No, Big Tech isn’t going to save the world. But it’s made our little world a little easier

If you’ve ever worked with me, you’ll know that I have distinct geek tendencies. Back in the late 1990s I took a break from being a full-time editor to play with machines. The project involved bringing a few newsrooms up to modern standards. One newsroom went from an archaic and incredibly strange Windows PC and Mac setup with no way to track files, to what was then the standard for publishing, the Quark Publishing system. But it was pretty no-frills at the time, with the first project not having direct Internet access until a year or two after the system was in use.

I think about technology a lot, although at this point I don’t earn a living by sharing those thoughts. But with our weird one foot in each place life, I have to say that tech has smoothed the way, making it easier to stay in touch with family and friends, and—sometimes I’m not completely convinced this is a good thing—it’s made it easier to live similar lives on both sides of the pond when it comes to music and video. I guess that I’m writing this because I get tired of the constant drone of negativism about where we are in 2022 when it comes to humans and machines. Yeah social media can be a menace. But the emphasis is on “can.” It doesn’t have to be and the fact that it’s easy to misuse makes it more important for us to be vigilant.

I’ll come clean right away: We’re in the Apple ecosystem; we trade a little more expense for fewer complications. The Spartan Woman started it years ago when she brought a Mac home from school one summer. Her school’s principal figured that the computers would be safer living with teachers than stored in the school over the long holiday. Back then I was taken immediately by how easy the Mac made it to do stuff like move files around, rename them, duplicate them, etc. I was a convert, and the following year, we bought our first Mac. I actually used it to gather wire copy and send it into the publishing system at work.

SO WHERE DOES TODAY, AND THIS BLOG come in? Well, when you think about it, we’ve got the digital equivalent of an RV—we carry our media home around, as long as we’ve got an internet connection. Only it weighs a little less and uses a lot less energy.

Our approach: We only buy laptops as computers, and we have iPhones; they like to work with each other. iPads are optional. We have little HomePod mini speakers, so we can have our music in both places without carrying around CDs (remember them?). All of our devices work with both U.S. and European voltages. I bought some Apple plugs that fit right into the AC adapters, so there’s no bulky and problematic adapters. We’ve laid in a supply of European rechargers, too, so that we don’t have to cart everything around. The only time things get complicated is when we aren’t going from one home to another directly. In that case, we need a couple of rechargers with Euro or American plugs to work in hotels and rented apartments.

Casa, dolce casa, discreetly high tech

In Italy, we don’t watch broadcast TV; we have a smart TV with an Apple TV. I know that’s redundant, but the Apple TV interface is much easier to use, and it gives us access to more services. The setup gives us Italian public TV stations via the app RAI Play, plus all the streaming services that we use, like Netflix and Mhz Choice. By the way, the latter is terrific, featuring European programming with subtitles, just in case you’re challenged by, say, Icelandic.

I guess that I wouldn’t be writing this post if we just vacationed for a week or two. Back then, we somehow managed to live without our music collection for a couple of weeks. But we’re older and spend a lot of time at home, especially in the winter, when Umbria is usually dark, cold, and wet. And thinking back further, The Spartan Woman and I wrote each other nearly every day that we were apart. Yeah, it was sweet.

Now, though, I can do remote work when it happens. Our hilltop Italian ‘net connection isn’t the fastest, but it gets the job done. And when it wigs out, we use our phones as hot spots. So what if a video chat is grainy or freezes every so often? It’s better than paying through the nose for a 3-minute phone call, like in the old days.

Some practical tips:

• You’ll need a lot of rechargers, recharging cables, adapters, dongles, etc. Put them all in a big Ziploc bag and carry that bag in hand luggage. Make sure your devices are fully charged; USB ports on planes aren’t the most powerful. Buy a portable battery pack or two just in case. (My bag of tricks on the right.)

• Put your laptop in a padded case. Because of airport security, make sure it isn’t a pain to haul it out and open the case. The faster you can get stuff in and out, the faster you’ll get through security. European airports seem to have more sophisticated scanners and the more polite security folks don’t make you take everything out of a knapsack or computer bag.

• If you have a choice, buy what you can in the U.S. Italian value-added tax (sales tax in Amurrican) is 22 percent, versus 8.something in New York. The weakening Euro means higher prices in Europe in general. There are negligible differences between U.S. and Euro models, but you might be disoriented by the laptop keyboards on European models. They typically have a bigger “return” key, and have keys for letters with accents, such as è and á.

• Don’t expect to find wifi everywhere. In fact, if you’re a frequent traveler, you might notice fewer hotspots than before. Why? European mobile plans cost a lot less than plans in the U.S., and typically have tons of high-speed data included. So Europeans these days have less of a need to hook up to a wifi network when what the speeds they get on cellular networks is perfectly adequate.

Enough of that old stuff. Let’s see some modern architecture

People come here to see old stuff. There’s Assisi, with the hundreds of years old basilica, with Giotto’s frescoes. Perugia has a still intact Etruscan gate and mysterious Etruscan tombs on its outskirts. Spoleto has a Roman amphitheater. For those of you who missed Ancient European History 101, the Etruscans predated those newcomers, the Romans. You can see more modern construction from, say, the 1500s. And apartment buildings that are 100 years old or more are considered to be kind of new.

Along comes Kid no.2 and her partner in art and life. We haven’t seen them in months. And the atrociously hot, then tropically rainy summer kept us from going out much. (So did our continued Covid vigilance) So when those two arrived, it gave us a chance to get out of the house, off the mountain, and play sightseeing guides for a week.

What do you want to see? we asked. “Al (the BF) wants to see some modern architecture. Well…. But it does exist. Umbrians don’t sit on their ancient marble doorstops. And to be honest, looking for modern works was a nice break from Olde Europe,

Friends told us about Il Carapace, a winery like no other. The name means shell—most commonly a turtle shell, but animals like shrimp and lobsters have them too, The producers of prestigious wines like Ferrari bubbly, Lunelli, decided that they wanted a statement canteen.in their Umbrian winery, Castelbuono. So they commissioned sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro to build it.He’d done work for them before, but I have to say, this building came almost as a shock as we drove through sunflower fields and old-style vineyards. The Carapace rises out of the landscape like some alien space ship, a little menacing and a little humorous at the same time.

He asked for modern. He got it.

The surprises don’t end when you enter the belly of what could pass as a Klingon ship. The theme is copper, which clads the exterior, and whose paint adorns the inside. You feel like you’re in the belly of the beast, and a 360-degree view lets you meditate on the ancient vines. Castelbuono produces Sagrantino—Umbria’s most prestigious wine—and Rosso di Montefalco, a less intense, more easily quaffed red wine. If you need a Tuscan comparison, think Brunello to Rosso di Montalcino. The aging barrels sit in a huge underground space.

We had to eat, espcially after sampling three wines with a little nosh, so we left the Carapace to get lunch in nearby Bevagna. We were back in old Umbria, which has its abundant charms, not the least of which was a salad of raw ovoli mushrooms, which in their way looked as alien as the Carapace.

The mushrooms from another planet

A COUPLE OF DAYS LATER, we went to Foligno. We’d never been, except to the train station, which is a major transfer point for trains from the main Rome-Ancona line and the pokey local “regionale” to Perugia. The object? The modern art museum, the Centro Italiano Arte Contemporanea.

Foligno is unexpectedly interesting. On the outer rings of the small city, there are lots of Stile Liberty, or Art Moderne villas. There’s a long wide pedestrian street filled with porticos with bars and restaurants, and tons of shops and terrific window shopping. Who knew?

The modern art museum has one thing in common with the interior of the Carapace: a copper color. It basically looks like a copper box in the middle of a older neighborhood, and is instantly recognizable because of that. The permanent collection is pretty small and unfortunately they were between exhibits. But there’s more….

A 10-minute walk brought us to a deconsecreated church, the Chiesa della SS. Trinità in Annunziata. where, in the middle is a giant skeleton replica, by the secretive and subversive artist Gino de Dominicis. Its official name, “Calamita Cosmica,” or cosmic calamity. It’s pretty amazing, the kind of thing that held our attention as we walke around it. It’s not just the thing itself; it’s the context. De Domicis is described in the work’s website as “a controversial figure in modern postwar Italian art, with an eccentric personality, himself an endless work of art, original and full of secrets.” All I know is we just stared in wonder as we walked about the beast and tried to take photos that did it justice.

Well, why not?

Of course, we worked up a powerful hunger after that expedition. Happily, Foligno was there for us, with a festival of first courses. In the progression of an Italian meal, the “primo,” or first course, is actually the second. It’s composed of pasta, soup, or rice. Note that it is not what Americans call a main course; to an Italian, a huge plate of overcooked spaghetti serving as the main meal is a travesty. The festival was terrific, even if it was a rainy day and we had to traipse all over the center of town. Big signs and a handout map guided us to various restaurants around town that served regional primi; it was fun to pick and choose, for a really good price of €5 (5 bucks) a plate, with cheap good wine to go with it.

A “tris” of primi

We’ll be going back to Foligno as soon as we can. The festival got us acquainted with what seemed to be dozens of cool bars, restaurants and shops. Can’t wait.

How do you live like that?

We’re hiding out in the dark. It’s a bright sunny hot day out there. Beautiful, in fact. But you know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen.

We get asked a lot by our American friends about, for example, the lack of air conditioning in our mountain retreat here. We love to say that we don’t need it about 99 percent of the time. Yeah, even when the Mediterranean sun is beating pitilessly down on us mortals, when you need sunglasses just to step outside, etc etc. What do we do? We conform to the local custom and hide out. In fact, I just had a wonderful short nap, after which I stared at the one open shutter looking at how the breeze swayed the tree branch. Hey, after years of working in busy newsrooms and tending to computer systems, this is not a bad thing.

It’s bright and hot out there, so I write in the dark.

In fact, our friends from across the pond are often amazed at this and the dozens of other small differences between the continents. In the old days those differences might have meant a lower standard of living for Europeans, but these days it’s often the U.S. that feels behind the times.

For us, it’s all about adaptation. We’re lucky in a couple of ways. First, culturally: I grew up in a Sicilian household that just happened to be in New York City. So the language wasn’t hard to pick up; when i was 5 years old my nonno (grandfather) from Palermo lived with us. He and I took walks almost every afternoon. He didn’t speak English and I don’t remember speaking Italian. But we had pretty involved conversations, so maybe I did, or at least understood enough of what he was saying. My first experience here in Italy wasn’t as a tourist; we stayed with family for half the summer. Likewise, The Spartan Woman lived in Perugia while attending the university there.

Nonno and me, a few years ago

As for climate, so far we’ve been blessed with only slightly strange weather and nothing like the craziness up in Germany. It’s been hot for the most part, but not too—around 30-31 degrees C, or 86-88 Fahrenheit. We get breezes up here since we’re at the crest of a hill. And our house, like every house around here, is made of stone, thick, meter/yard thick stone, which does a good job of keeping things cool during the summer. All we have to do is close the shutters along the sun’s path, which is why we sit in the dark at lunchtime.

Thinking about this stuff makes me remember last summer, during the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic. TSW and I (and our trusty dachshund Lola) basically stayed indoors most of the time, except for dog walks. We stayed in the shade too, but that’s because our Staten Island home is on a lushly tree-lined street. It being New York, though, it was humid as well as hot. So we kept the air conditioners running almost all the time, and the television was usually tuned to MSNBC or, for relief, HGTV. We sent out for food and wine, and I took naps out of sheer boredom. Our electric bills were through the roof; luckily we didn’t have huge gasoline bills because 1-we didn’t go anywhere, and if we did 2–we’re bad Americans and have a small European hatchback instead of a monster SUV or pickup like lots of our neighbors.

In fact, I gassed up last week here as we set out for a town in the mountains, Casteluccio di Norcia, and the vast glacial plain around it. One of my cousins from Sicily is driving around Italy on her wedding trip and she and her husband stopped by for a few days. So we were four adults in our Renault Clio, what the industry calls a B-segment hatchback (in U.S. terms, think Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit). Part of the way involved highway driving, but most of the route consisted of one lane in each direction, steep uphills and switchbacks, and lots of gear changing (as well as passing slow trucks, which means revving the small engine to the max). It’s a diesel, the kind of car that will be extinct in Europe in a decade along with all internal combustion engines. We filled up yesterday and for 338 kilometers, we bought about 15 liters, or nearly four gallons of fuel. It works out to about 52 miles per gallon—and that’s pretty normal here. Yet the four of us fit into the car fine and, yes, the a/c was on. I hate wind noise, especially when driving on a highway.

Meet Clio, who doesn’t drink very much.

Perversely, Covid-19 has brought some changes that have updated the way people here live. Cash was king not so long ago, and it wasn’t unusual to see someone pay for a load of groceries with a wad of cash. But now, most stores not only accept contactless debit or credit cards, but the same machines mean you can use Apple or Google pay on your phone. I’d guess that it’s more common here than in New York, where local merchants are still amazed when I pull my iPhone out of my pocket to pay.

We shared “the best beer in the world” at Umami Beer.

Speaking of Covid-19, WTF? We look at the vaccination maps back in the U.S. with a mixture of wonder and horror. Sure, there are some antivax crazies here, but it’s not a big thing. If there’s any criticism of the vaccination program it’s that it took awhile to gather steam. But now Italians are among the best-vaccinated people in Europe, and probably the world. After a slow start it seems like everyone we know has gotten both jabs, and the tend to be Pfizer. So we were less nervous when we got together with a few local friends here for, um, for burgers and beer. There’s a laid-back place near Assisi called Umami Beer, and it’s one of the favorite places for our friend Letizia Mattiacci, who runs the cooking school La Madonna del Piatto. I don’t feel sheepish at all plugging her and her classes; she’s warm, fluent in English, and her cooking pays homage to Umbria while having a fresher, more veg-friendly take on familiar foods. (By the way, she and her Dutch husband Ruurd also have a B&B there and can put you up between classes.) Umami’s no simple burger joint; owner Roberto sources high-quality ingredients and tracks down great beers from around the globe.

The Delta Covid-19 variant is beginning to be felt here, too, and it’s put a little damper on things. We don’t go out as much, and we’re still supposed to wear masks in indoor public spaces. The government says that it may tighten some rules in a few regions. But following public health rules here seems less fraught and less of a statement. Everyone does it and there’s no stigma or weirdness. If it’s one thing Italians are really good at, it’s self-preservation.

Davy Brooks is wrong just about everything

Some of you may know about my on-again, off-again obsession with New York Times columnist David Brooks. You might even wonder why, other than his sheer laziness and obviousness. I’ll let you in on my eternal shame: I once shared a byline with him, in the now-defunct women’s magazine More. The piece was a feature about “Alpha Women.” Brooks wrote the intro; I did the write-ups of the women themselves. We never spoke to each other.

But I have another reason for the headline. It’s about Brooks’ periodic praise for American innovation, or what he sees as innovation. The narrative goes like this: The United States is a tougher place to live than Europe, where people enjoy things like universal healthcare, long vacations, and a decent safety net. But the United States gives us something that they can’t—the freedom to dream and innovate and be like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. All this cool stuff like iPhones and Amazon’s Echo comes from the U.S., not those sclerotic old soft countries across the pond.

Sigh. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with this way of looking at the world, and The Spartan Woman and I have been batting around ideas. Living in both the dynamic, young inventive USA and tired old Europe, I try to resist the kinds of comparisons a lot of people do. I hear it all the time; Sentences that begin with “We have xxx,” or “Ours are different” or “How come they….” You get the drift. Both regions are what they are.

Then again, let’s talk about innovation. In American terms, it’s almost always a synonym for “technology.” When Brooks and his brethren (they’re almost always guys) gloat about American inventiveness, they invariably bring up the iPhone, or Google, etc., and boast about how they dominate the world. Okay, fine. But are they everything? Is computer-related technology the only way people can innovate, or think of new or more useful ways to live?

I’d say no. Let’s talk about how people move around in their environment. The U.S., for all the buzz about autonomous cars, is way behind the rest of the world. Stubbornly and proudly dumb about it. Highways are jammed, in the older cities, public transport is falling apart; here in New York it’s a battle to keep the subways and trains in any kind of working order. New York is still struggling to start building a new rail tunnel to link it to the rest of the country as the one in use crumbles and soon will be dangerous to use. Smaller cities are car-only, with maybe a rudimentary bus system. (Those cities out west that are building and expanding light rail systems are a noble exception.) In a way, the autonomous car thing is a perfect metaphor for the U.S.—high tech will come to the rescue of a way of life that’s stubbornly holding on and killing the planet.

Way faster than the Acela

In Europe–and even in Italy, which isn’t usually thought of being ahead of anything modern–you can zip around on fast trains. It takes just an hour and a half to go from Florence to Milan; the Rome-Milan trip, which is about 500 km or about 300 miles, takes under 3 hours.

There are lots of other examples where “innovation” doesn’t necessarily mean computers or online anything. As an American, have you remodeled a kitchen recently? How long did it take, and how much did it cost? We put in a kitchen in our Italian mountain house, with sleek white and grey laminate cabinets and the usual appliances. It took a couple of visits to a store, a little plumbing and electrical work, and then the kitchen was done in a day. The innovation came in the form of design; the manufacturer has a bunch of modules, with some custom work. It sends a “geometra,” someone who measures everything, looks at where the outlets and gas lines are, etc. Two guys and a truck later, it was all there. (And it came to about $5,000.)

All in less than a day’s work

And then there’s the espresso machine. At least for me, it’s improved my life more than, say, digital internet (sorry FIOS, you’re not my first love). So, once again, my usual disclaimer: I’m not saying that one place is necessarily better than the other–well, okay, in nonmaterial quality of life, one is better, but you might not agree. It’s just that there are other ways of looking at what’s important, and how life should be lived. We as Americans should look around some more.

And, er, Davy’s wrong.

Photo of the semi-hidden visage of Brooks at the top: By PBS Newshour – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, 0