I just upgraded to Snow Leopard and it is basically Leopard that runs faster. It is as if you had a BMW 320i and for $29 you get a BMW 325i. Now Microsoft is another story. Microsoft jolts you when they upgrade you. To me the change from XP to Vista was as if you had a Vokswagen Golf and Microsoft gave you a Chrysler Mini Van, regardless of whether you had a family or not, some people loved it, many did not and just wanted to go on driving their Golf. There´s nothing new to report in Snow Leopard, same great driving, just a little faster. As they say, if it ain´t broke, don´t fix it.
It is not that I did not know about userscripts, but other than one script that allowed me to reply to comments on this blog, I had never really taken advantage of userscripts. Yesterday morning we had breakfast with my friend Rodrigo Sepulveda at Cafe Hugo in Paris and he alerted me to the possibility of making web sites run in different manners thanks to users cripts. This is how Lifehacker defines the need for user scripts.
So let me give you an example. I live in a country, Spain in which we pay a tax on digital memory (hard drives, DVDs and so on) but on the other hand, downloading is legal. So when in Spain, I frequently download movies from torrent sites using the Fonera 2.0n that is about to come out. But the problem of torrent sites is that they don´t come with reliable movie reviews. For movie reviews then, I, like most people, use IMDb. But it´s a slow process to alternate between torrent sites and IMDb. So after becoming aware of user scripts I tweeted if anyone knew of a script that allowed you to add IMDb stars to torrent sites. It turns out that that did not exist, but the opposite was available and is pretty useful. Thanks to some helpful and more advanced followers on Twitter I found this script here that adds torrent links to IMDb so you don´t really need to leave IMDb to choose torrents. With this script IMDb becomes both a movie review site and a sophisticated torrent search engine. And if you combine this functionality with the Firefox extension that the Fonera has that makes it automatic that when you hit a torrent link the Fonera downloads it into its attached hard drive, leaving your computer free to do whatever you want, then you have a great solution in your hands (if you are not in Spain there is plenty of legal content in torrent sites like Legal Torrents to try this solution out). And when it gets to be the time to watch the movies if you use the Fonera you don´t need to copy them on to your computer as well. You just connect to the Fonera by typing Fonera in your browser, select the movie from the Fonera´s hard drive that you want to watch and stream it to your browser over WiFi. But this is one example of a script that makes life easier for me. If you browse through Userscripts.org you will see that there are thousands of scripts, and many are for new browsers such as Google´s Chromium.
If I had anything to do with promoting user scripts I would say “because the internet not always has to be the way it is”.
BT’s wifi network has reached half a million hotspots. Fon has made a major contribution toward its growth, since about 90% of the BT hotspots are BT Fon. The rate of growth is such that, together with BT, we are on the way to one million hotspots. This is the goal for February 2010.
With this initiative, BT responds to the exponentially growing demand for mobile connectivity. The sites include BT FON hotspots, BT Openzone, 12 wireless city centres and BT Openzone hotspots via the BT Business Hub. BT Openzone hotspots can be found in hotels, coffee shops and airports. Users of BT FON are part of the Fon wifi network which itself comprises more than 600,000 spots worldwide.
Mobile data traffic growth is now doubling every year. Handheld devices have been a strong driver for this growth, as an increasing number of affordable devices run data intensive applications. Although 3G is widely used, consumers seek more reliable coverage and faster speeds. Wifi networks are also valuable for mobile operators in that they help offload traffic from their 3G networks, amongst other advantages.
Dave Hughes, BT Retail’s director of Wireless Broadband predicts that “Pretty soon there will be a Wi-Fi hotspot on every corner in the UK”. Fon is well suited to help meet the growing demand for ubiquitous and affordable mobile connectivity. Fon spots are numerous and widespread and their locations complement those of commercial hotspot networks that focus on coffee shops, hotels and other businesses. Also, Fon’s uniquely scalable model, based on user-generated infrastructure, is capable of responding to this exponentially growing demand cost-effectively.
Nina and I have been to Japan many times. But always to Tokyo, which we love. But on this trip we had a special situation going on. We are working on a significant project related to Fon in Japan, one of these complex deals that takes many people and significant time to pull off. And while my work was done by Monday I felt that it was wiser to “stick around” Tokyo in case something went wrong and my presence was needed again. But Fon has a very able management team that is in Japan as well so I also knew that it was possible that I would not be needed anymore. And that´s when the idea came about to stay in Japan but not in Tokyo. We chose to come to the Northern Island of Hokkaido following the recommendations of Joichi Ito and Joshua Ramo, two dear friends one who is Japanese and the other who knows Japan very well. The objective coming here was both to have fun and to be within an hour of flying time to Tokyo if we need to go back. But what we thought would be an easy driving around to get to know Japan turned out to be quite complex. Over the last two days we found out that Japan is really very inaccessible to foreigners. As we go around Hokkaido we feel that traveling Japan is like “hacking Japan”, hacking in the sense of building a “code” that helps you accomplish a task, but also hacking in the sense that it is very difficult to travel around Japan.
I don´t speak Swedish but I can rent a car and drive around Sweden, or Holland, or many countries in Europe whose language I don´t speak. But renting a car and driving around Hokkaido is something else. Almost everything here is in Japanese and very few people speak English. So here is our little story since we left Tokyo.
We were able to check in at Haneda airport and most procedures were normal but on the plane announcements were in Japanese only. Interestingly we were the only non Japanese on the plane and fortunately we liked the Japanese food they served as that was the only choice. No cutlery, no western food. I don´t know if you know this but the Japanese food that the Japanese normally eat has very little to do with the typical sushi restaurant that you are familiar with and probably love. The Japanese food that the Japanese eat is heavy on pickles and fish with very strong flavors. But the Japanese being Japanese, meaning extremely kind and considerate, as the stewardess spotted us she would stand by us and translate the announcements for us, and as she saw how I stared at the Japanese dessert in desperation she showed up with some cookies (I love most Japanese food but invariably dislike their desserts).
When we landed we went to rent a car at Nippon Rent a car and that was extremely complicated. It´s not that it would be extremely complicated if we had understood Japanese but as it was, we had a very hard time. There was nobody at the Nippon booth but they had a phone. I picked it up and the person on the other side of the phone did not understand me until I switched to what I discovered is the English that the Japanese understand which is basically me imitating their accent while trying to keep a straight face. I know this sounds absurd but in order to speak Japanese with the Japanese person you have to speak like they do, for example adding non existent vowels here and there, rolling the r´s in a peculiar way, changing the intonation to theirs, and only then do you begin to communicate with most Japanese. Because it´s not that the Japanese know no English, it´s that they never had a chance to practice it and mostly learned it from a Japanese person who spoke it like they do. So the lady on the phone who could not tell I was Martin Varsavsky on a first try, realized that I was Maritini Varisaviski on a second try. When she tried to explain to me how to get the bus to their car rental lot I struggled and as a result we lost a quarter of an hour until we were rescued by another kind Japanese person who saw my Japanese written leaflet and took us there. And once we got there, what was worse is that they would not rent me nor Nina a car without an International Driver´s license. The rules were incomprehensible. With a US license you need an International Driver´s License given by the AAA. With a German license you need to go to a public translator in Japan and get the German translated but surprisingly you don´t need an International Driver´s License. As you can expect we did not have any of those. But I had once asked for an International Driver´s License and managed to have it faxed from Spain. Even though it was expired, by 11pm the Nippon Rent a Car employees took pity on us and gave us the Toyota.
But our troubles did not end there. The car had a GPS as we wanted but the GPS was only in Japanese. In Japan btw even Windows comes only in Japanese. But we got over that one as well and by showing the map we managed to get somebody to program the GPS for us. In all these things I must say that the Japanese combine the inaccessibility of visiting their country with an unparalleled kindness that almost always gets you ou whatever mess you are in. Still it is tough.
And even with the programmed GPS if you are British you are Ok but for the rest of us another challenge begins in Japan and that is to drive on the left side of the road, listening to a GPS that talks to you in Japanese, with a toll system where the letters ETC do not mean etcetera but the exact opposite and where the normal roads are very narrow by other standards (in general I must say Japan is a “tight” country, everything is smaller than you would expect).
So getting around in Japan renting a car is very complicated. But as we discovered today there is another barrier if you want to film your very own Japanese road movie and that is that when it gets to be time to sleep hotels are CRAZY expensive. First of all there are very few. You can see that Japan is not a country in which people drive around. Or at least not Hokkaido. But when you find them it is unbelievable what they charge. We found 3. One had no rooms, the other one was $900 per night and the one in which we are staying is $600 per night. And our room is smaller than that of the average US motel by the road. Yes that price includes dinner and breakfast but interestingly meals in Japan are not expensive. Last night we had an amazing Miso Ramen and gyoza dinner for only $25 for 2. Today we had great Italian lunch for $30 for 2. So what is expensive is to sleep in Japan not to eat in Japan. And maybe Japanese people can read some Japanese signs that say hotel only in Japanese and that cost less. But we did not see any buildings with cars outside that looked like hotels after driving for one hour in the Furano area except the three that I mentioned. We are staying at one called Orika. So with a rental car that costs $120 per day plus tolls that frequently cost $15 and hotels that cost over $500 per night is is hard to recommend to anyone to “drive and explore Japan” as nice as people are.
So by now you know that it is extremely complicated to drive around Japan, that driving is on the left, places are hard to find, GPSs talk to you in Japanese and only come in Japanese and so are most signs, that people however are incredibly nice in sharp contrast with say, the French, that food is outstanding and affordable, that rooms instead are insanely expensive and hard to come by, now what about sightseeing? Is Hokkaido worth the detour as the Guide Michelin likes to say? And that is what I am not sure of, I am sorry to say. Especially not considering that anyone who wants to visit Japan from most places in the world has to spend half a day on a plane and that when you drive around Japan you must do it at the slowest speeds on the planet. In all roads that we were on except the highways the maximum speed was frequently 40km (not miles km) per hour or sometimes 60km. When we could not take it anymore we went at 80km in a deserted, straight road only to find that the only people there were the police who jump out of a bush and stop you. Japan is probably the only country in the world in which when you exceed the speed limit they can stop you…by foot. Of course they were very nice and did not give us a fine. They just scared us a bit cause when they jumped out of the bush with their flags I thought they were simply…crazy people.
So here´s a collection of pictures that I took today. In these pictures you find the only two places that I found worth photographing, the abandoned gigantic Buddha with a still functioning elevator inside that I am still trying to find out what it was, and a random kids fair. The rest is not exciting. As far as nature is concerned USA, Argentina, Spain are much better. As far as architecture is concerned it is not only that anything that you may think of Japanese is lacking. Unfortunately is is also that whatever you consider poor taste in home design wherever you are from is unfortunately frequently present in the Japanese landscape. I can show you random pictures of average homes around Japan and you will go back home to wherever you are from, USA, Italy, Spain, even Germany and kiss your own home town. And on top of this the Japanese suffer from a landscape that in Europe I have only seen in Switzerland and that is that they try to put everything in the same place probably because they have no room, even in Hokkaido. Whatever is not mountains must house everything else. So it´s hard to see a landscape without a power line, a factory, or a green house. But what is worse is that even when they do have nature, like in this hotel where we are staying tonight they build a high rise building. You can see it in their website. What is the point of building a high rise building smack in the middle of a forest. And here is another one around 20km from here. You look at the picture and you think it´s in the middle of Tokyo and not in the middle of a forest. So all this may explain two things. Why there are no foreigners in Japan but also why it is practically impossible to go around Europe without seeing Japanese tourists. It is probably as hard for them to come to see us as it is for us to come and see them and yet they make the effort. But they make the effort to come because it´s worth it. For the same reason we eat Japanese food, because it´s probably the best in the world.
A few days ago I wrote a post in which I commented that we had taken out my kids from Spanish schools in Spain because the Spaniards are unnecessarily tough on children. As an example I mentioned that in many Spanish cools kids don´t have a choice of food and they are forced to eat whatever food there is. I also commented that the “colleja” an unusual Spanish spanking that involves hitting a kid on the back of his head is still considered acceptable by most Spanish parents as a way to “teach kids a lesson”. But at the same time in my post I recognized that Spaniards, as adults are by far the most organized and ethical people in the Latin world. This includes not only all Latam but also Portugal, Italy and France. I am not saying that Spaniards are a global model but they are more likely to treat you well, less likely to rip you off, than other Latins. They may not be the brightest, something that I attribute to an education that focuses more on memorization than on reasoning, but they are the best behaved and ethical. So the question here is: does being tough with kids pays off in terms of ending up with better behaved adults? My hope is that the answer is no because I don´t endorse some of the practices of the Spaniards vis a vis children. I would like to believe that a system like the American, that relies more in self discipline and rewards, is better.
Now enter Japan in this equation. I include Japan for a personal reason, this is where I landed a few hours ago and where I frequently come for work. And Japan is the most educated society in the world. People here are incredibly polite, incredibly efficient, incredibly professional, almost devoted to doing the right thing. So the question is: How do the Japanese do it? Or in other words, how do they turn their children into adults who are patient, polite, hard working, honest, highly ethical and even quite creative. Are they tough on their kids? Are they extremely demanding? Do they use physical punishment? Do they force kids to eat the food they don´t like as the Spaniards do? If European education is more about treating kids as little grown ups gone astray and American education more about self discipline and rewards, where do the Japanese stand?
Frankly I don´t know the answers but here at the Ritz Carlton, as we have breakfast with Nina, I have been observing young children and they seem to be as well educated as their parents…already. So whatever they do must this great education must start at a very young age.
During my business career I have founded 7 companies. The first, and least known, is Urban Capital Corporation, a company that develops and manages real estate in Tribeca, NYC. I started that company while I was at Columbia University together with my partner Len Kahn. We developed over half a million square feet of loft buildings. We currently own 32 Varick St or 11 Beach Street, a 120,000 sq ft building that is made of office lofts and is a favorite with high tech and media businesses.
My other companies are high tech companies. 3 got to be worth over half a billion dollars, one did ok, in one I lost 45 million dollars and while the jury is still out on Fon, I believe it could be my fourth company worth over half a billion.
During my business career in High Tech however, I have alternated between investing in my own start ups, occasionally backing other start ups (the most successful being Eolia started out of my office by my dear friend Miguel Salis, ex CFO of Jazztel and now worth over a billion) and investing in real estate both in Europe and in the USA. Investing in unleveraged real estate has proven to be pretty counter cyclical to high tech. For example when everything went to hell in tech between ’01 and ’04, real estate did very well. And while my timing for real estate has been occasionally wrong (I lost money in 2 hotels in USA in the ’90s) it has been mostly very good. I buy real estate with little or no debt and simply hold on to it. I have rarely sold any.
As an example, 2 weeks ago I bought an apartment at the Continuum in Miami. I bought it at a historically low price. And currently I have my eyes on a San Francisco apartment. Also in a prime building. Why am I adding to my US portfolio of properties? Because real estate is a long term play and I see US real estate at a historical low now both in terms of a low dollar and low values in key markets. So after staying on the sidelines for a decade I am now buying for the following reasons:
My brief view of the contemporary financial world is that George W. Bush and his team did horrendous damage to the US economy, but fortunately neither he nor his mismanagement style are coming back. During his tenure, I avoided the US dollar and anything US related. When we raised US dollars at Fon for example, we immediately, and smartly changed them into euros. But for the next decade I have a different view. I see a Europe unable to make the changes it needs to adapt to a globalized economy and I see America avoiding the mistakes of the past and adapting well. I see Bush as a one of a kind idiot. The fact that Americans chose Obama shows that there is hope in a more educated generation of American voters coming up more focused on substance than myth. That even if Republicans win again during the next 11 years, they will win with somebody more like Bush senior than Bush junior. I think that future US leaders will have common sense and will not dilapidate the country´s economy by fighting useless wars and probably at least partly address the other two huge “leaks” of the American economy: the cost of health care and the costs of administering “justice”. Concretely, and in favor of buying real estate, I think that Obama´s team will reactivate the US economy but will be left with some inflation that will likely do two things: help real estate, and help the US dollar as interest rates rise to stop it. Both are pluses for US real estate.
Bottom line of all this is that I am now converting euros into dollars to buy more US real estate for the first time in close to a decade. I also was lucky enough to change euros into pounds at 1.05 at the beginning of ’09 in anticipation of buying a home in London as well. London is and will be the global financial capital of the world, and right now, with the pound depressed and the markets down, it is a good time to buy there as well. So far I put in bids for different homes in London but they sold for more to others. Will keep trying.
I end with an anecdote. An hour ago this auction ended in Hawaii. I participated in it and I was surprised to see that the home sold for over $5 million. Especially considering how high the real estate taxes, maintenance and membership fees are in Hualalai. A person who buys a home in Hualalai has to spend around $250K in the membership, and an extra $150K per year in taxes and various fees. Plus of course getting to Hawaii. I confess that I was not prepared to pay more than half of what the home sold for. Now you could say, why would people pay so much for real estate that if lucky they will use for a month a year? The answer is that there is something to real estate prices that is akin to brand value. Real estate, surprisingly enough, elicits feelings. And the property I own is in those places, places that turn people on for some reason. Places that other than serving as useful homes make people feel better, like brands, for better or worse, do.
So while I will continue focusing on building companies around my ideas in Tech, I will also continue looking for the new or rising real estate brands. Currently I see them in South Beach, downtown San Francisco, the West End of London and Tokyo.