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

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Writings: Medium - TechCrunch - VentureBeat - Forbes
Podcast (6 episodes): soundcloud.com/takeapunch/

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