In Response to Seth Godin “The erosion in the paid media pyramid”

I cannot recommend more highly Seth Godin’s recent blog post, “The erosion in the paid media pyramid“.  If you haven’t read it already, please follow the link, and come back.  It’s short, excellent, and we’ll wait for you.  The TL;DR is: digital distribution is putting the squeeze on the previously-cash-cow “Mass” media segment, which is largely being replaced by the “Free” segment at the bottom of the pyramid.

He makes many important points I agree with, however I think Seth makes two statements in his article that need to be addressed:

First, he writes:

The marginal cost of one more copy in the digital world is precisely zero.

This is a common misconception.  The marginal cost of one more copy in the digital world is very, very, very low – a ridiculously low number, a number so low, that if you weren’t careful, you might just decide to round down to zero.  But reading bits off a hard drive and sending them over fiber and copper wires – the process of making a digital copy – as inexpensive as it is, is not actually free.

“So what,” you say.  What’s the difference between “free” and “practically free?”

The problem is that the digital world has to scale, and very, very, very small numbers can still become very, very, very large numbers at scale.

I want to encourage everyone to please, stop using this trope.  TANSTAAFL still holds true even in the digital world.  Saying that digital copies are actually zero-cost leads to terribly erroneous conclusions at the scale of the Internet.

Secondly, he writes:

Media projects of the future will be cheaper to build, faster to market, less staffed with expensive marketers and more focused on creating free media that earns enough attention to pay for itself with limited patronage.

This is true for those mass-media projects that move “down the pyramid.”  But what about those mass-media projects that move up instead?

Moving down the pyramid is the easy move: creators keep doing what they’ve always done and get by through “doing more with less” (and also by just “doing less”).  Skip the art director, and freelance on DeviantArt.  Skip the editor / producer altogether.  Skip the marketing, and outsource through a service provider.  Etc.

It seems that the real opportunity for media / content creators is not to simply the product, but actually to complicate it.  Add enough complexity that it becomes attractively desirable, but hard to produce.  An example of this would be the ways that Lucasfilm differentiated the theater experience with 7-channel sound (hard to reproduce at home) or how Broadway differentiates with expensive special effects (hard to pull off in community theater).

Obviously it’s much harder to “move up the pyramid” to a more differentiated product than it is to simply something you’re already doing.  But that’s where the profit will be.

Dr. Chromelove (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Goog)

In Which We Pit the Lowly Chromebook Versus the Exalted Macbook Air

Let me get something out of the way: I am a straight-up Macintosh fanboi. After owning a couple of Macs in the early 1990s, I switched to PCs around 1997, largely because my software-development-centric job compelled me to live in a pro-PC world.

Then, around five years ago, I fatigued of maintaining Windows and the generally crappy hardware that runs it, and switched back to Mac. I bought a beast of a notebook: a 15″ MBP quad-core i7 with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. I wanted something strong enough to run Pro Tools natively, and to virtualize Windows and Linux machines without a stutter. And, five years later, that Macbook Pro is still a very current machine. It was expensive, but it was worth every penny, especially when amortized over five years.

The only trouble is: it’s big and heavy. As a machine to travel to and from the office, it’s fine, but these days I find myself increasingly traipsing all over the world, usually with everything I can carry in one backpack. Space and weight have become a premium, and I have a bad back to boot.

So I wanted to find a machine that would solve every computing need I have while I’m out on the road – basically, everything I use my Mac for except Pro Tools:

  • Must be small enough to fit in a day-bag and light as possible, definitely < 4 lbs
  • Must handle all my basic productivity & social needs (mail, docs, spreadsheets, twitter, dropbox, etc.)
  • Must be capable of running a development LAMP stack and typical development apps like git, ssh, etc.
  • Must be capable of light-duty audio editing (just editing, not a multitrack studio)
  • Must have good battery life (all-day unplugged usage)
  • Must have a good screen and keyboard
  • Must be inexpensive in case it’s lost, stolen, or damaged while travelling
  • Strong cloud support a big plus (see above)
  • Easy connectivity to phone a big plus

I admit that I came very close to knee-jerking and purchasing a Macbook Air.  The MBA would definitely meet all these needs but one: it’s awfully expensive to be a “beater” notebook.  After pricing them out and deciding that a new MBA would definitely not fit in my budget, I considered buying a used MBA.  But even a used MBA in decent shape and well-appointed costs around $600, which I still felt was more than I really wanted to spend.

Then I decided I should do some research on Chromebooks.  Like most people, I had fallen victim to the “Chromebooks are useless unless you’re always on the Internet” trope.  I think this might have been true at one time, but after doing some reading, I learned that the ChromeOS world had advanced considerably since I last learned about it.  In particular I learned that Google has made great strides in developing “disconnected” versions of its key apps – specifically docs and spreadsheets, the key things that one wants to edit while disconnected.

The other thing that really piqued my interest (yes, it’s piqued, not peaked) was the stunning realization that someone had figured out how to install Ubuntu on a Chromebook.  And folks, this isn’t Ubuntu running in a virtual machine, but Ubuntu running on bare metal – simultaneously side-by-side along with ChromeOS.  I was skeptical but intrigued: with Ubuntu as a fall-back, I could rest assured that anything that ChromeOS couldn’t handle, Ubuntu could.

“But Chromebooks are basically cheap pieces of crap,” was my next intuition.  Compared with Apple hardware, it’s true that most devices pale in comparison.  There’s no question that generally speaking, Apple makes the best hardware going, bar none.  But I don’t need perfect, I need good-enough and inexpensive.  And after a bit of research, I discovered an excellent machine for my needs, at least on paper: the Toshiba 13″ Chromebook 2 FHD.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 13" FHD

Toshiba Chromebook 2 13″ FHD

After living with this machine for a little over a week, I think I’m ready to start drawing some comparisons versus the 13″ Macbook Air.  Here’s how the two stack up.

Price

Let’s get the 800-lb gorilla out of the room.  No question who wins the first round.  At $330, the 13″ Toshiba is roughly 1/4 the price of a new 13″ MBA and 1/2 the price of a used MBA.  For the price of one new Macbook Air, you can buy a Chromebook for every member of the family.  ‘Nuff said.

Winner: Chromebook, by a country mile

Storage

The MBA comes with 128 GB of storage (256 GB is also available, but costs more) while the Chromebook comes with only 32 GB of local storage.  This is offset considerably by the fact that Google gave me 1TB of free Drive storage (100 GB is standard, but I already had that – your mileage may vary) and by adding a 128GB SDHC card as extra storage ($65 on Amazon) to bring total storage up to 160 GB.  Another mitigating factor is that ChromeOS minimizes use of local storage, while MacOS depends on it for everything, so ChromeOS presents a smaller footprint than MacOS in real-world use.

In the end I believe a 128GB Mac is no less limiting than a 32GB Chromebook for the applications I intend to use and it’s easy enough to bump up the Chromebook to 128GB if you need it.

Winner: tie

Keyboard & Touchpad

Here Apple is the clear winner, with a perfect-feeling backlit keyboard and a wonderful-to-use touchpad.  The Toshiba’s keyboard is perfectly usable and unproblematic but lacks the elegant feel of the MBA and is not backlit.   The touchpad is usable and sufficient but smaller and more plastic-feeling than the MBA.  It’s not a bad experience at all, but it’s hard to beat the best, and I think Apple offers the best keyboard / trackpad available.

Winner: MBA

Display

I hope you’re sitting comfortably, because the Toshiba’s display is absolutely spectacular.  How Toshiba managed to deliver a 13″ full-HD (1920×1080) display in a $330 machine is baffling, but they did, and it’s lovely.  Viewing angles are very good, colors are not perfect but whites are white, blacks are deep black, colors are bright and nicely saturated, and the resolution is astonishingly crisp.  The screen does not attract fingerprints and doesn’t have any coatings that cause pixellation or moire effects, though glare can be a problem if you’re backlit.

Winner: Chromebook

Sound

The Macbook Air has arguably the best speakers in an ultraportable notebook, so the competition is awfully stiff.  However Toshiba has partnered with Skullcandy to deliver a similar listening experience.  I still prefer the MBA because it’s a littler warmer, but I have to say that the audio from the Toshiba is very, very good for an ultraportable.

Winner: MBA, but just barely

Size and Weight

The Macbook looks smaller, but it isn’t – it’s just a design illusion.  In actuality the two machines are close enough in size and weight to be considered identical.  The MBA is a few hundredths of an inch wider and longer, the Toshiba is .06″ thicker.  The Toshiba weighs .01 lb less.

Winner: tie

Battery

The Macbook Air delivers better than 10 hours of real-world use, while the Toshiba falls short at roughly 8 hours.  8 hours meets my needs for “all-day unplugged use” but the winner is clearly Apple.

Winner: MBA

Inputs & Outputs

The two machines are very comparable.  Both offer 2 USB ports, audio out, power in, an SDHC slot, and a video output port.  In the case of Apple, the video is a potent Thunderbolt output, while the Toshiba offers a more basic – but more standard – HDMI output.  Unless you already use a Thunderbolt monitor, this means you’ll have to use a dongle adapter on the Macbook.  Both machines offer an HD webcam.  Both offer stereo mics, but the Toshiba’s are placed intelligently on the top of the display border (where the stereo image will actually correlate to the webcam), while Apple placed the mics in a poor location both on the left side of the machine.  Toshiba’s power supply is smaller, has a longer power cord, and is cheaper to replace; but the Mac offers the MagSafe connector.

Winner: tie

Horsepower

The Mac easily trounces the Chromebook in terms of sheer processing power.  However the only instance I have discovered where the Chromebook’s processing power is insufficient is multitasking while streaming HD video – which if you think about it, isn’t much of a shortcoming, as most people will pause the video when they leave it to perform other tasks.  It’s safe to say that if video editing ever becomes possible on a Chromebook, it will pale in comparison to the Macbook Air.  But for all other day to day tasks the Chromebook is more than sufficient for my usage.

Winner: MBA

Apps

Here, the Macbook trounces the Chromebook in terms of choice – at least on paper.  The Mac ecosystem offers a wide variety of apps to choose from, while the ChromeOS ecosystem is still a work in progress and definitely lacking in the multimedia department.

However, for my day-to-day use, I’m quickly realizing that I am missing very, very little.  I already live in the Google ecosystem (Chrome browser, Gmail, Drive, Docs, etc) which function as good or better on ChromeOS.  The key thing I lack is a top-notch image editor, but Google has promised to deliver a ChromeOS version of Photoshop in the near future, and in the meantime there’s Pixlr.  For text editing and software development, there’s Caret, an outstanding replacement for SublimeText on Mac. For light-duty music editing, I have to switch to Ubuntu (more on that later) but this gives me access to Audacity, which is a very full-featured editor.  I have yet to find a good video editor for Chromebook or Ubuntu, but this wasn’t part of my original requirements.

In short it’s pretty amazing to me that the ChromeOS ecosystem can even begin to compete with the Mac ecosystem with all of its advantages, particularly its 20+ year headstart.

Winner: MBA

LAMP-based Development

On the Mac, I use MAMP Pro as a turnkey LAMP server for web development.  It’s pretty hard to beat turnkey, and MAMP Pro is really easy to use and set up.  There does not currently exist a MAMP-like turnkey server solution for ChromeOS.

However, I was very surprised to discover how well Ubuntu runs alongside the ChromeOS.  It isn’t turnkey – you’re going to have to get your hands dirty – but the process is deceptively simple: you enable “developer mode” on your Chromebook, you install a script called crouton, you execute a few shell commands, and voila! Ubuntu is running right alongside ChromeOS – you literally switch back and forth between the two OSes by hitting CTRL-ALT-BACKARROW and CTRL-ALT-FORWARDARROW.  It’s super-slick, and opens up your Chromebook to the entire world of Linux.  I encountered zero issues with the process – no driver issues, no battery issues, nothing – though as usual I had to noodle around with Apache settings to get the environment working to my satisfaction.

While it’s true that turnkey beats DIY, if you’re a developer, you’re already accustomed to getting your hands dirty, and you’ll find nothing onerous about the process of installing Ubuntu alongside ChromeOS.  It’s weirdly easy and took me roughly 45 minutes, soup-to-nuts, which included the 20 minutes to download and install Ubuntu.

The cool part (for me) is that once you have a local development server set up and running, you can resume your development workflow entirely in ChromeOS, and forget completely that there is a Ubuntu server running alongside.  You can edit files on the local filesystem directly using the Caret editor.  SSH is provided inside ChromeOS using an extension called SecureShell so it’s quite easy to work with remote servers right inside the Chrome browser.  It all works a lot better than I would have ever guessed.

Winner: MBA + MAMP Pro

Backup / Restore

The idea behind an ultraportable is that if you lose or break it, it should be of minimal impact.  Here the Chromebook kicks serious ass.  Unlike the Mac, which relies on “old-school” backup & restore solutions like Time Machine, the Chromebook is literally a “throw it away and buy another” type machine.  All of your data is already backed up on Drive.  And all of your apps live as Chrome extensions.  So if you get a new Chromebook, you log in to your Google account for the first time, and magically, your device restores to exactly how your old device looked, without installing a single application.  Technically you can restore a MBA with a Time Machine backup, but seriously, it’s an entirely different and more perilous process.

Winner: Chromebook

Etc.

Apple has a good track record of keeping OS updates to a minimum, but this is starting to change as Apple keeps pushing Mac more and more into an iOS-like App Store model.  Increasingly there are more and more updates and downloads that require restarts, etc.  ChromeOS, by contrast, is more or less always up-to-date.  I really like how minimal the OS footprint is on the Chromebook and think that this bodes well for the device’s long-term usability.  I really admire how painless the install and update process is for apps.

The Mac is a metal-body machine, and while the metal can dent or bend, it’s undeniably more premium grade than the almost-identical-looking plastic used in the Toshiba.  Apple manages to brand its computers with an actually-cool illuminated logo, while the lid of the Toshiba sports ugly “Toshiba” and “Chromebook” branding.  Like all non-Apple computers, the Toshiba ships with a plethora of stupid, ugly stickers that have to be removed.

If you have an Android phone or a Chromecast dongle, you’ll love the seamless integration with ChromeOS.  Likewise, Apple offers similar integration with an iPhone and Apple TV, but those devices can cost considerably more than their Android counterparts.

Summary

Let’s face it: a $330 ChromeOS portable shouldn’t be able to beat a $1200 Macbook Air.  It’s a terribly unfair comparison.  The Mac has a superior processor, more storage, more memory, a better keyboard and trackpad, and of course a “full” OS and the 30-year-old Mac app ecosystem.  It’s like a bantamweight getting in the ring with Tyson.  Not a fair fight at all.

What’s surprising is just how well the Chromebook actually stands up in real-world use.  The display is better, the size and weight are identical, and for typical day-to-day chores, the Chromebook is just as usable as a Macbook Air.  Battery life isn’t quite as good but is still very good.  It meets my needs for a development machine just as well as a Macbook Air.  Software updates are easier.  There is essentially no need for backups, as all the data is backed up to Drive automagically, and the OS is practically disposable.  The only place I care about where I think the Chromebook falls short is multimedia editing.

So the verdict: if, like me, you’re a power user, you will probably not be happy with only a Chromebook as your sole device.  There are still areas like multimedia where the low-power processor and / or lack of robust applications will prevent you from ditching that Mac or PC.

But if you’re a “consumer grade” user who doesn’t edit music or video, or if you’re a power user who needs a cheap, lightweight, travel-ready portable, then you owe it to yourself to take a good hard look at Chromebook.  Especially if you’re already using the Google application suite.

Take a Greyhound to Fredericksburg

A Story in Three Parts

Pt. 1: December 1994

1994 was a good year to be in the Dallas music scene.  Bands like the Nixons and Tripping Daisy and the Toadies were breaking out with national hits.  Record labels were eyeing Dallas bands with eagerness.  A local-national DJ named Redbeard had the drive-time rock show on the rock station (Q102) and was aggressively spinning local music during drivetime.  It was just a great time to be in a rock band in Dallas.

That winter, my band was tracking some demos at Crystal Clear Studios with owner Keith Rust.  Over a lunch break one day, I casually asked Keith if any interesting bands had been in the studio recently.

Keith replied that they had just worked on a CD for an art-rock band called the Moon Festival that was pretty good.  And, he added, there was a killer sort-of-punk-country band called the Old 97s who had just finished up a CD.

So I checked out the Moon Festival, and met front man Salim Nourallah, and needless to say, that turned out great for both me and Salim.  We’ve worked on lifetimes of wonderful music together and have learned greatly from each other.  Salim’s influence on my tastes – the entire way way I think about music – cannot be underestimated.

And I checked out the Old 97s.  They had a great draw at Dada where they played regularly – a club where we also drew well – so we conspired to get on their bill as openers for a series of shows.  And that’s how I finally got to see the band live, and I was floored.  The kinetic energy onstage was electrifying.  The band thundered through its set and the sweating crowd ate it up. And the songs – this collection of unpretentious but infectious tunes – were a kind of music I’d never heard before.

In 1994 “rock” was grunge.  If you had a twang in your guitar or a twang in your voice, you were country – and the Old 97s had both.  But in those days, “country” meant sterile Nashville pop-masters like Randy Travis and Garth Brooks.  The Old 97s played more like the Clash or the Replacements.  And the twang was more Wichita Falls than Nashville.

I bought the record when it came out, and I was instantly charmed.  After that run of shows, I didn’t see the band again for many years, but I kept up with the records.  The band has made a number of killer records and for sure, records like “Wreck Your Life” and “Fight Songs” and the latest “Most Messed Up” are maybe the band’s best efforts, from a sense of musicality or artistry.

Old_97S_-_Hitchhike_To_Rhome

Hitchhike to Rhome

But over the years, for me, nothing had the staying power – nothing “took me back to the club scene days” – like Hitchhike.  Overlong, minimally produced, sometimes cacophonous / sometimes playful – this record had a sort of naive charm that is impossible to maintain the moment record labels start waving contracts in front of you.

“Getting noticed” changes a band.  Where before you were just kids with dreams and hopes having a good time with no expectations, suddenly you have a responsibility to create something marvelous.  And you have to do it naked, under a microscope, with everyone watching.  The act of observing something changes the thing observed.  It’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action.

The band never made a record like “Hitchhike” again – and really, they couldn’t even if they wanted to.  You can’t re-have your first kiss. You can’t see Star Wars again for the first time.  You just can’t get back to those places once they’re gone.  And in this way, records are like time capsules – and Hitchhike to Rhome is truly that: a time capsule of the undiscovered, youthful band playing their first full “set” and just having a grand old time.

Meanwhile, Salim went on to work and tour with Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller for his solo work.  Later, Salim and the Old 97s and I would go on to make several records together.

Over the years I quit listening to the Toadies, and the Nixons, and Tripping Daisy, and Buck Jones, and Ten Hands, and Hagfish, and 66, and Fletcher, and Pop Poppins, and all the rest of the local bands from that time.  But Hitchhike to Rhome wormed its way into my heart and soul.

It’s karmic, somehow… I grew up with Rhome in my blood, literally, because half of my family is from there.  My great grandparents even founded the tiny, adjacent community of New Fairview.  So when Rhett sings,

Hitchhike to Rhome
take a Greyhound to Fredericksburg

it always evokes a palpable image of dusty, poor North Texas in my mind.  Rusty metal windmills.  Grain silos.  Dirt.

Over the decades I’m sure I’ve listened to that silly romp of a record over 1000 times.  I know every word, every guitar lick, every bass groove, every drum fill by rote memory.  I shit you not: its in my desert island collection, right alongside Please Please Me and London Calling.  There’s not another “local release” in my Top 20.

Pt. 2: January 2014

Early this year I received a message from God.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, God used His child, “Diamond” David Lee Roth, to deliver His divine message to me.

rothreview4

David Lee Roth, Agent of God

The issue was almost existential: I was trying to figure out if I wanted to take up residency in a studio somewhere, build a new studio of my own, or just quit music altogether.  All musicians struggle with the decision to keep making art in the face of an increasingly hostile musical environment – and this was one of my moments of doubt and pain.  This decision lasted literally months, and culminated one day in a trip to Essalunga, the Italian version of Kroger.

That day my indecisive brainstorming reached near-seizure levels.  So wrapped up in decisionmaking that I could barely see straight, I went with my wife Vanessa to the grocery store. On the way I laid it all out for her.  The costs, the risks, the rewards, the probabilities.  I wanted to build a new studio, but the costs are high and the probability of payback is low.  Conversely, I could shack up in someone else’s studio and grind out an income, but that can quickly become soul-crushing work that makes you want to gouge out your eardrums.

I was really wrapped around the axle, as we say in Rhome.  As we walked up to the gleaming automatic sliding doors of the Essalunga, I desperately asked Vanessa, “how can I ever decide?!”

The doors parted, and from inside, accompanied by the swell of fuzzy synthesizers, David Lee Roth loudly proclaimed the answer to my question:

Might as well JUMP!
Go ahead and JUMP!!

There was a certain logic to the illogic, and Diamond Dave’s was the exact answer I needed. I heeded the call. I started seriously and methodically planning the design.  I started assembling a new audio recorder – 48 channels of the latest Pro Tools HD, a lovely vintage “big iron” mixer from the 70s, and a pile of my favorite vintage gear.  There’s old vacuum tube gear and cables piled all over the house now, while the building is currently under construction.

I fully expect to have Diamond Dave over to cut some hot tracks.

Pt. 3: Spring 2014

By now you should be asking where all this is leading.

So, Constant Reader, it was with coronary-inducing excitement that I received a call from the band this spring, asking for some help.  “We’re putting out a 20th anniversary re-release of Hitchhike,” explained guitarist Ken Bethea, “but we were never really happy with the mix of that record.  Would you be willing to remix some tracks?”

Wut?

Remix Hitchhike to Rhome?!?  One of my favorite records of all time?

Are you fucking kidding me?!?

I stammered agreement over the phone, hung up, and immediately started wondering, “where the hell am I going to mix this thing?”  I had the gear, but the building wouldn’t be ready until long after the album’s release date.

I considered a number of alternatives, including mixing it at Treefort (where the last few records were mixed) or even going back to Crystal Clear and mixing it at the original studio.

But I work best when I Do My Own Thing. So finally I decided to wing it: I set up an entire studio’s worth of equipment in my bedroom – not a spare bedroom, mind you, but my bedroom, wife and all – and got to work.

It was a very mad-science endeavor – but in a way – mixing Hitchhike on a bunch of old vintage gear piled into in a bedroom is kinda perfect.  And I couldn’t be more happy with the way the record came out: raw, punchy, and rowdy.  I kept it real – no digital editing or “fixing” was used – and it’s an all-analog mix with all-analog gear for a big fat analog sound.  When I crank it up on a good stereo, I can close my eyes and I’m standing in front of those old JBLs at Dada.

Mixing this record was a complete blast and I’m super grateful to have been a part of it.  I hope everyone enjoys listening to it even half as much as I enjoyed mixing it!

Stay tuned to the Old 97s to find out about the re-release later this year.

Quick Review: Logitech Tablet Keyboard for Android

As I mentioned in my last post, perhaps the secret to phone blogging is to carry a keyboard.

Today I’m writing this blog post using my Logitech Tablet Keyboard for Android and the WordPress Android app, and it’s definitely a completely different experience.

The keyboard itself is about as small as it can be and still be considered “ergonomic.”  The keys and spacing are almost exactly the same proportions as my Macbook keyboard, and though the keypress travel is a little shallower, the overall typing experience is very good.

The keyboard travels in a case that doubles as a stand for your phone / tablet.  This makes it very easy to convert your device into something with a form factor very similar to a computer.

I have never gotten used to touching a screen instead of moving a mouse / trackball / touchpad, and I wonder if I ever will.  I find the experience of taking my hand from the keyboard and lifting it to the screen disruptive to data-entry (as well as leaving the inevitable fingerprints)  – but it works.

The keyboard works very well with the Android app.  I haven’t taken the time to learn the various shortcuts available with the keyboard, but the usual hotkeys like CTRL-C work as expected.

Of course, carrying a keyboard is not much better than just carrying another device, like a Macbook Air or Chromebook.  The keyboard is only a little smaller and lighter than a small computer.  One advantage comes to mind though: with the phone + keyboard solution, I always have the option of jotting down a quick blog post just using the phone sans keyboard, or jotting down some ideas in the app and fleshing the post out later with the keyboard.

Of course you can achieve a similar result using a phone + computer but this option saves a step.  And of course it’s easier to post photos taken on the phone directly from the phone itself, instead of having to transfer the content first to the computer.

Maybe the smartphone didn’t kill the blog after all.

Did the Smartphone Kill the Blog?

Used to be, I consumed all of my internet content on my computer. Any time I wanted to read an article, check my friends’ statuses, send an email, check the weather… it always meant a trip to the computer.

In that world, blogging came naturally. Here I was already at the computer, with its spacious and ergonomic keyboard inviting me to type my thoughts. It was almost irresistible.

I created a lot of content back in those days. I created the original prorec.com, participated in a group blog with my friends on cuzwesaidso.com, started and killed a humor site called skeptician.com, and of course blogged here on my personal blog.

But these days I no longer head to the computer when I want to interact with the internet. Now I reach for my phone.

The phone is a lovely way to consume internet content. It’s always with me. It’s 4G wireless. The form factor is convenient. I read novels on my phone.

But as a data entry device, it’s horrible. The keyboard is no match that of my Macbook and the screen is just too small for editing hundreds or thousands of words. And no phone app can compete with the page-layout power of a real computer.

And so I rarely blog anymore. It’s become inconvenient. When I want to say something I’m likely to jot down an email to my buddies (email being a forgiving text medium that does not mandate perfect grammar and page layout, where incomplete sentences and clumsy writing aren’t a showstopper). Or I’ll tweet or post a photo.

But blogging? This is my first blog post in years. I suspect it could well be my last. I’m actually writing this entry on my phone. And, I gotta tell you, it’s a royal pain in the ass, even though the WordPress app is mature and powerful and I’m hard-pressed to see how it could be improved.

Perhaps a Bluetooth keyboard could work. But then I’m practically carrying a computer again.

Time will tell if the phone has killed the blog. But from where I sit, things are looking gloomy in the blogosphere.

Forza Italia!

A few weeks ago, while I was visiting family in Georgia, the subject of Italy came up.  Somebody asked me if I would consider moving to Italy, and my reply was, “in a heartbeat, if I could figure out how to make it work.”

Vanessa’s uncle Mike asked why, and I replied “the way of life is better.”  He didn’t buy it.  And I understand why.  There’s a lot going wrong in Italy, especially at the moment.  And, as a red-blooded American myself, I also have a natural instinct to defend the USA as the best “way of life” there is.

But the proof is in the pudding, as they say.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Italy now, and feel at least marginally qualified to back up my claims.

But First The Downsides

Lest you think I’m irrationally positive about Italy, here’s a quick rundown of some of its many flaws.

Government / Financial Collapse

Italy’s government is fundamentally broken.  It’s on the verge of catastrophic bankruptcy, it’s run by criminals and clowns, and it’s completely hog-tied by crushing levels of bureaucracy.  Not unlike America in about 20 more years.  Italy is living proof that with government, smaller really is better (pro tip: vote Libertarian).

It’s a common misperception that the problem with Italy is that the society is too socialist and the people are too lazy and unproductive.  This is totally false.  Italy actually provides modest and reasonable social-welfare benefits which are well within its means – Italy spends less of its GDP on social welfare than the USA.  Italians are also very hard working and highly entrepreneurial.  Most importantly, unlike Americans, Italians do not have a culture of personal indebtedness.

The problem is, quite simply, a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy.  From the thoroughly corrupt former Prime Minister, Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi on down, the country is strangled by a government grown vastly beyond its requirements.  Something like 50% of government expenditures goes to paying needless government employees and their exorbitant pensions and benefits.  Once you get a government job, you’re set for life.  Just like in the USA but much, much worse.  For example, thousands of employees get “work cars” – Mercedes S350s.  You see them everywhere.

Unless you haven’t watched the news in a year, you know that Italy is on the verge of insolvency, and when that happens, it will probably take out the world economy.  It’s far too big to bail out.  Curiously, Italy actually runs a primary surplus – the government takes in more money than it spends on its services – but it’s carrying a mountain of old debt, and it’s the interest on that debt that is breaking the budget.

Unlike Ireland, Spain, and Greece, however, Italy has a very strong manufacturing base and a large GDP.  Even a 1% uptick in GDP would resolve the current debt situation.  GDP, however, continues to stagnate.

Americans, beware.  This will be you, if you don’t change course.  (see pro tip, above).

Crime

Here in Lucca, crime is not a problem at all.  It’s a very safe town.  But there are certainly parts of Italy that are overrun by crime and are relatively dangerous.  The mafia is alive and well here in its native land.  The corruption that plagues the country is in no small measure driven by organized crime which controls various aspects of government.

Third-World-ism

It boggles the mind that the society which literally brought Western civilization to light (and which brought us Gucci, Ferrari, da Vinci, Versace, Verdi, Galileo, Maserati, Michelangelo, Puccini and even Chianti) also produces some amazingly craptastic products sold in supermarkets that rival Fiesta and Dollar General for sheer tastelessness.  Some of the world’s most beautiful and well-constructed architecture sits in stark contrast to ugly industrial plants and bleak, communist-era high-rise condos.

There is no doubt that this country has a deep and rich legacy of the world’s best art, science, design, construction and manufacturing, with a deep appreciation for quality and taste.  You see it literally everywhere – so many things are so freaking right. And yet, there’s a lot of serious crap.  I have yet to see an Italian airport that didn’t look like something you’d find in the Congo – dirty, ugly, stinky, hot, and confusing.

Technology

The civilization that brought us running water and sewer systems seems to be content with Roman-era amenities.  There are plenty of “squat toilets” still around (though in truth, they’re getting pretty rare, but hell, it’s the 21st century already!)  Showers are often completely uncontained – you just stand in the corner of the bathroom and get water everywhere.  There is internet, but God help you if it goes down, and free wi-fi is extremely rare.  Most Italians are not very Internet savvy and Italian websites look like something from 1997.  Most businesses have no Internet presence whatsoever.

Energy & Transportation

Energy is extremely expensive.  A gallon of gas costs about $9.00!  Natural gas and electricity are also far more expensive than in the USA.  There is a good highway system here (the autostrada) but it’s toll-based and relatively expensive to drive on.  There are trains, too – including the thoroughly badass 200 MPH Frecciarossa – but they can get expensive.

I could go on.  While Italians enjoy some of the best health outcomes in the world, the public healthcare system seems pretty vintage.  The big cities (Rome, Milan, Bologna) are dirty and shabby.  Italians are generally obnoxious and careless drivers.  The old sewer systems sometimes stink.  It’s impossible to find good sushi.  And so forth.

So let it not be said that I’m a Pollyanna who only sees the good side of Italy.

Cost of Living

Compared to America, to live with equivalent amenities in Italy will probably be marginally more expensive, if for no other reason than the cost of energy and taxes.  I’ve mentioned the energy / transportation beat-down.  Taxes are roughly 30%-ish – not too much worse than the USA – but there is also a 21% “sales tax” on many items that definitely affects the cost of things.  However, some things are curiously less expensive, even including the tax.

I pay about 2/3 the price in Italy for high-speed internet and maybe 1/2 the price for high-quality 4G cell phone service that’s better than what I get at home in Dallas.  If you are dependent on your cell phone like me, Italy is a big win.  Service is exceptional, data speeds are high, and it’s pay-as-you go – no contracts.  I spend about $20/month for service that surpasses the typical $60-90/month service in the USA.

Gas is super-expensive so cars are super fuel efficient.  In the USA there are a handful of cars that get 40+ MPG, and they’re all north of $30K.  In Italy you can get decent, highly fuel-efficient cars cheap (if you like Fiat) – a 65 MPG (no shit!) 2012 Panda will set you back about $11K – a great little car, actually, and nothing like the flimsy rust-buckets from the 1980s.  It’s a good driver with good build quality and simply astonishing mileage at a value price.  And unlike a Prius, there are no batteries to replace or recycle.  Fiat also makes a turbodiesel van that seats 9 (or 6 + tons of storage) and gets better than 30 MPG highway (compare to Ford E-series at about 17 MPG).

Most food is cheaper than in the States – about 1/2 to 2/3 the price for equivalent food.  A cappuccino at Starbucks will set you back $3 – in Italy they’re a buck (and they’re a lot better than the swill they serve at Starbucks).  High-quality drinking water is completely free in most areas and tastes noticeably better than anything you can get in a plastic bottle.  A delicious three course dinner for two with wine and coffee can be had for under $20 apiece.  Groceries are maybe 1/2 to 1/3 cheaper.  A totally tasty sandwich is about $3.  More on the food later.

You can take the high-speed train from Florence to Rome (about 180 miles) for about $30 and it’ll get you there in an hour.  A second-class train seat is roughly the same comfort and space as a 1st class domestic flight on a major airline like Delta.  By comparison, a 180-mile flight on Southwest (also one hour) costs twice as much and offers no comfort.  And the trains have no security lines and are rarely delayed so they are actually considerably faster and lower stress than flying.  You just run up and hop on.  I think Americans oppose high-speed rail only because they’ve never used it.  It’s a vastly superior experience to flying, especially for under-500 mile trips.

But cost of living is only part of the story.

Way of Life

Let’s get real about cost of living: cars are freaking expensive.  Say you drop $25K on a decent car.  Then there’s insurance.  Fuel.  Repairs.  It’s pretty hard to own and use a car in the USA (as a typical American driver) for under $8K per year.  A lot of people spend two or three times that much, easy.

There are a few cities in the USA where you can live well without a car: New York, Chicago, DC, Boston.  Any American will tell you: these are the rare exceptions.  Otherwise, if you’re American, and don’t have a car, you’re struggling.  Let’s just say it’s not a good life for a carless Dallasite.

We love our cars.  They’re awesome, fun, exciting, and provide a nice ego-boost for us less-well-endowed men.  However, they’re totally non-value-added.  Meaning – they don’t actually make our lives better – they just provide comfort and sex appeal while we get from point A to point B, all the while draining our bank accounts.

But what if you didn’t need a car?  And by that, I mean: what if everything you needed – everything – was practically within arms reach?  What if you could live as well without a car as you could with one?

What if you could live better?

That’s the case for a large number of Italian towns and cities.  Let me give you an example.

Our apartment

Here in Lucca, we have a little apartment on an ordinary street in a nondescript and workaday part of town.  In the photo on the left, our apartment is on the top two floors of the gray building in between the white and blue cars.

It’s not a special location – in fact, for central Lucca, it’s a little out of the way.  But life is pretty freaking sweet.  Let’s draw an imaginary line 100 yards around the apartment and walk around, shall we?

I can buy vegetables and fruit from a vendor who is literally 150 feet from my front door.  And these aren’t crappy Wal-Mart vegetables grown in Chile and genetically engineered to survive two months of storage and transportation.  Quite the opposite: these are organic fruits and vegetables (grown typically within 20 miles of town) that totally outclass the best stuff you can buy at Whole Foods or Central Market.  Tomatoes that taste like the ones grandmother grew in her garden – no, forget that, they’re better.  I’m talking about real food of the sort you can’t even find in America.  Shit that makes you actually like salad.  The best part?  It’s about  1/4 to 1/2 the price of the Wal-Mart crap!  Seriously – we routinely make dinner for two for under $5 – and this isn’t Hamburger Helper, it’s totally top-shelf gourmet stuff.

Other food is the same.  Across the street from the vegetable guy is a store that sells freshly baked breads and homemade prepared foods.  They have better bread than the good stuff from Whole Foods (a half-loaf is $1.20) and cured meats (prosciutto, salame, pancetta, etc.) better than anything available anywhere in the USA for about the price of Oscar Meyer bologna prepacks.  The milk is produced less than 20 miles away and barely pasteurized – it’s the milk we old dudes had when we were kids – and it’s cheap as dirt.  In Dallas I buy bottled water, because the tap water tastes like calcium and rust.  Here, there are community fountains of aquifer water (UV-sanitized) that is deliciously clean and soft.  The closest one to our apartment is across the street from the bakery – still within the 100 yard radius.

But I’m just getting started.  A few doors down from the vegetable guy is the cobbler.  He makes custom-fitted shoes to order.  And they’re HOT.  I mean, seriously badass.  There are at least four or five styles that are some of the coolest shoes I’ve ever seen.  They cost $100-$150 – which, if you knew the quality of these shoes, you’d realize what a bargain they are.  And they’re custom made in your choice of materials and colors and individually fitted for your feet (which are always different sizes).  Try to find that kind of quality anywhere in the USA.

Next door to the bread guy is the leather bag guy.  He makes bags, purses, briefcases, etc.  He has a lot of cool stuff ready to buy but also will custom-make a bag for you.  For about $80 I’m getting a new leather bag for my camera and the other stuff I carry around – and it’s custom made to fit my camera, lenses, etc..

There’s a laundry next door to the shoe guy and a laundromat down from the bag guy.  Next to the laundry is the butcher.  Chianina beef is as good as the best USDA Prime beef from Texas and sells for about the price of Choice.  All steaks are cut to order from freshly-butchered sides of beef that have never been frozen.

There are three bars within the 100 yard radius.  In Italy a bar is not just a place to drink beer but also your coffee-and-pastry shop in the morning and sandwich shop in the afternoon.  Each one makes coffee that’s better than 98% of the coffee you can get in the USA, terrific homemade pastries, and awesome sandwiches on homemade foccacia bread.  A coffee and delicious pastry will set you back about $2.

Across the street from the shoe guy is the gelateria.  They make all their gelati every day from scratch.  A 2-flavor gelato is $2 and better than pretty much any ice cream you can get anywhere in the USA.

There are at least four sit-down restaurants within the 100 yard radius.  Each one is completely amazing, serving delicious local food and wine.  A typical dinner at one of these places (with a pasta or meat, a vegetable, and a glass of wine) is about $20 per person.  There are two places in Dallas that offer Italian food of equivalent quality and you can’t get in and out for under $50 per head.  I had a roasted pork dish at one of them that was simply the tastiest damn pig I’ve ever eaten in my life.  One of the restaurants does a delicious “plate lunch” type meal and you can usually get in and out (again with wine and bottles of water) for around $10-ish.  Tipping is not customary so you save money there too.

Are you getting the point?  Almost everything I want to do on a typical day is not just within walking distance, but within crawling distance.

If you want to talk about walking distance – meaning, up to about a 1/2 mile – then the entire inner city is available to you.  Let’s talk about that for a minute.

To begin with, Lucca (link to Wikipedia) – like hundreds of other towns in Italy – is simply lovely.  Lucca is surrounded by a medieval wall that is at least 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide, which is now lined with trees and closed to cars.  It is one of the most lovely parks I’ve ever visited.  At approximately 4 km circumference, it’s walkable and easily bikeable.

The walls of Lucca

 

Via Fillungo is the “main drag” for shopping.  If you can name it, they probably have it.  Gucci, Versace, Armani, Boss, Lucky, Nike, Diesel are just a tiny number of stores on that street.  There are local tailors who make beautiful designer suits to order.  There are probably 100 different stores, all selling The Good Shit.  There are at least 6 shoe stores and 4 eyeglass shops selling awesome designer frames – really cool frames, not the Lenscrafter stuff.  Stuff that’s really hard to find, even in D/FW, a metro area of over six million people.

And that’s just Via Fillungo.  Branching out onto some side streets, there are hardware stores that have locally-made ironworks, camera shops carrying the full line of Canon and Nikon lenses, a B&O stereo store with super-nerdy hi-fi gear, bike shops selling kick-ass custom bikes and stationery stores selling hand-bound notebooks.  There are literally a hundred different bars, dozens of restaurants and wine shops, custom-made wood furniture, leatherworkers, and on and on.

All of this is within a 10-15 walk from the house.  Or less than 5 minutes by bike.

The best part of all of this is that Lucca is a small town – about 20K people in the central area.  If I told you that I was going to move to a small town of 10-20K, you’d probably wonder about me.  In most of America, unless it’s a suburb of a large city, living in a small town pretty much is a guarantee that you’re living in the sticks.  I’m thinking of maybe Granbury or Palestine, Texas.  Even a cool small town like Durango is kinda small-townish.  The country is nice, but the amenities usually suck.

By comparison, a place like Lucca is like having all the benefits of the most cosmopolitan cities and all the benefits of a small, friendly town at the same time.  It’s clean and safe and mostly quiet, like a small town.  You quickly meet lots of people and make lots of friends, but all of the creature comforts of the big city are right there.  Hell, Lucca is even home to a summer music festival that brings in artists like Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Blink-192, and Norah Jones.  Walking distance.

And if you’re willing to hop on a train for an hour, for under $10 you can go here:

Or here:

Or here:

Or here:

Or any of a hundred other places.

Hopefully, you’ll come visit us sometime in Lucca, and let us show you around.