Dear mr. Piketty:

nuova bocconi sedeI attended the lecture given by Thomas Piketty at Università Bocconi yesterday night. The crowd was unbelievable, and despite the fact I had reserved a seat over one week before, I had to line outside for about 35 minutes.

The new Aula Magna (= Great Hall) of Bocconi, part of a multimillion dollar, award-winning building project headed by Farrell and McNamara of Grafton Architects, is a cavernous affair seating over 1200 people and was bursting at the seams, with people sitting on the stairs all around. mr. Piketty was briefly introduced by Tito Boeri, himself a very well-known economist and vice-rector for Research at Bocconi, and then given the floor.

It’s hard to list the many things who did not work during the lecture, as if nobody between the speaker or the organizers had any idea of how to make the most of such an opportunity; let us start with the responsibilities of the organizers.

  1. 2014 10 09 aula magne setupthis room has been built in 2008, yet its AV system was probably designed 30 years before: despite the enormous size of the room, the projection system consists of two rather small screens over which two projectors show the slides. No LED multiscreens, no cinema system. The poor bastards in the gallery (like yours truly) are a good 100 metres away from screens barely adequate in an hotel room sitting maybe 200 people.
  2. The sound system is amateurial to say the least: speakers do not have lapel radio mikes but must use fixed mikes on the table or podium.
  3. the “standard way of use” of this room is firmly anchored in the way people spoke in the fifties: there is a huge stage, where a speaker worthy its mettle could hook up his audience with a physical presence, but the immense stage is only used for a small nondescript desk and an old-fashioned podium with fixed mikes. If you want to walk around, tough shit. No provisions is made for a camera blowing up the speaker face for the distant audience; Steadicams for a more striking angle had probably not been invented when this AV setup was designed.

But not all the blame can be put on the organization, as mr. Piketty – despite being the Nobel-worthy genius I think he is – is a terrible speaker. Let us see what he went wrong.2014 10 09 B&W charts

    • B&W slides? really? in 2014? When I saw them in the book I blamed the poor technical standards of the ebook: these charts are made up of many lines very close to each other. No effort whatsoever was made to make them easier to understand when projected as if colors and dashing did not exist.
    • as you can see in the picture on the right, he has a pilot screen in front of him; yet for half of the time he is turned around to check what’s on the screen, forcing whoever managed the amplifier to crank all the way up the mike’s gain, also maximising distortion along the way;
    • do you remember what your Powerpoint 101 teacher said about text in slides? Well, he doesn’t, apparently…2014 10 09 text slides
    • I do not list as a problem the fact mr. Piketty speaks english with a very strong french accent (remember inspector Clouseau?) because this makes him more “exotic” and actually quite likeable, but since Bocconi is providing simultaneous translation anyway why not let him speak french and translate him from french?
    • it’s easy to overdo charting but, for God’s sake, the ones mr. Piketty showed us have been printed in 1970 on a Centronics 1012014 10 09 centronics 101
    • the structure of the presentation was awkward and unclear. Had I not read the book beforehand (and as mr. Boeri rather malignantly stated at the very beginning, a lot of people did not go beyond the introduction) I probably would not have followed what he wanted to say; in fact, at some point I engaged in a Twitter conversation with someone else in the audience who understood something mr. Piketty said… with a meaning that was exactly the opposite of the point he was trying to make; the two students sitting next to me gave up note-taking after 10 minutes despite this obviously being the reason they were there.
    • mr. Piketty’s book is incredibly rich and I agree it would be impossible to cover everything in an hour, but in all honesty I did not understand the main message of what he said; and in fact the media articles I saw this morning focus on income, while the whole book focuses on wealth: normally, I would blame it on superficial flaks, but I am not so sure, now…

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