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.

The Problem with EC2 Micro Instances

If you keep up with my blog you know that I really dig the EC2 micro instance running the Bitnami WordPress stack.  I’ve written about it before.  I’ve been hosting a few low-utilization web sites on mine for over a year now and generally speaking, it’s a great concept.

The problem is the occasional lockups.  Maybe once a month or so, the site dies, and the only information I can find that helps me to troubleshoot is that there has been prolonged periods of high CPU utilization whenever the crash occurs.

Well it turns out this is a problem with the Amazon micro instance.  On a micro instance, Amazon allows CPU bursting of up to 2 cores – but if CPU utilization stays high, it gets severely throttled.  And when that happens, sometimes, it crashes the server.

Today I decided to move up from a micro instance to a small instance.  I’m using the same disk image, so I’m running the same virtual machine.  But where the micro instance has up to 2 cores (with throttling) the small instance just has one core.

How much difference did the change make?  Turns out, a big difference.  Micro instance throttling is far more debilitating than I ever would have guessed.

Here’s typical CPU utilization for my server running as a “micro” instance:

As you can see, there is a bump every half hour as a cron job cranks up – and sometimes the CPU is maxed out for several minutes.  That almost certainly results in the web site becoming unavailable or at least very sluggish.

Here is the exact same virtual machine running as a “small” instance:

Wow – that’s an incredible difference: almost 10X the performance!

So while the micro instance is a great way to “get started” with EC2, the “small” instance provides far greater value – at 4X the price, it offers roughly 10X the performance.