#52 | Climate Tech Summit, Pet Ape, Dune, Active Pessimism, Praising Wrong

Ben’s irregular newsletter mixes work and play. Unsubscribe at the bottom / Sign up here Find me: Twitter - LinkedIn - Medium - Website - Podcast

Some big news in this edition!


1. WORK: Climate Tech Summit, My First Unicorn
2. STUDY: BJJ, Chess, Coding (as usual)
3. EXPERIENCES: Pizza Robot, Pet Ape
4. CULTURE: Netflix Selection, Dune, Etc.
5. THOUGHTS: The Guy By The River, Active Pessimism, Praising Wrong
6. COVID LIFE: Obedience To Authority, Covid Shrink


Climate Tech Extravaganza

If you’re interested in climate tech (= startups with tech that reduce greenhouse gas emissions), the SOSV Climate Tech Summit on Oct 20-21 might be the best event you can attend online for FREE. We have Bill Gates, Vinod Khosla, Uma Valeti (Upside Foods, fka Memphis Meats), Bill Gross (Idealab, Heliogen, Energy Vault, — the latter two going SPAC), and many many more.

Some background: in the previous letter I mentioned we were planning an event on climate tech following the publication, TechCrunch coverage and analysis of our CT portfolio (whose value grew 44% in < 6 months). Ned and I set to work on the agenda, and the response exceeded our expectations.

If you RSVP, I’ll ask you for two things: (1) Tell a friend (we want this event to reach far and wide) (2) Write that you heard it from me — with some luck I might win second prize :)

My First Unicorn

As the saying goes: “First they ignore you… then you have a unicorn”. When I joined SOSV via its hardware accelerator HAX in Shenzhen in 2013, as I wrote in the very first newsletter (h/t to S. for the inspiration), hard tech was a mostly unchartered territory. I am happy to report that a startup in the first cohort I supported, has just achieved unicorn status! (SOSV’s fifth) Opentrons is a startup developing robots for biologists, which is also running Covid testing labs for NYC and more, and just raised $200M from Softbank Vision Fund 2. Thanks to the founders for trusting us, and being part of their journey!


Coaching Winners & Conscious Training

Champions need to win. If they get beaten too much too early, it might destroy their confidence. The interesting consequence is that coaches would rather set up easier matches to keep confidence up, while on the opposite the athlete wants to move fast (see Million Dollar Baby). The path matters. In BJJ, non-competitors would often rather get their new belts faster, while competitors sometimes linger at a lower belt to win more in his category.

I also asked a BJJ friend how often he trained, to which he replied 'twice a day' (!), then he added ‘I have dreams’. It reminded me of Derek Sivers's 'There's no speed limit' or the idea that if you want to succeed you need to ‘Figure out the price, and pay it’ (from my fav How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams). As I am hoping to overcome a plateau, I thought I might not be getting the most out of my trainings — I had a chat with a coach who said that when he spars, he picks the partner based on his training goals. The coach also mentioned how the sport has evolved: in the early years, the style was quite confidential, and even pros had no game plan going into fights. Now they all have both game plans and training plans. Especially those training with John Danaher, I suppose.

Chess: Bad at Mat

After realizing I was reaching a plateau in chess too, I decided to focus on puzzles. 2,500 puzzles later (I peaked at puzzles at 2100 — I’m down now) I realized the Lichess website offered more granular analysis of tactics and weaknesses than the app. I saw I was stronger at discovered attacks, advanced pawns and end game, but weaker at pins, forks and check mates. And "you're only as strong as your biggest weakness". I wish it was as easy to figure out strong and weak spots outside chess!

Note: I also came across this weird ‘roast’ of a famous chess game by Stockfish, the strongest CPU chess engine in the world (Stockfish 14 Elo rating is 3550 — and it’s open source).


A bit more python, this time for data processing. Welcome numpy and scikit learn!


Pizza Robot

I'm very interested in food robotics and invested personally in two startups (fast food retail in particular has low margins, low skills, high turnover and is ripe for automation). I've also seen plenty not do well, and the latter often involved expensive robot arms. Still, one robot pizzeria, Pazzi, opened in Paris. I tried it and while the crust was soft and felt more like a crepe, it was reasonably tasty and fun to watch. I wish them the best!

Pet Ape Builds Contraption

I was observing the cat, trying to figure out her thoughts (in the spirit of 'What is it like to be a bat' — it’s easier with mammals). It dawned on me that I was the cat's pet ape. She watches me doing inscrutable things like washing dishes, exercising or typing on a keyboard (in which she occasionally partakes), and must often be frustrated by this generally friendly but unpredictable ape.

I recall cats in my childhood house only needed food and a litter box. In this age of helicopter pet parenting, things have gotten more complicated. With safety in mind I looked into how to secure windows for our new family member. Off-the-shelf stuff wouldn’t fit, and custom-built stuff was an arm and a leg. I headed to the DIY store, and with a few $ worth of PVC tubing and bird nets, I got it done. To make sure all boredom is amused, I also dusted off my limited edition AI cat toy (h/t Petronics). I’m still working on walking the cat outside — for now, she’s ok with only the harness.


Stuff Made Here****
This former engineer at the 3D printing company Formlabs (an SOSV portfolio startup) took robotic entertainment to the next level on his YouTube channel with this hair-cutting robot and safety add-on for crocs shoes.

The new one. I watched the old one several times, and the interesting documentary about Jodorwsky's attempt. I also read the books as a teenager (and forgot most of it). I found this version quite nice, with a good mix of space opera and spirituality. The acting and visuals are good and I thought young Chalamet did a good job.

SPOILER STARTS HERE: Was spice a metaphor for oil? Would it be rare minerals today? Could it qualify as 'climate fiction'? The dad is a bit of a caricature, and I wasn't a fan of his leadership team: his action man didn't brief him on protocol with the local tribe chief, his chief of security didn't find the spy, he didn't run a proper background check on his personal physician... I also noted the doctor spoke Mandarin, but doesn't have a very great role — maybe a soft power mishap?

Fun fact: I saw the producer was named Legendary Pictures, and used an odd Chinese-looking emblem. I thought: could it be part of Legend Holdings? (Lenovo, Legend Capital, etc.). I looked it up and no: it was a US company founded in 2000 in Burbank... that was acquired by China’s Wanda Group (real estate, cinemas) in 2016! I was wrong but also right ;) I suppose having a Chinese actor in an 'acceptable' role is part of the deal for distribution in China. Maybe he will have more airtime in the Chinese version? I remember how Iron Man 3 got surgery in a Shanghai hospital, featuring Fan Bingbing…

Rick & Morty***
Sticking to scif-fi: while unequal, the new season is out and it delivers pretty well. My favs were 1,2 and 8 (feat. Birdperson).

OSS 117: From Africa with Love***
The chauvinistic, nationalist and womanizing French spy OSS 117 returns for a new opus taking him to 1981 sub-saharan Africa. It's not the best in the series but I still enjoyed it, especially the rivalry with the younger spy (OSS 1001), and the scene where OSS 117 is reassigned to the budding IT department.

Philly Philly Wang Wang***
Pretty funny British-Chinese-Malaysian standup comedian on Netflix. I didn't sidesplit but it had strong writing and delivery, with good cross-cultural and observational humor. A good complement to Ali Wong and Joe Wong (no relation). It reminded me of how the Malay, Chinese and Indian standups I saw in Malaysia were all in agreement criticizing every race. It's often enlightening to hear what local comedians have to say!

An award-winning Chinese drama by a Tibetan director, which offers a very realistic portrayal of how the life of a rural Tibetan family is disturbed by the perspective of a second child, back in the early 1980's in the midst of strict population control.

Next in Fashion***
I don’t know the fashion scene, but this Netflix show about budding designers was interesting. The hosts (including Tan France from Queen Eye fame) were also very engaging. Amazon’s Making the Cut wasn’t as interesting.

Glow Up**
Similar concept as the above, but with make-up artists. It wasn’t as exciting but still somewhat educative.

The Chair**
A Netflix series about an Asian woman who becomes the chair of a failing English department. I watched it mostly because of Sandra Oh, but I found the show quite forgettable despite some brave forays into woke and reverse-woke culture (if there's such a thing).

1950's Matt Damon gets first African-American neighbors in his all-white neighborhood. I generally like what Clooney and the Coen brothers do, but this wasn't their best.

The Adjustment Bureau**
More Matt Damon. I watched this one by accident when looking for a show. Some 'angels' that control partly time and space try to make sure some things happen and others don't, by influencing events with small 'adjustments'. The movie is not amazing but it's always impressive to see how even short stories from Philip K. Dick are good enough for Hollywood production.

The Chess Game of the Wind**
A rare 1976 Iranian movie about power and wealth in a family, behind closed doors. It was certainly a shock at the time, but I had trouble connecting with it.

Cobra Kai (Season 3)**
Not my proudest moment, but Karate Kid nostalgia got the best of me and I watched this third season. Sadly, it wasn’t as fresh as the first two. I thought Tory had good moves but apparently that was her stunt double.

Wandering Earth*
A recent Chinese sci-fi flick based on Liu Cixin's novel. I found a couple of ideas interesting, and the SFX are good, but I couldn't really get to like any of the characters, and the whole thing felt like it was designed with guidelines on the values it should promote. Not sure this works as soft power.

From Stress to Happiness*
A stressed-out documentary filmmaker follower Mathieu Ricard, a famous French-born Buddhist monk who has worked for decades with the Dalai Lama, and is known as a very happy man. Unfortunately, this filmmaker felt too unprepared to really capture all that could have been... It reminded me that over 10 years ago I was in Nepal and decided to visit Ricard's monastery (he wasn't there that day...). I ended up on an email thread with him that talked about one of their elders going for surgery to the US… Back to the documentary, what I took away is simply that 'this too shall pass' -- Ricard does his best to enjoy the moments that life offers, and to treat people with compassion.


The Guy by the River

I was watching a mix of Louis C.K. standup when I heard this half-finished joke from him, which I found really interesting: “A lion is chatting with a giraffe and asks: do you know this guy who camps by the river and always does 'haaaaaaa!!!', screaming and waiving his arms?”.

Take your time.

The same day, I was watching Jumanji when I was told 'Oh, Jumanji? It's really scary!'. I thought: the guy by the river!

This might not be the best joke for laughing out loud, but in terms of realizing one’s perspective is not yours, it does a great job. It’s also a form of thought experiment akin to ‘What is it like to be a bat’ — maybe Louis C.K. will get credit in philosophy and consciousness studies in due time!

Active Optimism / Active Pessimism

Side note: I was having lunch and presenting my concept of ‘active pessimism’ to my lunch partner, when a woman with a teenage boy at the next table asked me if I could explain it again, as the boy wanted to know what I meant…

Victor Frankl of ‘Man's Search for Meaning’ fame argues that those who had a goal / mission / meaning in their life survived WWII nazi camps better. I’ll argue that those I call ‘active pessismists’ left the country and avoided them altogether. If you’re a frog in a pot, when is the right time to jump? A friend of mine is, I think, a master of it: he bought put options when I heard of Covid, and moved from NYC when lockdown was looming. Limited costs, asymmetrical results. If you can’t be like them, bet on people like this :)

Praising Wrong

I suppose many are now familiar with the idea of fixed mindset vs. growth mindset. I was stuck with a fixed mindset until around age 25, partly because I initially did well in school and was praised as ‘smart’ — I (mostly) didn’t push hard for what came easy, and (mostly) gave up on what didn’t. Fortunately I changed later. I was again reminded of this mental trap when on an artist's Twitter I came across comments of "You're so gifted / You're so talented / You're a natural". Those nice people who intend to praise end up dismissing the long efforts of their praisee. Maybe try ‘I love it’ or 'you must have put in a lot of effort' next time?

Sorry to be Sorry

I was on a lake doing some leisurely Monet-like rowing when another rower appeared on a trajectory crossing mine. I slowed down but he kept going and our boats bumped. I guess I was waiting for a polite apology, but this other rower wasn’t much of an apologist, and only a silence ensued… until I heard myself say ‘sorry’ to fill the blank. I remember reading a non-fiction book called ‘Self-Made Man’, in which a lesbian woman decides to live disguised as a man for a year. What she discovers is an unexpected mix of camaraderie (the bowling league), violence (intimidation in bars) and more. It dawns on her that, while general safety is a concern for women, there is rarely this danger of violent escalation in a social interaction. For men, it’s probably always present in the background. Yet, while on that sunny day it surely wasn’t worth an oar joust, I was sorry I said sorry.

Sorry and Sore

According to Wikipedia, Singapore has not signed or ratified a number of international human rights treaties which prohibit the use of corporal punishment. So on the sorry front, if you ever find yourself sentenced to caning in Singapore (only male convicts under the age of 50 — so much for sexism and ageism), it will likely be of little comfort to know that the officers in charge are trained… “to use their entire body weight as the power behind every stroke”.

Tapping Late Bloomers

If you’ve read Gladwell’s Outliers, you might recall that NHL hockey players were mostly born in the first half of the year. Gladwell made the case that much potential was wasted due to the drafting method. Interestingly, the street basketball entertainer known as the Professor said he wasn’t drafted because he was a late bloomer. If this is true for athletics, it probably applies even more to fields where knowledge matters. And despite the tech industry’s apparent worshipping of youth, the average unicorn founder started their company at 34 (note: it might not have been their first).


Covid Shrink

Covid has affected mental health and, I heard, also shrinks clothes!

Yearly Plan

The efficacy of vaccines and hope for ‘herd immunity’ came into question as Iceland (77% vaccinated) and Israel (62%) had new peaks. While vaccines might turn into a yearly subscription, it is surprising that so little emphasis seems to be put on treatments. From big pharma's perspective, the worse would certainly be an efficient and generic treatment.

Obedience to Authority

What convinced you to get vaccinated? And if you’re not, what would be your threshold? Science and politics aside, I am following the escalation in both rhetoric and coercion around vaccines. It reminded me of Milgram’s experiment. More precisely, of an adaptation of Milgram’s concept that was filmed as a fake game show for French TV about 10 years ago (the first 35min). They had designed a series of arguments for the host to overcome the hesitancy of participants, from “don’t worry, just continue”, “it’s the rule” to “it’s under our responsibility”, and the most ironic one (when the victim becomes unresponsive): “he will thank you when you both win”. In Milgram’s experiment, 62.5% of participants went ‘all the way’. In the French game show, 80% out of 80 participants. Only one convinced the (fake!) audience to stop the shooting.

Proxy Passport

Covid passports have turned restaurants, gyms and cinemas into government informants. As it's sometimes fun to ask for unreasonable things, (I’ve heard this called 'rejection therapy'), I offered to show a movie ticket instead of the QR code. It worked (they didn’t event check the crumbly piece of paper).

That’s all for now. See you at the Summit!
— Ben

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