#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

#51 | Climate Tech, Sphynxes, Teaching Deep Tech, Boyz I & II, Asking Good Questions

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

April became August and stories piled up. No mask outside this month, I hope reopening is going well for you!


1. WORK: Climate Tech
2. STUDY: Coding, BJJ, Chess
3. EXPERIENCES: Teaching Deep Tech Ventures, Sphynxes, Kapital game
4. CULTURE: Boyz I & II, French Tech, Indie Stuff
5. THOUGHTS: How Wrong? Good Questions, Playing With Kids
6. COVID LIFE: Risk Factors, Sweden, French Revolution


Climate Tech

We put some order into the SOSV portfolio and published the list of our top 100 Climate Tech startups, which was covered by Techcrunch, and ran additional analysis on their investors and founders (40% co-founded by women, and 40% have a PhD co-founder). We’re now planning an event on the topic!

Select Fund & Unicorns

We raised a $100M follow-on fund to follow-on in our top startups (we reached our hard cap). We also had our fourth unicorn: NotCo (AI-powered plant-based food). It is the first coming from our IndieBio startup development program for life sciences. It joined the 3 existing ones: Getaround (car sharing), Formlabs (3d printing), BitMex (crypto exchange). More to come!


Climate & Energy

As we’re doubling down on Climate Tech, I took some online courses and did further reading (including Bill Gates’s book), here are some takeaways:

  1. The Kaya Identity describes the link between emissions, population, GDP, energy intensity of GDP, and emissions per unit of energy: CO2e = Population x (GDP/Pop) x (Energy/GDP) x (CO2e/Energy). Can we decouple energy use and GDP, or achieve lower emissions per unit of energy? If not, something gotta give!

  2. Transportation: all-electric works as long as the energy source is clean. Long-distance might be solved with hydrogen. Critical materials is another topic.

  3. Energy: the global emissions problem is half-solved if we can get clean electricity at scale.

  4. Solar and Wind are not well suited to all geographies and need storage, which makes them more expensive. They also take space and require critical materials.

  5. Hydro and geothermal are great, but not everyone can be Norway or Iceland. Most hydro in developed countries is already in use.

  6. Nuclear is low-carbon, low land use, but it has risks and bad press.

  7. Energy storage is not cheap. Most batteries need critical materials, pumped hydro needs height and water. Storage with hydrogen using hydrolysis is an option, and Japan seems keen on it.

  8. Meat (especially beef) is a problem due to animal emissions and land use (including crops for animals, and fertilizers for those crops).

  9. Future proteins might come from plants, fungi, algae, insects, and modified yeast and bacteria (note: our program IndieBio has many investments in this space). The point is to make it as tasty and as cheap as meat.

  10. Buildings: insulation and heat pumps could make them more efficient.

  11. Building materials like steel and concrete are another issue.

A few more notes:

  • The world was 100% renewable / sustainable until deforestation and the first industrial revolution, when denser energy was found with coal, then oil. It was also much less comfortable (just remove all the machines).

  • Without strong energy sources and machines, we can’t even make a toast (try to reach 700W on your Peloton).

  • As the energy expert Jean-Marc Jancovici says ‘we’re all Iron Man’, thanks to machines working for us, equivalent to hundreds of 'energy servants’ (an American consumes the equivalent of a constant 10kWh - a human can produce sustainably about 100Wh of work).

  • This Carbon Removal game was educative (h/t Cassandra Xia).


I continued my Python studies with courses in Natural Language Processing and Computer Vision (the rabbit hole is deep). One personal project involved scraping and automation, for which I looked for advice on Upwork. Capable developers can be found at $10 per hour! Accessing fast and affordable feedback is likely the future of online learning.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Regular training has resumed but - no surprise there - I have a hard times applying the techniques I didn’t pressure-test. I feel I’m at a plateau, which is frustrating. Let’s see if it all comes together in the coming weeks.


I peaked on Lichess at 1879 in rapid games (2x10min). This level still seems mostly about avoiding obvious mistakes. I also felt weaknesses in my knowledge of openings, and now considering looking online for coaching (maybe Upwork?). Meanwhile, I am solving chess puzzles to improve on tactics (I peaked around 1950, hoping to break 2000).


After joining sessions over a few weeks, I walked away and I am back to podcasts.


Deep Tech Ventures Course

I taught a 15-hours course on Deep Tech Ventures to masters students in engineering at Zhejiang University (#4 in China — thanks AH!).

With the advice of friends, I included some staples like classic Steve Blank, group activities, guest speakers, and created original sections on ideation and why startups fail. Ideation is not the concern of investors (they mostly select ideas) and founders often do it haphazardly.

The course worked out pretty well with high NPS, though I wish I had learned about best practices of ‘cohort based courses’ beforehand. I might teach it again next year (or earlier if I get the chance). As a side note, demands for online talks is picking up, at both conferences and corporate events.

Sphynxes & New Cat

I took care of two Sphynx cats for over a week. Those hairless cats cost as much as an iMac! The design is not by Apple, though, and they apparently startle other cats (and humans when they crawl up on you). They were very social (too much?) and loved blankets (remember: no hair). It was also an opportunity to watch Gremlins again, but I found the movie didn’t age well (or maybe I didn’t?). I have my own cat now (not a Sphynx), currently trying to train her for walks.

Bossons Glacier

This glacier in the Alps used to lick the road in the valley. Not anymore: you have to hike half way up the mountain to reach it. An Indian plane crashed nearby in 1950, killing all passengers and the 200 monkeys headed for lab work. Some monkeys actually survived the crash and wandered around, but froze quickly. Plane parts, bodies and items are found from time to time when the ice melts. An eponymous movie was made using the crash as a back story.


What if sociologists specialized in the study of the ultra-rich made a board game? Kapital pits ‘dominated’ players against a single ‘dominant’. The game is 90% luck as you draw event cards leading to changes in your financial, social, symbolic and cultural capital.

  • Your daughter got into Harvard? That must be a card from the ‘dominant’ pile! You gain social and symbolic capital.

  • You sold a startup? Not bad for a ‘dominated’ but it only increased your financial capital. Wait until your car breaks down, or your next job is outsourced.

The message is pretty clear, but entertaining to show to friends. As a ‘dominated’ player, you might still win thanks to a social movement.


The son of the friend who asked me to help him write a personal statement got into Stanford! He was super impressive to begin with, but some families are able to pay for extra help (he also had a consultant help him with essays).

Across the pond, China is cracking down on cram schools, trying to grow its birthrate by lowering the cost and pressure of raising children. While lowering the social pressure, it might also make social mobility harder for the middle class.

Lille & Outsider Art

I went to visit Lille, a small town in the North of France, birthplace of the Paul bakery and the merveilleux meringue cake. Coal made it a powerful textile town, until both ran out (here is a song about it).

The city has a large museum of outsider art (‘art brut’ — artists not classically trained) with works donated by a former textile family which included art collectors. I like art brut and saw a few of those over the years in Paris, Baltimore (‘visionary art’ — including by inmates and mental ward patients) and even Japanese (several of which started after the nuclear bombings). As always, the quality was uneven but the intention genuine. The museum also had some modern and cubist art.


This practice, that falls somewhere between massage, kinesiotherapy and physical therapy, took a while to gain recognition in France. I had never tried it until I found this training school next door with very cheap prices. I was in pretty good shape and it felt pretty useless, but as I related this experience to a friend, he turned out to be a massive convert: he told me that he once had excruciating head pain that no other treatment could solve. His therapist fixed it painlessly. Who knew?


Movies & Video

South Korean immigrants to the US try to survive in rural America in the 80’s. I found the movie quite touching, and always enjoy dusting off my Korean :)

The Freedom Writers****
The true story of a teacher who turns her high-school English class for at-risk students into a supportive community. Good feels. Also shows how hard work, trust, and belief in people’s potential can outplay social determinism. One could argue that it’s yet another stereotypical and isolated ‘white savior’, that ‘the system needs to change’, but in the meantime — like the wanderer throwing back starfishes into the sea — it made a difference to those ones!

Boyz in the Hood****
I watched it a while ago but it was quoted in Freedom Writers, in a scene where the teacher tries to make students relate to each other. Great storyline and acting, also an example of social determinism.

Adapted from a manga, this Japanese indie hand-drawn animation by a solo amateur animator took seven years to complete, using rotoscoping. It’s a kind of ‘outsider art’. The topic (a rock band by high school misfits with no musical training) echoes the craft, celebrating the true ‘amateur’.

This Japanese movie was a bizarre experience despite the simple story: a man shows up at the house of a printing shop’s owner, and wiggles his way into the business and the life of the family. You might think “Parasite” but no: it’s pretty low budget, the acting is uneven, but what sets it apart is that the ending is very odd, in a surrealist kind of way (but not with an over-the-top stylistic change half-way like in Parasite). I gave it an extra star post-screening.

French Tech*** (‘Les Deux Alfred’)
On the surface, a comedy about an aging father-of-two joining a hip French startup with a ‘no child’ policy. Below it, a criticism of the ‘uberization’ of society, like Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, with humorous pokes at high tech stuff. And below that, a kind of poetic fairy tale, with a rather unlikely fairy.

Malabar Princess***
A cute French movie about a young boy looking for his mountaineering mom, who died in the Bossons glacier, while looking for the plane.

I had high expectations for this movie sequel of the famed (French) Arthurian-themed comedic TV series (short episodes, in French, here — they are so busy with daily life that they never seem to look for the Grail). The director, Alexandre Astier, directs, acts and even scored the (epic & medieval) music. While the acting and production are very good, I found the storyline a bit so-so.

Upon reading about Astier’s background, I found out that he comes from a family of comedians of Protestant origin (a minority in France). His parents and several of his seven children are in the show. Last, his life as a writer was transformed following a course he took in 2003 with Christopher Volger, author of the ‘Writer’s Journey’ (inspired by Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”).

Bye Bye Morons**
A French ‘Brazil’ (as in Terry Gilliam’s) in modern days, with low budget. A burnt-out sys admin (who wants to die) meets a dying hair stylist (who wants to live).

I like a lot the director/actor Albert Dupontel, but this wasn’t his best movie. His insane Bernie, funny 9 Months Stretch and beautiful See You Up There, and even the interviews I watched about the movie were better.

The Boys**
A Prime show on unscrupulous and commercial super-heroes, based on a comic book series. Reasonably entertaining, though the first few episodes suffice to get the gist.

Lower Decks**
The Infinite Frontier… But what happens after the first contact with alien civilizations? This anime is about the the lower deck crew of the spaceship making second contact (sorting out contracts, etc.).

The end of the saga of the train that circumnavigates our future frozen Earth. Not groundbreaking but pretty good acting and interesting blend of sets and CG (external views are almost all CG).

La Cite de la Peur*
A humor movie by a French TV comedy trio. It was a cult movie in my youth but I found it didn’t age well.

About once every two years I leave half-way through a movie. This was the one for 2021. I am no fan of musicals to start with, but in addition to the poor singing, I couldn’t stand the story and text. I felt better as soon as I got out, and waited playing chess.


Meat The Future*** / Seaspiracy** / Cowspiracy**
The latter two are activism documentary pieces on our food system, and visible on Netflix. Their message is ‘eating meat and fish is killing our planet’, and point at plant-based solutions. The bias is pretty obvious but fit their purpose.

The former, Meat The Future, is a more serious documentary coming out soon, and is centered on Uma Valeti, a cardiologist and founder of a pioneering cell-cultured meat startup named Upside Foods (fka Memphis Meats, in which SOSV was the first investor). It makes a hopeful case on how biology could bring us meat without animals.

Operation Varsity Blues**
Fun to watch on Netflix after playing Kapital. Dominant classes know what a good investment looks like. Except this one was illegal.


How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, by Bill Gates***
A good primer on the 5 big greenhouse gases emissions culprits: energy, food & ag, industry, transport, and buildings. It’s an easy read and much more digestible than those of Vaclav Smil, that Bill likes — I also noted the Eddie Izzard bio on the book pile :)

How to Live, by Derek Sivers****
I first met Derek, a tech entrepreneur turned writer about a decade ago in Singapore. I remember he insisted on meeting people one-on-one to be able to dedicate all his attention. This book is another result of his continuous thoughtful approach. He detailed 27 approaches to living life, from “Make memories” to “Live for others”. I recognized some phases of my life in there, and might switch strategies again in the future.

Blue: The History of a Color***
How did blue become the most popular color in the Western world? How does it relate to other colors? What are the economics, the materials, the symbolic values? An interesting story.


The Relativity of Wrong

A valuable essay by Isaac Asimov on how ‘wrong’ is relative. Science progresses by proving previous science incomplete. And each application requires a particular level of precision. For instance:

  • The Earth is not flat as it has a curvature of 8 inches per mile (40cm per km),

  • But it is not a perfect sphere either due to flatness at the poles.

  • It is also not a perfect "oblate spheroid” as the difference between the longest and shortest diameter is 44 kilometers, about 0.33%).

  • Yet, it won’t be a cube or donut next. Things get finer.

He takes this idea to other areas of knowledge, explaining how science is often ‘enough’ for the purpose of its times, and improves in locksteps with instruments.

Asking Good Questions

Tim Hanson worked for over a decade at Motley Fool, including with Morgan Housel (now at Collaborative Fund, and author of the great The Psychology of Money). I’m not sure how I stumbled upon this one but his post ‘Questions that Matter’ was great. Tim explains how, as a financial analyst, he would often — like his peers — ask detailed questions to sound smart and hard working, but whose answers were inconsequential. Basic, short, important questions mattered more. Read also on being robbed in Paris and the Science of Losing.

Playing Handicap

One of my nephews likes chess. He’s a total beginner with no training, and has (had?) inflated views on his level. I first thought of going easy on him. Then I realized that (1) it amounted to lying (2) it might undermine his actual progress (3) it might lower his respect for his uncle’s chess abilities ;p

After destroying him during a first game, I felt it wasn’t that fun for either player. So we played again and - in a risky flex - I removed my queen. The game became much more interesting, and he had a fighting chance (he lost). But I think the real victory was after the match, when he asked about openings for the first time. He realized superior tactics required study, and started moving from a ‘fixed mindset’ (= ‘natural talent’) to a ‘growth mindset’.

Third Eye

In the ‘things hidden in plain sight’ category, I just learned that some fish, amphibian and reptiles have a proto-eye on the top of the head called a parietal eye. It can distinguish light and shadow, such as caused by a predator. How convenient!


Causation, Correlation…

Obesity and Covid: I came across this stat that 77% of hospitalized Covid patients were overweight (>25% BMI) or obese (>30% BMI), suggesting a direct link. Now:

Causality is questionable. More interestingly, extra weight is associated with education and income levels. In short, Covid affects the poor more.

French Revolution

Over 200,000 people protested against the ‘Covid pass’ in France last week. The government is offering a coercive choice between getting vaccinated and social isolation (or frequent tests). No dining, movies, gym, or long-distance transportation without it. I doubt the government will back down, as those protests bring only little disruption, and over half the population is already vaccinated and cast as implicit supporters. I noticed several mainstream media were conveniently picking what looked like isolated incidents to associate the entire movement with unsavory groups. Old tactics keep working.


As new variants spread, and challenge the efficacy of the first wave of vaccines, it looks like we’ll be long for both Covid and ‘Covid passports’. I suspect At least many countries now have their act together in terms of detection, early treatment and ICU support.

Covid Finance

The stocks who benefited from Covid are pretty expensive today. I’ve been looking for ‘unfairly punished’ and ‘reopening’ companies, but the reopening is dragging… We’ll see in 6 to 12 months time how this turns out.

Social Hack

A passing thought I had during lockdown: carrying a Deliveroo bag or wearing a Pfizer jacket as ‘Covid pass’.

Adults in the Room?

Sweden didn’t rely on lockdowns and was harshly criticized. If you look at deaths per million, however, US is 1.87, France is 1.63 and Sweden 1.43 — within the ‘better half’ in Europe. Population density is a huge factor in contagion, but while other Nordic countries did better, it’s still remarkable. East Asia’s results are also astonishing. Maybe one day we’ll understand all of this. Here is a worldwide analysis by Oxford University on the effectiveness of policies (and another on ‘pandemic policy fatigue’). No silver bullet, I’m afraid.

That’s all for now!

— Ben

#50 | Back to Work, Chess, Clubhouse, Comedy, Stats, Sewage and Stocks

Ben’s irregular newsletter mixes work and play.
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3 months since the last letter - how time flies! Also it’s #50 which made me dig out the first one from June 2014 (scroll all the way down here). Anyhow, here are my news:


1. WORK: Back to work
2. STUDY: Coding, Clubhouse gear, BJJ, Chess
3. EXPERIENCES: Ikebana & more gardening
4. CULTURE: In Treatment, Fleabag,
5. THOUGHTS: Things around science
6. COVID LIFE: Stats, Sewage, Stocks


No Startup

My 3 months break during which I joined the Entrepreneur First program ended without a startup project. It was a very stimulating experience but falling in love with both a long-term (viable) idea and a co-founder in 3 months is not easy.

Participants coming from research were looking for a viable market, while those coming from software and business had almost ‘too many options’, and ideation was a challenge. I also wish I had been a bit more systematic in ideation, so I eventually looked deeper into it and wrote — a bit too late — How To Find Startup Ideas. Eventually, one third of the participants ended up getting their project funded by EF. Best wishes to them!

Back to work

After this break, I am back at SOSV. The pandemic has been difficult for many startups, but several in biotech, robotics, e-commerce and edtech have been thriving. I am now working on internal systems, marketing, PR, networks and more with Ned Desmond, who joined SOSV after many years as COO of TechCrunch.

I also put some of my coding study to good use and built an internal tool that will help with our PR efforts. Funny enough, I thought about using Python but eventually it runs entirely on Google Sheets thanks to its scraping functions. The fund had some great news in its bio, automation, edtech, e-commerce and blockchain/crypto portfolio.

We’re on Clubhouse

Look for ‘SOSV Startup Forum’ — our bio and Asia teams are already running weekly events. I might run some events soon too (follow me: @benjoffe).


Data Loves Comedy

I’ve been studyingPython on and off since last summer and got curious about text processing. As an exercise I picked one of my favorite standup routines, the ‘State Abbreviations’ by Gary Gulman to see whether I could figure out something from it. Here is the resulting medium post. I tweeted it to the author, who had nice comments and even retweeted it. The folks at The Startup (apparently the largest medium publication I never heard of) republished it.

Clubhouse gear

I’ve been playing a bit with the latest Silicon Valley media app darling.

I came across conference-worthy talks, and some on the niche-est of topics. It’s like the indie radio era on overdrive, with social and access on top.

  • I had to get an iPhone to join and picked a refurb SE 2000 which did the job.

  • To play further, I heard the new Apple M1 chip was able to run iOS apps, so I got myself a Mac Mini (and bought some Apple stock after hearing a data center CEO saying — on Clubhouse — they bought hundreds due to their low heat and power usage). Sadly, Clubhouse doesn’t run fully on the M1 (you can’t search clubs or enter rooms), but it was still useful to experiment.

  • I kept the Mini for coding, which lead to finally getting a proper screen (a basic curved Samsung, as Xiaomi’s sexy gamer screen was sold out).

  • I got also a Logitech keyboard and mouse (the M570 trackball — update of a mouse I used 20 years ago — it takes very little desk space as you don’t need to move it around. No good for gamers, though)

  • …Then I got chair envy from a friend and ordered a SecretLab gamer chair (I’m no gamer).

This is how you end up spending $2k just because you’re curious about something…

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

With gyms closed nationwide I now take private lessons and practice with friends at home, which is great for fitness, fun and sanity. The ‘closed guard’ system from Danaher videos is finally starting to come together. Beware the pendulum sweep and the top lock!


Watching “The Queen’s Gambit” reminded me I used to play chess in a club as a teen and led me to try the Lichess app.

  • It was a humbling experience: the app gives you the benefit of doubt with a 1500 rating initially (the lowest is 600, highest around 2800, average 1550).

  • I started playing 5-min ‘blitz’ and quickly dropped below 1000 (!). Now I’m crawling back up to 1400. I guess I just wasn’t that good? (update: I do much better in 10-min ‘rapid’ and I am close to 1700 in that style — maybe I am just slow…).

  • One interesting idea that came out of now close to 1,000 games played is that action brings luck. A half-planned but sustained attack can uncover new opportunities. I think this also applies well to Jiu-Jitsu and startups: trying leads to either success or learning, and more confidence in trying more.



What to do when most everything is closed during lockdown? How about an ikebana class with your local Japanese florist?

90 minutes learning about the proportions you need between the three main branches (shin, soe and tai) in this particular style (shajitsu moribana) and the balance and angle of the flowers and leaves (balance the ashirai with mikoshi but don’t do shitakusa because that just looks bad — noob mistake). You even get to take them home!

The live flowers have now made space for dry things and there was a notable drift in the rules, but the spirit is there.

More Happy Gardening

There was suspicious white dust on my new screen. The Xiaomi air purifier was indicating an alarming 400+ in air quality (zero is best, >100 is not good). Had someone smuggled in some 2008 Beijing air?

  • It took me a while to connect the dots: we have plants at home, and some are not happy as the air is too dry, so I bought the Xiaomi humidifier which vaporizes the water filled in.

  • We use tap water, which is said to be pretty ‘hard’ in Paris (>15°f), between 20 and 30°f, where 1 °f (degré français) corresponds to 10 mg of calcium per liter (in fact, CaCO3). The brave humidifier vaporizes the calcium with the water, which then floats in the air, settles on my screen and likely in my lungs, too.

  • So a battle started between the silent poison of the humidifier, and the air purifier on full blast.

  • Because of the noise I have to use headphones, and end up speaking quite loudly, which is not to everyone’s liking.

  • Eventually I had to have the appliances come to an agreement: the humidifier is now on only intermittently, and only in tandem with the purifier, ideally with windows open. I wanted to organize this mess but Xiaomi doesn’t have documented APIs for their devices… Update: I just found this open source Python library and might try it.


Movies & Video

In Treatment****
This is a show about psychotherapy: we follow several patients during their sessions with one analyst. The original version came out in Israel in 2005, the US did a local version in 2008, and I watched the French version (‘En Therapie’) that just came out in 2021. France is often a bit behind…

The sessions gradually peel the onions of why people behave the way they do, helping them recognize and solve some issues. While it goes much faster and the analyst talks much more than in real life (it’s TV), the method is quite faithful and might help your own thinking. I might watch the US version later on (and maybe the Israeli one?).

Fleabag (Amazon Prime series)****
A 30y.o. woman and her dysfunctional life, family and relationships. As if Tim from The Office (UK) and Carrie from Sex & The City had a millennial baby girl. If your life is difficult right now, it might help you feel better. The show was originally a one-woman standup show.

Buster Keaton movies****
All his pre-1925 movies are now in the public domain. I was impressed by the camera work, and the physical prowess and creativity of his stunts in The General, Sherlock Jr.and One Week. Jackie Chan mentioned him as a major inspiration. Here is an additional interesting interview.

Seinfeld*** on Amazon Prime
I finally watched a good chunk of this famous 90’s show. While entertaining, I am still partial to Curb, by Seinfeld’s co-author Larry David.

Sherlock (Netflix series)***
I watched distractedly but it was well produced and acted by Tim/Bilbo as Watson and Turing/Smaug/Cummings as Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch apparently struggled with the pace and memorization of his Sherlock character). The editing is trying to reflect Sherlock’s mind — don’t watch if you’re prone to epilepsy! Note that the ‘memory palace’ is a well documented memorization method that a journalist tried for himself and won the US memory championship.

Don Hertzfeldt***
Don is the man if you’re looking for something indie and very strange in animation. interesting works. I bought his 3 shorts on Vimeo that talk about weird time travel (a bit a la Dark). Another is David O’Reilly (check his free works Please Say Something and The External World), who worked on the video game sequence in Her.

The Imitation Game***
Alan Turing and his friends make a machine to break German codes. The movie covers Turing’s demise due to his homosexuality, illegal at the time in the UK. Overall it was good but all fairly predictable. The contribution of Polish code-breakers was mostly ignored and made Poland angry. If you like genius stories check out A Beautiful Mind or Good Will Hunting.

The Great Hack (Netflix documentary)**
I heard of this documentary about Cambridge Analytica on a podcast with the French AI scientist Luc Julia, co-inventor of Siri, talking about the number of data points that will have on any teenager by the time they reach adulthood. The documentary focuses on two defectors / whistleblowers, and a professor who requested (unsuccessfully) to retrieve his personal data. Are we ‘persuadables’?

It strongly reminded me of the (even more impressive) ‘How to start a revolutiondocumentary on the ‘nonviolent revolution’ expert Gene Sharp. His methods have been used globally to overthrow governments (in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and more) and generally serve the Western/US agenda.

Fun fact: Gene Sharp was nominated 4 times for a Nobel Peace Prize, and while a favorite (?), he lost in 2012 to the European Union (!). Of course there are hundreds of nominees each year (see nomination process), and the lists include Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Michael Jackson. Some members of the European Parliament suggested Donald Trump for 2021, with an interesting list of reasons. The committee will decide!

Hold Up** on Netflix
This indie and crowdfunded French documentary was made to reveal the lies and corruption around Covid and recorded several million views within a few weeks. Their channel has now been removed by YouTube. The research and experts were very hit or miss. Still, I think ‘light is the best disinfectant’.

Coach Carter** on Netflix
The eternal story of a ragtag team of misfits and ne’er-do-wells that rise to glory thanks to a tough coach (is it one of the ‘Hero[es] with a Thousand Faces’?). It worked well enough, once again.

Snowpiercer Season 2** (note: it’s still frozen) on Netflix
I’m still watching this dystopian series about the remaining humans stuck on a 1000-cars train in a sub-zero world. I am yet to read the French 80’s graphic novel it’s based upon.

Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online**
Another scifi-ish thing, this time about immersive VR games. I thought ‘Ready Player One’ was a bit simplistic, this Japanese anime’s setting is a bit better: Sword Art Online was an immersive VR game connected to your brain but the creator got crazy and locked everyone in the game, killing thousands IRL as they were dying in the game.

This sequel is about an unusually tall girl who looks for self-acceptance in VR playing a tiny and cute character, but ends up accidentally joining a massive Battle Royale game and becoming one of the top players. The show is ok but doesn’t go as far as Denno Coil (about AR) and Summer Wars (the better ‘Ready Player One’).


Cop** (French: Flic)
An undercover journalist became an official ‘assistant policeman’ after only 3 months of training. The ‘regular’ French police training used to be 12 months, but is down to 8 since June 2020 due to the lack of candidates. The duration varies around the world: 10 to 36 weeks in the US vs. 3 years in Finland and Norway (equivalent to a bachelor degree).

The author had done previous undercover investigations as a factory worker, a call center staff, etc. This case took him 2 years. A lawyer friend told me he now uses the book as evidence of cover-ups of police brutality. The book also shows the sense of meaninglessness due to arrests that don’t get prosecuted, the lack of recognition (both symbolic and financial), public hostility, and the necessity to display a macho strength. All recipe for systemic disaster.

In that environment it is no surprise that a recent bill trying to outlaw people recording of police officers caused a public outcry and was dropped by the senate. If anything, more transparency is needed to rebuild trust. And better and longer training, rather than rush more underprepared officers onto the streets.


Yann Le Cun Talk

Another French A.I. luminary, this Chief AI Scientist at Facebook, gave a talk on AI history. Most went over my head but I took note of a few things:

  • "Building your own tools can give you superpowers that other people don't have". One reason pioneers made progress was because they built tools. Open sourcing helps a lot now.

  • Some research themes are in fashion and some are not: when he got interested as a student in neural networks, he couldn’t find anyone to fund his thesis. Eventually his professor told him ‘I’ll sign but you’re on your own’. The next decades were also on and off with a 'neural net winter' in the late 90’s. I saw parallels with the ‘financing risk’ of startups: even great teams with great tech targeting great markets can get the cold shoulder from investors.

  • One anecdote: the French aviation pioneer Clement Ader, whose ‘Eole’ bat-inspired airplane flew in 1897, years before Wright brothers. Le Cun says it didn’t get recognized due to his high secrecy, and didn’t improve as he was ‘hypnotized by biology’ (bats with folding wings). This online discussion has additional elements and labels the Wright Brothers as ‘the first patent trolls in the history of aviation’.

On Science

This Le Cun conference triggered additional thoughts about ‘Science’. Today it is invoked almost like a magical word, sometimes with little substance. It also has religious aspects with its politically-approved priests, heretics and blasphemy.

In addition, it is one of those words, that looked upon closely, is not quite so clear: what is science? Theory? Experiments? Le Cun described the interplay between theory and empiricism (observation) and how you need both. More, what makes a science ‘soft’ or ‘hard’? Upon reflexion, I think it’s testability and repeatability (which social sciences, for instance, have trouble with, but also geology, etc.), but also time frames: the lifespan of a trend, a human, the Earth and our galaxy are quite different.


On the topic of science, the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to two women (including a French) who discovered ‘one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors’. It is truly a remarkable discovery, and they very much deserved this prize. There has been almost as many women awarded in the past 20 years (2001-2020: 28) as in the past century (1901-2000: 30) — Chemistry: 6, Physics: 4, Medicine: 13, Literature: 16, Peace: 17, Economics: 2. Surely many more to come!


Data Loves Covid

After a friend criticized my ‘back of the envelope’ calculation of Covid impact on annual deaths, I did a more detailed statistical research in this medium post to quantify how many excess deaths could be attributed to Covid (in France). In short: it’s noticeable but not huge (two standard deviations above a model of the past 15 years), and might balance out in future years due to a ‘harvest effect’. This article was picked up by a data science focused Medium publication.

Sewage Wisdom

Paris firefighters were able to track the progress of Covid by measuring its concentration in sewage water. It’s low cost, reliable and can act as an early detection system (as long as it doesn’t rain too much). The half-life of the virus there can be 20 days at 4C, and 1-2 days at summer temperatures. Luckily, the virus is too diluted in sewage to be contaminating.

The first info on this in France was available as a pre-print back in April. This article quoted similar research done in China months earlier, and even for SARS back in 2005! I find remarkable that ‘pre-prints’ might accelerate research (and increase scrutiny). This measurement in particular was quite reliable, with no apparent bias, conflict of interest, or misalignment (aside from seeking attention). Maybe another area the Internet might change.

Last, maybe some sewage samples could help identify the origin of Covid-19—even the WHO is not sure it started in Wuhan, and it could well be that, like the Spanish Flu, China was simply the first one to report it. Will they find — I quote — a ‘smoking bat’?

Are Policies Effective?

  • This Stanford research paper analyzed the effect of stay-at-home and lockdowns on early contaminations in the US. While those contributed somewhat to the reduction, the most effective predictor is (unsurprisingly?) population size and density, which induce higher social distancing. Note: of course all this goes hand in hand with broad testing.

  • Sometimes it feels like governments are a bit like goalkeepers who, despite having a statistically higher chance to stop the ball during a penalty kick by not diving, feel compelled to pick a side (as they would feel worse missing if they didn’t jump). This concept might apply to stock trading too (‘investments do better than investors’), but how many of us can sit on their hands in good and bad times?

  • Also, a study in Denmark with 6,000 participants, only half of which wore masks, showed no significant difference in the infection rate.

  • It seems lots of contaminations happen at home (only critical cases end up in true isolation or in hospitals). Does confinement make sense then?

Final thoughts

  • I used to travel a whole lot and I feel I’m getting ‘cabin fever’.

  • Data seems to indicate people below 60yo are at very low risk (<5% of total deaths in France).

  • Figuring who died primarily of Covid is not easy: underlying conditions and incentives to over-report (e.g. Reuters fact check on UK numbers).

  • Some UK economics researchers did an early cross-country comparison to estimate the ‘price of life’ associated with an early or delayed lockdown. The results may surprise you.

  • Vaccines are there. The big mRNA experiment is ongoing in the West. Personally I would be more partial to a more traditional type using attenuated or inactivate forms of the virus like in some Chinese vaccines (e.g. Sinovac and Sinopharm), but geopolitics will probably prevent this choice.

  • Finally, if you have liquidities today, it might be difficult to find attractive Covid-era assets… Real estate? (maybe in ‘remote work cities’?) Stocks? (tech is very high, but some more traditional stocks might be unfairly judged — I also put some $YOLO into $GME and got out during an upswing — I can’t understand it well enough). For non-tech stocks I looked into banks, cruises (there is large pent-up demand) and some FMCG. Angel investments are also possible for the brave and patient — one of mine has been thriving during Covid but it took a global pandemic to get to this inflection point. Gold and Crypto are not quite for me yet but Elon likes some coins!

A bit more patience and we’ll be fine. Diamond hands, everyone!
— Ben

#49 | Fail Fast, Home Gym, Hacking Covid, Vaccine Stats

Ben’s irregular newsletter mixes work and play.
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Find me: Twitter - LinkedIn - Medium - Website - Podcast

France went back from curfew to lockdown. Fortunately I’m better prepared now. I hope you are too!


1. WORK: Fail Fast
2. EXPERIENCES: Home Gym, Online Heckle, Hacking Covid
3. CULTURE: ‘French for X’, Queen’s Gambit, Fighters, Crowd Science
4. THOUGHTS: Plastic, Risk Cats
5. COVID LIFE: Shopping, Stats, Vaccine


Fail Fast

As I mentioned in the previous newsletter, I took a leave of absence from SOSV to explore new things. I am currently part of the Entrepreneur First (EF) startup program in Paris. It’s been 6 weeks so far, and quite a journey.

About EF

EF calls itself a ‘talent investor’:

  • They select 50-60 participants with strong science, tech or business background.

  • For 8 weeks, they encourage them to form teams of 2 and explore opportunities. If the market is not promising or the team not productive, teams break up. To find a good idea and co-founder, most need a couple of tries.

  • At the end, EF funds the most promising teams (about 1/3 of participants get funded).

  • To me, the main advantage of EF is the selection of skilled, motivated and available people.

My Projects

  • The challenge in teaming up is to find someone with complementary skills, and think of a project combining skills, interests, with market demand. It’s not easy.

  • My initial interests were in education and ‘future of work’, but I expanded my scope based on the group.

  • My third team just broke up. Here are some quick descriptions of the projects:

(1) Compact sensors

  • I teamed up with a Post-doc in optics.

  • He created a process to curve CMOS sensors, making the systems more compact and higher quality (our eyes are curved and compact optical systems).

  • We looked into AR/VR, but volumes are still low, and good consumer AR glasses are still far away.

  • Smartphones are the Holy Grail (1.5 billion units/year with 2 to 6 cameras in each) but qualifying a new process for smartphones looked like a (very) long journey, so I decided to explore other ideas.

(2) Informal Networking solutions

  • How to create higher value from connecting with strangers? That was the second project, where I teamed up with an NLP/ML/Big Data expert.

  • We looked into how to apply Machine Learning to match people better based on their interests. We also found some existing solutions.

  • The B2C ones (e.g. Lunchclub, Shapr) were struggling with monetization and/or engagement; the B2B ones (e.g. Donut, Lead.app) couldn’t do very good matching as the pool of users and data was limited.

  • After a series of customer discovery interviews with two dozen people, including in HR, our conclusion was that the need was not so high, except maybe with the ‘social onboarding’ of new hires. We also figured our passion didn’t lie in HR solutions, and decided to let it go.

(3) [New technology]

  • One way to find opportunities is to look at technologies recently introduced, when applications are still lacking.

  • With this in mind, I teamed up with a Post-doc in sensor fusion to realize quickly that the skills needed for this project were rather… mobile app development and AR/VR or 3D gaming skills. It wasn’t a good match so we dissolved the team.

  • I am still keen on this one — even as an experiment.

(4) Next project

  • Back to the drawing board with only 10 days left!

  • I am now looking into a ‘micro-coaching’ concept. It could start fairly low tech. Otherwise maybe I’ll find a good idea here.


Home Gym

If, like me, you don’t like running, and prefer to practice a sport with others, lockdown might also be wearing you down.

  • During the previous lockdown, a friend at my jiu-jitsu dojo had converted his bedroom into a mini-gym by putting mats on the floor (3x3m). A few of us trained there. Well, I just did the same in my living room, and restarted training. It’s likely to be a booster for my well-being. I hope I don’t break anything in the house!

  • I also use some online yoga and ‘Tabata’ workouts (named after Dr. Izumi Tabata and his 1996 HIIT research, apparently for Japan’s olympic speed skating team). The latter are 4min exercise sets. It’s quite clever as the time commitment is so low that’s it’s hard to not do it, and it’s often tempting to repeat a set or add a different one (or two).

Speaking Online

  • I was invited to speak at an online event discussing the ‘third wave of deep tech innovation’ for a generalist audience (= not my usual startup/VC crowd). I had prepared all sorts of examples to surprise and delight.

  • Previous online events I spoke at were often ‘too peaceful’ and lacking in audience interaction but this session turned out the opposite: some commenters in the Zoom chat were quite negative from start and seemed only concerned about ethics, control and impact rather than discussing innovations.

  • The positive of this format is that unfiltered live comments help read a room and respond better to their interests. The negative is that a few vocal people might derail a panel.

  • I guess that’s where the art & science of moderation comes in — ideally with clear rules and technical tools (think about the difference between the first and second US presidential debate).

Hacking Covid

  • France is getting a second wave of Covid cases and has entered lockdown again. We have to produce an authorization each time we go out.

  • Normally you need to fill your details (including time and date), and either print and sign a document (pdf or docx), or do it online and download a file that includes a QR code.

  • I have a friend with 2 kids who needs at least 3 documents a day, and the police doesn’t like documents filled with pencil so you can’t re-use them.

So I found myself a fun little project with my newfound Python skills: automating authorizations. This is trivial for an experienced developer, but doing this myself was quite fun and empowering.

To make it short:

  • Editing a .pdf is not so easy, but editing a .docx is, and so is recreating a QR code for the digital version.

  • To cover the month, I now have an authorization for every hour of every day, and each of the 9 possible reasons (shopping, exercising, etc.). That’s about 6,500 versions.

  • Next step: putting it online with Heroku, Flask and Github (thanks to B. for his support and guidance!).



David Attenborough: Our Planet***
If you like spectacular images to take your mind away from lockdown, you’re in for a treat. I didn’t watch all the episodes but was awed by the Forest one (with the hornbills, caterpillars), and the mating dances of various birds.

Something’s Gotta Give****
I re-watched this very cute romantic comedy starring two single seniors — and one of Diane Keaton’s best performances.

Merci patron ! (Thanks, Boss!)***
Francois Ruffin is France’s Michael Moore: an investigative journalist, activist and now even a member of parliament. This movie shows how he helped a couple, both Kenzo/LVMH factory workers, who were laid off when their jobs were relocated to Poland. Ruffin buys shares in LVMH to disrupt the shareholders meeting, then obtains a settlement and a job for the couple.

Adieu Les Cons (Farewell, Assholes) [unrated]
I like the director Albert Dupontel a lot, and watched interviews for twice the length of the film … then France went into lockdown before I could watch the actual movie! (apparently, it’s a story of a burn-out gone wild)

Dupontel is a bit unusual as he studied medicine, then went into standup comedy before switching to movies. He is not well-known outside France but worth watching. His stories remind me of Terry Gilliam for the surrealism (Brazil / Meaning of Life) and Ken Loach for the realism and caring about the working class (e.g. Sorry we missed you). I also recommend Dupontel’s older Bernie and See You Up There.

The Social Dilemma**(*)
This documentary talks about the risks of social media echo chambers, algorithms, manipulation and more. Due to my high exposure to the topic in recent years I didn’t feel I learned a whole lot but it’s probably worth watching. I also found ironical that Netflix (the producer) is not even mentioned in it…

The core of the problem is that tens (hundreds?) of billions are spent every year on very capable people to create and improve those ‘addictive technologies’, while our psychology and biology hasn’t evolved an immune system for this. And regulation is always a few steps behind (like with novel financial products — remember 2008).

Since the forces at play overwhelm us most of the time, the only refuge might be to use our rare moments of clarity to distantiate ourselves from the sources: modify our personal environment to make the undesirable behaviors difficult. Until a better solution arises?


Queen’s Gambit***
A well-produced show about the rise of a young female chess champion during the cold war. I used to play chess and had some interest in the topic, but the show focuses on the mindsets of the characters rather than the game itself. It also delivers its feminist message efficiently.

Out of curiosity, I looked a bit into the history of women in chess. The Guardian reported an analysis of how statistical distribution could explain the prevalence of men in competitive chess.

  • There are about 800 million players worldwide of all genders, and only about 1,300 grandmasters. One study reported a 16:1 male to female player ratio in one country as an example.

  • The most recent figure I could find is that women represented about 2% of grandmasters in 2010 (all-gender GMs, not ‘Women Grand Masters’) and the top female player today is a Chinese ranked #88.

  • The Guardian talks about promoting more female role models — no doubt this show will help! (apparently chess streaming activity on Twitch already grew).

  • Finally, the show is apparently dedicated to Iepe Rubingh, who founded the hybrid sport Chess Boxing. This sport was first described in a dytopian graphic novel by French author Enki Bilal.

Cobra Kai**
The original actors from the 1984 Karate Kid movie have grown up. One is successful, the other not so much. I thought it would be far worse than it was — the fighting skills are not impressive but the authors found interesting story angles. The Jackie Chan Karate Kid remake remains my favorite.

Dix Pour Cent (I'm the agent) — Season 4**
The final season of the show about a Paris-based talent agency, where some friendships miraculously survive the many betrayal. The most interesting in this season is how guest stars play out of character.

Emily in Paris*
A case of hate binge. A 20-something American moves to Paris to provide a US perspective to a local marketing agency. Imagine Amelie and The Devil Wears Prada had a baby.


I rarely watch MMA but one guys stands out: Khabib Nurmagomedov.

  • He’s a lightweight fighter who just decided to retire, undefeated at age 32 after 29 wins (including against Conor McGregor).

  • He is also apparently the most followed Russian on Instagram with 25 million followers.

  • His decision to retire seemed largely motivated by the passing of his father. His dad was a wrestling champion and trained him in wrestling (a popular sport in Dagestan) from age 8.

  • For more, check out this free 30min documentary where you’ll see kid Khabib wrestle baby bears.

Saladhine Parnasse, the Mbappe of MMA***

  • ‘GregMMA’ is a former heavyweight MMA fighter, who now works as a YouTube channel host for the martial arts magazine Karate Bushido.

  • He goes to visit various gyms and dojos to explore different martial arts.

  • After an introduction, he generally ‘gets to work’ and does two rounds of sparring: one standing round (boxing/muay-thai/karate), and one focused on groundwork (grappling/BJJ). With his experience and size (he’s about 190cm and likely 95kg), Greg generally dominates both rounds.

  • In this episode, he visited 22yo Saladhine Parnasse, 173cm and 74kg in the video — a sizeable difference with Greg (and he usually cuts weight below 66kg). Still, things didn’t go well for Greg this time. So far this 22yo is undefeated with 14 wins and 1 draw. My money’s on him!

How to Start?
This budding artist felt stuck and got this piece of advice: ‘draw the same thing every single day’. This is what happened, which might be a good indicator of ‘how to get started’ = decide on a simple repeat task, so as to minimize the use of willpower (like for the Tabata method).

Crowd Science (Fouloscopie)
The YouTube channel of a cognitive scientist looking into … crowds. His latest episode (in French) explores prediction models and sampling biases in crime.

  • Apparently crimes have ‘aftershocks’ like earthquakes (note: I studied earthquakes in engineering school many years ago). Monitoring the predicted ‘aftershock hotspots’ for a week or two after a crime could prevent further waves.

  • The sampling bias comes from this: with equal crime rates, deploying larger police forces in one area would lead to more arrests, then to more police deployment, thereby reinforcing the perception of a higher crime rate there. It is possible to correct some of the bias by indexing police deployment to population size, but it will also be less effective on the whole. Tough choice!


Interventions 2**
Not much reading these days but except this newly published collection of essays by French hit novelist/essayist Michel Houellebecq. He shares his views — often not mainstream — on various topics: Europe, Trump, protests, euthanasia.


Recycling Theatre

If you’re wondering about whether recycling plastic is economically sound, this NPR article might be of interest. I also remember my surprise when I heard that people sorted trash worse than randomness (< 50% correct if 2 bins) because we are so confused about the rules, but also the reality: your Starbucks cup? It generally has a hard-to-recycle plastic lining inside, and ends up ‘contaminating’ the recycling stream.

More Games: Risk

A classic strategy board game I’m playing on mobile now. I play mostly against the computer as it’s faster than human players, but diplomacy doesn’t count much. My takeaway: expanding aggressively stretches resources thin, which often backfires, so consolidate patiently first, while letting other factions kill each other.

Cat Management

Rental cat number 6 arrived and he has some problems: apparently the father of the owner overfed him and he’s now a solid 8.5kg with diabetes, and requires two shots a day. He also has a special diet and is often thirsty. He might also be stressed and/or sad being in a new home, and expressed it by meowing at unholy hours and avoiding his litter a few times. This might be the last cat we host for a while.


France is back into lockdown, as are various other countries. Here are some stats and personal views.

Maskless Shopping

I forgot my mask once when going to the supermarket and ended up covering my face with layers of clothing. I felt extremely self-conscious. It’s also interesting to realize that seeing people’s face has probably become a sign of intimacy.

Some Stats

In France, we’ve had 42,000 deaths so far attributed to Covid. From March it seems that the excess mortality (compared to 2018 and 2019) is about 25,000 people, out of a yearly total of about 600,000.

Vaccine Stocks

  • The news of a vaccine sent some stocks up (e.g. airlines) and some down (the ‘stay-at-home / lockdown stocks’ like Zoom, Peloton).

  • Despite this, I doubt vaccines will be ready at scale very quickly so lockdowns will probably persist throughout 2021. We’re already at the end of 2020, should we still talk about Covid-19 in 2021?

How to test a vaccine?

  • The Pfizer announcement looked promising and I got curious about the clinical trial numbers they mentioned, and the process to validate a new vaccine. Here is how it works:

  • Phase 1 and 2 are done with few people to check for side effects. Phase 3 focuses on efficacy.

  • Since it’s not good form to contaminate people intentionally with a disease, you run a trial with thousands of people and compare with the ‘natural’ infection rate. In the case of Covid-19 the incidence is assumed to be 1.3% per year for untreated people.

  • Pfizer gave its treatment to about 22,000 people above 12yo, and a placebo to the same number. Then they waited to compare what percentage of people in each group were infected over the following weeks and months.

  • The announcement mentions a 90% efficacy at 7 days after the second injection, which is 28 days after the first. Total = 5 weeks.

  • With a 1.3% incidence among 22,000 people, you would get 22,000*1.3%*5/52 = 17.5 people infected. I guess 90% efficacy means that the treated group only had 2 infected people? The announcement mentions that ‘evaluable case count [reached] 94’ — maybe by batching the treatment over time? Not sure how that works.

  • Note that the start date of the trial was April 29. However, only about 8,000 people were recruited by then, and the document indicates: Estimated Primary Completion Date: June 13, 2021 (Final data collection date for primary outcome measure) and Estimated Study Completion Date: December 11, 2022.

  • In conclusion: it’s still pretty small numbers but could be promising.

Let’s hope things improve before Christmas!
— Ben

#48 | Big Work Change, Calling BS On Data, Covid Testing

Ben’s irregular newsletter mixes work and play.
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Howdy! It’s been an eventful month, with a big change for me.


1. WORK: On Leave, Fresh Content, SOSV Most Active VC in Q2
2. EXPERIENCES: More Coding, More Thieves, Friending the dead
3. CULTURE: Octopus Love, Calling BS on Data
4. THOUGHTS: On Games
5. COVID LIFE: Art, Nomads, Testing


On Leave

After 7 years with SOSV I’m taking a leave of absence to explore startup projects by participating in the Entrepreneur First (EF) program in Paris. I don’t have a team nor project yet, but felt the startup itch and decided to scratch it.

If you’re not familiar with the EF model: they select ±60 highly motivated tech and biz people, and help them form startups. If EF likes the team and project after a few months of that, they write a first check.

I’ll be focused on that and somewhat available until year end, so you’re welcome to say hi — online or offline!

Latest Podcasts

  • After a series of interviews of deep tech investors on the Lab To Market podcast, I’ve asked some industry experts and entrepreneurs to give a kind of ‘crash course’ about their sector.

  • The latest episodes cover Mental Health, Fashion & Textile, and Robotics.


  • SOSV was ranked the most active seed VC globally in 2Q2020 by PwC/CBInsight, right during the peak of the pandemic.

  • Opentrons, a lab automation company in the SOSV portfolio (and in which I am an angel investor) signed a contract with NYC to process up to 20,000 tests per day by November, for only $28 per test (see article in the NYT and NYC website). This will boost significantly the testing capacity, and might be a model for other cities.

  • SOSV’s IndieBio program has been running several live events on key biology-related topics, from epigenetics to plant biology and food systems and of course, Covid-related things. The videos are here (I ran one on Startups against Covid-19 a few months ago with investors from Khosla Ventures and Fifty Years).

  • IndieBio’s colleagues Po Bronson and Arvind Gupta (now partner at Mayfield) just wrote a book titled ‘Decoding the World’. Buy it or read the first chapter on Amazon and/or join the launch talk on Thursday online here. Biology will save the world!


Coding and the Risks of Data

I’ve completed the Automating The Boring Stuff With Python course on Udemy, and built some throwaway things. It was very satisfying.

It also got me interested in playing around with image recognition and look into machine learning and data science. (thanks to S. for recommending other Udemy courses — Andrew Ng’s course I had started on Coursera didn’t use Python and felt outdated).

  • I read about gradient descent algorithms and was happy to see I could handle the maths (partial derivatives of polynomial expressions). Note that most people skip the maths and simply use the libraries.

  • It also got me to understand better the problems of local minima, overfitting and Simpson’s Paradox (more on that later — this one was quite important).

Almost Robbed (Again)

In my previous newsletter, I told the story of how two thieves stole my phone: one stepped on my foot to distract me, while the other lifted it from my back pocket. I shared how I caught the thief red-handed and retrieved it (note: those ‘pros’ generally give it back easily, to avoid involving the police), as well as the thoughts that ensued about how best to react (still debating), and my approach to prevent it from happening again: I sewed my short’s back pockets.

I am happy to report that more sewing work awaits: I am pretty sure I was almost robbed again recently.

  • I was in the subway in a transfer corridor when I noticed two young people at the bottom of a flight of stairs.

  • They seemed to be the only ones chatting and not walking to anywhere.

  • I started to walk up the stairs. Half-way, I decided to speed up as I was in a hurry.

  • This is when I noticed the man behind me, who stopped and walked back down to his friend.

  • That’s when I put two and two together.

Of course I can’t tell for sure, but I’m glad I seem to have improved my awareness — maybe I spent too long in East Asia … (I’ve lost and found back valuables several times in Japan, for instance, while I’ve heard countless stories of theft in Paris).

Cat Painting

Our 4th lendmeyourcat resident went back to his home. I was inspired one evening and decided to paint the beast resting in its lair.

The process went like this: fail with direct watercolor => draw raw sketch => use gouache => cat moves => regret not having drawn a better sketch, and not using masking tape.

The result wasn’t too shabby, especially in terms of mixing colors and being bolder with paint. As my favorite YouTube painter James Gurney says: 'Painting is not about putting down the perfect stroke, it's about correcting the ones that are wrong'. That surely applies beyond painting!

Personal Taylor

A friend reached out to get help for his son’s Ivy league application, as the latter was struggling with his ‘personal statement’. I had never done anything like it, and learned about this odd ‘humble bragging’ exercise, and its cottage industry. This kid has already done many coding projects, speeches, and even started a company. The only weakness is that he hasn’t faced as much struggle as seems popular in such essays. Whatever the result, I think any college would be lucky to have him!

JiuJitsu Stop & Go

The gym had barely reopened that it closed again due to Covid. I had just enough time to sprain my ankle, after a successful bout where I baited my opponent, grabbed his back and won by submission.

I thought all was fine after training at 2pm. By 7pm I couldn’t walk. Fortunately, a few days with Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (‘RICE’) did the trick … then the gym closed again. Ah!

Friend The Dead

I was going through friend requests on Facebook (I barely use Facebook) and accidentally accepted an old request of someone whom I know passed away 2 years ago. It gave me a strange feeling. Maybe future wills should cover our digital legacy as well?



Cinemas are open in Paris. It might sound either irresponsible, bold or … so 2019. Anyway, I went to watch a movie.

Family Romance, LLC**

This is a ‘stylized documentary’ by Werner ‘Carry Bolt-Cutters Everywhere’ Herzog. It focuses on a real Japanese company where people can hire ‘actors’ to hand difficult social situations (apologizing at work, replacing an absentee father, etc.). I had only read about this company in the news a while ago, but Herzog packed his stuff (and 2 family members I think), went to Japan, and shot a documentary. I didn’t find it outstanding but I always enjoy opportunities to use my Japanese language skills.

Overall, such service is not cheap, but should probably exist everywhere. Is Japan ahead of the curve, or — like often — exploring a future nobody else will experience?


The Good Fight***

My favorite black-owned law firm show is back on Netflix. The first episode was pretty surprising, though the rest felt less interesting than in previous seasons. Still, the acting remains top notch.

My Octopus Teacher***

Sometimes Netflix suggests something intriguing. This is the story of a man who falls in love with an octopus, and live a year-long romance until the latter lays eggs and dies eaten by a pyjama shark. This documentary has beautiful cinematography and a slow, charming pace that highlights the strangeness of this underwater world.

The Spanish Apartment**

This is the first opus of a tryptic by French filmmaker Cedric Klapish. This one felt a bit dated and cheaply produced, but the story of this student who goes to Spain to prepare for a government job and shares a place with a bunch of international students had some charm.

The Goat (‘La Chevre)**

A French movie starring Gerard Depardieu and another well-known comedian. The latter plays a chronically unlucky guy sent on a mission to find the chronically unlucky daughter of his boss, by following his bad luck. Cute though dated.


I watched this animation series about a ninja school. For those familiar with Naruto (the manga sold >220 million copies so it’s quite something), Boruto is his son. The dad was an orphan ostracized as his body contained a demon, and his son is mostly burdened by the fame of his absentee dad, who became the boss of the ninja school protecting the city.

The novices complete missions in teams of 3, and test various teams to find the best combination. I found this had eery similarities with the approach of Entrepreneur First to team formation … Eventually the anime uses classic ‘hero’s journey’ tropes, but the challenges, grit and lessons the kids go through were quite enjoyable.


Calling Bullshit on Data****

It takes 10 times as much effort to clean up the bullshit than to create it.
— Brandolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle

I watched a great series of lectures on YouTube titled Calling Bullshit: The Art of Scepticism in a Data-Driven World, by professors at the University of Washington Information School (h/t to B, who recommended the book).

The talks go over many important issues, to help sort the vast amounts of BS we are facing every day across all media. Here is what I found the most interesting:

  • Are we bullshit-neutral? Check your social media sharing and what you repeat around you.

  • The importance of statistical significance (p-value) and its widespread neglect.

  • The problem of false positives and false negatives.

  • The lack of reporting of negative results of experiments in science, and the incentives of scientists to seek recognition.

  • The most shocking learning for me was Simpson’s Paradox. In short: statistics can be totally misleading if you don’t know the data sets and the domain they come from. I urge you to read it as it could literally mean life or death (one example is about how to choose a cancer treatment).

I was already familiar with quite a few of the concepts and biases thanks to the classic How To Lie With Statistics, and from my recent studies of machine learning and data science, but it was still very much worth it.

The Psychology of Money***
My friend B. recommended this book, and I’ve been listening/watching some of the corresponding talks.

In short:

  • For most of us, our way of thinking about money results from the exposure to ideas we had in our early years (up to our mid 20’s?) mostly via our parents, our social class, and the economic climate and opportunities at the time.

  • But what worked or didn’t in the past at different times (S&P, real estate, bonds), might not work the same today and in the future.

There are several talks online by this author.

Rick Beato on Pop Music***

Rick Beato is a musician and producer who analyzes famous songs and does all sorts of interesting commentaries. I watch this channel on occasion, though I stopped playing guitar a long time ago. His recent take on why boomers hate pop music was educative: his analysis was that songs are quite ‘formulaic’, have little to no chord and rhythm variations, and use autotune and Midi drum sounds from the 80’s. He even mentioned a similarity with nursery rhymes. That said, he wasn’t entirely negative and highlighted a few of his favorite pop songs. In another of his videos, I liked the take by Joe Satriani (a bona fide guitar hero) who said each generation has to make their own music.


On Games

After playing many rounds of Pandemic (mobile and board game versions), I gave a shot at another board game called Wingspan, where you’re some kind of bird specialist, and have to collect bird and lay eggs to win (!).

Playing made me think about game mechanics. I now put them in 3 broad categories (boardgamegeek has its own take on categories):

  1. Competition: it’s a direct confrontation, or a battle for resources (e.g. Monopoly, Catan, Chess, Risk, Diplomacy).

  2. Cooperation: everyone is allied to reach a goal (e.g. Pandemic).

  3. Corridor run: every player does its thing independently and scores are compared at the end (e.g. Bingo).

Then there is the mix of luck and skill. Too much luck and you’re a mere ‘passenger’; too much skill and the fun goes away if levels are not matched, as an inferior player sometimes has zero chances of scoring points, let alone winning.

Note: It has even been observed that among some animal species (dogs, rats…), larger animals would occasionally let their smaller play-mate win so they keep playing. I also don’t think it’s ok to pretend to lose (and lie) with children — maybe starting with a handicap would do?

Now you can think about your favorite games with Comp/Coop/Corridor and Luck/Skill. Then look into your playing style according to Bartle’s taxonomy: Killer, Socializer, Achiever or Explorer, as not every player plays to win.

What I noticed:

  • Competitive games often create tension, and can turn unfair quickly if, for example, two players team up against a third. Some make those dynamics an integral part of the game: Diplomacy is almost pure negotiation.

  • Cooperative games are pretty rare but generally quite interesting and much more peaceful. It also feels good to work on a common goal.

  • Corridor games can be more interesting when you can observe how others play in parallel, and learn new strategies.

Finally, all those games have to face the problem of learning the rules and general onboarding. Some take a few minutes, some can take up to an hour (or more).

  • Few games have solved this ‘learning curve’ problem.

  • Some onboard with a simplified version of the mechanics, and gradually complexify it gradually.

  • The duration of a game can also matter.

Note: I co-designed a card game with my nephews this past summer using similar cooperative mechanics: each card is an activity with ‘fun points’ (fun for kids) and ‘bothering points’ (annoying for adults) e.g. ‘stuff your mouth with food’ is +2/+4, ‘play with kickboard’ is +6/+2, ‘take a walk’ is 0/-3. The goal is to get as many fun points as possible before the ‘bothering points’ reaches 10 (= adults get angry). The design phase included interviewing their grandparents about what annoys them the most. My goals there were:
(1) Show my nephews they could create a game.
(2) Raise their awareness about their daily actions.
(3) Give them perspective on what makes a game fun.
What I didn’t expect is that the game we made turned out — after some tuning — to be quite playable, to the point they sometimes volunteered to play it!

Tommy Two Misses

I came across the story John T. Thomson, most famous for his invention of the Thompson submachine gun or ‘Tommy Gun’ after WWI. The war was over and instead of the army, he sold to law enforcement. A few years later sales were low and he was replaced as a director. He died in 1940 (aged 79), before the US entry into WWII, which lead to large orders.


I have heard conflicting views among doctors, within governments, and in the media — and there was the Lancetgate. I’m not a doctor and only sharing what I think in good faith — hoping to be ‘bullshit negative’ or neutral. Everyone is welcome to make their own opinion, and send me useful sources.

Covid Art

The most viral thing about Covid might be the artwork. Read the story here on how two medical illustrators at the CDC created it (h/t Kickstarter). This art has been seen billions of times!

Spoiler: it’s not a faithful microscopic virus image, it’s a rendition. Just like many others before it, it is designed to ‘put a face on the enemy’. Everything, including the colors, have been carefully chosen for this purpose.

Covid Nomads

Do you know some people who relocated because of Covid? I know a few who packed their bags—sometimes overnight—to flee a gloomy confined life.

Will that trend continue beyond 2020? I would think so, as remote work seems here to stay, and opened new options for knowledge workers. Some entrepreneurial types are even considering building independent cities (floating or not) to welcome the displaced (elites).

Testing Covid

My current view is:

  • Immunology tests (= detect the presence of antibodies in the blood) are quite unreliable. According to this study across 38 studies, early detection (<2 weeks) with those tests is very bad, and has lots of false positives.

  • PCR tests are much more reliable in principle. The process implies taking a swab, then ‘amplifying’ the virus genetic material (doubling it dozens of times). The real problem is: how much is enough, and how much is too much? Is it 30? 35? 40? and what is the right threshold to say someone is ‘positive’? The New York Times wrote about this.

“In three sets of testing data that include cycle thresholds, compiled by officials in Massachusetts, New York and Nevada, up to 90% of people testing positive carried barely any virus, a review by The Times found.”

“In July, the lab identified 872 positive tests, based on a threshold of 40 cycles. With a cutoff of 35, about 43% of those tests would no longer qualify as positive. About 63% would no longer be judged positive if the cycles were limited to 30.”

  • If you combine this issue with the fact that most countries expanded from testing mostly symptomatic people to now a majority of asymptomatic people, it seems it can only lead to a massive number of false positives.

  • Of course, having some false positives is acceptable to prevent the spread, but too many has important downsides (see this recent Lancet publication).

  • The falling number of deaths seems to support this idea of false positives, and possibly of a lower fatality rate with the current virus strains.

  • As a reference, deaths in France between Jan 1st and Apr 30th was about 25% above 2019 and 17% above 2018. A large difference. The number of deaths in France in 2020 since May 1st are almost identical to 2019 and 2018 (<2% difference).

It’s not an easy public health and political exercise, but I hope we see soon more reason in policies and resources.

A parting thought for Autumn 2020:
‘Fall with masks, shorts turn long.’
(applies to the weather and the stock market)

Until next time!
— Ben

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