#30 | Spring Tour, Dead Clowns, Crypto Rebound and a Delicious English Muffin
Worse things happen at sea
|Benjamin Joffe||May 21, 2018|
Omg the end of April was intense, and part of May/June will be too. One tip: do not take two overnight buses back to back. It’s just a bad idea. More below.
NOTE: Email Switcheroo
So my man Hamish McKenzie, former journalist and Lead writer at Tesla has a new venture: this newsletter service, Substack! I’m taking the dangerous step to migrate from TinyLetter. If you fall through the cracks, well, it was nice knowing you!
Work: U.S tour. Next up: EU + Trends + Exit Masterclass
Q&A (new!): Bullshido II, United Pays, Motivation
Culture Corner: Kurosawa, Some movies & TV
Thoughts: More Jordan Peterson, The Death of Clowns
Random: Memory Palace, English Muffin, Paul Revere, LD50, Map Projections
I completed the U.S. roadshow (Chicago / Champaign / Pittsburgh / Philadelphia / Boston / NYC in 10 days). Met dozens of startups, and a few incubators. Overall impressed by Northwestern, UIUC and CMU. Lots of follow-up to do. I took flights, trains and even overnight buses. I don’t recommend the latter if you need sleep, especially twice in a row! I was at least expecting direct rides, but they had a few stops where we had to disembark and wait. Not fun.
Now just back from Berlin (CubeTech + DeepTech Dinner at Franhaufer + Hardware Meetup). The meetup was the best: as usual, the more relevant the crowd, the better the discussions. Larger is not better. Also, events (and media) should stop doing “technology theatre” with tired scifi themes and focus on visual thing only. Metropolis was in 1927 it’s getting old. I understand the need for something visual but please … I’ll venture that robots and flying cars are to innovation what porn is to lovemaking.
Bina48 — a symbol of a future receptacle for human consciousness—confuses people with a mix of cybernetics, voice recognition, voice synthesis and AI. And it’s right down in the uncanny valley.
Vienna (Pioneers) and Paris (VivaTech) this coming week.
We just presented our latest trends research in SF on May 17. Likely online soon. I wasn’t involved this year—which brings both relief and nostalgia.
The ‘Startup Exit Masterclass’ is Live!
Your startup raised funding, and you wonder about next steps, especially how early to prepare for M&A or IPO? We got you covered. We’re organizing FOUR events in June: London (June 5), Paris (June 12), SF (June 19) and NYC (June 22). I am truly excited about the stellar speakers who are joining us!
Some of you had comments, which lead to interesting exchanges. I picked 3.
J.A. found my comments and the video a bit unfair to aikido (which I have practiced for a few months in a very famous dojo in Japan). He said the founder of aikido advocated that “true victory (is) self victory”(正勝吾勝, masakatsu agatsu). I gladly acknowledge that martial arts have great merits: from health and balance to discipline, self improvement, focus, cooperation, etc. Yet, I am now quite convinced that most styles lack practical use, and are also not very effective physical trainings (just weight the sweat). There is a spectrum from “martial” to “art” (even as a workout - dance is both) so it depends what you’re looking for, but it’s better not to be delusional. Also, any '“self-defense” that is not stress-tested is probably mostly useless. Note: The bullshido guy didn’t do well during his second MMA sparring, a year after his first.
Another friend, J.S. asked me which martial art I would recommend to his 6 year old son. My reply: gymnastics. Mostly for coordination, spatial awareness, balance, flexibility and fitness. Then, in a few years, either muay thai, BJJ, boxing or even karate (though less practical, and depends on dojo). It depends on what is available, what he likes and on the quality of the coach. I am prepping a post on the topic.
United Pays Money
I had already filed my claim with United who had replied within a day (saying they would compensate according the EU regulation = more than the price of the return trip, in this case) when A.S. mentioned Airhelp to automate airline claims. I gave it a shot for another flight I took recently - the service takes about 25% of the compensation, but well, it’s hassle free... It also imported flights from my email and found 125 flights over the past 3 years, which scared me a little bit. And no, I don’t have much status with airlines, don’t fly first or business (we’re an early stage fund, not a late stage or PE) and don’t hang out in luxurious loungers as I always take the cheapest / most convenient.
I am just starting on this but Dave Asprey (of Bulletproof fame) gave me his take: willpower is biological:
“When you improve mitochondrial function, you have more willpower”.
Still, my enquiry here wasn’t so much about willpower and energy (“fanning the flames”) but coming up with motivation and projects (“lighting the fire”). I asked Dave why he was so driven; his answer:
“I’m driven because I was 300lbs (Ben: that’s 136kg - almost exactly twice my weight! Dave is a tall guy though) and my brain started to fail when I was 26 – it sucked to be old and I’m not going back, plus I discovered that my willpower goes up linearly with my energy!”.
So the problem seems to be here that until things are really quite BAD, there is no real prompt to change… (NDEs are also said to have positive effects, but when I fell asleep at the wheel about 10 years ago and totaled the car I didn’t get any NDE, nor any insights—I was actually disappointed). On this topic, I found some recent Jordan Peterson talks quite useful. More below.
Update: I had a good conversation with a friend, and reflected on the personal history of highly successful people I knew, and a common thread is, rather than an NDE, a form a deep humiliation in their childhood or later life. It could be social, physical, or emotional. It was so painful (and often dragged for years) it prompted a kind of revengeful dedication to excel (which went along with very hard work over many years). The downside of this is that I suspect most people who get humiliated badly just live unremarkable lives, or awful ones full of despair. So just like NDEs, I am not sure humiliation is the way. I will try and meet more “positive thrivers” who didn’t face negative or life-threatening circumstances to succeed. Leads welcome!
Today’s mood: Dennis Rodman (rebound!)
The market rebounded strongly within a few weeks, taking the sad ETH from the dark depths of $400 to over $800 today (Update: we’re back to $710 since I drafted this- I should have sold at $800!). Yes, you could have doubled your money! Sadly I got nervous so I didn’t buy the deepest dip. Even my LTC is back to almost $180 (Update: down again to $140 - that’s more than 25% down… just so that you appreciate the volatility). So we’re back in the black (Update: not so much anymore, but not that far).
The improved plan had been to spread the investment over a year so that I get an ‘average’ rather than risk bad timing. Unfortunately I was already quite a bit invested by then and decided to stay away. It’s not easy to stick to a strategy with such a volatile market! After experiencing some ups and downs, I am rethinking whether —ideology aside—potential profit is worth my peace of mind (though I mostly #HODL without looking much now). Steve Wozniak said recently he is big on Ethereum but he owns very little of it. So as usual, ‘skin in the game’ determines real belief. I think he likes the tech but doesn’t believe much in the currency aspect.
Following Isle Of Dogs, which used the music of Seven Samurai and some of its cinematography, I watched some old interviews of Akira Kurosawa (like this excellent one —you won’t be impressed by the production, though ;p). What a treat! I wrote a bunch of notes, but what I took away was that the golden age of Japanese cinema was when directors were trained in all aspects of filmmaking (e.g. camera, lighting, costumes, editing and especially: writing!), and were free to shoot stories they actually cared about. That resonated strongly with me: I think I’m disenchanted by many media productions because there is a lack of heart and care. You can enhance it with all the CGI, pretty actors and cool music you want that won’t save a movie that tastes like junk food - they are rather like the sugar, salt and fat of filmmaking.
Kurosawa studied painting but gave up as he felt a lack of talent and limitation in expression. “La roue” (1923), a silent movie by Abel Gance impressed him and he turned to cinema. He described Japanese censorship against Western influences until the defeat, and how Americans liberated movies. He also said that Hokusai’s woodblocks were not appreciated until they were first discovered by the West, showing a lack of discernment—but is that phenomenon specific to Japan?
Jesus said to [the many who heard Him in the synagogue], "A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home." — Mark 6:3
Looking around in the plane, I felt everyone was watching it! A good friend of mine was really taken by this movie, with its underdog / naysayers theme. I guess my personal history did not connect as much and I found it pretty boring. Is animation a genre that people indulge in when on planes, like drinking tomato juice (there’s science)? I drink sparkling water on the ground and in the air, and watch (good) animation in both places too. I recommend most works by Ghibli, Satoshi Kon, and Studio 4C. Pixar (who lost John Lasseter to #metoo)/Disney/Aardman it depends.
Somehow the script didn’t work for me. Too stereotypical, too many things didn’t make sense, too self-important. I lost interest and fast-forwarded a few times.
Japanese movie about a girl who plays ping-pong and revives a rural club. It could have been something but it wasn’t. Why I am talking about this?
What I want to watch next: Don Quixote (I like a lot Terry Gilliam) and maybe Solo.
I eventually finished the show, including the special interview. It’s entertaining but surely not a must-have in your life.
The latest 2 episodes saved the season which started quite dull.
The early days of research by the FBI on the psychological profiling of serial killers. It’s quite well done. Something strange happened when I watched it: the first episode was right in the action, and ended with a character who seemed important but didn’t get introduced earlier. It was a bit confusing but I thought everything would be clarified in episode 2. Episode 2 was a flashback which didn’t really solve that much. Then I realized I had watched Episode 10 first. So I watched the first to understand the second and already knew the 10th and as my sequence became 10-2-1-3-4… I knew the end of some story arcs that hadn’t even started. A bit odd but worked out ok.
Rick and Morty ** to ***
If you don’t know it, it’s basically a parody of Dr. Brown and Marty from Back to the Future. I had tried to watch it some time ago but was put off by the tedious vulgarity and repetitions. I gave a shot to the third season in case it had improved and… it did. The most interesting to me is not the sciency stuff, gadgets and dimensions it’s all the fast-paced social commentary Rick says. Some of it pretty edgy - he has the excuse of being an elderly potty-mouthed drunk cartoon genius to get away with it. Listen. Oh, and the third season is much better than the first.
I didn’t enjoy the first episodes of this season as much. I watched the old movie it is inspired from instead, and it wasn’t too bad. Regarding clone-ish sci-fi, I actually liked a lot Jean-Michel Truong’s “Reproduction Interdite” (1988). The French author calls himself a “ballistic writer” —estimating the impact of a projectile in flight, rather than “inventing” things. I suspect most sci-fi writers do that, but in a less open way. Truong was the founder of France’s first A.I. company, which he later sold and used his non-compete time to write about the future of various technologies. His book about the dawn of networks, “Peter’s Successor” (Le successeur de Pierre), is also, unfortunately, only available in French.
Disclaimer: After the recent insidious hit piece by the NYT on the man let me state my view: the piece was style and little substance. You can actually spot a hit piece just from the lighting of the photo used (and its title of course). Go to the source and form your own opinion. If you’re not sure where to start, I recall the latest Q&A on his podcast as pretty good, with a variety of topics touched upon.
I’ve now listened to over 20 hours of Jordan Peterson lectures, interviews and podcasts. Man, he’s really quite interesting. I also find him more practical and humorous than Sam Harris (their topics are also not the same), though Sam’s voice is much more soothing. I even listened to some of his Bible commentaries! Will I become a Christian and radicalize next? He makes all those Bible OGs sound very alive, and has insightful comments on their symbolic value.
If I had to sum up some ideas I found valuable from his talks so far (from some notes and memory):
Life is suffering. So pull yourself together. Look for worthwhile things according to your temperament. Orient yourself toward the highest possible goal, there is nothing better to do! => I find this call hard to criticize… and to answer to!
Free speech is under attack to the point it now follows Godwin’s Law. Voltaire’s made-up quote is all but forgotten (also, he never put his life on the line for an idea afaik). PC culture elevates sensitivity over truth, or even ‘elevation of moral posturing of sensitivity’ over truth. This '“coddling of the American mind” will make people tragically unprepared and unarmed for life and relationships. => A follow-up debate (available on YouTube) showed how the radical left seem unable to draw a line for what’s too radical. I think this will draw more people, including the moderate left, to the right— or rather redefine the left as radical left only and expand the right to include the moderate left. Words will shift in meaning, and new ones might be created to describe this new reality.
Morality is generally the “obedient coward”, too afraid to break the rules. You're not moral if you're just harmless. The highest form of victory is peace of armed opponents who respect each other. Don't decrease the fear but increase the courage. Face your fears bit by bit. => I am not sure I grasp the whole idea here, but to me it speaks of empowerment and courage, which I think are more helpful than “safe spaces”. See the note about “history” below.
Equality of opportunity (for genders, minorities) is great (removing barriers and bias). Equality of outcome is a disaster (= forcing quotas, but according to how many groups/identities then? It’s impossible to ‘equalize’). In particular, it is disproven by what genders chose in the most equal societies (Sweden, Norway, apparently), where women gravitate toward ‘people’ while men gravitate toward ‘things’ (here is a piece in The Atlantic about it) => This seems to make sense. I came across this piece on “how identity politics are harming the sciences”. Apparently it’s from a conservative think tank —but who’s neutral, anyway?
Success comes from IQ (mostly genetic) + “Big Five” (1. extraversion, 2. emotional stability, 3. agreeableness, 4. conscientiousness—which splits into orderliness and industriousness—, 5. openness) + Social network + Specific skills + Interest (?). See my notes above about NDEs and humiliation + the movie Whiplash for an illustration. Roosevelt said “Smooth Seas Never Made A Skilled Sailor”, but the problem is how tough experiences probably breaks people most of the time. Most sailors in rough seas without guidance have probably drowned. Not everyone becomes Elon Musk.
History is about us, not as victims or heroes, but as perpetrators. If we were adults during WWII in Nazi Germany, the statistics would definitely be in favor of us being tormentors. => Following Peterson’s mention, I am reading Ordinary Men, a research about a standard police unit of middle-aged lower-class men in Nazi Germany who were sent to Poland and became monsters to see how slippery is the slope. Stanley Milgram and a few more already showed that—it is humbling and scary to think that you yourself could have been a monster. To connect that to the #metoo movement, any man and woman could wonder “Am I so sure how I would behave if I had so much money and power I could do anything”. Aren’t powerful people bored of regular worldly things? A feast or an orgy is so mundane. Some works illustrate that, for instance A King Without Distraction (book + movie by Jean Giono), Les Ballet Ecarlates (movie by Jean-Pierre Mocky) or even the more classic Eyes Wide Shut by Kubrick. Also slightly tangential is The Element of Crime by Lars Von Trier (a great movie- get a clean version). Peterson’s take is interesting — connecting with Jung’s concept of the “shadow”: that we are all potential monsters, and that this realization has value to live a honest life.
Statistics & distributions matter. Gender, genetic and cultural differences put various groups on a distribution curve (e.g. PISA math scores). If two groups have a difference of just one standard deviation it doesn’t change things much in the middle, but at 2, 3, 4, 5 sigmas—the extremes that lead people to prison and to Nobel Prizes—it creates gigantic differences. The basic up to 3 sigmas is the 68, 95, 99.7 percent rule but if you want to account for real extremes like super violent criminals (regular jail is 2.5 million people in the US is about 1 in 100 so only about 2.5~3 sigmas), athletes or geniuses, you go to 4 or 5 sigmas. At 4 sigmas it’s one in 15,787, but at 5 sigmas it’s one in 1,744,278. Over a hundred times less! If two groups have ONE sigma difference for a trait, it leads to 100x difference at the extreme. Of course, if one group is very small it might be hard to see. But sometimes it is possible. For instance, 22.5% of the 892 Nobel Prize Winners were Jewish, while the total population is estimated around 14.5 million, or a mere 0.2% of world’s population. => It’s difficult to draw a conclusion (what is cause, what is correlation, it might be multi-factorial), but still an intriguing question.
Note: Sadly as well, a recent broadcasted debate on political correctness that looked promising ended up with the two sides largely talking past each other. I found it largely due to rhetorical fluff, arm waiving and ah hominem from the “pro-PC” side. If you have 2 hours of life to waste see your yourself.
First They Came For The Clowns
I missed my chance in Chicago due to jetlag, so I went again to the Comedy Cellar in NYC. Overall good fun. This time again, comedians complained that they need to watch their speech more than ever before. To me, they are the canaries in the intellectual coal mine, as they are supposed to have license to offend and —like jesters—tell some truths. We are spiraling down to the lowest common denominator of the most sensitive person on Earth, who will single-handedly “occupy the front row of the cinema” and stand up, forcing everyone else to stand up too to continue watching the show, however uncomfortably. If Gene Sharp of “How to Start a Revolution” fame was still around, he might have added a chapter to his non-violent revolution manual (in effect mostly used to manipulate foreign media and public opinion to support the toppling of governments that don’t have the favor of the U.S.).
Japan Festival Boston
I stumbled upon it, and saw some taiko (nice), bon odori (cute), cosplay battle (ok), and a weird acrobatics/breakdance/comedy performance by Jikken Dojo (実験道場). Apparently they’re a thing in Japan? I must have missed the memo. Their final skit was describing the life of a salaryman: waking up tired, grabbing a handle in the subway, chasing a mosquito, running around the office with documents… It didn’t make much sense. Until… MJ’s “Thriller” started the play! The whole sequence was a choreography, made easy to memorize with a kind of “memory palace” technique. Well played, Japan.English Breakfast
In Boston, I decided to treat myself to a fancy brunch at Cafe Fleuri. And I had the best English muffin of my life. I generally find them stuffing, but now I know how it is when it’s good. It goes onto the “curse of knowledge” pile alongside Japanese sushi from Tsukiji, French cakes in Paris, Chinese food in Mainland and HK. I tried the Asian cafeteria at Northwestern and it was awful — the Chinese students I shared lunch with told me they were depressed by the food.
Paul Revere and Hero Myths
I had some time in Boston and visited the Paul Revere house and exhibit. If you’re not American you might not know his famous “midnight ride” to warn against British soldiers in 1775. I first heard of it in the Tipping Point by Gladwell where he talks about connectors, mavens and salespersons. The ride seemed vastly — like all history requiring heroes—vastly romanticized. He wasn’t the only rider and never shouted “The British are coming”. Maybe he was just a better character to cast in a famous poem (he was a very wealthy man, so maybe he even paid for it, who knows?).
Other interesting factoids: Revere had 16 children, started his “most ambitious venture” at age 65 (!) which was to make copper sheets (England restricted their export), apparently crucial to America’s technological independence (I’m not sure what you needed copper sheets for in 1800 but the parallels with today’s China and American computer chips are striking —oh I found out: it copper sheet was protecting the hull of wooden ships to increase their speed and decrease maintenance costs! How vintage!). I also read Rever printed paper currency — this wasn’t explained in much detail but it sounded actually quite important (paper currency needed to be printed in or bought from UK).
Last, I came across this unusual item. Will you find out what that is? Take a chance, I know the answer.
When sharing ideas in public you are bound to be misunderstood at times. In Germany I wanted to explain that startups have to overcome obstacles and stand out, so I used two iconic photos from the Berlin Wall era to give it a local flavor (an East German soldier defecting, and a hand through the wall—a photo very different from the usual youth climbing the graffitied side). Unfortunately my presentation was already overtime (I crammed too much in 13 minutes, I thought I had more time) and I didn’t say “Berlin Wall”, assuming people would recognize the photos. Sadly, I heard later that a few thought I showed photos of Nazi camps. What do you think?
I even asked a local guy if that was ok before showing those … If you look at the details, soldier is not in a Nazi uniform + the hand can’t belong to a famished camp inmate. I guess the first impression matters more … Anyway, I’ll try and be clearer in the future but it was a bit chilling to see (some) people assumed the worst. In today’s age of fake news and social media outragism, the default attitude should be to give the benefit of the doubt, and fact checking.
In a recent chat with some friends one “LD50” I hadn’t heard about before. It’s the lethal dose of anything that kills at least 50% of the population, or “median lethal dose”. You can do it with anything. For instance, the LD50 of water is about 6L, coffee is 118 cups and alcohol is 13 shots. Don’t try this at home!
Some time ago I visited an exhibit in Toronto (it was about Vikings but it’s not relevant here) which showed the various projections used in maps. It’s actually quite a challenge as you can’t have it all (accurate size, distance between meridians, easy navigation…). Most distort distances considerably. In my mind I wasn’t sure which of USA, South America, Africa, India, China or Russia was the largest. Do you know which is the projection below and its properties? Which places are actually the largest?
SOME NUMBERS (in million km²) with a bit of grouping by scale:
1. Africa: 30.4
2. —South America (17.8), Russia (17.1),
3. ——Canada (10.0), USA (9.8), China (9.6), Brazil (8.5), Australia (7.7)
4. ———India (3.3), Kazakhstan (2.7), Algeria (2.4)
5. ———Greenland (2.2), Saudi Arabia (2.1), Mongolia (1.6)
6. ————France: 650,000 km²
7. —————Hong Kong: (2,800 km²), Singapore (720 km²)
Does it look like that to you on maps?
As a highlight how any knowledge can be useful, I had a conversation yesterday about map projections with a team member of What Three Words, that gives each place on earth a unique 3-words identifier. I asked “what’s your projection?” - and they chose to keep squares of ~3m (a bit skewed near the poles). To avoid ambiguity and complexity, similar combinations are far away from each other (map coloring problem) and longer/more complex words are in the water. You can get the app and never get lost again!
Not sure that’s ending on a high but when at a conference I ended up facing the choice of paying over $300 for a hotel, which I couldn’t as my bank blocked my card thinking there was a fraud, or going to a youth hostel. It was about $30 only in a dormitory room of 8 that only hosted two, but one snored. Not the best night, but occasional discomfort can be fun.
That’s all for now!