#44 | Covid Info/Life/Startups And Less Consequential Things
|Benjamin Joffe||Mar 26, 2020|
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Welcome to lockdown time!
I dusted off the old VR+mask pic which seemed timely again. You surely have your own sources on Covid-19 so I’m only sharing some thoughts here. Incidentally, this is #44 and a very unlucky number. The less consequential updates are below.
0. COVID-19: Around The World, An Expert, Economic Impact
1. WORK: Looking for Covid Startups,The Last Event in Paris
2. EXPERIENCES: Last [Everything], Lockdown Life, Covid Stocks
3. CULTURE: Dark Water Eastwood, Moon Indigo; I Finished Netflix
4. THOUGHTS: Special Forces, O2 & CO2, New Words
I am not a doctor, a statistician, nor in politics. The situation is hard to assess, and strategies like testing, confinement and herd immunity all have their advocates and merits. Even if Covid-19 is not as deadly as feared, there might be collateral damage among patients who can’t access an overwhelmed healthcare system. Time will tell who was less wrong!
Around The World
The US is catching up after Europe and Asia. One Shenzhen-based colleague shared the details on the ramp-up and gradual return to business (still not complete). The scale of tracking, testing, and disinfection efforts are impressive.
Things seem to be getting under control in China, South Korea, and not too bad in Japan and Hong Kong. I was surprised my old Jiu-jitsu gym in Hong Kong was still open (but no handshakes of course!).
Sweden and the Netherlands are shooting for herd immunity. In the current panic it might sound like a ‘tragedy of the commons’ endangering everyone, but after reading the Dutch announcement, looking at numbers and listening to a top expert (below) it doesn’t sound so absurd. Now, this works best using widespread testing, isolation and treatment of patients — which don’t look ready.
We’re now in confinement. The government has escalated measures, but overall is way behind on what needs to be done. In particular, testing capacities are still very limited.
The biased media coverage and shortage of masks make wearing masks feel like you either hoarded or stole them. Personally, I had a few leftovers from a pollution peak in SF over a year ago. It’s not perfect but surely better than nothing to protect yourself and others.
A little anecdote: in February, the elections for Paris mayor were imminent. But on Feb 14 (Valentine Day!), the candidate from the President’s party dropped out due to an affair and sex tape. Guess who they picked as replacement? The Health Minister! On Feb 14 she had said she wasn’t interested (and France had its first death from Covid-19). Yet, on Feb 16 she announced she was running. The wheel of karma turned, as always, and a month later she finished third in the first voting round, and decided to drop out of the race (the second round was postponed). She gave an interview to share her shame, and started the blame game. Well done.
An Interesting Expert
I am following the video updates from (possibly) the world’s top expert in infectious diseases (and chloroquine / hydroxychloriquine / Plaquenil treatments).
He is based in France and his latest updates (in French except this one) advocate for broad testing (the logistics of collecting samples safely being the main effort), confinement and early treatment of contaminated patients (since once in ER it seems the main issue is not the virus but the immune response). In short, a 21st century response vs 19th century. I hope France ramps up testing soon and updates its approach.
When I drafted this newsletter I was wondering about a big QE. It now looks unavoidable, and very likely to cause inflation (more money supply for the same or less assets).
The question is: which assets will be safe?
Most stocks are down. The first affected were airlines, hotels, then it spread to retail and now most other sectors. How low can they go? How quick might they recover? Both the evolution of the virus and Government intervention makes things quite unpredictable.
Are some ‘anti-fragile’? Zoom is a rare case, as might be some online education or telehealth resources.
Commercial real estate will probably struggle, as businesses close or renegotiate their rents.
Residential real estate could be a safe bet (except Airbnbs, which are ‘hospitality’), but new transactions are unlikely to occur… unless some can’t pay their mortgage? Most governments seem inclined to help avoid evictions.
Gold is often considered to wither crises, but after a peak the price is now below its January level.
Looking for Covid Startups
We highlighted a group of startups in our portfolio engaged in fighting the virus, via treatments, tests or prevention, ranging sanitizing robots to testing kits. I encourage every investor to support the visibility and finances of their relevant startups — information and innovation can outpace the virus!
Deep Tech Investors Night
The event took place almost as planned — I only had to change the entire line-up of speakers, and had a no-show rate of 75% instead of the industry-standard 50%. It was still a good discussion, and nice group of ~60 investors (out of 250 RSVPs — we expected 80~100). Things escalated quickly in France after that so it’s likely the last (offline) event for a while!
Deep Tech Interviews
It’s on the back burner for now.
Alright. Time for more light-hearted topics.
Last [Everything] In Paris
Three weeks ago I went for the first time to the Paris Agriculture Show, which had become a staple for French politicians. Pat a cow, marvel at a sheep, see chicks hatch, have a craft beer. It was a fun 2 hours going around and tasting some local specialties.
That evening, it was announced the show was closing, and all gatherings over 1,000 people canceled.
The week after, I had my last art class (almost all members are seniors) and the next day my last Jiu-jitsu class.
That weekend I went to watch my last movie and went to my last restaurant.
The next day the lockdown started.
I thought I’d be better prepared to confinement, having done a few meditation retreats and being generally quite a homebody, but:
The lack of exercise is annoying — I ordered a 12kg kettlebell online last week (and paid extra to have it fast). It still hasn’t shipped.
My fitness/yoga studio is going online. The first live streaming class apparently had 100+ people (vs. the usual 10~20 in the studio). The class was free with a tip jar at the end. It reminded me of some celebrity English teachers or streamers in Korea, Hong Kong and Mainland China who make millions from online classes. Maybe we’ll see some new services emerge from this!
Online, only a weekly Better Call Saul and Curb Your Enthusiasm cheer me up a bit, though the quality went down. I started watching Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak. Nice timing, Netflix.
On the upside, it freed some time for drawing and painting. I’m exploring new styles, and trying to learn from James Gurney’s excellent channel. He’s often painting mundane things, and starts with a mess that gradually turns into a masterpiece. On my side, one portrait happened because I was watching some Eddie Izzard comedy online. I realized I missed his show/marathon fundraiser during his visit to Paris in February, and decided to paint him instead. The result was … interesting.
I played a game called Pandemic on mobile. It’s originally an award-winning board game, in which players have to collaborate to cure diseases spreading around the world. I found it quite educative about the different expert roles. It’s well designed and quite tricky to win. It’s a bit addictive (and repetitive) so I stopped after a week.
In economic crises there is ‘bank rush’. In health crises it seems there are cultural differences.
Most places had toilet paper, meat, milk and canned food as targets of choice; the US experienced a ‘gun rush’.
In Paris, stock has now mostly resumed to normal. Keep in mind that instead of eating at least one meal out, now entire families need to eat at home 2 or 3 meals a day. It’s quite some supplies and some work!
The online family reunions that looked so unlikely in the British near-future sci-fi show Years And Years sound quite real now.
Some friends have started doing drinks over Skype, and some companies offer ‘coffee breaks’ video rooms, where their staff can take a break and chat.
For some, confinement might be the path to devolution. Call it the GEMS diet (Games, Eat, Masturbate, Sleep or Sex, depending on living arrangements).
If we’re at war — like was said multiple times by the French President — then just like in the movie Wag the Dog (one of my all-time favorites), we need a theme song. I suggest to adapt Sweet Caroline into ‘Sweet Quarantine’: Touching hands, touching me, touching you~
I am not an active stock trader. I lost a fair amount in my early attempts 20 then 10 years ago, and stayed out for most of the bull market, investing in startups instead. But a few times I’ve had a hunch:
Years ago, I bought Yahoo as a proxy for Alibaba when I noticed it was trading below the value of its holdings. I held onto it until after the Marissa Mayer debacle and Yahoo became Altaba, and the value was finally recognized.
Last Fall, I was looking for under-hyped tech stocks and bought some Zoom in November (partly thanks to the company’s low-level of yogababble). Obviously it’s done very well. Now the question is whether to sell or buy more…
One of those ‘insiders’ movies. This time about DuPont and the Teflon poisoning scandal. The company paid US$671 million to settle more than 3,500 lawsuits in 2017 — after dragging the case since 2001! Should we throw away all our old pans?
The latest Clint Eastwood opus didn’t disappoint. It covers the story of a security guard who discovered a bomb at an Olympic site in 1996, and was later suspected of planting it to be cast as a hero. I wondered why Eastwood picked this topic today. I think it’s to remind us that public opinion can go overboard, and doesn’t replace the law (also check his excellent Grand Torino and Million Dollar Baby).
Welcome to the Sticks***
A heart-warming classic French comedy telling the story of a post office manager from the South who has to move to the North, and dreads it due to long-lasting stereotypes about Northerners. A South Korean equivalent is My Teacher Mr. Kim, where a corrupt Seoul teacher is transferred to a rural school to lay low for a while.
A French ‘surrealistic romantic science fantasy’ film adapted from Boris Vian's 1947 novel Froth on the Daydream — a long favorite of mine. Vian was a trendy and creative poet, musician (and big fan of Jazz), singer and more. Maybe the Kanye West of his time? The movie is directed by Michel Gondry, whose visual style and sense of pace was polished by making many iconic music videos in his early years.
Voulez vous rire avec moi ce soir**
A documentary on global standup comedy featuring some celebs. Quite a low-key production with a star-struck interviewer. Having Eddie Izzard saved it.
Maybe I wasn’t in the mood due to the feeling of ‘the last movie before lockdown’, but I found this story about France’s legendary WWII general to be underwhelming.
Sadly, most of my favorite shows ended!
Years And Years, BoJack Horseman, The New Pope …
Only Better Call Saul and Curb Your Enthusiasm are live weekly (but, as mentioned above, not as great as before).
Dark and Stranger Things have new seasons coming, but I think they are getting worse with each season too.
Also, Netflix shut down all productions due to Covid. I guess we’ll need to dive into the back catalog, or … do something else!
Journey to the End of the Night**** (Louis-Ferdinand Celine)
A 1932 semi-autobiographic picaresque novel starting during WWI. I’m still early in the novel (I’m reading the version illustrated by Tardi), but its colorful and vigorous style really took me by surprise as I knew very little about it. It influenced Charles Bukowski and many others.
Next: The Virus Trilogy
The Plague (Albert Camus)
Camus researched epidemics that happened in 1944 and 1945 in Algeria to write this one. Camus was a 1957 Nobel Prize and his book is in the public domain in some countries.
The Scarlet Plague (Jack London)
Post-apocalyptic fiction novel by Jack London taking place in 2073, sixty years after the Red Death killed most people. I am a big fan of London’s Martin Eden (an angry working-class laborer becomes a famous writer and social critic), The Iron Heel (a near-future dystopian novel against capitalism), The People of the Abyss (a gonzo journalism account of London’s East End working-class poor). All public domain.
The Horseman on the Roof (Jean Giono)
An adventure novel by an award-winning author. A young colonel is caught up in the 1832 cholera epidemic in Provence.
I didn’t include the Stephen King novel The Stand, as it includes some kind of sorcerer. If you want more sci-fi, the movie Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python and Brazil fame)and its inspiration La Jetee (Chris Marker) are also good.
A few weeks ago, the judo/jiu-jitsu coach invited a bunch of people to help him move house. A very muscular guy showed up and helped carry the old cast iron radiator on his own. He turned out to be a member of RAID, the elite tactical unit of the French National Police (the army unit equivalent, GIGN, was featured in the Counter-Strike game series). Their job is to go where regular police can’t, and generally involves armed suspects or criminals. He’s a sniper, but still trains for all aspects of intervention. He told me that three quarters of his time is training (he loves training). He found training more stressful than real situations. It felt good to see such professionals were on the job! (both for RAID and for moving heavy stuff).
O2 and CO2
What happens with too much of either? Not good things. Both can dissolve in your blood, and cause all sorts of nasty effects.
While not as immediately toxic as CO, CO2 poisoning starts quite early — anything above 5% is not great (one breath is at ~4%). Smokers have apparently better tolerance. I am wondering how wearing a mask might affect CO2.
As for oxygen, it’s possible to live weeks on 100% oxygen — astronauts and divers do it (though sustained high pressure O2 is not good).
Covid Baby: a possible consequence of social distancing.
Covidivorce: when social distancing becomes a necessity.
To another week of sweet quarantine,