#38 | Deep Tech, Scams & Mountain Stories

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2 months passed, here is what’s new.

MENU

  1. WORK: Deep Tech Seminars, HAX Demo Day in HK

  2. EXPERIENCES: Scams Galore, Standup in NYC, Etiquette Training

  3. CULTURE: Chernobyl, The Good Fight, Mountain Stories

  4. THOUGHTS: Two Private Jets, Faster than Bolt.

1.
WORK

Deep Tech Seminars

I completed last month the last of our five seminars on ‘Investing In Deep Tech’. We hosted them in SF, NYC, Boston, London and Paris, inviting 19 experts (mostly deep tech VCs) and over 750 participants (mostly VCs, deep tech and generalists). I wrote a summary here. I am now trying to turn those ideas into a media article.

HAX Demo Day in HK on July 10

After the SF demo day in June for pre-A startups, HAX is having a joint demo day with Entrepreneur First in Hong Kong on July 10 (6pm-9pm). It is mainly for investors, with a dozen of our pre-seed and seed stage startups. If you wish to attend email your name / job title / company / linkedin at haxdemoday@hax.co for an invite.

New Fund

The new SOSV fund keeps adding investors. We are now at about $230M. Our ‘soft’ target has been cleared, and we’re on track for our $250M goal. More details on Medium & TechCrunch.

2.
EXPERIENCES

For some reason, two scams (or three? or four?) are in there.

Chinese Police

My Mandarin teacher in Paris got a call from DHL saying a package with passport and bank card had been stopped at the China border. She hadn’t sent and wasn’t expecting anything so she was surprised. DHL said someone might have stolen her identity and connected her to the police.

The police asked for a video call to confirm her identity. She duly completed a QQ video call with an officer in his office. The officer told her someone had opened an account with her ID in China, and did money laundering, and that there was an arrest warrant to her name. He pointed her to a website where it was displayed (the URL was an IP address rather than a domain name).

The officer said they were already investigating several identity thefts and advised to not use any electronic communication and not tell anyone as she might be spied on via her mobile and computer, and might end up extradited if she talked due to the warrant.

They also mentioned her bank credentials might be compromised and they could provide a secure account to store her money until the situation is solved with the bank. My teacher freaked out and canceled the class on short notice, not sure what to do.

Quickly after she received a call from her parents in China (and picked it up): the police had called them because they had found her name on a website pretending to be a government one and used for scams.

Yes, as it turns out, both the DHL call and the first police call (including the video call in uniform) were scammers. They had likely found my teacher’s French mobile number on a website where Chinese people living in France buy and sell things. Those scammers definitely deserve more than an E for their effort!

London Cup Shuffle Scam

We have all seen the 3-cup shuffle some street scammers use. I was walking across a bridge in London when I saw one and decided to look closely. It’s a well-oiled machine with a diverse group of accomplices to make the ‘game’ more believable (with fake wins and losses from that crowd).

Of course you have ZERO chance of winning as the ball you’re supposed to find is nowhere under the cups when you put your money down. And they pack it all away quickly saying ‘police’ before you can say a thing after you lose. How do I know? I saw no cup had a ball below it when they packed it all! More details here.

Comedy in NYC

After reaching NYC and completing on of the ‘deep tech seminars’, I had noticed one of my favorite comedians, Gary Gulman, was on the line-up at the Comedy Cellar (likely the most famous standup club in NYC). It was too late to book and I just hopped on a taxi to get there at the last minute. The waiting list was already closed.

As they were getting the last happy few on the list who could get in, they asked ‘is anyone alone’? I was standing right there so I said yes and I got the very last ticket. One new thing was that they asked each of us to turn off our phone and put it in a sealed envelope. Never saw that before. I think it’s because comedians don’t want their act to leak online, especially those planning to release ‘specials’ (like Gulman).

I didn’t have the best seat but Gulman did the job. The level of others was a bit below what I had seen there before. Also, many comedians only join for their set (then likely rush to another club to practice & earn more), so they don’t know what kind of ‘crowd work’ happened before it, so the next comedian kept asking the same people the same questions instead of building on previous interactions. It’s also not cheap ($17 + 2 drinks minimum I think) — quite the business it has become!

I learned later listening to an interview on NPR that Gulman was drafted to play football but didn’t like the violence and competition, and quit. He has been fighting depression since then, it seems.

Waltz & Etiquette in Vienna

Pioneers, a tech conference in Vienna, had an interesting program for their speakers including some Waltz lessons in a 100-year-old school, and etiquette lessons. Waltz is harder than it looks! Thinking about what etiquette stands for was also interesting — from politeness to status to competence.

I asked the senior Viennese etiquette coach about my airplane seat-switcher conundrum, which he will think about. I think he said he had no problem turning down people who try and take advantage of his manners. I was asked again on a recent flight and politely declined the opportunity to exchange my window seat for a middle seat in the middle row!

System Error at US Border

I landed in Newark from Paris late in the evening and as I was in line at the border, everything stopped to a halt. The system was offline… for 2 hours! After about an hour officers started to distribute some water. They wanted to go home as badly as we did!

3.
CULTURE

ART & SHOWS

Enemy of The People (theatre)***
A doctor wants to reveal the contamination of the water at a small city’s thriving spa. But who is the true enemy? The spa managers? The corrupt mayor? The local newspaper? Or the doctor who might jeopardize the city’s thriving spa business?

Mind-Reading Show in Paris**
Not my usual fare but it was somewhat interesting. How could he read the little papers people had written when they stayed the entire time in a glass bowl lit from underneath? Then write past entry journals mentioning events that happened to audience members? We found some leads…

Picasso Museum***
After visiting his house near Barcelona, the Paris museum was a nice stop.

Chicago Outsider Art**
Another ‘Art Brut’ exhibition in Paris by self-taught artists, often inmates in lunatic asylums. Some interesting pieces.

Polunin in London?
During my last London visit I noticed the Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin on a poster. He was to give a show shortly after my visit! For memory, he’s probably the best ballet dancer alive.

He is also known for some outspoken views, which got him canceled after he was invited to dance in Paris last year. Apparently the UK didn’t get the memo. I was about to book a seat and plan another London visit when… they stopped taking bookings for the show! They didn’t cancel it entirely (it was probably too late and costly) but I didn’t take chances and didn’t go. Will I get the chance to ever see him on stage?

SERIES

Chernobyl****
Now that was a good show. Well researched with just a bit of gender-washing (not sure if this is the right term?) as they made up a whistleblowing female scientist where there was none. A Ukrainian friend who grew up there in the 80’s said he was quite impressed by the effort they put in getting the details right. He said his hometown looked just like it. He also mentioned that as a child he was not aware of all the politics and of the rest of the world and life was quite happy. Last, he remembered the kids in school were told not to go out during the rain. Apparently Russia is planning to produce its own version highlighting the role of the CIA in the accident. Who knows?

The good fight***
I binged-watched this show about a black-owned law firm’s trials and tribulations. Lots of great actors in there, and interesting storylines for most of the episodes.

Game of Thrones**
I had watched only the first season. Now I also watched the last. I wasn’t too impressed by the storyline, the terrible battle tactics, the quick killing of the bad guy, and the overall ending. Jon Snow really knows nothing. I liked much better the alternate ending this guy imagined.

Strangers Things**
I had enjoyed the first season, less the second, and was quite disappointed by this third one. I found it quite tedious — from the storyline to the dialogues — but it was well suited to a long flight.

Tuca & Bertie**
Bojack Horseman really has something special. I had hopes for this new series by the same artist, with a character voiced by Ali Wong. Sadly, I just found it too scattered and the writing too weak despite some creative ideas.

Love, Death and Robots*
I had to check this on Netflix just because, but it didn’t work for me...

MOVIES

Pain and Glory****
A truly wonderful movie by Pedro Almodovar about an aging successful film director reuniting with an actor friend he quarreled with decades ago. You still got it, Pedro!

King of Comedy***
Here is an interesting movie in the ‘movies about standup comedy’ series. It features Robert de Niro as an actor who wants to break into standup. I thought the movie was a bit stupid until…

Mountain Film Festival***
I went to watch a series of short movies about mountain sports. They were all quite interesting but the most interesting part might have been the one called ‘Age of Ondra’ about a rock climber named Adam Ondra, the first to conquer a ‘9c’ route. This documentary is about his attempt to ‘flash’ a 9a route. That means climbing it on the first attempt. To prep, he simulates key moves blindfolded on the floor with his trainer (among other things). Here is the trailer. If you’ve watched ‘Free Solo’ you might like this too.

The Dead Don’t Die*
I really like Jim Jarmusch. I watched Down by Law (****), Night on Earth (***), Dead Man (****), Ghost Dog (***), Broken Flowers (***), Paterson (***). This one was his first horror movie and I found it god-awful. I almost walked out (I should have but was too lazy to do it — have you walked out on movies? I did several times).

PODCASTS & LECTURES

An evening with Ray Bradbury****
A wonderful 2001 lecture by the famed Fahrenheit 451 author about how to get good at things, and be happy with what you do. Among key ideas: if you want to write a novel, start by writing lots of short stories!

Joe Rogan interview by Jordan Peterson***
After Rogan interviewed Peterson, the latter interviewed the former. Joe Rogan is really an interesting character: standup comedian, TV host (Fear Factor), martial artist (BJJ + more), MMA commentator and ultra-successful podcaster (200M listens / month?). He’s also a crazy hard-worker.

Sam Harris on Culture***
This was a really good episode where he discussed with Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician known for his research in the areas of social networks and biosocial science, about the ‘social suite’: eight qualities of humans that give us tremendous advantages (though not all unique to humans). It’s worth listening to.
1. Capacity to have and recognize individual identities
2. Love for partners and offspring
3. Friendship. Long-term non-reproductive bonds (elephants too! some more)
4. Social network
5. Cooperation
6. Preference for one's own group
7. Mild hierarchy (nor egalitarian nor autocratic)
8. Capacity for social learning & teaching

BOOKS

The Other Annapurna Story**** (not the actual title)
In 1950, right after the war, France needed heroes. It was decided climbing the Annapurna, the first summit above 8,000m, would provide one.

The climb was successful and hero engineering ensued: Maurice Herzog reaped the glory with his victory photo, his bestselling book, speeches and official appointments. His team-mate, the mountain guide Louis Lachanal is a blurry shadow, and his unedited version of the climb (Les Carnets du Vertige, or ‘Vertigo Notes’) was only published in 2000, long after he passed away. I managed to find this out-of-print collector item (it’s worth about $400) in a public library and read it.

Both men lost many fingers and toes, because Herzog would not give up despite the danger due to their delay and the monsoon season. Lachenal knew they might die, or at least lose body parts, and might never climb again. Lachenal was a professional guide and wasn’t suicidal. But Herzog would not give up and Lachenal would not abandon his climbing partner.

To me, Herzog clearly sacrificed himself (that’s his choice) and his companion (who wasn’t quite happy with it) to the mission, knowing his companion would get very little of the riches (all members were prevented by contract with Herzog from writing their own story for 5 years, and later coerced into keeping quiet or lose their job or reputation). My takeaway is also that we’ll never know if they really reached the summit. Lachenal looks trustworthy, but Herzog doesn’t and could have convinced Lachenal to lie.

If you want to watch some amazing footage from the real climb in 1950, their movie is on YouTube. In 1953, the New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first on top of the Everest.

The Summit of the Gods****
To stay on the topic on mountain, this graphic novel is an adaptation of a bestselling Japanese novel about a rogue mountain climber who wants to attempt a solo climb of mount Everest, and a mysterious old camera who might belong to the British George Mallory, who went missing when attempting to climb the Everest in 1924. His body was found in 1999. Did he reach the summit?

Barbara, by Osamu Tezuka***
My exploration of the Tezuka universe continues after I read his ‘bio in manga’. In addition to erotic animation he also wrote a strange adult story about an artist and a hobo girl who becomes his muse. It’s worth a look.

Shop Talk****
This book is a series of interviews of comic book artists of the ‘golden age’. Among them are the people who created the superhero characters we see in movies today. If you thought Stan Lee invented everything, look into Jack Kirby and others. Did you know Superman (from DC Comics, 1938) didn’t fly at first? His competitor Captain Marvel (from Whiz Comics, 1939) did. The latter was even more popular than Superman for a while. One long lawsuit later, all is well. It was surprising to read about the great respect those artists had for French cartoonists like Moebius, Gotlib, and Bretecher. The French scene offered better distribution, higher status and more freedom to artists, and the results followed.

4.
THOUGHTS & MORE

Two Private Jets
I was attending Vivatech, a big tech festival in Paris and was awaiting the keynote of the CEO of a big Japanese company. His turn came and went. Nothing. I went to ask the organizers in the speakers’s room and was told his private jet had a problem and he couldn’t come. Three things came to mind: (1) There should be an app for that (2) Always have 2 private jets in case the first breaks down (3) If I had a private jet, I would probably have friends who do too. Maybe this CEO doesn’t have many friends? Eventually, I bumped into Gary Kasparov, who was around while I was investigating the case of the missing CEO. He’s quite into A.I.

Ghostbusters Song
As it turns out, it seems it was a rush job and rip-off of a Huey Lewis song.

Faster than Bolt
It is discussed that most athletic improvement these days is due to changes in equipment rather than human ability. Still, there is a high chance that a human running on all four will be faster than Bolt before 2050. Think of it as the sprinting equivalent to the the V-shape ski jump, or the Fosbury flop. The current record is 15.71s.

Well, that’s it for now!
— Ben

#37 | New Fund, Third-Person VR, YouTube Gems, And A Message From 1863

Irregular newsletter to friends and LinkedIn contacts.
Unsubscribe at the bottom / Sign up is here

Find me: Twitter - LinkedIn - Website
Writings: Medium - TechCrunch - VentureBeat - Forbes
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I’m trying to stick to 1 letter per month so topics don’t pile up. Here is this month’s crop.

Also, welcome to the new subscribers! You’re part of a close-knit group of about 26,000 heroic people, with a 22% open rate (I haven’t added anyone manually for a while so the numbers are quite stable).

MENU

  1. WORK: New Fund, Deep Tech Investment Seminars, Media

  2. EXPERIENCES: More VR, Third-Person View, Micro-Coaching

  3. CULTURE: Riga, Mid90s, GoT, YouTube Gems

  4. THOUGHTS: Note on Yellow Vests, Notre Dame, Seat Switchers and a Message From 1863.

1.
WORK

New Fund

The raise for our new SOSV fund is going well: we already closed $218M (up from $150M for our previous fund). We target $250M and the pipeline is strong. More details on Medium & TechCrunch.

Seminar Series: Investing In Deep Tech

SOSV is very active in deep tech via our hardware program (HAX) and life sciences ones (IndieBio & RebelBio). To connect with more partners, and help everyone (including us) level up their playbook, we are running a series of seminars. It’s for investors only (VC and CVC), with a focus on early stage. I am speaking and moderating at all events.

We have selected half the panelists already. Please note that the London event is almost sold-out (over 130 RSVPs).

Other Events

  • May: Pioneers in Vienna May (8-10) Vivatech in Paris (May 16-18), Global Corporate Venture Symposium in London (May 22-23, discount code: DEEPTECH15)

  • June: HAX Demo Day in SF (June 18)

  • July: I should be in HK & SZ for RISE and more

Trends Report

  • I am working on our popular annual “Trendsreport and planning do a roadshow with this content in various cities, maybe as early as June (tbc).

Media

  • I was on TV in France on BFMTV (in French), to share ideas on China’s technology and business environment. In short: China is not a walk in the park (even for Chinese tech companies). This interview was part of a daily series called “Chine Eco” — the interviews are short but the guests often share good insights.

  • Slides from my talk ‘Building Deep Tech Startups Outside Silicon Valley’. It is increasingly popular thing to leverage more affordable and available talent, and the resources of other ecosystems. I gave this talk at the Deep Tech Atelier in Riga, Latvia (hence the few Latvian references).

  • Quotes about China/Shenzhen and innovation in ‘China moves from manufacturing base to R&D and innovation hub’ by INAVATE, a media focused on AV tech.

  • I wrote a few commentaries on recent hardware news: cool robots, bankruptcies, etc. It’s all on my medium.

Startups

If you want to recommend strong pre-seed / prototype-stage hardware startups, email me at ben@hax.co or direct them to www.hax.co to apply.

2.
EXPERIENCES

Being on TV

I mentioned above I was on BFM TV in France — it was shot in their studio, the same week I was on France24 (another TV channel). ‘The medium is the message’, and the snappy TV format is not really conducive to deep thought or conversations. In fact, this is where podcasts truly shine. While the two will coexist for a while, the fragmentation of media, and the fact that internet gave everyone a voice and an audience bodes very well for podcasts and the quality and diversity of public discourse.

VR Games & Third-Person View Experiment

After hearing the Oculus Quest was out (and it looks great), I dusted off the old Oculus Go to give it another go (no pun intended).

I got two games:

  • I bought Deer Hunter VR, which is exactly as you would expect, and pretty well made. I made short work of forest cervidae, and am now roaming South Africa (after I got mauled by hyenas in the North).

  • I also installed Project Rampage, a VR update of an old Atari game. You’re King Kong and your job is to destroy buildings or army vehicles in a limited time. The old atari game had a fun multiplayer mode in which you could punch other players (including off buildings). This one is single player and quite immersive.

But the initial reason I took out the Oculus again is that I am trying to get a decent third-person view livestream of myself. That means: using my phone (or another camera) to see myself in the Oculus headset (2D or 3D are both ok). Why? It’s an experiment. I also want to experiment with a fixed camera, upside-down vision, low-res, black and white, etc.

What sounded like a simple thing in the era of livestreamers turned out to be not so straightforward. I didn’t put a lot of time into it but here was the process so far:

  • YouTube doesn’t allow mobile streaming if you don’t have at least 1,000 followers. I could stream from a fixed cam but I’d like to use mobile.

  • Facebook Live didn’t work. I used two Facebook accounts and had one on my phone to a private Live for the other account, but it never showed on the stream of the other account on the Oculus.

  • I thought a web-based solution could work (since Oculus doesn’t have many apps) and I remembered Periscope was sort of specialized in live things. And it had a web version! It worked but with about a few seconds delay and a framerate that looks like a slideshow. Not good enough.

So that’s where I’m at. If you have suggestions on how to solve this, let me know. After some more research and attempts I am considering escalating my request to Steve Mann, the father of wearable computing, who visited our office some time ago. I’m pretty sure he tried a long time ago all that I want to experiment with.

Micro-Coaching

I have been recording my sparring sessions (typically 4-7min rounds) of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) in the hope of improving faster by reviewing my mistakes. It also helps me ask better questions.

After losing round after round for months (we are only 2 regular beginners — most others have advanced belts in BJJ, or black belts in judo, and many are also much heavier), I started to become more of a challenge. Injuries continue, though (latest is a hand flattened by a Brazilian guest of >100kg)

Still, I feel someone more skilled watching them could give me better advice than I can figure out myself. I would actually pay for that. So I have been toying with this idea of a ‘micro-coaching’ service: a few $ for text or voice commentary of videos. Maybe more $ if a Gracie or Joe Rogan does it ;)

Anyhow, it’s just an idea for now but I am truly interested in the idea of ‘accelerated learning’ using having better feedback loops.

Gardening

I got roped into doing some gardening. The learning curve is costing me money: apparently there are 5 main types of soil (it depends a bit who you ask): sandy, silty, clay, peaty, saline. And favored temperatures, and exposure to the sun.

Of course I only looked that up quite late, when some plants started… well, doing the opposite of thriving. I even bought a bag of mixed seeds, and despite the lack of prep (another florist told me later you’re supposed to soak the seeds overnight? It’s not written on the package!), some managed to sprout. We’ll see what happens.

3.
CULTURE

RIGA

I was invited to Riga (Latvia—near Estonia, Lithuania and Russia) for a talk on deep tech. It was my first time to visit this former Soviet state, independent for less than 30 years. Latvia has about 2 million people, down from about 2.3 million. Many are leaving to other places in Europe to find jobs. The city had a few art nouveau buildings, but my trip was too short to see much.

MOVIES

A better selection than last time, mostly because they’re old favorites of mine!

Wag The Dog****
I re-watched (it might be the 4th time?) this excellent dark comedy on media manipulation. The US president is 2 weeks away from re-election when a scandal arises. What to do? Call the best spin doctor to cook up a red herring. Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Anne Heche do a fantastic job in a movie that is still highly relevant!

Network****
A 1976 classic on the power of media. Another movie I watched multiple times, with iconic scenes like the ‘mad as hell’ and ‘forces of nature’ ones.

Rosemary's Baby****
This young couple moves into an old victorian residence and meet their aging neighbors. Those seem a bit eccentric but very friendly. Part of my ‘dark cult trilogy’ with The Wicker Man and … oh? Only two?

Mid90s***
A coming-of-age story of a 13yo boy with older skateboarder friends. I just went to watch this one on a whim and it was a very nice surprise. It had sound acting and explored meaningful emotions. I also enjoyed the vintage soundtrack (I spotted 93 Til Infinity by the Souls of Mischief — a superb West Coast hiphop classic — Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock, and a Nirvana song). I didn’t know Na-Kel Smith (a true pro skateboarder) but both his acting and character rocked/grooved/killed it — whichever expression what en vogue in the 90’s.

Shoplifters***
Japanese movie about an odd ‘family’ of destitute people, who kidnap/adopt a young girl to help her out. Pleasant acting including by very young performers.

TV

Big Bang Theory**
I only watched a couple of episodes before so was vaguely aware of the situation and characters (science geeks treating social skills like computer programs). Now I watched the latest season. Entertaining enough but I won’t chase the show.

Game Of Thrones**
I had watched the first season years ago. I found the production great but decided that I could do without this show. After watching this new season I still feel the same. On top, I was quite disappointed by the exceedingly poor strategy of ‘team human’ during the big battle. Sending horses without any reconnaissance? Flying dragons randomly? This made no sense. And the surprise killing of the Evil Emperor felt like cheating. Was there no plan? And where’s the fight?

SHORT VIDEOS

Captain Disillusion****
Sometimes you just stumble upon brilliance. This man has been debunking video hoaxes for a decade, and I just found out about it. He has 1.5 million followers now. He uses his solid VFX skills to analyze the videos, and creates detailed explanations on how things were done. He sometimes even outdoes the original trick. I also like his writing, humor and delivery a lot. Eventually, he is doing a much needed public service, educating us about the state-of-the-art of ‘fake videos’, and what to look for to dismiss them. This has become his full-time job and it takes him an entire month to put together a 10-minutes video. He apparently lives off Patreon now ($12k/month). Oh, the wonders of the Internet! Trivia: Captain Disillusion was born in Riga!

Penn and Teller ‘Fool Me’*** and Asian Magicians****
The famous magical duo invites performers to try and fool them with new tricks. This one is more hit-or-miss as it depends on the quality of the performer (and the clickbait title). Among the most impressive was Shin Lim. Another outstanding magician is Eric Chien (here a reaction video by another magician). It’s another world out there.

Jumping****
In previous letters I mentioned Osamu Tezuka (e.g. #34), the creator of Astroboy, Black Jack and many other iconic manga characters. He was also ‘Japan’s Disney’ and pushed the boundaries of animation (Disney was ‘heavily inspired’ by Tezuka for Lion King).

As his company was producing comics, TV animation and movies he improved ‘limited animation techniques’ (= animating only parts of a character), but sometimes he also produced content to push the boundaries, a bit like Pixar does with shorts (which often prefigure what new techniques will be used later in their feature films). One of those is called Jumping. Before reading any further, go watch it here. It’s 6 minutes long (apologies that modern encoding doesn’t deal well with this type of animation).

Enjoyed it? Now come the questions: did you realize that the entire landscape was animated? Now ask yourself: how, as an animator, can you get it right? (without drones and satellites to take pictures of the landscape).

Here is how: one animator in Tezuka’s team had worked on a special scene in Phoenix 2772, another title (with a kind of Gattacca theme — it’s pretty good in terms of sci-fi), in which there is a short but spectacular city animation (see here). To draw it right, this animator had built a small model of a city to take photos at different angles. It took him 2 months for 50 seconds of animation.

Tezuka was impressed so he wrote a script for a new short, blowing up the idea from tiny to planetary-scale. This time, the animator worked not only with models, but also took photos outdoor, filmed in a Cessna, and more. It took him 2.5 years to complete it. More in this interview of Tezuka.

BOOKS

No business books this past month!

Zen And The Art Of Standup Comedy***
Don’t expect laughing material there. It is rather an interesting study of the craft.

The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Life In Manga And Anime***
I finally finished this massive manga biography of Tezuka, created by his own studio in the late 80’s. It shows not only how hard-working and creative he was, but the difficulty of balancing the books of a production company. I also learned about some techniques he developed, and several works that are not well known overseas. Worth reading.

Message To Adolf***
Too much Tezuka? This is the last one. This manga tells about the connected lives of three characters named Adolf before, during and after WWII.

One is the infamous leader of the Third Reich, another is a German Jewish boy living in Japan and the last is his German-Japanese friend. This work is really well researched and connects with numerous real events and people, including a legendary real-life spy who was working undercover as a German journalist in both Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, and played a key role during WWII (he found out Japan would not invade Russia, allowing Stalin to move troops to fight Germany).

I bought the Japanese version of this series when living in Japan around 2003. It was a bit too difficult for me to read then (maybe still is), but I’m glad I finally read the English version (it only took 15 years).

The Summit Of Gods
I picked up this beautiful manga in a bookstore I was passing by. Based on a successful mountaineering novel and drawn by the no less successful Jiro Taniguchi. I also just realized Taniguchi passed away in 2017. What a loss. He should have a museum to his name!

4.
THOUGHTS

On Yellow Vests

Slow news: Yellow Vests attack hospital?
The French Yellow Vests movement, protesting mainly the difficulty to make ends meet in France on minimum wage, was accused of attacking the ICU of a Paris hospital (dutifully reported by The Guardian too). As it turns out, protestors were seeking cover from the sudden use of tear gas and stunt sticks by the police, after protesting peacefully in the neighborhood.

Losing trust in government & media
It’s not the first time mass media act as the government mouthpiece to try to smear the movement. It’s hard to trust either the government or the mass media for objective reporting these days. Fortunately many people have smartphones and a few videos are often enough to determine the truth. One thing to remember: delay judgment. And I’m not even mentioning potential ‘deep fakes’! (e.g. here: Jordan Peterson sings Lose Yourself).

For memory, the protests started in October 2018 and have been taking place every single Saturday since then. It is the largest social movement in France since 1968. Cause or consequence: Macron’s ratings are at 26%. Notre Dame burning was almost a welcome diversion (like in ‘Wag The Dog’?).

An early sign of failing of broader systems?
Is this movement a sign of an emerging democracy? One of the demands of the yellow vests is the ability for citizen to trigger referendums on topics of interest to many, so that voices from the population can keep the elite ‘representatives’ in check. Macron rejected the idea.

Talking about representatives, one new voice emerged recently: a young lawyer named Juan Branco, who defended various yellows vests in court, and was also the lawyer for Julian Assange. He wrote a book attacking France’s ‘elite factory’ which, younger, tried to co-opt him. The book is free online and spread like wildfire. It now has a paper version also doing well, which likely helps Branco who lives apparently under great financial (he’s on minimum wage), political and time pressure. Whether he is actually a legitimate representative is open to debate.

Now, from the sidelines, it could easily look like capitalism is failing. And electoral democracy with it, as it is largely tied to the capitalist system (only those rich enough to campaign can get elected). On this, Ray Dalio's piece on 'reform' sounds like a pre-emptive attempt at deflecting pitchforks. I am very curious to see how this resolves.

Notre Dame

The fire was minutes away but I wasn’t keen to see it—it felt like slowing down to watch while passing a car crash. It still isn’t clear if the fire was accidental. On the upside, donations for the restoration work might have reached a billion dollars. This includes two French billionaires who offered hundreds of millions (it’s not often you get a chance to be a cathedral builder!). Will the restoration work include modernized parts like it did in 1860? Or like Norman Foster did to the Berlin Reichstag? That would have my preference.

Darwin Among The Machines (1863)

I came across this old yet prescient short text from a tweet.

“Man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man

“They cannot kill us and eat us as we do sheep; they will not only require our services in the parturition of their young (which branch of their economy will remain always in our hands), but also in feeding them, in setting them right when they are sick, and burying their dead or working up their corpses into new machines.”

What are the options?

“Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them.”

“If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.”

It reminded me of the excellent 1999 novel named ‘Peter’s Legacy’ by Jean-Michel Truong, a French-Vietnamese A.I. entrepreneur (he built and sold the first European A.I. company) turned sci-fi novelist (he got started due to a non-compete), in which he describes how, maybe, The Word might not stay flesh forever (John, 1.1). Sadly, this award-winning book was never translated into English and I think the rights are in limbo.

Third World Countries

In a recent conversation the question came up: where does this name come from? And what makes a country ‘Third World’. It’s a legacy of the Cold War: it was used to describe ‘countries that were not aligned with the Communist Bloc or NATO or that were neutral […] Going by the historical definition, nations including Finland, Sweden, Ireland and Switzerland were Third World countries. Today, it mostly stands for ‘developing countries’. It’s not clear what happened to the ‘second world’ and where to place China, though.

Seat Switchers And Esprit De L'Escalier

To wrap up, a little anecdote: I was boarding the flight from Riga to Paris when I found someone sitting in my 10A seat. His friend was sitting by the window and he asked if I could switch. I asked which seat he had and it was like 35D or something, way in the back. Eager to get home as soon as possible, I wasn’t too keen. Yet, he said ‘please’ and I gave in.

Then I got to his seat — adding insult to injury it was a middle seat. This exchange caused me to leave the plane about 10 minutes later, get on the second bus, miss the public transport and probably get home 30 minutes later than I could have. I am not even sure I heard ‘thank you’. The staff who had heard the exchange told me people often say ‘just buy me a beer’. I didn’t think of that (and I didn’t care about a beer anyway).

But as I got seated I started to think, suffering from a hard case of ‘esprit de l’escalier’ (stairway wit = realizing what you should have said too late, right after leaving a debate defeated). It’s hard to think on your feet with other passengers lining up behind you!

Looking back, I realized that I gave in to look nice, and maybe also because sitting next to his friend after I turned them down wasn’t an exciting prospect.

Yet, why was I the one sitting in the back? If they wanted to sit together, they could have asked one of their neighbors at row 35 to move up. But no, it was better for them to ask me first, and only ‘escalate’ to people at row 35 if I turned them down. Well played.

Anyhow, I thought it would be interesting to test how genuine those people were. So I turned to one of my row 35 neighbors (the one without headphones on). I asked her if she would be interested in moving toward the front to disembark faster. My idea was to go ask the two guys if they could switch to the 35 seats. Eventually she wasn’t keen, and my other neighbor had fallen asleep, so I gave up. Still, working on reclaiming agency felt right :) This type of social coercion happens often, and I try to practice my awareness.

To better seats!

—Ben

#36 | Deep Tech, VR Fun, Bahamas, Green Book & More

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It’s been more than a month. Time for an update!

MENU

  1. WORK: Deep Tech Talks & Upcoming Events

  2. NEW EXPERIENCES: More VR, Board Games, Feedback Loops

  3. CULTURAL CORNER: Bahamas Trip, Struggle, Unimpressive Movies, Comedy, What Money Can’t Buy

  4. THOUGHTS: The Use Of Martial Arts, Some Comments

  5. PODCAST: 6 Episodes, Revamp Needed

1.
WORK

I spoke at a few events for HAX (our deep tech hardware investment branch):

  • Investing in Deep Tech (slides). A talk given with my colleague Kate at the investor-focused event we organized in SF this month. It was sold out with 200 RSVPs. We discussed pre-pre-seed, pre-seed, seed and post-seed (it’s getting complicated). We are planning a follow-up event in a few months.

  • What Every Startup And Corporate Should Know About Exits (slides). Talk given at the Hello Tomorrow event in Paris, one of the few focused on deep tech. I also judged 2 startup pitches on Industry 4.0 and Wellbeing. This event is very well produced. My talk is a summary of the key ideas from the seven masterclasses we ran last year on startup exits (inviting ~50 experts including John Chambers of Cisco)

  • I was interviewed on France24 and BFM TV (on ‘Chine Eco’ — coming out soon) about China’s ‘Greater Bay Area’. My main points were that (1) it does not need to look like Silicon Valley to be powerful (2) Investors and startups are more in Beijing and Shanghai, but use Shenzhen for electronics (3) It’s part of a bigger plan with the Belt and Road Initiative.

Next stops:

  • April: Deep Tech Atelier in Riga (Apr 12-13)

  • May: Vivatech in Paris (May 16-18)

  • June: Our next Demo Day in SF (tbc)

  • Sept: I am working on our annual and popular “Trends” report and will do a roadshow with this content in various cities (tbc)

  • Sept: Our next Deep Tech Investing event in SF focused on growth stage (tbc).

Aside from that, the fundraising for the new SOSV fund of $250M is going very well (SOSV is the fund behind HAX, IndieBio, and our other operations). We’re doing a first close with about 90% of the total this month.

Also, recommendations for investment (pre-seed / prototype-stage) are always welcome — email me or go to www.hax.co.

2.
NEW EXPERIENCES

More VR

It’s not something I have done myself but I kind of considered: this guy spent a week non-stop in VR.

His report is not very exciting but I think there is more to this, with ‘out of body experiences’. Maybe the European Space Agency could suggest that to their volunteers for their ‘60 days in bed’ study?

On this topic, a guy I met years ago told me about this experiment he did with a friend: they lived for a week in a warehouse, with head-mounted displays. Both HMDs were connected to the same fixed B&W security camera. Apparently it was very weird but they got used to it. In that vein, I am interested in experimenting with a video stream from a smartphone or webcam to my Oculus Go, for a ‘third person experience’ (I had a taste of it with a drone, but would be interesting with a regular camera). Pointers welcome.

For VR, I also tried the Sandbox VR arcade in San Mateo (they have locations in US and Asia). It was 30 minutes of immersive experience with a few friends, as a team of robots killing waves of alien monsters. Each of us hooked up with sensors on head, wrists and ankles, and strapped with a computer backpack. Some haptic feedback included. Overall fun. I would recommend it to experience where VR is going.

Board Games

I hadn’t played any for a while, and a friend introduced Small World a few months ago. It’s a kind of fantasy variant of Risk. It seemed to involve limited luck, and a fair amount of strategy. It was quite fun.

After we played, I found a mobile version, bought it, and ended up playing hundreds of games against A.I. within a few weeks (it’s much faster than with people). I uninstalled it 4 times so far in an effort to eliminate the addiction as I found it quite relaxing to play … (it’s currently not my phone).

Yet, to test my new skills I played with friends again this month and lost the two games. As it turns out, A.I. helps to learn logical tactics, but human players are not that logical: they have emotions, get intimidated or compassionate (one friend is a great actor and can play low profile very well), and can seek revenge. I also suspect the seating arrangement worked against me as I was facing the two other players, who were both facing only me!

We also played another called Dominion, which has some similarities with card games like Magic The Gathering, but is self-contained. While Small World has a lot of direct conflicts, players in Dominion are mostly ‘running in their lane’, with a few actions that affect others indiscriminately. As a result, conflict in this game is much less personal. The pleasure comes from devising your own strategy and comparing it with others as you play, sometimes drawing ideas from them. I lost three times as my friends made sure we never played the same cards twice. My friend said later: ‘no mercy in pro league’ ;)

So two very different games. One focused on direct conflict, another on parallel strategies. I also realized I mostly enjoy figuring out new tactics (likely to feel and look smart), so I’m winning rounds but losing matches.

Closing The Loop (Choke)

In a spirit of improvement, I’ve been recording my sparring sessions in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, hoping to understand my (many) mistakes. It has been humbling, and helpful.

Yet, I don’t always see what I am doing wrong, so I am toying with the idea of a service where I could have someone more experienced to give me feedback. Does this already exist?

3.
CULTURAL CORNER

TRAVELS

Bahamian Rhapsody

I went to a tech conference in Nassau, in the Bahamas. For work.

For those in the know, the conference was organized by a private bank run by the man who produced most of my childhood TV animation shows, and co-created the Inspector Gadget character. After a successful career in show-business he is now in finance. He’s very friendly, active and living a good life, it seems.

Aside from a sunburn on day one, I was also surprised by how expensive everything was, and by the incredibly luxurious resort in which the conference was held, called the Baha Mar (I was not staying there, sadly). At the breakfast brunch they had an ‘avocado toast station’, which is likely as hip as the omelette station was when it swept the nation. The staff thought the $50 I left on my table to pay for breakfast was the tip…

I tried the ‘fish fry’ — local fried seafood thing but wasn’t impressed, nor by the ‘sky juice’ cocktail. The whole Bahamas is over 700 islands and 400,000 people, many descending from slaves. My take was that if you don’t like beaches you’ll get bored quickly. The sun, sky and sea are, however, just like postcards.

MOVIES & TV

Ash Is Purest White***

I quite enjoyed this Chinese movie telling the story of a woman and her small-time gangster lover over more than a decade. Alongside ‘An Elephant Sitting Still’ I would consider it part of an interesting unofficial series on contemporary China.

Green Book***

Sometimes I wonder if I’m really hard to please: this movie had good reviews and won awards. I found it good but not outstanding. On the topic of racism I think the lower-budget Bamboozled by Spike Lee is much more subtle. Apparently Lee was unhappy to see his BlackKklansman movie lose to another road movie after ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ against his ‘Do The Right Thing’ in 1990.

Do The Right Thing*

Intrigued, I watched his 1990 movie. It’s cute but quite slow at times, and maybe sways too much between comedy and drama. I almost gave up half way.

Schwarzenegger Documentary***

I couldn’t find the link about it again, but it was quite interesting. In particular his early ambitions and training. I took away two ideas: (1) his father was a sporty policeman so being (very) sporty was ‘normal’ in the family (2) when asked about the source of his ambition, Arnold said that struggling as a kid was a frequent motivator for ambitious people.

Some time ago I was discussing with a very wealthy entrepreneur friend; he was complaining his kids spend too much time on video games. Too much comfort and not enough struggle to be motivated? The same issue probably happens to helicopter / lawnmower parents, while ‘tiger parents’ try the hard way to replace motivation with joyless discipline.

In French we talk about ‘fin de race’ = when the dynamic character of ancestors have run so thin it might be the last generation. I’ve been researching other drivers for motivation, and struggle seems to prevail so far. I hope to find more!

The Fall of the American Empire**

This was a cute heist story from Quebec centered around an upset philosophy PhD who works as a delivery guy. He chances upon bags of money and decides to mostly do the right thing. It is also a criticism of the power of money.

Vice**

About Dick Cheney, the Vice-President under Bush, who apparently managed to control a whole lot of things and do very well financially too. Somewhat interesting but it lost steam half way, and is hard to believe (I felt the trailer was better than the movie). One of the producers is Brad Pitt, if that indicates any bias? I also probably can't relate as much as a local, since I didn't live through those events on the ground. My final thought was: "If that's all true, what a mess you have.”

Bohemian Rhapsody**

Watched on a plane too. Was ok — the actors did a good job (including the lead). Maybe a documentary would have been better than a movie?

Alita**

I liked the original Gunnm manga a lot. It is gritty, harsh, disturbing and humorous at the same time, with an interesting cyber-post-apocalyptic dystopian atmosphere. Sadly, it got dumbed down first in animation, then in movie. James Cameron (of Titanic fame) apparently had been hoping to make this film for over 15 years. Personally, I found his adaptation too Disney-fied. While the visuals are well done, the movie misses most of the subtlety of the characters, and rushes the story. Still decent entertainment, but not as good as it could have been.

Crazy Rich Asians**

I took a chance as it apparently has been quite a big deal for my Asian-American friends apparently. It’s an all-Asian cast — unheard of in America? — and fairly entertaining movie, however predictable.

A few things bothered me, though:

  • Putting all ‘Asians’ in one bag. I’ve lived in Japan, Korea, China, Singapore, Malaysia and visited more. ‘Asia’ is a legacy of a Western worldview, as cultures vary widely (economy, religion, food, geography, language … ). In fact, even the term ‘Western’ is questionable since it’s about North America, Western Europe, and likely Australia and NZ = more of a ‘diagonal’ ;)

  • Having Singapore represent of ‘Asia’ is a bit odd. It has the most ‘hybrid’ culture. Did the Singapore Tourism Board sponsor it? (including the promotion of local food at hawker centers).

  • The ABC (America-born Chinese) girl felt as American as Mrs. Maisel in the Amazon Prime series. Yet, however smart she is, she did not know anything about her boyfriend’s family and did not research cultural norms. Also, the ‘game theory’ tricks felt quite gimmicky.

  • The boyfriend is too careless. He should know bringing his girlfriend back home is a big deal, but gives her no warning and no advice. Anyway, the movie is not about him.

  • A few fun bits though, like blondie lesbian foil (aka Awkwafina), and details like the Korean snail face mask. I also noticed a Mandarin version of Coldplay’s song Yellow in the background.

  • After watching it I thought it could be also read as a kind of cultural imperialism: Western individualism and integrity winning over ‘Asian conservatism’ (or rather: upper-class mindset). In a way, it’s the opposite message of The Last Samurai, where Tom Cruise gets to appreciate and embrace local values. As a result, I think this movie probably appeals much more to the Chinese diaspora (at large), as a validation of Western values over traditional filial duties. I’m not sure what the 3 billion ‘local Asians’ thought of it?

A Land Imagined*

An investigation about a missing Chinese construction worker in Singapore. Too many mixed styles and a sluggish pace end up disappointing. To quote a review “it won’t have much of a commercial life beyond festivals and specialized venues”. I left half way.

SHOWS

Joe Rogan***

He’s a bit loud and aggressive for me, and an acquired taste, but if you pick right, he has quite thoughtful conversations with the guests on his podcast (I recommend the episodes with Sam Harris, and Mike Tyson). He had a good line about ‘recreational outrage’ in one of them. I also watched some of his specials on Netflix. He’s pumped up and very different from many of the depressed comedians out there.

Gary Gulman***

After his very clever skit on state abbreviations and a few more on YouTube I tried his specials, but wasn’t as impressed. One thing I found very interesting, though, is Gulman’s interview on the James Altucher podcast, and the analysis of his humor (side stories, absurd humor, use of language…). Being funny is a craft!

Taiwanese Circus**

An original performance by a Taiwanese circus group visiting Paris. A quite abstract and slow show. Mildly interesting. My favorite shows in that respect are still our good’ol Cirque du, and Slava’s (surrealist) Snowshow.

BOOKS

What Money Can’t Buy

It is a research on the moral and efficiency limits of markets, with plenty of real life examples, ranging from gifts to organs or degrees. I haven’t finished it yet, but the latest admissions scandal re-ignited my interest for this book, which in 2012 already made clear how things were going.

Two key issues are (1) Fairness (especially to the poor) (2) Integrity / corruption of values or morals (e.g. transforming a fine into a fee). It rightfully questions the concept of incentives, with ideas such as the ‘crowding out effect’ (e.g. pay enough or not at all), and whether to consider generosity/compassion/altruism as in limited supply, or like a muscle to train.

I pulled on the string of lies and everything came out***

In French (and likely won’t be translated): ‘J'ai tiré sur le fil du mensonge et tout est venu’, by Philippe de Villiers. A former politician, De Villiers has decided to spill the beans from his retirement, and conducts a detailed research on the ‘founding fathers of Europe’. What he documents would make any Russian influence look like child’s play.

It’s an important topic as the prevalent ‘EU is necessary for peace’ (or as a counterforce to US or China) narrative is not complete without knowing who promoted the project and how it was financed. It’s not new to people familiar with the lectures of Francois Asselineau, but dives much deeper into the individual portraits, and historical minutiae.

Serotonin**

Michel Houellebecq is probably the most popular novelist in France today. After ‘Submission’, which described a future where a muslim president gets elected, I was expecting another political book. This one is back to his usual themes of loneliness and alienation. The main character gets tired of his life and decides to disappear. It is more introspective and less of an adventure than The Year of the Hare I wrote about in the last newsletter but still a fine read.

Foundations Of Founding

My colleague Alan just published this nifty manual based on the thousands of conversations and coaching sessions he had with high-tech startup founders, so they get organized, productive and solve conflicts productively.

4.
THOUGHTS

Economies

I collected a few interesting terms:

  • IQ tax = For useless or over-marketed things (what’s the latest superfood again? Jackfruit?) … but also arguably tobacco, alcohol, lottery, late fees, etc. Am I paying the IQ tax for something? I probably do! I also have this nagging thought that the well-known cases are negligible compared to much bigger issues. Like negotiating your salary or house price is 100x more impactful than anything else, and thus should deserve 100x more effort. Yet of course…

  • Pink tax = When the women’s version of a product is more expensive than the identical men’s. Does a ‘Blue tax’ or ‘Man tax’ exist? I could only think of bars, buffets, and the smaller selection of fragrances for men (though not necessarily more expensive). Googling quickly I found this cafe in Melbourne charging men 18% more to make up for the gender pay gap (individual fairness seemed less important than the buzz generated…).

  • ‘Black economy’ = Money circulating among black businesses and people (from Trigger Warning on Netflix, where Killer Mike tries hard for 3 days). It is interesting to consider the effects of keeping the money within a community. I guess the Amish have a stronger economy. It also reminded me of what I heard about why India prevented multi-brand retailers to go online: a journalist from the Economic Times explained to me that it would endanger the many millions depending on mom-and-pop stores.

Can Martial Arts Really Help?

After a year of training in a nearby karate dojo, I decided its emphasis on health wasn’t a fit. Too little sweat, and too little sparring. How to know if any of it works without a resisting opponent?

I mentioned that to my BJJ coach, who shared a story when he was doing a part-time job selling sports good in a store: a group of young troublemakers were often roaming the aisles, and walked out by the huge security guy. One day the security guy decided to intimidate them further outside, and walked to them. Next thing he knew he had been stabbed in the back and his side was open with his guts pouring out.

The attacker was about 13yo (and not Mike Tyson-size — who apparently was already 100kg then).

It made my coach ponder about the practical use of martial arts, when things can escalate so quickly without warning, and make your self-confidence work against you.

His advice: get away / in real life you can't get in combat stance / once it starts it's on / attackers are rarely alone / at best you’ll have some useful reflexes.

I also asked my former Shorinji Kempo training partner (he used to be a UN soldier and Royal guard in Denmark) who said something like ‘train if you like it’ (and don’t do it for real practical use?).

Another anecdote is about a friend’s 12yo son who had some issues at school with older kids. I had advised to train in something effective to be able to defend himself (and not being afraid of taking a punch). I thought the whole thing had gone away peacefully but apparently it still took him to kick back a guy once. It’s not much but it makes all the difference!

Courtney Love Does The Math

I stumbled upon this 2000 piece by Kurt Cobain’s widow and bona fide musician. It details how a band might not make a dime while selling millions of records. She really saw quite clearly how the internet would change everything (for some).

A380 Retires

I had worked on it as an acoustics engineer back in 1999. It was then called the A3XX. Already at the time it was questionable whether a jumbo jet made sense with increasingly strict regulations around noise and pollution. Today, Airbus is working on flying cars. So long, A380.

Norway’s Sovereign Fund Owns 1% Of The World

Norway found oil. Then it wasn’t sure what to do with all this money so it decided to create a kind of index fund of the world, buying 1% or so of many, many stocks (excluding those with ethical concerns). Its assets add up to one trillion dollars. More details here.

5.
PODCAST PROJECT

Take A Punch

A revamp is needed. After editing 6 episodes out of the 20 recorded (see below), I found spending over 6 hours to edit 15 minutes down to 8 wasn’t a good use of my time. I am considering other approaches which would require less editing. Also, I finally realized that people don’t care too much if a podcast is long (including myself) as they listen while doing other things.

Until next time!

—Ben

#35 | VR Chat, PT, Barcelona, Asian Movies, Podcast is Live!

Personal news & opinions - did we meet offline or on LinkedIn?
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It’s 2019 and the Year of the Pig!

(Some time ago, I confirmed that I am a Dragon (of fire!) and not a Snake: I was born in January, hence before Chinese New Year. Check yours at MyBirthdayNinja. Apparently I’m most compatible with Rat, Tiger and Snake — all friendly characters. And least compatible with Ox, Goat and Dog.)

MENU

  1. WORK: Some writing and Upcoming events

  2. NEW EXPERIENCES: VR Chat, Crossfit, Tendinitis, etc.

  3. CULTURAL CORNER: Barcelona, Asian movies, Pinocchio, Black Mirror Disappoints

  4. THOUGHTS: Yellow Vests and Peak Coaching

  5. PODCAST: We’re live!

1.
WORK

Working on projects with limited travels at the moment.

I published a 10-points summary of the interview I did with Cisco’s John Chambers on TechCrunch, as well as a beautiful transcript (a free complement to his book).

Do read both if you’re with a large company that you hope will stay relevant!

I also wrote an article sharing the experience of our startups at CES, and a commentary on Bloomberg’s recent video series about Shenzhen “The People’s Republic Of The Future” (>500,000 views).

Conferences coming up:

  • Hello Tomorrow (Mar 14-15) and Vivatech (May 16-18) in Paris

  • HAX event in SF focused on hardware investment (likely on March 21, live soon)

As usual, you’re welcome to send me/us your recommendations for prototype-stage hardware startups (consumer / industry / enterprise / health) or direct them to www.hax.co!

2.
NEW EXPERIENCES

VR Chat

I came across this news about a concert in Fortnite with (allegedly) millions of viewers. When looking at the footage it seemed like Second Life was back. It is back in two forms, in fact: in online games and in VR. I signed off from games a while back, but a friend suggested to try VR chat, so I dusted off my Oculus Go.

As I was waiting for him in the 3D chat room, I received chat requests from 2 strangers. I accepted the invitation but felt awkward talking and kept silent.

They had female-sounding voices despite their male avatars.

I thought ‘maybe some women use male avatars?’. I felt creepy being silent while they started talking. Anyhow, both quickly turned out to be … kids! And I mean children : one was 16 and the other 11 (one was using Google cardboard and his phone).

So watch your kids, folks!

Anyway, I left that room quickly, it was just too weird. Then I got contacted by another person, who had a deep voice. I found that reassuring, at least in terms of age. He was a civil servant from Oregon and had used the service for a month. He gave me some tips.

Eventually my friend arrived and we started talking. He had the higher-spec Rift ($350 at the moment vs. the $200 Go I have) and the his hand gestures and head movements were above the ‘uncanny valley’ and felt quite natural. Going back to ‘meat space’ felt strange after hanging out at a nice Japanese temple, a beach (with pelican and sand crab), and a space station. By then it was 4am — we had talked for 3 hours.

Smart-ish Home

On the topic of gadgets: I’ve been quite happy with Amazon’s Alexa for a while (though she sometimes butts in on conversations). To bring her some company I recently added a smart LED from Xiaomi (20 euros - it’s actually made by one of HAX portfolio companies, Yeelink). Alexa, turn on the light in red! Alexa, turn off the light! Sadly, most of my other smart devices are now sleeping in a drawer.

Smarter Headphones

My headphones just got better. I have two pairs: the bluetooth Bose with noise cancelling, and the Nura (a HAX startup) with personalized sound. Each offered a firmware update. Nura added noise cancelling (for free), and Bose added Alexa (a limited version but still ok). It is interesting to have products that improve after you bought them (at least as long as they still work offline as regular headphones!). Not quite the usual ‘planned obsolescence’. Check this smart home parody for reference.

Update on Hacking Scam

I have now heard similar stories of hacking scams with a Bitcoin ransom from multiple people. The one I received had an actual (old) password in it so it was more convincing, but nothing happened after I ignored it. Probably the same for everyone!

Crossfit

I had been considering trying for some time. It was quite a workout. I consider myself quite fit, but not as much ‘cardio’. Still, I prefer martial arts :)

Physical Therapy

My first ever physical therapy session! Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu continues to provide small injuries. After a fractured rib and many bruises, this time it is some kind of tendinitis in the left thumb. Likely the ‘adductor pollicis longus’ (the therapist showed me a 3D model on his phone). Quite annoying (especially for BJJ practice of course). Two lessons: (1) Don’t use you hand to prevent a heavy person crashing onto you when you’re on the ground (2) ‘If you stop training every time you’re in pain, you will never train’. Massage, ice and rest … when you can ;)

3.
CULTURAL CORNER

TRAVELS

Barcelona***

I visited Barcelona for the first time! Highlights were:

  • The house of Dali in Figueres (a train ride away). The man was very creative, and very productive! His house is … extravagant. there’s nothing much in Figueres so it’s worth stopping by Girona on the way back. Very pretty city.

  • Pata negra ham. It is delicious indeed, and 10 times more expensive than your standard serrano. If I remember correctly there are 8 kinds of black pigs, and the pricey ones are fed acorns when it’s in season (then called ‘de bellota’). Is it worth 10x the price? You decide!

  • The Sagrada Familia and Casa Batllo. Two projects by the architect Antoni Gaudí. Spectacular. I think I liked the Casa Batllo even more than the church. It’s a bit crazy to think the church started in 1882 and is still not completed. Better book in advance for both, especially if you want to go up the church tower.

  • A performance of a the ‘Song of Sybil’ at the Barcelona Cathedral for Christmas Eve. ‘Sybil is a female character in ancient dress with rich cloths who, sword in hand, announces the Apocalypse.’ Yep. The setting reminded me of the movies The Wicker Man and The Wicker Tree. Here is a version on YouTube. It’s quite special. There is a Dead Can Dance version I heard 20 years ago, but I didn’t hear the similarity.

  • Visit to the Montserrat monastery up in the mountains (go early!). The boys choir is very famous but … they were on vacation. There is a quite good art museum there too.

  • Not a highlight, but tapas (except anchovies) were a bit disappointing: all fried, repetitive, and often 'tourist-quality' (with few exceptions).

MOVIES & TV

An Elephant Sitting Still ****

Ok this grim and almost 4 hours-long Chinese movie is not for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. In short: it’s a movie on contemporary life in China, following several people living in a non-descript 4th-tier city (still >1M people), with great acting and nice camera work.

Part of my enjoyment was due to the fact that I could catch some of the dialogues, but it remains a powerful and educative document beyond the usual stereotypes of the communist / authoritarian / high-tech China. The director, Hu Bo, had published two successful novels, and committed suicide in October last year, shortly after finishing this first movie, at age 29. If you’re watching one Chinese movie this year, make it this one.

Tampopo****

Re-watched this excellent Japanese movie (on YouTube). It’s the story of a fledgling female ramen shop owner, with side plots about people's relationship to food. If you want to learn how to eat ramen right, this is for you! The movie is by Juzo Itami, my favorite Japanese director. Another director with a tragic end: he 'jumped off a building' -- likely assassinated by the local mafia (after offending them with his movie 'The Gentle Art Of Extortion').

Memories of murder****

Sloppy rural Korean policemen try to solve the case of a serial killer. This was a hit in South Korea and it was a great find. Apparently the director, Bong Joon-ho, likes to portray regular people put in situation way above their pay grade and skill level. It's inspired by a true story, and the cultural context of the time in Korea is also relevant. Read on Wikipedia for more.

From the same director I had watched the dystopian Snowpiercer but it wasn’t as good. I also tried Okja but didn’t enjoy it despite its success at Cannes. For other Korean hits, I recommend JSA, Old Boy and Friends.

Cyrano **** and Edmond ***

Edmond is the first name of playwright Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano (1897), one of the most popular French plays of all time. It’s the bittersweet love story of a long-nosed, proud, romantic musketeer and poet. It is sometimes compared in importance with Hamlet or Don Quixote. The Cyrano play — in verses —was a bit of a UFO in its time, but is among the most romantic texts you can conceive (and my favorite play).

I re-watched the movie version of the play with famed French actor Gerard Depardieu (in my top 3 French movies) to have it fresh in mind. Then I watched the new movie named Edmond, about the playwright (it is about the creation of the play — the #1 theatre actress at the time, Sarah Bernhardt, helped make it happen).

I also learned that after the night of the premiere of the original play, a French government minister was so impressed that he presented a ‘Legion d’Honneur’ to Rostand (a high distinction) right away. More amazing: Rostand was only 29! A better fortune that Hu Bo above.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ***

It’s a series of short stories in the Wild West by the Coen brothers, released almost straight on Netflix. I’m impressed, Netflix! Very entertaining, though beware of the twisted endings!

Movement *** (music video)

Music & dance collaboration between Hozier and genius Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin. Enjoy.

The Wicker Man (Director's Cut)***

Despite its outdated style, this is truly a remarkable and disturbing detective (?) movie. You will consider Burning Man differently after that.

Brexit Movie ***

Solid acting and interesting information -- though difficult to judge the bias ... It raises the question of the influence of various media forms on current events -- from ads to 'documentaries' like this one.

Pinocchio ***

I decided to re-watch it after hearing Jordan Peterson mention it several times as a model of ‘hero journey’ to adulthood (‘letting go of instant gratification’, ‘rescuing your father from the belly of the whale’ … ). I didn't remember it much from my childhood except the long nose part (that makes two with Cyrano — though it’s a very short scene in Pinocchio).

For a movie made in 1940 it’s holding up very nicely but I found the story quite disturbing for a Disney movie. Kids below 10 may have nightmares. For more odd animation, I recommend Mind Games by Studio4c (includes a whale too), and Paprika by the late (and sorely missed) Satoshi Kon.

Adam ruins everything**

A reasonably entertaining series that made the jump from YouTube to Netflix. Episodes on Security and Restaurants bring a depressing dose of reality.

The Handmaiden **

It’s a South Korean erotic psychological thriller film directed by Park Chan-wook (of JSA and Old Boy fame — Tarantino is a fan, and so am I). Unfortunately I had watched recently In the Realm of the Senses which I think is far superior. Park knows his camera work, and the images are beautiful, but somehow the movie lacked authenticity to me, and the weird mix of Japanese and Korean didn’t feel credible.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch**

On Netflix. I felt I was in the right target demographic with 80's video games and 'chose your own adventure', but the end result felt pretty weak. Nice try, still.

The Mule *

I’ll save you some money here. I really like Clint Eastwood — I found his ‘Gran Torino’ amazing — but this one … I almost left the theatre half way. It was just entertaining enough, but not by much. One takeaway is the song ‘Don’t let the old man in’. It was inspired by what the 88 y.o. Eastwood told the songwriter when asked about how he kept going at his age.

Long Day's Journey Into Night *

A Chinese experimental movie, fairly uncommon in movie theaters. The acting is good, the images are pretty, but I found it really confusing and slow. Despite my efforts, I could not get into it, and left after an hour. Even the positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes feel somewhat negative. Try at your own risk.

SHOWS

Alfons Mucha***

A Czech illustrator with a unique illustrative style, during the early 20th century. Like Edmond Rostand, the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt played a key role in his career. I found some distant similarities with the symbolist Gustave Moreau.

Joan Miró***

I didn’t see his works in Barcelona but in Paris. Quite an interesting research he did on colors and shapes. It feels much more thoughtful than the work of Basquiat.

Grayson Perry**

The self-proclaimed ‘transvestite potter from Essex’. A creative chap. Sculptures, potteries, tapestries telling stories.

Standup Comedy***

Went for another show in English in Paris. The first two (French) comedians were not great, but a Dutch, a Cameroonian and an Indian saved the day. A good reminder that material has to be tight. The average pro packs in five ‘bits’ per minute! For better stuff, I recently stumbled upon that guy Gary Gulman and enjoyed his abbreviating the U.S. state capitals and finding $20 in an old coat. Have fun!

Never On The First Night (Theatre)**

This Parisian show has been on for 5 years so I had high hopes. It’s about a girl unlucky in love who decides to try online dating and just YOLO. Things don’t turn out as planned when a sexy-yet-romantic Italian shows up. It’s quite low brow but the acting was good … until an odd ending partly ruined it.

Paris Circus School Graduation Show**

A good effort with some gender-fluid parts and social messages (President Macron is trying to reform the status of show-business workers, some of whom are said to abuse unemployment benefits). I realized I’m not easy to please with circus, even when it’s somewhat experimental.

BOOKS

The Year of the Hare

I rarely read fiction these days but I received this one was a gift. A strange novel about a Finnish journalist who leaves his previous life behind to go into the wild and across Finland with a hare. It was adapted into two movies and is part of a UNESCO list. It somehow reminded me of The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, which was meant to teach geography to Swedish schoolchildren (here is a solid animation version made in 1955 in USSR).

Insane Mode: How Elon Musk's Tesla Sparked an Electric Revolution to End the Age of Oil

My friend Hamish, co-founder of Substack (which powers this newsletter), just published a book about Tesla and the electric age! He’s an independent journalist who covered tech, interviewed Sting, John Cleese and many others, and was the lead writer for Tesla for several years.

4.
THOUGHTS

Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes, or GJ)

France has had almost 3 months of weekend protests. Most of them seem to belong to the working class who can't make ends meet. One of the major demands that surfaced is to create a mechanism to allow citizens to trigger referendums on key topics. Modern democracies almost always depend on electoral votes (and campaigning, and financing the campaign … ), and end up generally electing members of the same social class (the top 10% or even top 1% — you ‘only’ need a net income of about $10,000/month to be in the top 1% in France). As the gap is widening, no wonder something is breaking, and the silent-yet-struggling majority (?) wants to be heard.

Peak Coaching?

I think we have reached peak coaching. I came across a video ad for a ‘traveling handstand coach’ on Facebook, and just saw a poster in the subway for ‘the number one meditation book for kids’. There are also a flurry of popular ‘change your life’ podcasts in France these days. Well, mine is coming — in English first ;p (likely an even more crowded market but who cares?). See right below for more!

5.
PODCAST PROJECT

Take A Punch

This is a limited release on Soundcloud of this personal project. The initial idea was sharing heard-earned ‘life lessons’ to help my nephews grow up. Thanks to this newsletter, Michael Waitze reached out to help with this project.

You might or might not be the target audience … Each episode is less than 10 minutes. It’s called ‘take a punch’ because … just listen to the episode :)

What I learned so far:

  • Podcasting, public speaking (of which I’ve done a lot of) and standup comedy (which I’ve tried a few times) are very different.

  • It’s a bit uneasy to hear my own voice in such monologues. I had the same feeling watching videos of my BJJ practice. One blue belt guy with 5-6 years of practice I trained with watched himself and said“I am much less of a ninja than I thought. I should never have asked to watch it!” . Needless to say I was worse! The transition from ‘unconscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious incompetence’ is the most painful. Then comes the long road to conscious competence and mastery!

  • Editing takes a loooong time at first (how about 4 hours for 10 minutes?). The audio files on GarageBand looked like mille-feuilles. Maybe I’m too OCD?

  • Editing really tightens the material (like a ‘tight five’ in standup)

  • I realized that recently: since I edit, I can repeat myself safely.

  • Deep fake with audio is not hard ;)

PS: I’m not a big listener of Joe Rogan but that guys takes punches: standup, BJJ and podcasting. That’s a lot of mental and physical punches!

To a punchy 2019!
—Ben

#34 | M&A Masterclass, Hacking, Much Art and Minor Thoughts

Personal news & opinions - we met offline or via LinkedIn.
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Writings: Medium - Forbes - TechCrunch - VentureBeat

Weeks went by, pollution was inhaled, and here are some news! It’s a bit long- take your time.

MENU

  1. WORK: Final Masterclass (feat. John Chambers), Writing

  2. NEW EXPERIENCES: Hacking, Locksmith Scam, Space Ashes, Fun Drive

  3. CULTURAL CORNER: Ando, Basquiat, Art Brut, Photosculpture, Tezuka, Documentaries

  4. THOUGHTS: Light on Fears, Prairie Voles, Asbestos and Late Podcast

1.
WORK

The M&A Masterclass With John Chambers Was On Fire!

The is the seventh event I co-organized this year about ‘startup exits’ (IPO, M&As, etc.). It took place in SF on the day people were advised to stay home due to air quality issues caused by the California fires. It reminded me of the good’days in Beijing.

Fortunately we had exceptionally high interest in this event (100% oversubscribed). So the show went on with a room almost full, mostly composed of corp dev executives (the people who buy startups).

Speakers were great, and John Chambers (former CEO of Cisco for 20 years, with 180 M&As) did an amazing job during a full hour. It was the best interview I had the pleasure to conduct so far! I’m working on a transcript and summary, but in the meantime, the videos are up here with those of previous events.

We gave to everyone a copy of John’s new book — it is very good on M&A, but also leadership & people things — I highly recommend it (I have the ebook, the audiobook and a signed copy!). We also threw in an air mask :)

I had a Gulag Archipelago moment as a friend pointed out that the fires were linked to global warming, partly caused partly by my own poor environmental habits. At least I didn’t ‘kill a dolphin’ this time (like I heard the last time I used a plastic straw — which the EU is banning as ‘single use plastic’).

Articles

Some new things I wrote:

Panel transcripts (why let good discussions go to waste?):

LinkedIn Devolution

I occasionally export contacts from LinkedIn. You might like to know that as a recent ‘improvement of security of privacy’, your profile does not share your email during exports anymore. In my latest export I had less than 1% of emails of my 1st degree contacts. Will that create a better experience for all, or contribute meaningfully to Microsoft’s bottom line? Let’s wish them the best!

Next trips

I’m in HK/Shenzhen next week for a HAX Demo Day and some meetings. No major trips planned until next year.

2.
NEW EXPERIENCES

Hacked!

So I received this email saying I had been hacked! It mentioned one of my passwords and claimed to have kept up with password changes, installed a malware on my computer, copied all my browsing history and contact list, and taken compromising pics with my webcam (no less!). It was coming from a .ru domain (but who knows?) and asking for $995 in Bitcoin before the 48h deadline, after which all the bad stuff should automatically delete itself. See the prose below for details.

Yeah, right …

After a first shock — will my browsing habits be shared with the world? Will that slow down the servers of my favorite sites? Can I pay with ETH or LTC if I don’t have BTC?—I thought the hacker’s claim were probably fake and that an old email (not my gmail nor my work email) and a password I typically use as throwaway would not do much.

I suspect this self-proclaimed genius might have zero skills aside from dubious copywriting and clicking ‘send’. He/she (let’s be inclusive) was most likely using a leaked list from one of the many hacked websites out there.

Still, I believe this can scare some into wiring crypto. I decided to ignore it and … crickets.

I found later this blackmail scam is documented, and even heard that some scammers were now back to intentionally using bad grammar to filter out time-wasting smarty-pants. It’s a numbers game so they want the first filter to bring them good prospects! Anyhow, if you receive an email about my browsing habits (and selfies taken by my hacked smartphone?) let me know what your favorites are!

Spooky Tracking

To continue with a tech theme: I switched my internet provider. I got a call from my ISP the day after I went to the post office to send the cancellation letter and ship back the equipment—no way they had received it yet!  I suspect they tracked my browsing when I was logged onto their website and searching for the cancellation process. Well played, still!

Lock Luck

So just yesterday after dinner I found myself locked out of my apartment. The key could turn inside, but the heavy safety door wouldn’t open. I picked a semi-random website (they seemed all alike) and called.

Here I should stop and say that locksmiths in France have a pretty bad reputation as scammers (billing sometimes upward of $1,000!), so I was bracing myself for dirty tricks, and wanted to clarify pricing as much as possible to avoid bad surprises.

I was told 90 euros for opening the door (it was midnight) … minimum (down to 60 euros if the next day morning). The guy showed up and the fun started:

‘It’s the external part of the lock, I’ll need to drill’ / ‘It’s a 3-points high security door, it’s more difficult’ / ‘Grinding the lock is extra’ / ‘A new lock of this type is at least 500 euros’.

He started looking for a power plug almost immediately (none was in sight), likely to start grinding the lock ASAP. All this could sound legit if … the door hadn’t eventually opened simply with putting a screwdriver in the frame and pushing hard a few times.

Then the second part started:

‘I can shave the door a bit for an extra 128 euros’ / ‘it’s weekend and night-time so it’s 100% extra’ / ‘it’s a high security door and pricing is based on the door’ —180 euros for a screwdriver and a push?

I had mentioned the door type and the time was night already when I called and had been quoted 90 euros, so I decided to stick to my guns. The locksmith gave in rapidly, and I felt lucky to pay ‘only’ the agreed fee. He didn’t have invoice documents left (he had written up one quickly with several add-ons) and promised an email in the morning. I suspect I’ll never see it.

Ashes to Space

Two weeks ago I was supposed to go see the latest launch of a SpaceX rocket with a friend of mine who has cargo on board. Unfortunately space is even worse than airlines in terms of delays: a series of last minute technical checks pushed back the launch several times, so I missed it.

His company is taking the ashes of 100 people into space (Forbes, CNN, Fortune), and the first with a dedicated satellite. For those who worry about space junk: (1) it’s a cubesat of 10x10x10cm that has a 0.0000…% chance of colliding (for real) (2) it’s disintegrating upon re-entry (yes, a shooting star) (3) SpaceX got approved for twelve thousand (larger) satellites.

Update: The launch is a success! A bit of stress following the initial trajectory. The satellite is now in orbit and can be followed on the Elysium Space app (iPhone & Android)

Ginastica natural

I did a trial lesson of this ‘natural workout’ using a mix of yoga and animal-inspired movements. I found the yoga sloppy and the animal thing o-kay but a bit unexciting. One female participant found the class ‘too masculine’ (?). Anyway, once was enough for me too.

Black Belt

I studied some katas for a karate test (I’m ‘beginner’ despite a higher degree in another style, I hadn’t tested for a long time and tried 2 grades — passed one, failed one). In BJJ I came across two good lines: ‘a black belt is a white belt who didn’t quit’ and ‘progress is destroying last month’s you’. I also realized I enjoyed BJJ a lot more than karate so I might adjust my schedule next year. While BJJ can be very unrealistic too (since there are no strikes, or kicks when you’re on the ground), it’s still a solid workout, and reduces fear of physical contact. It’s alongside boxing and muay thai for practical use. I also heard best self-defense sport might be … rugby ;)

Games

My friend introduced this board game named Small World. I hadn’t played such game for a while and it proved quite fun. The game has a fantasy theme and is largely strategy and negotiation, with very little randomness (like Risk, or the better Diplomacy). I find games on each end of the ‘pure luck <—> deep maths’ spectrum quite boring — this one had the right balance. My flying tritons gambit became an instant classic (for its dismal failure). I found later on that the game was published on mobile too, so I bought it to study it further. It plays well :)

Escape Room

I took a friend and his wife to an escape room. It was maybe my 5th or 6th. There is something quite enjoyable messing around with physical things, and solving puzzles. That one in San Jose also has a super-premium room with an Excalibur theme that lasts 2 hours and costs $80 per person. For special occasions!

1% Life

A couple of unexpected 1%-er fun things (or ‘1% of 1%’ since a $32k income is enough to reach the global top 1%):

  • A half hour ride in a vintage sports car (a Caterham). Around 500kg with no electronics, it will be the last car running when a global EMP shockwave throws us back to the age of steam.

  • A fancy dinner at the British Embassy in Paris. They had a bust of Napoleon at the entrance: British humor? I chatted a bit with the Ambassador, who in younger years was stationed in Hong Kong and left on Her Majesty the Queen’s vessel when they gave the keys back to China in ‘97.

Future-proof analog fast car / Work from the outside

3.
CULTURAL CORNER

Quite a few art shows over the past few weeks but not much movies/reading. Can’t have it all!

Tadao Ando exhibition (Paris)****

“Architecture as blank canvas for light, wind, people and events to happen”. Ando didn’t have the money to study architecture, and Japanese couldn’t travel freely outside Japan until April 1st 1964 (legacy of WWII), so he picked up his things and traveled from 1965 to self-study (he was 24). He was especially interested in Le Corbusier (and his 5 Points of Modern Architecture — Pilotis / no supporting walls allowing free design of the ground plan / free design of facade since exterior walls are not structural / ribbon window / roof gardens) and re-traced the master’s plans many times.

As a total outsider, I assume Ando took on at first any project he could, then his unorthodox row house got him the fame he needed to take on bigger projects. It seems his focus has been around ‘designing the light’. I’m a fan of both his row house and lighthouse, and was surprised by his religious buildings —Ando designed a couple of small churches, and a structure around a Buddha statue.  I guess many architects are interested in taking on this challenge (there are a couple of chapels in the South of France by Picasso and Matisse—Picasso even argued about Matisse’s legitimacy).

Ando’s trips / Row house / Churches / Unveiling of Buddha

Since this show included entry to the permanent collection of Paris MoMa, I stopped by Klein’sBlue’ (a photo wouldn’t do it justice) and a disturbing nkisi nkonde wooden fetish with dozens of nails, formerly owned by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (who coined the word ‘surrealism’).


Basquiat & Shiele @ Louis Vuitton Foundation (Paris)***

The building itself is worth a visit. I went for Basquiat and was surprisingly underwhelmed (I had liked his illustrations used on a Maya Angelou poem, and related Butoh performance—maybe Angelou’s work was the powerful part?). I didn’t feel anything much looking at his works. Maybe in its time it had much more power?

The other artist on display was Egon Shiele — an early expressionist — which I found much more moving. It reminded me of some works by Lautrec, but also by today’s Serbia-born creator Enki Bilal (who will likely never be in a museum as ‘comic book artists’ are rarely recognized, same for Hugo Pratt’s watercolors). Basquiat died aged 27 in 1988; Shiele died at 28 in 1918.

LV:1, Shiele: 1, Basquiat: 0 — with a Lautrec and Bilal


Japanese Art Brut (Paris)***

I had seen French and American ‘art brut’ before. It’s generally done by patients of mental institutions, autistic people, sometimes prison inmates or even animals! The perceptions and brains of mental patients yields unexpected things, and some have plenty of time and patience to create.

This exhibit showed a mix of art by  mental patients and WWII bombing survivors, some with first-hand experience of nuclear horrors.

If you are on the East Coast I recommend stopping by Baltimore’s Visionary Art Museum. I added below a painting by Congo, a gifted and prolific painter of the chimpanzee persuasion, observed by Desmond Morris (Zoologist / sociologist / philosopher of ‘The Naked Ape’ and ‘The Human Zoo’ fame and a surrealist painter — Congo is more of an impressionist). I highly recommend ‘The Artistic Ape’ that Morris published 5 years ago (he was 85—and  it’s about art).

Patient work by mental patients, bomb survivors, and an artistic ape


British Museum and V&A free exhibits (London)****

During London trips I strolled into their amazing free exhibits. I came across an Aztec skull, a mid-sized Moai, Anubis (?), a sporty Garuda, the Rosetta stone, one of the many (!) Rodin sculptures on display, and my new favorite: the wild and powerful retiaire et gorille by Fremiet, apparently a recent acquisition (the first gorilla was brought alive to Europe in 1855).


V&A ‘The Future Starts Here’ Exhibition (London)*

Oh! The irony of being welcomed by a robot whose makers just went bankrupt! This show had a few other dead startups on display — including the ‘social robot’ Jibo. Maybe a subtle message about the difficulty of making the future happen? And the many failed attempts on the way? One interesting tidbit was learning about a seed vault in Norway (for doomsday prep). Overall not impressed—we have much better stuff at HAX! The best part was … the text on the exit stairway. According to online reviews, their other exhibit on video games wasn’t great either.

Bankrupt robots / Cyber-muscles for seniors / The inspired exit


Decorative Arts Museum (Paris)***

A quick visit there took me back to the time when a bed or a cabinet was luxury, all the way to modern design. It also evoked the connection between luxury, art and prestige. It’s often not about the quality or beauty of the craft itself—some of the China-inspired porcelains, for instance, were of dubious taste and quality. Still fairly interesting.

On small sculptures I saw a note about a 1839 process for mechanical reduction of sculptures created by Achille Collas and Frederic Sauvage, which lead me down the path of the origins of 3d printing: pantograph, photosculpture by Francois Willeme (he filed his first US patent later in 1864), photosterie and more.

Photosculpture involved taking 24 images of the same object from all around it, then using the silhouette pictures as guides for sculpting clay (at different scales using a pantograph). Sculpture (posing) at the speed of photography (-ish)! It’s really early ‘3D printing’. For unclear reasons it didn’t pick up.

Update: I had a dream about photosculpture! Several people were working on a life-sized elephant sculpture with this technique, and I had a chat with the lady in charge.

Pantograph to scale things, photosculpture patent, and some results


MOVIES & TV

Tezuka **** (documentary—genius alert!)

The legendary ‘Japanese Disney’ (pre-Miyazaki), mostly known abroad for his robot-kid character Astroboy. A Japanese doctor and amateur entomologist, he worked the hardest of them all at drawing and pioneered the Japanese TV animation industry. I read a biography in manga published by his studio, then watched several interviews and a rare NHK documentary (free here).

I am mixing sources a bit, but:

  • He was extremely prolific, covering historical, contemporary and futuristic themes. Total is about 150,000 pages (@_@);

  • He was apparently watching over 300 movies per year in cinemas to research storytelling techniques and cinematography. Some movies he would just watch part of, some he would watch many times (80 times for Bambi). His relentless focus are remarkable, and might explain the unusual angles and highly cinematic aspects of his works.

  • Tezuka was also inspired by China’s first animated feature filmPrincess Iron Fan’ (1941) — based on some Journey to the West characters. It used rotoscoping heavily (tracing on live action film).

  • To save production time and deliver under grueling TV schedules, he improved ‘limited animation’ techniques (e.g. animating only part of a character rather than all of it), and developed a filing and coding system for colors and basic backgrounds.

  • Tezuka was part of the first SciFi congress in Japan in 1962. He then tapped various authors to write for Astroboy.

  • In 1965, Kubrick asked Tezuka to be the art director of 2001! Tezuka declined due to his workload.

  • Tezuka made a couple of adult animations in the 70s during the ‘pink film era’. 

  • Some documentaries on Disney (whose company later lifted Tezuka’s Leo to create the Lion Ling) are equally interesting — for instance explaining his invention of the multiplane camera, allowing a stronger sense of depth (like in the opening of Bambi). Tezuka used it too.

  • For historical reference, here is ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ from 1914 in full keyframe animation (10,000 drawings!).

I tried to interest my 8y.o. nephews in the making of their favorite animations, but got only ‘limited attention’…

Astroboy/Atom, Tezuka erotica, Chinese rotoscoped animation from 1941

Happy Like Lazarro (Italian movie)***

I quite enjoyed this eerie movie. It pictures a simple-minded Italian young man, working as a mysterious helping hand in a farmer’s hamlet in rural Italy. Who is he? Why is he so kind? It’s a bit of a fairy tale.

In the Realm of the Senses (Japanese movie)***

A 1976 classic of Japanese erotica which showed again in Paris. I vaguely remembered the final scene I caught decades ago on TV, but the movie itself — inspired by the true story of a lady named Sada Abe — was way more graphic than I thought. They’re basically at it the entire time.

A few interstitial scenes involved very young children not involved in sexual things, but either nude or around nudity. While it seemed possibly acceptable in a Japanese context — as Japan’s relationship to the body and nudity is different from the West at large — those would likely be banned today.

The fact that the Japanese dialogues were quite clear added to my enjoyment. I even noticed some bits were lost in translation — like when Sada says to the owner of the Inn that she likes to work in a proper (‘katai’) place, to which he replies he’s also ‘katai’ (hard) and guides her hand—they’re attracted to each other but it’s obviously pre-#metoo.

The China Hustle (Netflix documentary)***

If you liked The Big Short you might enjoy this one (it’s on Netflix, and Mark Cuban is a co-producer). Though it’s unclear whether this is a ‘fair’ documentary, it’s an interesting depiction of a stock market scam that started as early as 2003 and went into full swing circa 2010 … and is somewhat still ongoing. It describes unscrupulous small investment banks getting Chinese SMEs (hundreds of them!)to list on the NYSE or others using reverse mergers (I’m not talking about the recent Chinese tech IPOs, which might be another story…).

  • The first hustle was simply to charge service fees, hype up the China story, and sometimes ride the stock.

  • The second hustle was when those companies (Orient Paper, Sino-Forest and others) were found to be simply faking their numbers (by 10x!), and shorting them.

Most shocking to me was the sloppy work by auditors and lawyers who do zero due diligence on the business — no gatekeeper, essentially —  and the inability to indict almost anyone, including Chinese CEOs safe at home in China. The idiom that summarizes it: 混水摸魚 (hún shuǐ mō yú)—‘muddy waters makes it easy to catch fish’.

That Sugar Film (documentary)**

A documentary about the damages and rampant presence of processed sugar in our food.  An Australian low-sugar guy decides to eat the average sugar intake only from ‘healthy foods’ (cereals, yogurts, fruits, juices…), to his doctors and waistline dismay. I found it better than the ‘Supersize Me’ movie.

One discovery: the “bliss point” — the optimal amount of sugar (and salt and fat) — identified about 45y ago. A follow-up conversation in Paris involving an exec in a company producing starch for the food industry (a ‘hidden’ non-sweetening but texturing sugar) lead to the conclusion that the healthiest food is likely either raw or home-cooked.

Art of the Game: Ukiyo-e Heroes (documentary)**

I had noticed the Kickstarter campaign for those video game-inspired woodblock ukiyo-e-style prints. The documentary meets the US-based creator and his much older British-born and Japan-based carver compadre as they explain how this project changed their lives.

The carver, apparently self-taught, as no Japanese master would take him (?), had an interestingly open attitude regarding the production of prints: rather than number them to create scarcity and sell for high prices, he is a proponent of making affordable art (the most expensive are $150), in the spirit of the original ukiyo-e. And make no mistake: the craftsmanship is top notch, from the detail of the print to the quality of inks and the traditional paper they use.

A fun detail was to realize that using multiple colors in a single image (including some crazy gradients) requires using several blocks with different “planes” (here is a simple example)—yes, a little bit like Disney’s ‘multi-plane’ camera!

And Meanwhile, Simone Is Awake (theatre play, Paris) ****

I went again to see this play on the modern history of French women. The title is a play (in French) on French politician Simone Veil (/veille) who championed abortion laws in France back in 1974 (at which time an estimated 300,000 abortions were conducted—illegally—every year. We’re now stable at ~200,000 / year since 2000, the majority using pharmaceuticals—about 1.5% of women ever had one). She passed away recently and was the second woman after Marie Curie to be included in the Pantheon where ‘French greats’ are buried. An informative and fun play.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon series)***

My latest interest. An upper-middle-class 26yo Jewish housewife with two kids gets into standup comedy in 1950s’ New York. Acting is good but it lacks a bit on the comedy front. I’m just done with the first season. As far as movies about the craft of comedy go, I think Punchline with Tom Hanks (1988 and a bit dated) or the documentary Comedian on Jerry Seinfeld (2002) are better.

BlackKlansMan (movie) **

I liked some previous Spike Lee works (I’m a fan of ‘Bamboozled’) and went to watch this one. It was reasonably entertaining but I found the final shortcut from old times KKK to anti-Trump propaganda a stretch. 

Disenchanted (Netflix animation series)*

I tried this new animated series by The Simpsons creator. Unfortunately found it quite boring.

What Money Can’t Buy (book)***

Scarce reading these days but I’m half-way through this book. It looks into how our society evolved (or devolved) by putting a price on almost everything. Somewhat concerning.

4.
THOUGHTS

“There’s Nothing in the Dark But Your Fear”

Without going into too much details of the situation, I remembered recently this Peul saying. Asking the questions that frighten you early on can cast light and evaporate fears. Now aware of reality, you can chose to carry on or walk away.

Prairie voles

I never knew that was their English name, but it was mentioned in an old Rick & Morty episode. Apparently scientists now study their uniquely strong pair bonding. In the episode, the vole vial is opposed to praying mantis, whose females decapitate their mate. Chose your own adventure!

Asbestos vs. Tobacco

On a more somber note, I lost a 84 y.o. uncle to a rare form of lung cancer. It was linked to exposure to asbestos in the Paris university where he was a physics researcher for decades. This forms takes 20–40 years to develop but is then very quick. He was a smoker for 40 years, which seemed to have had no impact. Asbestos is said to have killed 60,000–120,000 people in France between 1955 and 2009, and to take another 70,000–100,000 by 2050. Worldwide, it’s about 100,000 / year, with many among building contractors. The impact of air contamination and pollution are hard to measure still, and we might be in for terrible surprises soon. What will be the bill for my China years?

Podcast Update

It’s taking longer than intended. We recorded several short episodes, some of which should be good enough to publish (others will need a re-take). Now I have to learn how to edit the audio, and … pull the trigger?

That’s all for now!
—Ben

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