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

Ben’s irregular newsletter mixes work and play.
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France went back from curfew to lockdown. Fortunately I’m better prepared now. I hope you are too!


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


Fail Fast

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

About EF

EF calls itself a ‘talent investor’:

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

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

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

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

My Projects

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

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

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

(1) Compact sensors

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

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

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

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

(2) Informal Networking solutions

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

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

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

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

(3) [New technology]

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

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

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

(4) Next project

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

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


Home Gym

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

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

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

Speaking Online

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

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

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

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

Hacking Covid

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

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

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

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

To make it short:

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Saladhine Parnasse, the Mbappe of MMA***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Recycling Theatre

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

More Games: Risk

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

Cat Management

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


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

Maskless Shopping

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

Some Stats

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

Vaccine Stocks

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

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

How to test a vaccine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hope things improve before Christmas!
— Ben

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

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

Howdy! It’s been an eventful month, with a big change for me.


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


On Leave

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

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

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

Latest Podcasts

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

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


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

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

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

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


Coding and the Risks of Data

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

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

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

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

Almost Robbed (Again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cat Painting

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

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

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

Personal Taylor

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

JiuJitsu Stop & Go

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

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

Friend The Dead

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



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

Family Romance, LLC**

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

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


The Good Fight***

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

My Octopus Teacher***

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

The Spanish Apartment**

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

The Goat (‘La Chevre)**

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


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

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


Calling Bullshit on Data****

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

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

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

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

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

  • The problem of false positives and false negatives.

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

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

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

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

In short:

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

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

There are several talks online by this author.

Rick Beato on Pop Music***

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


On Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I noticed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The duration of a game can also matter.

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

Tommy Two Misses

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


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

Covid Art

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

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

Covid Nomads

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

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

Testing Covid

My current view is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!
— Ben

#47 | Waterpark physics, Cats, Coding and More Deep Tech Podcasts

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I got a bit distracted by a certain pandemic. I moved my musings on Covid to the end as everyone is probably over-informed. Best wishes to all, and in particular to those in California and Australia, who — between Covid and fires—have had a particularly rough year.


1. WORK: Portfolio updates, More podcasts
2. EXPERIENCES: Sew me, Waterpark physics, Cats and Coding
3. CULTURE: Dark III, some YT and podcasts
4. THOUGHTS: Pyramids, Meritocracy, Bac pour tous, Bullshit Jobs
5. COVID LIFE: Fight Cub, Numbers, Treatments, S&P Mystery


Portfolio Updates

Some great things happened in the SOSV portfolio:

More Podcasts

I focused on the Deep Tech: From Lab To Market podcast.

  • Over a dozen episodes are now live with companies such as Khosla Ventures, E14 Fund (from the MIT Media Lab), DCVC and more.

  • After a series of investors, I am now also inviting deep tech entrepreneurs and domain experts. Recommendations and contacts are welcome!


As you probably know, our fund’s investment model is to sign our first checks via our vertical accelerators in hardware, biology, food and cross-border software (with packages of $100k-$250k). We then follow-on with larger checks for seed, A, B, etc.

Like many, we had to quickly find ways for our programs to go online, and it seems to be working so far. Despite the many challenges, there are some benefits:

  • Startups do not need to relocate, which makes our programs more accessible.

  • Many mentors and investors have also been more reachable than ever, now that they don’t need to travel and have gotten used to online meetings.

  • Online events also gather larger audiences.


Waterpark Physics

I took my nephews to a waterpark with a dozen rides, slides and falls. It was all fun and games until someone said ‘heavy people go faster’.

36 hours later I was still looking for a satisfactory answer. Note that I hold a MSc. in fluid mechanics, and looked for answers on Quora, Stackoverflow/physics and explored comparables in skiing, bobsleighs, free fall and more.

Here are my thoughts for now:

  • We’ll assume the initial speed is zero.

  • Potential energy is converted into kinetic energy and heat from friction (with air & water).

  • The elements at play are: gravity / free fall (independent of mass), air friction, waterslide friction (plastic on skin / swimsuit), water friction (which also acts as some kind of lubricant), current (low depth water), floatation (archimedes force).

  • Air friction depends on the surface area and aerodynamics. In free fall, a heavier object with similar dynamics will reach a higher terminal velocity than a lighter one. We can probably assume air friction differences are negligible between light and heavy people there.

  • It is not clear that heavy people go faster but they might seem to. They might just have a bigger ‘splash’ at the end as they move a larger volume of water.

  • Surface friction varies with the contact area, ‘type’ (rough vs. slippery), and mass

  • Floatation depends on volume and density.

A friend working for NASA suggested that the scientific approach would be to run an experiment with maybe a small and a large plastic bag full of water to simulate a human body. I don’t have plans of going back to the waterpark right now, so other ideas are welcome!

Sew Me

I was walking back from watching a movie (my first post-lockdown). I had stopped to browse the menu of a restaurant, when a waiter stepped on my foot and kept it there. I then sensed a light contact in my back. I looked at the waiter: he wasn’t a waiter at all but a suspicious guy stepping on my foot! I checked my phone in my back pocket, and there it was: gone! I turned around and saw another guy walking away. Walking up to him I found my phone in his hands, grabbed it, scolded him, and both of them walked away.

Thinking back, I am still unsure of what the best reaction would have been. You never know how many and how dangerous thieves are. And from what I heard, if they get arrested, they will most likely be back on the street within days, to the great despair of the police.

I mentioned the incident to a few dojo friends, one of them said that before engaging in a confrontation, he always checks the hands (for size and fighting marks), the ears (for cauliflower ears that show a practice of contact sports), then keeps an eye on the neck (as punches and more can be read from there). My solution to avoid future trouble? Sewing my short’s back pockets.

New Laptop, Old Specs

I had not been paying much attention but it seems that the processors of laptops have barely changed for years… I also realized my 2015 MacBook was vastly underpowered to handle my many browser tabs, large Keynote files, and editing podcast files. I even had gone back to my 2012 MacBook Air for audio editing… Eventually and despite the slowdown of Moore’s Law I bought a MacBook Pro.

Lend Me Your Cat

There is a website where volunteers can offer free hosting to cat owners and we hosted two cats for a week each. Owners provide the cat, food, equipment, and pay a tiny fee to the website. The first cat spent most of his first 3 days hiding under the bed and fasting. He was either on the shy side, or working on his summer body … The second one was a large beast (8.5kg—maybe a rogue Maine Coon?) who ate every 2 hours and did a great job at being a cat. The third guest is arriving in a week.


I haven’t coded for almost 20 years when I did C and Matlab in engineering school (aside from some tiny HTML and CSS), but I had been looking into automating a few tasks I perform regularly. Rather than use online tools or ask Fiverr or bother our internal IT team, I thought it could be interesting to do it myself.

A friend mentioned a method he said his mother completed so the gauntlet was thrown. A few weeks in, I completed the course and can code a crude web crawler or bot in python with libraries like BeautifulSoup, Selenium, Pyautogui … and it’s been highly satisfying.

Python is very easy to understand despite some quirks in some of the syntax, and coding small custom tools is probably one of the skills office workers should hone sooner rather than later. Python is half-way between ‘proper code’ and the bright future of ‘no code’ programming. If some of your tasks are repetitive, check it out!



Since business trips are out and lockdown is over, I took the chance to spend some weekends around France.


Brittany was pretty nice, with some mysterious old stones and open sea. I did some wind kart, which wasn’t so easy to handle.


The South of France with a spectacular village in a ‘hole’, a Templar town, a bird park (seeing flamingos take off is always quite a sight), an insect park (including scorpion flies, which luckily do not sting) and the Larzac region famous for its roquefort cheese.

French Riviera

Remote work and occasional swimming (with the ‘Decathlon respirator mask’, because you never know when Covid might catch you), paddling, a couple of swings sailing a catamaran (solo was a bit stressful).


I didn’t do a great selection I’m afraid…

Dark (third season) ***

It’s an intentionally convoluted affair involving time travel and 4 families across at least 5 different time periods (I had to watch a recap of the first 2 seasons to get up to speed, and still more after it ended). You might end up thinking either that the story is amazing … or that some of it doesn’t add up and that the authors even left some loose ends. I am still swaying between the two opinions!

My fair lady***

I am not a big fan of musicals but this movie is an old favorite for its acting and general theme, around linguistics, phonetics and social class. Watch it if you get the chance.


I watched the movie before, and on a slow evening embarked on the subsequent Netflix series. It was reasonably entertaining, thanks to the acting and atmosphere and despite a fairly predictable script. Quick reminder:

  • The world is frozen, save for a small group living in a 1001 cars-long train that has been circling the Earth for 7 years.

  • There is a boss / chief engineer nobody ever sees, and passengers from first, second and third class with decreasing privileges in food quality, living arrangements, leisure options and reproductive rights.

  • A series of murders disturbs the established order.

I loved the director’s Memories of Murder but found his (acclaimed) movie Parasite too over-the-top in its second half. Snowpiercer is sort of half-way. Wikipedia kindly reminded me Snowpiercer is based on a French graphic novel.

Capital in the 21st Century**

I haven’t read the book by the famed French economist Thomas Piketty, and figured his movie would be a convenient shortcut. While I didn’t feel I learned a whole lot, and found the images used manipulative, what I took away is this: “if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call ‘the market’ reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else”.

Grossophobie** (Fatphobia / Fatshaming)

A documentary on a plus-sized French writer who discusses her size-related challenges, from school to dating, clothing, work and the perception of others. I found this personal account quite effective.

Ten Per Cent**

A Netflix show about a French talent agency dealing mostly with actors. Quite entertaining, with numerous cameos from recent and older French celebs.

Hotel by the River**

A Korean movie about an aging poet who left his wife and two sons many years prior. He invites his sons to visit him at an isolated hotel by a river as he’s pondering about life. The acting and aesthetics were good, but it’s a very minimalist movie and not for everybody. I also enjoyed being able to follow a large part of the sparse Korean dialogue. Some of the attitudes are, I think, typically Korean and might surprise viewers.

Tout simplement noir** (Simply Black)

A mockumentary about an unemployed French black actor who decides to stage a protest in Paris for black men. As he’s struggling to gather support from black celebrities — who seem to find anti-racism a tired theme — he realizes he might need to adjust his message, while being reminded by his supportive white working wife of his domestic duties. A bit of lightness and subtlety in the treatment of this theme was a welcome and fresh angle, compared to the transatlantic tension that France had been importing recently.


I’ve enjoyed those more than movies.

  • Sam Harris had some great podcasts on Meritocracy, Wokeness and more.

  • Eric Weinstein’s older podcasts of ‘The Portal’, with Werner ‘wirecutter’ Herzog, Peter Thiel and a recent one with Josh Wolfe.

  • The YouTube channel on ‘everything music of Rick Beato had some gems.

  • I watched every video published on the channel of Professor Raoult’s infection center.

  • Several Penn & TellerFool Us’ episodes were interesting. This lead me to Takumi Takahashi and Lennart Green.


Pyramid Scheme

I know Elon twitted that aliens built the pyramids, but If you’re connected to him, send him this: this is a fascinating and highly credible demonstration that the giant blocks were agglomerated on site rather than carved and hauled from miles away.

I find it a sad state of affairs that Egyptologists don’t seem to take it more seriously. That said, it’s a common situation that (1) The most interesting ideas come from the intersection of fields (2) ‘Science progresses one funeral at a time’, when established authorities die and make space for new ideas.


Sam Harris on meritocracy is worth a listen. He’s talking with the author of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles The Middle Class, and Devours The Elite.

They cast a light on what everybody knows already:

  • Success generally requires enormous amounts of support early on.

  • Thinking the US is, for instance, a true meritocracy is just promoting a myth.

  • It also has the unpleasant implication that if you’re not successful it’s because you’re either dumb (then it’s not your fault) or lazy (then it is your fault, if you assume people have free will).

Le Bac Pour Tous

With the lockdown, high-school students in France didn’t have to take on the end of secondary school test (the Baccalaureat or Bac). They were evaluated instead based on the grades they received along the year. A whooping 96% passed. Note that 2019 was already about 90%, which to me is proof that this exam has become entirely meaningless.

It also reminded me of an article I read years ago in a very interesting blog about media, sociology and psychology named The Last Psychiatrist. It was run by an anonymous doctor until he got doxxed and decided to stop writing (a big loss).

In the article, he was taking the example of a Psychiatry and Neurology certification program that 99% of applicants pass. He wrote that the test was merely a fetish, whose purpose was to have us believe NOT that we learned or know something-- but that there is something to know. He argued that psychiatry had made no progress in almost 20 years, (a claim no other medical specialty can make), and the truth cannot be spoken out loud. Hence an exam.

So here we are: the Bac is a fetish, because the reality might rather be:

  • Middle-class success lies in the knowledge you get about the right study tracks within your family, and that the Bac results (who come in late) are irrelevant to get into the right school.

  • The working class will probably discover soon that the bac is now merely table stakes to flip burgers,

  • While the upper class is all about networks in certain schools rather than any particular study specialty.

Bullshit Jobs

Useless Bac or not, there might still be a job for most! A friend pointed me to this article (that later turned into a book), which describes how a significant number of jobs are self-assessed as ‘bullshit jobs’: millions of meaningless, soul-sucking, and sometimes downright destructive jobs. This phenomenon could be described as an ‘emerging property’ of capitalism.

A summary I read:

“Real, productive workers are exploited. The remainder are divided between:

  • A terrorized stratum of reviled unemployed,

  • A larger group (managers, administrators, etc.) basically paid to do nothing

The latter are in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (and particularly its financial avatars) but, at the same time, foster resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.”


It’s a confusing time. Currently, my view is that for countries with low death numbers, widespread testing, it might be time to reopen more widely while ensuring selective confinement and treatment. I don’t put much hope in a vaccine for now. Note that there are still unknowns regarding possible new strains, and long-term health damage.


  • The ‘Spanish flu’ got this name because most countries were covering up the outbreak, and only the Spanish media did their job. As we can witness on various sensitive topics, self-censorship can be worse than the law.

  • The name ‘vaccine’ was named by Pasteur after the research done by Jenner on cowpox inoculation as a way to prevent smallpox.

Fight Club

Since we’re post-lockdown in France, I can now mention it: a friend from my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu club converted his 9m2 bedroom into a dojo during lockdown. It was more a ‘BJJ pod’ than a ‘speakeasy gym’ as mentioned by NPR but it was a great pleasure to train.

It proved so effective that when gyms officially reopened, I managed —for the first time— to win a few bouts against some blue belts, and even surprised a black belt with an unplanned reverse triangle (a bit like that — he was going easy on me…). Everything comes at a cost so I’m now recovering from an arm-bar…

Aside from that, I feel things are more confusing than ever:


  • The number of daily deaths in places like Spain, Italy and France is now in the low double or even single digit. By this account, the disease looks contained.

  • Also, what counts as a Covid death varies according to each locale, but that part is impossible to sort out…

  • The number of cases might be growing simply because there is now more testing in place (observation bias).

  • On the one hand I hear what I think are credible professionals like Professor Raoult talk about numbers, scientific publications and field results. To him, in many countries the epidemic is almost done (deaths are now very low). On the other I hear the media emphasizing the number of cases over the number of deaths, and injecting politics into science.

  • To give some perspective: France reported about 30k deaths in 5 months (in line with the 150k in the US as France’s population is 1/5th). But about 600k people die in France in any given year. Will this year’s number deviate much from the average?

  • Sweden, which was heavily criticized for its laissez-faire approach of not closing its economy ended up with less than 6k deaths for a population of 10M, roughly in line with France’s and US numbers. Despite the decision maker’s hesitations on the policy, the economic impact seems much lower.

  • Japan, now blamed for being too sure the pandemic was over, still scored only about 1,000 deaths though it has 126M people, and the world’s oldest population.

  • Other East Asian countries, New Zealand, and many developing countries also did well.

From those numbers my current view is that East Asian approaches worked, that several countries might be overly cautious, and that Sweden picked a courageous trade-off for its economy against the world’s entire public opinion, that seems to have yielded good results. It will likely become more apparent as other countries enter recessions.


  • The Lancet published then pulled out awkwardly the main article claiming HCQ was ineffective, proving that HCQ had become a political drug, and that top scientific publications could also be manipulated.

  • The WHO and various governments had followed blindly the ‘authority’ without reviewing the publication independently and suspended the use of HCQ, embarrassing themselves when they had to walk the decision back.

  • Yet, HCQ as an early treatment to reduce the viral load seems to work according to numerous practitioners and the numbers of the largest treatment center in the South of France.

  • Most developing countries that are frequent users of HCQ, have less choice and less Pharma lobbies seem to be doing fine… or are they under-testing and under-reporting?

  • Other treatments seem either far away or have little evidence of efficacy. I put Remdesivir in there (read the conclusion of this study and see if it convinces you).

Further thoughts on scientific publications:

  • Anything truly effective doesn’t need randomized double-blind trials with thousands of people — it will be observable with the naked eye among a small group of patients.

  • In fact and beyond that, most (medical) publications are false (h/t Nicolas Colin).


  • The lockdown has wrecked numerous economies, likely durably.

  • Many sectors fired a significant part of their workforce — maybe a blessing in disguise for some that needed restructuring?

  • The economic burden is now both on the state and the unemployed themselves.

  • This situation created a proto-form of ‘universal basic income’.

  • Who’s paying? You might ask. The large amounts injected in the economy by various governments (the US in front) mean that there is now more money representing less economic activity. The only possible outcome I see is inflation. The dollar is already dropping against several currencies.

I am also baffled by the S&P 500 now at an all-time high when nothing is back to normal. What might explain it partly:

  • Large tech stocks are significant in the index (Apple’s $2T?) and some are benefitting from the ‘online shift’.

  • The stock market prices the future, which means it includes the very likely coming inflation (as the money supply is growing while the economy is shrinking). In other words: the stock market is priced in 202X dollars, which are worth notably less than 2020 dollars.

  • Bored retail investors are putting their money in. I don’t have a better explanation for now and the mass media I glanced at seemed unable to explain any of this logically. You decide.

  • Last, I had bought some stocks and warrants of companies I considered overly penalized. Unfortunately the reopening has been slow and while the stocks are ok, the warrants aren’t. I am thinking about what the current stop-and-go situation, and growing ‘confinement fatigue’ in many places might bring.

Finally, I hope the next newsletter will find the world in a better place. Until then, stay safe!

#46 | Podcast, Covid Event, Last Dance, 3 Types of Training and Yoyoka

Irregular newsletter to personal contacts.
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Are you deconfining? Here are some news from the past month.


1. WORK: Podcast, Covid Event
2. COVID LIFE: Covid Theatre, Raoult, Stocks, Deconfining
3. CULTURE: The Last Dance, Baldwin, Jane, Willie 1er
4. THOUGHTS: Covid Justice, 3 Types of Training, Yoyoka



Things have been cruising past the initial learning curve. Seven episodes of the Deep Tech: From Lab to Market podcast are now online. I particularly recommend the recent ones with Different (who published a great report on investment in deep tech) and Fifty Years (a mission-driven early stage deep tech VC). One anecdote: during one of the recordings, a nephew bumped into a heavy glass table which shattered on the floor (nobody was hurt). If anyone needs such sound effect, I have edited it out.

Deep Tech Startups Against Covid

I am producing and co-hosting an online event on May 28 (9am PST) featuring VCs who each backed a handful of startups fighting Covid-19, including innovations for prevention, testing and treatment. RSVP is free here.


Around The World

  • At this point, caution with at-risk population (mostly >60yo), early testing and treatment, and selective isolation make the most sense to me.

  • I have a nagging feeling that many governments are stuck with performing ‘Covid Theatre’ (like ‘security theatre’ in airports), which I would also call the ‘goalkeeper effect’: it is statistically more effective not to dive, but the optics are bad if you don’t, and nobody gets blamed for diving the wrong way vs. not making a move. Meanwhile, millions are stuck at home, the economy is wrecked and taxpayers will foot the bill directly and indirectly via government debt and inflation.

  • I translated another of Dr. Didier Raoult’s videos (turn on English subtitles), where he’s looking at various country data, and concludes Covid-19 is likely on its tail end in many countries, and that a ‘second wave’ is very unlikely (notably as the Spanish Flu — the only major one reported with such characteristic — had its first wave in the summer, while Covid-19 started in the winter).

  • The hydroxychloroquine (+ Zinc?) debate — tainted for many by Trump’s endorsement — raises questions about the duty of care of doctors and governments, and the lack of economic interest of industry in repurposing known drugs vs. developing new treatments. If Raoult (and Trump) are right, there won’t be much money to make.

  • The New York Times published what I see as a hit piece on Raoult: He Was a Science Star. Then He Promoted a Questionable Cure for Covid-19. Despite the title, photo and overall character assassination, I think most of what is written about him portrays a free thinker of the kind that makes useful discoveries. You’ll make your own judgement.

(Somewhat) Confined life

  • We can now go around freely in France up to 100km away from home.

  • Restaurants are limited to takeaway. Cinemas and other public venus are still closed.

  • The main highlight is that I restarted sports with a few friends in a ‘home dojo’, which boosted both morale and fitness. Some forests also re-opened so I went to do some light rock climbing. I won’t take trees for granted anymore!

Covid Finance

  • Overall, I think the most interesting public companies are (1) Those that were overly punished (2) Those benefitting from Covid-19. I focused on the first type and generally didn’t built enough conviction to buy the second type as they seemed already ‘recovered’ a month ago … In retrospect, they were quite safe bet and unlikely to go down (thanks to high demand). Hindsight is always 100%!

  • Among the stocks I mentioned last time and kept going up (maybe too much? Shopify, JD, Peloton, Upwork and Fiverr. The latter two have been going gangbusters over the past month, but while I was quite sure about the offer side skyrocketing, I doubted the demand side, and didn’t like that both are still unprofitable.

  • I can’t explain to myself how so many stocks and the S&P 500 are back where they were 6 months ago considering the economic slowdown and massive wave of unemployment (e.g. How is Facebook at $230, its highest ever?). It looks like a lot of money doesn’t know where to go … Unless it’s an anticipation of the inflationary effect of an unprecedented QE?



My Uncle from America (Mon oncle d'Amérique)****
The inheritance or help of an ‘uncle in America’ is an archetype representing an unexpected fortune coming your way. This trope was already found in a Balzac novel back in 1844.

  • In this movie, it’s a distant echo, as we follow the connecting destinies of a working class girl who wants to do theatre, a farmer’s son, and a middle-upper class civil servant.

  • In parallel, a scientist gives short insights into the behavior of lab rats and their response to basic needs, rewards, and punishment (leading to fight, flight or apathy) as a reading of human behaviors and trajectories. The editing of the movie is quite interesting, mixing various sources.

Overall, it rang quite true, and the performances of a young Gerard Depardieu and others are great. Apparently the director initially wanted to title it ‘The Sleepwalkers’, a more befitting title to this illustration of a form of social determinism.

I re-watched this movie about a student drummer pushed at wits end by an abusive teacher. A Chinese friend said the teacher is a tiger parent. I had new thoughts about this: this approach can work on some, but it crushes many more and destroys joy. Yet, excellence seems to come consistently from people who decide to take their craft seriously to rise above. The question is thus: what makes someone take a path seriously?

The Last Dance****
I never followed TV sports but a sporty friend recommended this Netflix show on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls as ‘the best sports documentary of the last decade’, and I have to agree it’s the best I’ve seen (though my sample size is pretty small). Especially understanding what caused guys like Jordan, Pippen and Rodman to do what I wrote above: take their craft seriously.

  • For Jordan I believe it was a combination of brother rivalry, a need for love and recognition within his family, combined with a mother who challenged him to train to improve over a summer after he got rejected from a youth team draft. That instilled a growth mindset and a focus on the craft rather than ‘talent’. Also, it seemed what he initially wanted was to play baseball! (and he tried during his first retirement). Is Jordan a failed baseball player? ;)

  • For Pippen, poverty in a large family seemed to be a strong motivator (and also why he signed a 7-year contract that turned out undervalued).

  • It’s less clear to me for Rodman, but it sounded like he was pretty much drifting homeless until he decided to try basketball. Later on, dating Madonna helped him focus, and take things seriously on the court, while continuing some of his off-court antics.

I took note of some quotes:

(his mom recalling MJ’s failure to make the team) “My words to him were ‘if you really want it, you work hard over the summer’.”

This sounds like a great way to show not only support, but also to foster a growth mindset.

(about his gambling hobby) “[I don’t have a gambling problem], I have a competition problem.”

MJ was obsessively competitive and even his gambling looked skill-based. This might come from his craving to be acknowledged by his parents and among his siblings.

(about his team mates) “I’m gonna ridicule you until you get on the same level as me.”

Not necessarily the best way to motivate everyone to excel (see ‘Whiplash’), but MJ might not have known many other ways. Fortunately coaches Doug Collins and Phil Jackson seemed to have.

(about some supposed taunt from an opposing player) "Smith never put his arm around Mike and said, ‘Nice game, Mike.’”“He’s always finding some place to find something to get him all fired up”

An odd but effective way to motivate himself!

  • What is also interesting is how MJ would make up such insult in his on mind to fuel his motivation. It sounds a bit like the guy in Memento.

  • What decides a person to maintain this distorsion bubble, and — in the case of MJ — a competitive spirit way past what was needed to impress his family?

  • What decides someone to keep upping the ante toward the next difficult goal way past its initial ‘usefulness’? And is this a satisfying way to live?

Some manager and investors say they like ‘PHDs’ = Poor, Hungry, Driven people coming from a place they never want to go back to.

  • I first heard it from Josh Wolfe (founder of Lux Capital).

  • Then I found prior uses by Mario Gabelli (founder of Gabelli Asset Management Company, late 90’s?) Rick Pitino (basketball coach, 1997).

(about a player from another team they were trying to beat) “He played on the front of his toes. Give him a head-and-shoulder fake, go one way, he can’t stop.”

This, to me, showed the level of mastery Jordan had reached.

“Michael didn’t allow what he couldn’t control to get inside his head” and (from memory) “Why worry about shots I haven’t taken yet”

MJ has all the Zens!

“Start with hope”

Or in the words of Antoine de Saint Exupery: “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

SPOILER ALERT (though I guess I was among the last ones to know it)
The ending of season 1 is quite anti-climactic:

  • We hear the management couldn’t afford to overpay for its players, and MJ regrets not having one more year.

  • I read up on Wikipedia what he was up to afterward and found golfing, charity work, consumer products and being a team owner but nothing seemed to stand out.

  • MJ is now 57 and could surely do more great things — but what is he interested in proving to the world now?

I Am Not Your Negro*** (Netflix)
A documentary on the life of James Baldwin, an African-American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist. A piece of America’s social history and struggle with race, from the point of view of an acute observer, writer and activist.

The Lives Of Albert Camus***
A documentary on the author of The Plague, who grew up in poverty in Alger and died in his forties in a car accident 2 years after receiving his Nobel Prize. I couldn’t help but see parallels with Jack London, one of my favorite authors — in the way he was doing ‘gonzo journalism’, and the protagonist of his ‘Martin Eden’ — as well as the main character in Kim by Kipling, a foreigner born in India and in love with the country and its people (despite the prevalent colonial views of the time).

Jane*** (Netflix)
A documentary on Jane Goodall, an English primatologist and anthropologist (now 86yo) and one of the 3 famous Trimates women who were sent by anthropologist Louis Leakey to study hominids in their natural environments. They studied chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans respectively. Jane was the chimp girl. It certainly wasn’t an easy job—a single white woman in the wild with little training for extended periods of time—but even more impressive was how her mom had raised her to be this risk-taking, and even came along!

Willie 1er (Netflix)***
After his twin brother's death, a 50-year-old (simple) man finally decides to move out of his parents' house and to the neighboring village. A first film by young grads from Luc Besson’s film school. I enjoyed it and found it quite endearing. The guy’s credo is: “An apartment, I’ll have one. A scooter, I’ll have one. Friends, I’ll have some. And you can piss off!”

99 Francs**
I gave a second try to this French movie, a satire on the modern advertisement business after watching the two OSS 117 with actor Jean Dujardin. I was also encouraged by the fact it was directed by Jan Kounen, whose documentary and experience with shamanism and Ayahuasca were very interesting. I felt the movie was ok and a bit outdated.

Russian Dolls (Les Poupees Russes)**
The second movie of the Spanish Apartment trilogy by Cedric Klapisch. It’s an entertaining romantic comedy but I liked better the last one, Chinese Puzzle.

Roll: Jiu-Jitsu in South California**
A documentary on the early years of BJJ in the US, with Brazilians coming over to the welcoming shores of SoCal for fame and fortune. I didn’t find it as interesting as Choke but noted that competitions made the style more cooperative (fight another club vs. each other) yet possibly less effective due to more rules.

Planet of the Humans*
I thought Michael Moore might have brought some new light on the environment and the flaws of the green movement, but it turned out to be a poorly researched and biased documentary that he only produced. I found it a waste of time.


Covid Scam?

I came across this UK website selling test kits and PPE and couldn’t tell if it was a scam or not. It this an official site? Is this pretending to be? The fact that the domain was registered on March 31, 2020 does not give a lot of confidence.

Covid Justice Warriors

Has someone told you aggressively to wear a mask in a place where it’s not mandatory yet? (e.g. walking in the street). Justice awaits!

The New Horseman

The ‘Four Horsemen of the Internet (and Civil Liberties) Apocalypse’ used to be Terrorists, Drug Dealers, Pornographers and Pedophiles.

  • It looks like viruses/pandemics will be the D’Artagnan to those Four Musketeers in the latest assault on privacy and freedom.

  • Here is a black-mirroresque illustration with the charming spot robot dog from Boston Dynamics / Softbank helping enforce social distancing in parks. Add some flying drones to that it’s going to be a lot of fun.

The Three Types of Training

I was discussing with the BJJ coach about the difficulty in keeping morale high when consistently training with stronger opponents: in a way, I have been losing almost all sparrings for about 2 years, as my training partners were more experienced, often heavier, and kept training too! The coach reassured me that I was now taking out people who started later, as well as many of the judo guys who don’t train specifically ground work. He also clarified the three types of training:

  • TO WIN: The first type is when you try to win. You are also careful not to lose, and will keep distance, defend, protect yourself, disengage. Such bouts tend to have much less action and as a result, less technical learning.

  • TO PRACTICE: This is when you are trying new things and follow your instinct. It will often fail and you will end up in bad situations or losing. But if you don’t try new things you will get stuck always doing the same thing, and will not improve your instinct and ‘decision speed’.

  • FOR FUN: Winning is ego-boosting, testing is intellectually interesting, but if you forget to have fun in practice, it can become a drag. I think this is the major flaw of ‘Tiger Parenting’: it strips out the joy of practice and winning.

Finding the mix that works for your goals is tricky, but the idea is to be clear about what you’re doing — and ideally making it clear to your partners too.

Jungle Survival

For some reason, the guys at Jungle Survival carved a nice little niche for themselves building elaborate pools and structures from scratch in the jungle. Some called it ‘real life Minecraft’. It is certainly a time-consuming gig, I hope the millions of views bring good income! (I heard a ballpark figure that 1,000 views = $1-$10 so they should be ok, even after paying their video editor if they don’t DIY).


If you’re still reading here is a little reward for you: it seems that John Bonham, drummer for Led Zeppelin, came back to Earth as a ten-year-old Japanese girl. If it doesn’t put a smile on your face, I don’t know what will!

Good Times Bad Times (Led Zeppelin)
Can’t Stop (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Virtual Insanity (Jamiroquai)
Rosanna (Toto)

Bonus: Smooth criminal by Michael Jackson’s drummer

To deconfinement and beyond!

#45 | New Podcast on Deep Tech, Covid Life: Infestation, Finance, Workouts, and a few Bits and Bulbs

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After 4 weeks of lock down in Paris, we just got … a 4 weeks extension. Meanwhile, here is what matters.


1. WORK: Going Remote, COVID Startups, New Podcast!
2. COVID Life: Worldwide, Dr. Raoult in English, Infestation, Finance, and Swans
3. CULTURE: Jean de Florette, Saul, Curb, Devs
4. THOUGHTS: Villain, COVID neologisms


All Remote

Our accelerator programs have largely moved online, and we keep investing more or less at pace. Note that our Shenzhen office has partly reopened for business, but coming in and out is not simple, with borders closing and quarantine.

Startups Fighting COVID-19

  • Our fund is looking for more startups to invest in — here is the statement from IndieBio (our life sciences program) and HAX (our hardware program). The initial investment is $250k per company.

  • I’m also working on a larger selection to share and put a slidedeckhere in a hidden link. Let me know if you have comments or see important things missing!

Deep Tech Podcast

Finally! It was quite some work but it’s there. It’s titled ‘Deep Tech: From Lab to Market and the first 3 episodes are out.

  • Feedback welcome — the various tools I used made me sweat a bit (never move or rename a source file you edited in Audacity!).

  • I wanted to use a sample from Soylent Green’s OST but did not find a simple way to get the rights. If you haven’t seen it, the opening montage is a masterpiece and, of course, I love its soundtrack. The movie style is a bit dated, but still a great story.

  • Follow @labtomarket on Twitter for future episodes!


I am (still) not a doctor, a statistician, nor in politics. But here are some thoughts.

Around The World

  • South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong continue to surprise. I heard that Bali was mostly spared too. In the case of the first three, the experience with previous outbreaks surely paid off. Korea’s playbook came out this week and The Guardian covered Hong Kong’s approach. Both are worth a read. Interestingly, even regular flu is down in Hong Kong as a result of measures. In Taiwan, people wear masks and disinfectant is ubiquitous. It seems to work. They also test and quarantine selectively. Taiwan and Bali might have been my favorite options to wait it out...

  • In France, the government and media said — until recently — that masks were not useful for the general public, and still hasn’t grown much capacity for testing.

  • The counting method for deaths attributed to the virus seems to be varying widely depending on the geography: some cities or countries count pretty much ‘anyone dying with a fever’ (thus over-estimating), others only those that tested positive and that died in hospitals (thus under-estimating, as some die at home or in senior homes).

  • The ‘fatality rate’ is also a tricky number: if you only test those in critical condition, your death rate will be about 100%. If you test widely, including asymptomatic people, then it might be less than 1% (see Dr. Raoult’s video below for more on that).

  • In Wikipedia’s ranking of countries by their hospital beds, the top 4 are Japan, Korea, Russia and Germany. The US ranks #32.

  • Our guy Dr. Didier Raoult got some recognition abroad for his approach with chloroquine (President Macron even visited him last week). More importantly he’s seeing the number of deaths is below seasonal averages in Marseille where he’s based, and the number of reported cases going down, which is great news. He’s a prominent global expert on infectious diseases, and one of the points he’s also making is that antiviral treatments might only work early on. By the time you’re in ICU, the virus might already be receding, but your immune response is killing you. So a different treatment is required there. Unfortunately, his videos are all in French - the one from last week already clocked 1.4 million views. I made a rough subtitled version here (you might need to turn on manually the English subtitles).

  • Trump announced he’s canceling WHO payments, saying they failed at their basic mission and many people, including Bill Gates, are very unhappy. The US contribution is about $120 million per year. China contributes about half of that and France 1/6th. Tuvalu, of the ‘.tv’ domain fame pays about $5k. Sounds about right. Oddly, the Guardian article mentions that Hong Kong followed the WHO guidelines — but their experience with SARS and others, and the proximity of Wuhan helped act faster.

Confined Life

What’s worse than confinement?

Many things, surely. But an outbreak of mice while you’re confined is probably one of them. When it became clear that my apartment had become a destination of choice after nearby restaurants closed and neighbors took off to houses in the country, I had to learn how to deal with the unexpected rodents. For the record, I never saw more than two at any one time, but that was enough to take action.

  • So do you go for slap traps, sticky pads, poison, or traps keeping them alive? If you’ve ever seen how the sticky pads work, and how the poor thing tries to rip itself off it, you might have gone, like I did, for the classic ones (1.2 euros each).

  • But how to bait? Should you use Emmental, Brie or Parmesan? I learned later that meat was also good. Anyway, Emmental won hands down.

  • After catching two with the traps, plus one that fell on its own into an empty trash can (not the smartest one for sure), and reading that mice can have up to one litter of 6 to 8 young per month, I realized I had to take another approach. I looked for holes and cracks, and ended up doing some improvised woodwork and masonry. So far — no new mouse — so good.

Another fun thing when you’re locked down is plumbing issues. An unnamed relative had a major issue, whose solving involved calling a plumber with an electric drain snake, who removed the blockage 7 meters into the pipe, and ended up charging 800 euros. A friend whose dad was a plumber said anyone could DIY this with a mechanical snake and a bit of patience for less than 100 bucks (and keep the tool). Get yours early, and better do some maintenance before pipes get stuck!

France limited outings to one hour, and to the vicinity. It is now only possible to exercise outside between 7pm and 9pm (I was reminded once by a policeman, who fortunately didn’t fine me — it’s 200 euros, I think). After trying online workouts (I got bored with those—and yes, I received my kettlebell), I am now practicing jianzi. I also received notice of drawing classes with live models from two studios and might give it a try. If you’re curious to know what people do in confinement, here is a chart of the most and least sold items on e-commerce.

Covid Finance

Overall, the stock market is very interesting to look at, as the continuous updates on lockdowns and government bailouts introduce much variability, and some stocks can go up or down by 10% in a single day.

Of course, some sectors have a much better outlook than others:

  • Some are logically up: Amazon, eBay, Chewy, Shopify, JD.com (e-commerce), Slack, Zoom (remote work tools), Teladoc (remote consultations), Peloton (home sports), Nintendo (gaming), Delivery Hero (food delivery).

  • Some kinda logically: Upwork and Fiverr (freelancers platforms), though not sure who’s buying from the influx of freelancers.

  • Some are down: anything retail, cinema and senior care.

I haven’t been very active with stocks for years, but I had bought Zoom stock in November. I sold all of it a week ago, when it seemed that it was all ‘priced in’ at around $150. Days later, security issues and a lawsuit sent the stock down to $110. It’s now back to $150 … but I sleep great.

Now, I was also eyeing Luckin Coffee, the ‘Chinese Starbucks’, for a while, waiting for the stock lockdown period after IPO to end to observe what would happen. Imagine the potential of a Chinese Starbucks! Great pitch to Wall Street indeed. It reminded me of the no less great pitch of Renren, the ‘Facebook of China’ — which, with a closer look, had little to do with Facebook in terms of business model ... Anyhow, Luckin had deployed thousands of stores in just 2 years, and seemed like it could be something. Now, I’m glad I waited: a massive fraud was revealed, the stock plunged and is now suspended. The guys at Muddy Waters (a short seller specialized in China stock) had announced their short based on a leaked report back in January. Maybe they are retired by now? Citron Research announced other shorts too. Chinese listed companies definitely have some transparency issues … And remember: as some bankers say, a long is a short that failed! ;)

B&W Swan

Funny enough, Nassim Taleb, the ‘Black Swan’ guy who’s a very strong finance expert, wrote a piece saying that this outbreak is NOT a black swan (sorry, Sequoia) but a white swan (here on Bloomberg too), as:

  1. We knew something like that would happen at some point. Among others, Taleb wrote about it in 2007 and Bill Gates gave a talk at TED in 2015.

  2. It was - with preparation - largely preventable.

He’s also very critical of bailouts of the companies (rather than the people) that were not cautious, saying ‘If it’s bailed out, it’s a utility’ and that ‘You don’t try to time insurance’.

A friend commented that while real estate (especially commercial) might tank, if you consider how much they made over the past decade, you need to average things…

Taleb is one of the few economists that is actually strong at maths and statistics, and loves to use his skills to humiliate the less numerically-armed economists and sociologists. Here he is destroying IQ.

Putting now everything together:

  • If there is a low, but not negligible, chance for either total destruction or wild success, insuring yourself or buying an option seems - if well calculated - quite sensible (to simplify: a 1 in 5 chance of a 20x return?). That’s the point of insurance for houses, cars, health and more. So why didn’t governments plan better than Wimbledon?

  • Do ‘active pessimists’ (or realists?) survive better than optimists? And are maybe also more successful? In Man’s Search For Meaning, the author recounts that people who had found meaning for their life survived better in concentration camps. I would argue that the active pessimists did even better by packing away and living abroad since the 1930’s.

  • As an example, one NYC-based friend sensed, back in February, that if the virus spread it would send airlines, retail and others tanking. He bought put options that went straight up when the virus spread. A few weeks in, looking at Europe and its connection to NYC, he thought things might worsen quickly there too, he bought plane tickets and left (the same or next day) with his family to a safer country. Worse case scenario would have been a slightly expensive trip abroad. As it turned out, it was the right call.



Nothing very new as all theaters are closed, but the catalog has gems!

Jean de Florette****
An oldie based on a novel by Marcel Pagnol. This was a fortunate find. A city man inherits a countryside land that a greedy neighbor wants to buy. The neighbor and village know the land has a spring but will anyone tell? The acting is top-notch with Depardieu, Auteuil, Montand and more.

Manon des Sources***
The sequel to Jean de Florette, some years after the events. Good acting and storyline though Depardieu is not in it.

Gone girl***
A woman disappears from a unhappy marriage. What happened to the model for her parents’s popular children books? Quite good.

Marriage story**
This one was promoted by Netflix with good reviews. Sure, this one is more modern, but I think on the topic of divorce Kramer vs. Kramer has my preference.


The School for Wives***
Some theaters are sharing their stage plays online for free. This one is a Moliere play by the Comedy Francaise. An aging middle-class bachelor afraid of being cheated on has sheltered a young girl for a decade in the hope of making her the most naive and faithful wife the world has seen. Unfortunately, as she gets to marrying age and before any wedding, a handsome young man sees her at her window… Not the most beautiful verses (I’m a Cyrano fan), but still an entertaining classic.


Better Call Saul****
The new season is ending soon. It’s still very good. For memory, this show focuses on a good-hearted lawyer that cuts corners. It might last longer than the Breaking Bad series it spun out of!

Curb Your Enthusiasm***
This last season was pretty, pretty good. Sadly it came to an end. I am re-watching some bits of older episodes. If you’re not familiar, Larry David is an old and rich TV writer. In each episode he breaks some social convention (e.g. complain about the quality of the lemonade at a kid’s stall) and is ready to defend his views and face the consequences (which often ends in him getting shouted at, or banned of some place).

The — quite promising — story pits a super A.I. in a battle of determinism vs. free will. I don’t mind contemplative movies — I loved 2001 when I watched it again as a grown-up — but here I couldn’t resist the urge to watch the show at 1.7x speed. The main characters seem to be able of only two facial expressions each, and the whole plot was, to me, too weak. A friend who works for NASA was raving about it, but I failed to be ravished. This show is by the same director who made Ex Machina, which I also didn’t like much, and that my NASA friend — again — loved. We generally have similar tastes, but here we’ll have to agree to disagree!


The Plague***
By Nobel-prize winning Albert Camus.

  • The story of a (fictitious) plague outbreak in a city of Northern Algeria, from the perspective of various French citizens and visitors — a priest, a journalist, a doctor, a smuggler, a civil servant, a criminal in hiding, a judge and a wealthy dilettante.

  • I didn’t realize it when reading, but the story is also an echo to people’s behaviors during WWII (the book was written in 1947): the unsung heroes who fight daily without shine, the ones answering the call early or later, those in denial, those taking advantage of others, those who flee for various reasons, the great unifier of a common threat and the equalizer of death — taking young and old alike—, and the reality that the battle will never be over, lurking underneath, waiting to reappear.

  • As a side note, Camus was born in Algeria in 1913 (a French colony from 1830 to 1962), raised by a deaf and illiterate single mom. He was likely headed to a bad place, but a teacher noticed his potential and everything changed. Long story short, he gets the Nobel at age 44, then dies in a car crash two years later.



After reading up on the birth of spy characters OSS 117 and 007, I came across the real-life inspiration for the arch-villain Blofeld. It is a Russian-Greek fellow named Basil Zaharoff who became a successful arms dealers during the Spanish War, WWI, then ventured into oil, casinos, financed a Greek war, and even funded a few early aviation projects and various philanthropic donations (including monkey house of the Paris zoo). When Zaharoff died, Georges Soros was 6.


Some new Covid-related words.

  • Coviolent: when confinement becomes too much.

  • Covid pop: stocks that benefit from the pandemic.

  • Zoom bombing: trolling a Zoom call uninvited.

  • Coronorphans: a bit dark… but I saw a Curb episode where one of Larry’s friends (likely in his sixties) announces that he’s now an orphan because he just lost his last parent (Larry mocks him).

  • Covidepressed: it could be from confinement, or PTSD of frontline workers.

  • Virus/Mask Diplomacy: donating medical equipment as a form of ‘soft power’

That’s about all for now. Wear a mask, wash your hands, and I hope your government and mine build testing capacity, look into repositioned meds, and does selective confinement, otherwise we might be in this for a while!

Confined in Paris,

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