How a nerdy kid from nowhere self-published a best-seller and got noticed by Google CEO Larry Page and The Wall Street Journal

Reading time: 12 minutes.

Last week Larry Page, the CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world, and possibly one of the most powerful people on the planet, released an interview with the Financial Times endorsing my work and research on the effect of artificial intelligence and automation in the job market. That's quite remarkable, given that my school teachers told me I had no talent, that I wasn't good at writing, and that I was not even that smart. But let me take a step back.

I was born in a small village near the mountains, on the Italian Alps. There were only two schools, and not very good ones. Like many kids who like to think a lot, obsessively study things they're fascinated about, and dream big, I felt very alienated in such a small, provincial environment. There were a few bullies at school whose fathers were in jail, according to some rumors they were in for murder, some even said mafia. I never checked, I just knew I didn't want to mess with them. It was a pretty harsh environment. For someone like me who wasn't good at football, didn't like football, whose favorite bedtime reading was the CIA World Factbook and whose most beloved show was the French animated science cartoon "Once open a time... [Space, Life, etc...]," life didn't get any easier.

Beside my classmates, with whom I could never relate with but didn't particularly care, the biggest problem was the school itself. The teachers, the academic program, the tests, in my mind everything was wrong. Any interest I had was either considered irrelevant, not part of the standard curriculum and therefore not worthy of my time, or just plain weird. It shouldn't be a surprise that I looked for a way to escape.

First, I began with computers. I started with building websites, I must have been 11 or 12, but when I installed a Debian Linux on my machine I fell in love with system administration and programming. I would obsessively type on the keyboard unix commands all day long, writing scripts, hacking things apart and together, often times until late at night. It was exhilarating and incredibly satisfying. I remember once my mother came to my room to check on me at 4AM. "What are you doing up at this hour!?" she asked, "Coding stuff," I replied. I guess she was expecting me to watch porn. To this day, I still don't know if she was relieved or preoccupied that I wasn't.

If working late at night on my computer and reading books on science, technology, and economics was like drinking from the fountain of youth and wisdom, going to school felt like gulping battery acid from a rusty can. When I finished middle school, one of the teachers told my parents that I would have been better off going to work right away, because I was not smart enough to go to high school. Needless to say, we didn't follow that advice.

What if everybody got free cash? Results from real-world experiments might surprise you

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What if everybody received every month enough money to live by? Will society collapse? Will we all become slackers? Myths and facts about Unconditional Basic Income, with analysis from a real world experiment conducted in India between 2011-2013. Keynote speech at the Future of Work Summit, NASA Ames Research Park, California, June 30, 2014.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vnB16E36EQ
Help subtitle: http://www.amara.org/en/videos/O2C1xKXIE8au/en/798163/

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RASE #2 Dr. Konoz, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let Problems Solve Themselves

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Second episode of the Reason and Science [Eventually] Podcast, August 17, 2014. Help caption and translate! http://www.amara.org/en/videos/evrcZA2WuUJt

Featured in this episode:
- Humans Need Not Apply by GCP Grey http://youtu.be/7Pq-S557XQU
- My video response to "Humans Need Not Apply" http://youtu.be/eV6VL5eprHk
- Konoz: Learn and Teach Anything, my new startup. http://konozlearning.com
- "The Summit" and other startup competitions
- Speaking Engagements on September in The Netherlands
- Featured song: Copenhagen by Figures in Motion, from Confusion Will Pass (2014) CC-BY http://www.jamendo.com/en/track/1115146/copenhagen

Subscribe and download at: http://federicopistono.org/podcast

Unsung Heroes, Unintentional Heroes

I've yet to fully grasp the significance of what took place last night. I understand rationally what happened. I can recall quite clearly the events that came about. I can remember the details, each moment, but I don't think I have fully internalized the implications of it all.

Let me take a step back and describe it to you, perhaps writing it down will help me get a more gut feeling of the situation.

It's New York City, Harlem district, circa 3AM. I'm waiting for the metro train downtown, when I discover it's closed down due to construction, and I miss the shuttle bus. Bummer. I wait for the next shuttle, casually listening to the latest Freakonomics podcast. Then I suddenly see some lights at a distance. I quickly realize it's not normal, and I get closer. It's a fire.

On that moment a few thoughts run through my head. It is a very unusual feeling agnizing that you are about the break your routine and that a major event of your life is about to unfold. For a moment I think it isn't anything of particular significance. A couple of minutes before I heard a few teenage girls screaming and making noises, only to disappear and leave me alone on the empty streets of Harlem, in the middle of night, while thousands of unaware souls are being lulled to sleep in the arms of Morpheus.

The fire
The moment I approached and realized it was a fire.

Without indulging into my own train of thoughts, I grab my phone and dial 911. I give a detailed description of what I am seeing, give my coordinates and personal information. It's only after the phone call ends that a stream of thoughts begins to invade my head. Here I am, a young, foreign, white guy at the heart of the infamous Harlem neighborhood, in the middle of the night, calling the police. As I am constantly reminded by the locals here, the only white males in Harlem at that time of the night are either drug dealers, or dangerous criminals (or both). What if they think I started the fire? What if they ask what was I doing here? What if they don't believe me? What if they throw me in jail accusing me of a crime I didn't commit? What if.... All these thoughts and a lot more go through my head in a split second, only to be replaced by the more important thought of trying to help whoever is in the building.

I call the people I knew who lived there, and I instruct them to wake up, warn as many people as possible, get outside, and wait for the firefighters to arrive.

As I frantically type messages down on my phone and make calls, I see the flames increasing, moving up into the air, coming dangerously close to the copious trees that surround the building. It's in this moment that I understand things can get ugly very quickly: if the trees catch fire, the fire and most importantly the smoke (most deaths are due to carbon monoxide inhalation, not the fire itself) will spread into the building. Hundreds might die. I can't tell. All I know is that I'm glad I made that call right away, and now it's a race against time.

fire rising
The fire rising, getting dangerously close to the tree branches.

About three minutes later, the firefighters arrive, and begin to extinguish the fire. A cloud of thick smoke rises and engulfs the entire block. A exhale deeply, in relief.

About an hour later the fire was completely extinguished, and nobody was hurt. Most people were completely unaware of the disaster that didn't happen, and simply woke up the next morning, knowing nothing of what happened, or what could have happened.

fire
By the time they arrived, the fire was over two stories high.


Quick video while I was on the shuttle bus, stuck in front of the closed street as the firefighters begin to extinguish the fire. Apologies for the colorful language.

smoke cloud
The cloud of smoke rises, as the fire is being extinguished.

I was called back by the police, checking on the situation and confirming that it was under control. I was not questioned nor accused of anything.

I take home a few lessons from this experience. First, you never know when a major event of you life is about to happen, and most likely you will not recognize it as such, until much later on, probably days, weeks, or in some cases even years. Second, I was happy to observe that my instinct of helping others overcame the logic of self-preservation, which kicked in later on. And last, the amount of effort one has to make to potentially save hundreds of people can be very small, compared to the work real heroes have to do every day on duty. The police, the firefighters, they all acted beautifully coordinated and incredibly efficiently, in a moment where a difference of a few minutes can literally represent the different between an interesting anecdote on a blog, and tragic accident on the next day newspaper. They are the unsung heroes, I was merely a spectator who did the minimum effort and performed his duty as he was supposed to. Sure, I had to spend a few hours there and came back home as the sun was rising. The next day I had to attend a conference, and I didn't get much sleep. A minor inconvenience.

Compare that with the potential catastrophe that could have unfolded, had I looked the other way and simply went home.

If that is the price to pay to make a tangible difference in people's life, it's something I think we can all afford to do. We just have to keep our eyes and our hearts more open.

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