my girlfriend, parents, relatives, and friends will wait until then. I am looking forward to the moment when we will be able to sit down, have a beer, and talk. As Ernest Hemingway once said, an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools. I am very much looking forward to that moment.

Autonomy

Atlassian is an Australian software company that does something incredibly smart. A few times a year they tell their engineers, “Go for the next 24 hours and work on anything you want, as long as it’s not part of your regular job. Work on anything you want.” Autonomously.

So that engineers use this time to come up with something different. A cool patch for code, an elegant hack, and so on. Then they present all of the stuff that they’ve developed to their teammates. And then, being Australians, everybody has a beer.

They call them FedEx Days. Why? Because you have to deliver something overnight. It’s pretty. It’s not bad. It’s a huge trademark violation, but it’s pretty clever. That one day of intense, radical autonomy over their time, their task, their team, their technique has produced a whole array of software fixes that might never have existed.

The puzzle of motivation

Traditional rewards aren’t always as effective as we think. Dan Pink starts from the candle problem, an experiment done by Sam Glucksberg, who is now at Princeton University. This shows the power of incentives. Here’s what he did: he gathered his participants and he said, “I’m going to time you. How quickly you can solve this problem?” To one group he said, “I’m going to time you to establish norms, averages for how long it typically takes someone to solve this sort of problem.” To the second group he offered rewards. He said, “If you’re in the top 25 percent of the fastest times, you get five dollars. If you’re the fastest of everyone we’re testing here today, you get 20 dollars.” Now this is several years ago. Adjusted for inflation, it’s a decent sum of money for a few minutes of work. It’s a nice motivator.

Question: How much faster did this group solve the problem? Answer: It took them, on average, three and a half minutes longer. For Americans believing in the free market, bonuses, incentives this plainly makes no sense.

This talk is about the capacity to look for solutions on the periphery. Rewards, incentives, bonuses, instead, narrow our focus and restrict our possibilities.

Søren Kierkegaard

In Italy May 5th will be remembered as the day Juventus won its twenty-ninth national championship. Across the world, celebrations have marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) on May 5. His focus on the existence of the individual, as well as awareness of oneself and one’s future have recently led to a significant resurgence of interest in the work of the “Socrates of Copenhagen”.

On the fraught relationship between the arts and politics

Last December saw the publication of a collection of essays on independence by a number of well-known Scottish writers. The writer and artist Alasdair Gray was the subject of a great controversy, as he was accused of promoting nationalism alongside hostility and anti-English sentiment.

A recent article on openDemocracy argues that much of this was hostile, premature and gave the impression not only of certain critics’ ignorance of Scottish culture, but of the actual content of Gray’s essay. The most brilliant point of the article, however, is about the fraught and false relationship between the arts and politics. The authors makes the argument that political and cultural feeling may be important to the impetus driving artistic production, but they are arguably subservient to more aesthetic imperatives. In their discussions of literature and art, inevitably predicated on the ultimate political results of such discourse, politicians tend to forget this. One of the functions of art would seem to be the broadening of meaning, or the multiplication of potential narratives, to add cultural or emotional significance to material arguments. Deployed politically, much of this is lost.

The right to frontiers

Frontiers have become awfully unfashionable. The Italian pacifist movement is essentially based on the motto: non muri, ma ponti. Walls are perceived to be just bad. But what if the solution to managing power is not fewer borders but more? This is the idea behind Régis Debray’s Éloge des frontières (2010), which shows that frontiers and borders are necessary “rites de passage”. Without frontiers, it is suggested on openDemocracy, there is a real risk of reverting to the reign of the old Roman deity Terminus which defied diverse identities and differentiated cultures. An old popular detto is  that Good fences make good neighbors. Unity is good, but diversity is better, some may say. Is a world without frontiers a better world, really?

Work. And climbing mountains.

I always thought that climbing mountains is a great metaphor of life. And I always thought that people who are good in climbing mountains are good in delivering results.

I am, of course, pretty good in climbing mountains. Others are even better. And others just have not enough motivation to reach the peak of a mountain. This talk is about motivation and why people wo do not climb mountains won’t be happy.

You want to change the world? Then lobby Coca Cola

Long story short: Mindo and I have turned one of the room of our house into a B&B. We have had some very nice guests and it is a lot of fun. (By the way: if you want to be our guest, then make a reservation online). Nick was our last guest. He is the CEO of a British company and it was really nice talking with him.

So we were discussing about what motivates you to work. Of course, most of the people want to make money out of their job. This is a perfectly rational behavior. But some people want more: they seek a purpose in what they do, they want to change the world for the better. The question usually is: How do you want to change the world? It is a common belief that if you have such a grand ideal, then you should probably be working for governments, international organizations, or NGOs. Problem is: these institutions are either inherently conservative, too slow, or too weak to produce social change. The private sector, instead – and this was Nick’s argument – has the tools to bring about positive innovation by putting pressures on governments to traduce those innovations into social change. His example: Coca Cola controls a huge percentage of the sugar market in the world. If Coca Cola decides to impose higher ethical rules on the production, then all its competitors will have to follow. And this will put pressure on governments to adapt to the changing standards. So if you have a grand purpose in life, if you want to change the world, Nick says that you should be working for the private sector.

Your better life

Marco has been working for quite a while on an interesting research, that is about – to put it quite bluntly – how to measure the quality of life beyond GDP and economic statistics. This Index allows you to compare well-being across countries, based on 11 topics the OECD has identified as essential, in the areas of material living conditions and quality of life.

 I am personally convinced that there are other factors worth including – how about nature, food, daylight, sport facilities … ? Furthermore, it does make too much sense to provide a national index: if you go and look the quality of life of Trento is awfully different from that of Catania. Not to mention the differences you may find between living in London and in Dunderry. In any case, this index is fun to use.