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

Personal news & opinions - we met offline or via LinkedIn.
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Weeks went by, pollution was inhaled, and here are some news! It’s a bit long- take your time.

MENU

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

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

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

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

1.
WORK

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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles

Some new things I wrote:

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

LinkedIn Devolution

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

Next trips

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

2.
NEW EXPERIENCES

Hacked!

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

Yeah, right …

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

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

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

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

Spooky Tracking

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

Lock Luck

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

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

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

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

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

Then the second part started:

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

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

Ashes to Space

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

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

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

Ginastica natural

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

Black Belt

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

Games

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

Escape Room

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

1% Life

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

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

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

Future-proof analog fast car / Work from the outside

3.
CULTURAL CORNER

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

Tadao Ando exhibition (Paris)****

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Japanese Art Brut (Paris)***

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Decorative Arts Museum (Paris)***

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

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

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

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

Pantograph to scale things, photosculpture patent, and some results


MOVIES & TV

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

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

I am mixing sources a bit, but:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Like Lazarro (Italian movie)***

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

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

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

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

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

The China Hustle (Netflix documentary)***

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

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

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

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

That Sugar Film (documentary)**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BlackKlansMan (movie) **

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

Disenchanted (Netflix animation series)*

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

What Money Can’t Buy (book)***

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

4.
THOUGHTS

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

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

Prairie voles

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

Asbestos vs. Tobacco

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

Podcast Update

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

That’s all for now!
—Ben