#40 | Spanish VR Class, Russian Space Movie, Dark, Deep Tech Trends Report

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Conference season is coming to an end. Let’s unpack a bit.

MENU

  1. WORK: The Deep Tech Trends Report Is Live!

  2. EXPERIENCES: Spanish VR, Bravery

  3. CULTURE: Vasa, Dark, Salyut, And A Bunch Of Con-Men

1.
WORK

Deep Tech Trends Tour & Report

I completed the 6-cities tour presenting our new ‘Deep Tech Trends’ report (NYC-Boston-London-Paris-Berlin-Munich) to about 800 RSVPs — mostly investors.

  • The full report is now online here.

  • A video presenting most of it here (thanks to FirstMark and its Hardwired Meetup in NYC).

One comment I really appreciated was from a VC in London who said ‘After your talk I feel much more optimistic about the future.’

Also, our new fund is closing before year end. So far so good!

Next Stops

  • Slush (Helsinki, Nov 21-22)

  • NYC + SF (Dec 12-19)

2.
EXPERIENCES

Realidad Virtual

I did a Spanish lesson in VR on my Oculus Go thanks to Einstein Studios. Their target market is more ADD / dyslexic children, but I was quite impressed by the experience.

My avatar was in a street, then a grocery store with the avatar of my teacher, who asked me about the environment and corrected my many mistakes (I only speak high-school Spanish).

The experience was more entertaining than a sit-down class, and less intimidating than being outside, as there are no by-standers, and you don’t have to care about your appearance or reading people’s reactions. It was probably already possible 10 years ago in Second Life, but today’s VR is much easier to navigate. I’m getting my mom, (who’s been studying Spanish) to try it in a few days…

Bad Travel Day

I was in Paris on my way to the airport to fly to NYC. Then the combined forces of a bad low-cost airline website, a strike, Yellow Vest riots, an abandoned package, a 3x Uber surge price, the rain, a traffic accident that caused a jam, a record-breaking run, and passport control contractors decided that … I would not fly that day.

I missed the registration by 10 minutes and went back home, having wasted half a day.

I flew peacefully the next day but my ordeal wasn’t over: the Climate Summit was in town in NYC, and hotels were packed. The hotel I had booked for $250 turned out to be a budget hotel with shared bathrooms. One more climate change victim…

Bravery

Recently was the first time I saw a direct connection between what happens on the mat in my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practice, and outside.

When sparring with much heavier guys (90kg+) , I sometimes get this feeling of ‘this is going to be tiring but it’s worth doing’.

I had the same feeling recently in a few social situations The discussions were ‘hot potatoes’: not going to be fun and much safer to avoid. Like on the mat, I still decided to engage. I left those exchanges tense and exhausted, but felt I had practiced some useful mental muscles, and built up more bravery.

Senior Singing

I gave a try to a classical singing class at a neighborhood association. The class is mostly made up of retired women with singing experience; my background is the occasional karaoke. I’m just getting started and it’s more intimidating than physical or verbal sparring! But it’s been interesting so far.

3.
CULTURE

VISITS

Vasa Museum***

An interesting visit. The Vasa is a large Swedish warship who sank on its first day at sea in 1628. The ship sat in the mud for centuries and was picked up almost intact, including various crew items. The building of the ship cost 5% of Sweden's entire GDP at the time. To compare, The Manhattan Project cost ‘only’ $23 billion in 2018 dollars, and the Apollo program $288 billion ($25 billion in 1973 — less than 2% of US GDP at the time). Maybe two bad omens were that the investor (the King) meddled with the design, and that the CTO (the architect) died prematurely.

Museum of Medical History**

A tiny and quaint museum in the med school in Paris, containing a number of ancient medical instruments, including metal picks for bladder stones (no anesthesia — trigger warning for the image here).

A surprising item was a coffee table decorated with preserved human parts including blood, brains, vertebras, 4 ears and a foot. Apparently offered to Napoleon the Third, maybe for his daily witchcraft?

Bauhaus Museum*

I loved the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin. It depicts the incredibly creative environment of this odd school that was mixing design, architecture and art in a very collaborative way. It didn’t sit well with the nazi regime who called it degenerate art and closed it.

The Berlin center was under renovation during my visit, but a large new museum just opened in September in Dessau, the city where it all started. I made a stop there with high hopes. Unfortunately while the building itself is worth a mention, I was underwhelmed by the exhibits. I also arrived too late to visit the houses of the masters (which were a few km away), which might be worth a look.

MOVIES & TV

Dark****

It’s not often that I get hooked by a show, but this one did the trick. It’s as if Twin Peaks and Back to the Future had a baby (with a bit of Stranger Things). In German. I watched the 2 seasons and 18 episodes in a weekend.

Salyut***

When was the last time you watched a Russian movie? Same as me.

This one is a 2017 movie about a space rescue operation that actually happened. Cosmonauts had to restart or trash the Salyut space station before the US might snag it with their shuttle.

Salyut — which I had never heard of — was the first generation of space stations, before MIR and the ISS. The movie is actually very cool, with some real space story and a cool geopolitical background.

As a side note, Russians dominated almost every space thing except sending humans to the Moon — which proved so useless (aside from its propaganda power) that no-one went back since 1972.

Bitter Flowers***

A pretty good movie on Chinese prostitution in Paris. It’s a movie because they couldn’t find people to speak on camera for it to be a documentary. It explains how some working-class hopeful get tricked into it by the lure of jobs (e.g. nanny).

A discussion followed the movie and the small group that came to watch was pretty colorful: doctors, journalists, activists, prostitutes, etc. — discussing topics such as choice, poverty, crime, regulation and morals. Sadly, nobody touched upon the core of the demand side: sexual needs. Still, it was quite educative.

BoJack Horseman (season 6)**

A season where BoJack is the adult in the room? Is that even possible? Not the best season (some were ****), but still ok. I hope the second part coming out in January will be better.

Always Be My Maybe**

A humorous rom-com with Ali Wong, an Asian-American female standup comic and Randall Park, of ‘Fresh of the boat’ fame.

Joker**

I almost abandoned this movie half-way. I was expecting entertainment and was just bored. The odd thing is that the acting was good, and special effects on par with the course for Hollywood. Martin Scorcese broke the director’s heart by calling his movie (and all Marvel’s) a ‘theme park’. I’m not sure what I was hoping for, but it wasn’t there.

The Great Depresh**

Gary Gulman’s new special is out on HBO! He also had a cameo in Joker, so 2019 is really his year. While I love his personality and lots of his work, I didn’t relate to, nor laugh much for this one. It felt more like a documentary about him and ‘surviving depression’ that a standup show. Still worth a watch I think.

Who Am I**

After watching Dark, I researched movies by the same director and found this one. It’s a German hacker story — nothing supernatural — with a bit of Fight Club spirit. A few things didn’t add up, but I found it overall acceptable.

Room 212*

French movie where a woman meets her husband’s younger self, and gets to reflect on her life and many lovers. The premise sounded like a comedy, but I got quickly bored despite fairly good acting (Chiara Mastroiani received an award for it).

Atlantics*

Senegalese ‘supernatural romantic drama’. I didn’t know anything about this movie except that it had won a Golden Palm in Cannes.

I am very wary of Golden Palms as half of them seem to be due to a political or social message, rather than the movie’s artistic quality (a bit like the Nobels for Peace and Literature).

Anyway, I had euros and time to spare so I gave it a shot. Lo and behold, it belonged to the bad half. I almost left mid-way but decided to see it through … to no avail. On the one hand I’m glad to support emerging markets and directors (this one was the first black woman to win the coveted prize) but it was well below my expectations. You win some, you lose some, I guess.

BOOKS, COMICS & MANGA

Believe***

By Eddie Izzard, the '‘executive transvestite’. This was the audiobook of his biography, read by himself. It turned out to be quite entertaining, including a flurry of amusing spoken footnotes. It shows how much self-belief, work, stamina and patience goes into building a career such as his.

Kurosagi - The Black Swindler (as in ‘black hat’)***

A story about a young con-man who only cons con-men (white swindlers or ’shirosagi’ シロサギ, from the egret bird. Apparently there is also a ‘red swindler’ type). It’s quite educative.

For great movies on con artists (not the ‘Ocean’ series) I recommend Nueve Reinas (‘nine queens’) a very fun Spanish movie (with a poor Hollywood remake), and The Gentle Art of Japanese Extorsion by Juzo Itami (my favorite Japanese director). The latter is a very funny movie about real yakuza tricks. Itami got assaulted (and maybe murdered) because of it.

Hedge Fund***

I bumped into this comic book series in a bookstore and read it cover to cover (6 volumes) in one sitting. It’s about a foreign young man working in finance in Hong Kong (where I lived for 2 years) who climbs up to become an aggressive Hedge Fund manager. The stories are tied to real people and facts (Greenspan, sub-primes, etc.). It feels like a recap of some recent major economic stories, with a few surprises.

Attack on Titan**

I’m not a fan of this manga series, but one YouTube channel I watch on occasion (a former aikido teacher who stopped believing in aikido’s as a martial art and got into MMA), found one episode where two titans fight with realistic jiu-jitsu techniques. He sat down with a BJJ instructor to comment on the moves. As a side note, in Japan I trained aikido for a few months in a dojo founded by a ‘living treasure’, who was also the technical director for Kurosawa’s samurai movie fight scenes. It was quite the experience.

INTERVIEWS & PODCASTS

Michel Houellebecq

The ‘enfant terrible’ of French literature, and likely the most famous living French novelist. I used to find him quite depressing, but now I find him realistic, thoughtful and humorous.

I watched several of his very rare interviews including this excellent one he gave recently in Denmark (with translation), that he said might be his last on stage. I really enjoyed it and found almost nothing to disagree with.

In ‘Staying Alive: A Method’, the movie inspired by Houellebecq’s book, we follow Iggy Pop and a few unknown artists as they explain how to keep creative in a world that mostly ignores or rejects you.

Houellebecq says a few interesting things there:

There are two types of artists: revolutionaries and decorators. (unattributed quote)

Unoriginal people do not exist.

When you provoke in others a mixture of horrified pity and contempt you will know you're on the right track. You can begin to write.

I am now re-watching ‘The Possibility of an Island’, a movie dealing with immortality, cloning, and inspired by a sect Houellebecq discussed with for a while. The movie production is not great but there are a few gems there. Alongside this, I am re-reading ‘City’ by Clifford Simak, who imagines a world where dogs rule, and evoke the past where humans might (or might not) have lived.

Joe Rogan Interviews John Carmack

You don’t know his name but you know his work: John Carmack created the pioneering video games Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake and is currently the CTO at Oculus. A very interesting podcast.

Enlightenment, Now!

I received an email promoting a ‘luxury retreat’ including meditation and Ayahuasca ceremonies (using ‘teaching plants’). Is it the next Burning Man? It costs about $5,000 for a week.

My experience the one time I took Ayahuasca several years back it was nothing like this. The disgusting mixture of plants and smoke tasted like a stale herbal brew in which someone extinguished a cigarette, and my immune system battled its poison violently. I remember I was the first to throw up in my bucket. For this, I got no vision of crocodiles or feathered snakes, and no enlightenment.

For less money than the retreat, the movie director Jan Kounen spent a year vomiting and filming in the jungle and made a documentary called ‘Other Worlds’. He also wrote a guide book for beginners (in French). Have fun!

—Ben

#39 | Deep Tech Tour, Amateur Art, 156 Episodes And A Dead Dodo

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Writings: Medium - TechCrunch - VentureBeat - Forbes

The September scramble has started, I’m off to NYC tomorrow. Let’s make this quick!

MENU

  1. WORK: Deep Tech Trends Tour, Fund Update

  2. EXPERIENCES: Phone Karma, Artistic Attempts

  3. CULTURE: Dead Dodo, Comedy Specials, The Good Wife, Some Movies

  4. THOUGHTS: Basic Magic Typology, China’s Social & Tech Rise

1.
WORK

Deep Tech Trends Tour

A quick note about the ‘Deep Tech Trends Tour’ starting next week.

SOSV invests in 150 pre-seed startups per year, with a majority in deep tech (robotics, medtech, life sciences, etc.). I’ll present our research on long-term and emerging trends in the following cities:

Those are invite-only events for investors but the report will be online shortly after. Thanks to our main host Goodwin, as well as MotionLab in Berlin and 1E9 in Munich!

Fund Update

The new SOSV fund is cruising along and we might end up over our $250M goal. More details on Medium & TechCrunch.

Kickstarter

Our focus is mostly B2B / health tech these days so our startups now rarely use Kickstarter, but if you’re a ‘creative pro’ (photo, video, sound … PowerPoint?) here is a tool you might like.

2.
EXPERIENCES

Instant Karma

Once again, I found someone sitting in my seat when I boarded a plane.

It was a friendly lady but the trade she offered was poor so I declined. As I was tip-tapping on my phone during take-off, I dropped my phone. It then slid and disappeared under my seat as the plane tilted upward.

Was it some karmic payback? I waited anxiously for the long minutes it took the plane to level off — playing various rescue or lost scenarios in my head. Eventually I called the staff, who proceeded to ask every row behind me to search under their seat, but they found nothing. Eventually, I contorsioned to check under my own seat, and my phone was stuck at the row just behind mine, where a child was sitting and hadn’t looked. Karmic relief?

No Paint No Gain

I was walking around PMQ in Hong Kong, a former apartment complex for the police force (not including Jackie Chan), now converted into designer shops, and stumbled upon a painting workshop. For $25 they gave you a canvas, acrylic paint and brushes for up to 4 hours. It ended up being a pretty intense session and I carried the canvas all the way back to Paris :)

I had been very hesitant to paint because I found watercolor so hard to control, and this gave me new confidence. In Paris I went to several life drawing sessions at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and experimented with charcoal and watercolor in addition to my usual pencil (I also bought an acrylic set). Progress awaits.

Tailor-Made Shoes

A friend was looking for size 45 shoes (US: 11+) in Hong Kong (he couldn’t find his size easily in Shenzhen). Walking again around PMQ we found a custom shoemaker! During the next 90 minutes my friend was measured, scanned (with lasers) and interviewed to design his new shoes. The price was almost $800 — but the story alone might be worth it!

Lost in Translation

I tried to translate Gary Gulman’s standup comedy piece about the state abbreviations into French. I think it turned out pretty good, though the final puns resisted my efforts — maybe simply impossible to translate?

Heat Wave

Paris had two serious heat waves over the Summer. It means peaks above 33°C, which is very rare in Europe, where most homes don’t have AC. I had ordered a fan online, but Amazon screwed up and the package went missing … I ended up with bad sleep during the first wave. I eventually got TWO fans and fended off the second wave. Now I understand why I heard in Singapore that the AC was among the best things that came to the country!

3.
CULTURE

LONDON & OXFORD

A quick visit that wasn’t a business trip for once!

I hit six museums: British Museum, V&A, Tate Gallery, Natural History Museums (in both cities), and the quirky Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (well worth a visit).

Highlights:

  • The Oxford dodo, often depicted as fat, likely due to an unsuitable diet once in England,

  • A mummified cat in his X-rayed sarcophagus,

  • A shelf showing examples of ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’, including shrunken heads and a nice Bakongo Nkondi nail fetish (it looked very powerful!),

  • My favorite sculpture at the V&A: a gladiator fighting a gorilla.

I wasn’t too psyched by the Tate — I’ve become quite non-plussed by most modern art — but some classics were there. I also saw two comedy shows but, sadly, Eddie Izzard wasn’t in town.

ART & SHOWS

I watched a handful of Netflix comedy specials.

Dave Chapelle***
Three shows: Sticks & Stones, Equanimity, The Bird Revelation. Covers many topics including the recent scandals affecting celebs, from digging into things they said or did, sometimes decades ago. More of a social commentary than comedy, still worth watching.

Bill Burr***
Three shows: I’m Sorry You Feel That Way, Paper Tiger and Walk Your Way Out. His angry character is entertaining, and allows him to get away with a lot.

Aziz Ansari: Right Now*
It’s easy to understand the humility induced by his #metoo-induced professional NDE. Still, I wasn’t sold.

Note that making a 1-hour special is no small feat: a professional comic needs to average about five laughs per minute, that means 300 funny bits in one hour. Each of those has been patiently refined, and is among the best of the many more that were tried on stage. No wonder only the hardest working can put out one new show per year!

SERIES

The Good Wife****
I first watched its sequel ‘The Good Fight’ on Netflix about a black-owned Chicago law-firm and enjoyed it. Then I started to watch this one, also about lawyers in Chicago.

Little did I know it would take me through 156 episodes over the summer… the show deals with all kinds of stories (some in tech — Bitcoin, Anonymous, search, non-poaching, etc.).

The acting is top-notch, which made the summer’s cinema offering pale in comparison (kudos to Christine Baranski — no wonder she was in the sequel — to Alan Cumming and to a surprising Michael J. Fox). I feel like I earned a law degree now, or at least the theatrics of it — Objection! (then pick among: argumentative / asked and answered / badgering the witness / hearsay / irrelevant / leading the witness / narrating / counsel is testifying / not in evidence / speculation).

The Office (UK)****
Re-watched this old classic. Still great. It made me think that #MoralHarassment is still awaiting its #metoo moment. I have endured some over my working years — including at a time when it didn’t have a name — and know many who did too. Not enough celebs working in offices to trigger a movement?

MOVIES

Brazil****
Re-watched this timeless 1984-inspired dystopian comedy, and noticed more details. Nothing beats a freelance heating engineer!

Bamboozled****
Third time watching this superbly twisted movie by Spike Lee, starring an African-American media executive who decides to produce a show to rub people’s covert racism to their face. Don’t be fooled by the lower production value, the story is great.

Once Upon a time in Hollywood***
The latest Tarantino movie. Pretty entertaining. With, as you would expect, numerous references to Hollywood nostalgia. I didn’t quite understand the historical re-write around Charles Manson though... Manson’s music can be found online, excepted the tapes edited while in jail by Henry Rollins, which apparently were never published. Manson died in prison 2 years ago, maybe those will come out one day? I might watch this movie again soon.

A Rainy Day in New York***
The latest Woody Allen — featuring several actors that seem like they play younger or idealized versions of himself, as usual :) I had a pleasant time with this modernized version of his timeless topics.

Crimes and Misdemeanors***
First time to watch this Woody Allen classic starring a philandering eye doctor. Quite enjoyable.

Never Look Away***
A German movie about a budding artist in East Germany during the worse time possible, inspired by a real story and made by the director of The Lives of Others. It mixes art, love and war with solid acting despite being over 3 hours long. The French title was ‘the work without author’, as some of the art is based on seemingly random family photographs (side note: it reminded me of the controversy about the copyright for the ‘monkey selfie’).

Thalasso***
A low-budget but fun movie starring Michel Houellebecq, the most popular French novelist alive, and Gerard Depardieu, France’s most famous actor, playing themselves as they meet at a spa where they are supposed to take a rest. The contrast between the brash style of Depardieu and Michel’s introverted style makes for great laughter, as they ponder on their predicament while smoking and drinking in hiding.

Parasite**
Widely-acclaimed Korean movie about a family of thieves who live off an upper-class family. I found it too forced and unrealistic past the first half. Better watch Memories of Murder from the same director (with the same lead actor too).

Life of Brian**
Another re-watch: the Monthy Python classic talking about Brian, the other messiah born in the stable next to the more mainstream one. Some good lines but I found it funnier the first time.

BOOKS

The Waltz of The Trees And The Sky***
Van Gogh died from a bullet in the stomach, and after walking for miles back to his hotel — not the typical suicide. This novel dives into the mystery of Van Gogh’s, looking into a possible murder or accident.

Amazing Decisions**
By Dan Ariely. If you are a reader of his previous works or WSJ column, or simply into social psychology and persuasion, you will not learn that much from this comic book version. The challenge is always the practice!

4.
THOUGHTS & MORE

Thoughts about Magic

I’ve been watching YouTube channels analyzing magic tricks. Also it’s good fun — and an uncle’s job — to know a few cheap tricks. I tried to come up with a simple classification.

  1. Cheats. It makes uses of custom props (trick cards, other apparatus). It’s interesting but hard to re-do. A classic one would be the fake thumb.

  2. Misdirection. Here I mean tricks that directing your attention. For instance, the trick used for guessing a word someone just read in a book.

  3. Angles. It’s not about making you focus on the wrong thing, here the trick is to hide what’s happening because you don’t see it from the right angle. For instance vanishing a card by holding it between your fingers.

  4. Faster than the eye. This one is fun because everything is right in front of you, only just too fast.

Tank (Top) Man vs. USA

China’s summers can be hot and humid and many men like to air their stomach to cool down. Well, that won’t be possible soon, at least in the city of Jinan (a second-tier city with a population of only 7 million). It has been labeled “uncivilized behavior” “seriously affecting the image of the city.”

Meanwhile, 6 states in America (Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma) allow all genders to go topless.

Copy Cat

You can clone your pet in China (there are places abroad too) for about $50k.

Best,
— Ben

#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.
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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

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
Podcast (new!):
soundcloud.com/takeapunch/

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

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