Wednesday, September 17, 2008

That branch of Lake Como, which turns south

The airport in Frankfurt is an enclosed space where everybody comes from at least a thousand kilometers from the next person and speaks a radically different language. The planners made it all work by abstracting the semiotic common ground of humanity. The operators make it all work with a perfectly executed clockwork.

What a different experience getting off the airplane in Malpensa. Everybody looks the same and speaks the same language with the same accent. And while an hour earlier in Frankfurt it was silent like in a mausoleum, in Malpensa it is busy and loud like in a bazar.

Everybody seems to have two cell phones, one ringing and the other being used to exchange trivialities with remote people. And people keep talking to everybody around them. Sure, unlike the people in Frankfurt, these people can. But strangers keep asking me when their suitcase will come out, how long it will take, where they will have to go next…

I place myself under the carousel's display, where I can just rise my finger and point to the display. What do I know? Later, driving to the hotel, my host Prof. Rizzi explains me that I witnessed the Italian version of the GPS: you just constantly ask the people around you for directions. I guess that works in a society where most people walk.

The autostrada takes some getting used to, when one normally cruises on 101 or 280. But then, everybody is watching — no spaced out people juggling a coffee mug in one hand and a cell phone in the other. And there is not the heavy metal protection of an SUV.

We arrive at the hotel for the invited keynote speakers. I am surprised. The Comaschi, the people from Como, especially the business people, are known for having short arms (meaning they cannot easily reach in their pockets to take out their bill-fold). Yet, here they put us up in the best hotel in town.

Not only, they put us in the best rooms in the best best hotel in town. What a view! As you see in the pictures, in front of us is that branch of Como Lake, which turns south, between two uninterrupted mountain chains, all peninsulas and bays, depending on their sticking out or caving in, becomes, all the sudden, constricted, and becoming like a river…

Quel ramo del lago di Como, che volge a mezzogiorno, tra due catene non interrotte di monti, tutto a seni e a golfi, a seconda dello sporgere e del rientrare di quelli, vien, quasi a un tratto, a ristringersi, e a prender corso e figura di fiume, tra un promontorio a destra, e un'ampia costiera dall'altra parte; e il ponte, che ivi congiunge le due rive, par che renda ancor più sensibile all'occhio questa trasformazione, e segni il punto in cui il lago cessa, e l'Adda rincomincia, per ripigliar poi nome di lago dove le rive, allontanandosi di nuovo, lascian l'acqua distendersi e rallentarsi in nuovi golfi e in nuovi seni.

What a suffering it was in middle school, and what a gorgeous sight it is now.

When we arrive at the conference venue, we find a mixture of preoccupation, panic, and emergency. The proceedings did not arrive, and nobody knows who is in charge. Only the badges for people at the beginning and end of the alphabet are here, the others are missing. There is no wireless, where is IT? The janitor does not know. Short rapid conversations.

Then everybody pulls out their two cell phones. Is it high noon? No, every person in the hallways is communicating simultaneously on each of ten channels: the first cell phone in one hand talking to one person, the other cell phone in the other hand talking to a second person, both phones announcing the arrival of an SMS after another, talking to several people in the room, and orchestrating the hole gesticulating with the hands. What a cacophony!

Suddenly people start showing up. "Good afternoon, I am the one for the coffee." "Good afternoon, I am the IT manager." And so on. Everybody is proposing a contribution. What is amazing to somebody accustomed to the American way of doing business is that there are no negotiations, no power games, no delays to talk things over with the boss.

Everybody only makes positive proposals. Everybody has personal authority to make decisions. Numbering systems and spreadsheets are set up so there is full accountability on everything. After less than two hours the whole conference has been organized on the spot and everybody is satisfied that it is better than they had anticipated. It is time to part because it will be a long evening and night to get everything done to perfection.

It comes to my mind that everybody here in middle school has learned Nicolò Macchiavelli's Prince and knows how to manage well. In fact, here the whole Prince is summarized in the few lines of a vernacular haiku:

fin che ga né…
viva el re…
Quand ghe né pü…
crepa l'asan e quel che gh'é sù.

Mr. Bill Hewlett would have added "and we do not need any stinking Voice of the Workforce surveys."