#45 | New Podcast on Deep Tech, Covid Life: Infestation, Finance, Workouts, and a few Bits and Bulbs
|Benjamin Joffe||Apr 20, 2020|
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After 4 weeks of lock down in Paris, we just got … a 4 weeks extension. Meanwhile, here is what matters.
1. WORK: Going Remote, COVID Startups, New Podcast!
2. COVID Life: Worldwide, Dr. Raoult in English, Infestation, Finance, and Swans
3. CULTURE: Jean de Florette, Saul, Curb, Devs
4. THOUGHTS: Villain, COVID neologisms
Our accelerator programs have largely moved online, and we keep investing more or less at pace. Note that our Shenzhen office has partly reopened for business, but coming in and out is not simple, with borders closing and quarantine.
Startups Fighting COVID-19
I’m also working on a larger selection to share and put a slidedeckhere in a hidden link. Let me know if you have comments or see important things missing!
Deep Tech Podcast
Finally! It was quite some work but it’s there. It’s titled ‘Deep Tech: From Lab to Market’ and the first 3 episodes are out.
Feedback welcome — the various tools I used made me sweat a bit (never move or rename a source file you edited in Audacity!).
I wanted to use a sample from Soylent Green’s OST but did not find a simple way to get the rights. If you haven’t seen it, the opening montage is a masterpiece and, of course, I love its soundtrack. The movie style is a bit dated, but still a great story.
Follow @labtomarket on Twitter for future episodes!
I am (still) not a doctor, a statistician, nor in politics. But here are some thoughts.
Around The World
South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong continue to surprise. I heard that Bali was mostly spared too. In the case of the first three, the experience with previous outbreaks surely paid off. Korea’s playbook came out this week and The Guardian covered Hong Kong’s approach. Both are worth a read. Interestingly, even regular flu is down in Hong Kong as a result of measures. In Taiwan, people wear masks and disinfectant is ubiquitous. It seems to work. They also test and quarantine selectively. Taiwan and Bali might have been my favorite options to wait it out...
In France, the government and media said — until recently — that masks were not useful for the general public, and still hasn’t grown much capacity for testing.
The counting method for deaths attributed to the virus seems to be varying widely depending on the geography: some cities or countries count pretty much ‘anyone dying with a fever’ (thus over-estimating), others only those that tested positive and that died in hospitals (thus under-estimating, as some die at home or in senior homes).
The ‘fatality rate’ is also a tricky number: if you only test those in critical condition, your death rate will be about 100%. If you test widely, including asymptomatic people, then it might be less than 1% (see Dr. Raoult’s video below for more on that).
In Wikipedia’s ranking of countries by their hospital beds, the top 4 are Japan, Korea, Russia and Germany. The US ranks #32.
Our guy Dr. Didier Raoult got some recognition abroad for his approach with chloroquine (President Macron even visited him last week). More importantly he’s seeing the number of deaths is below seasonal averages in Marseille where he’s based, and the number of reported cases going down, which is great news. He’s a prominent global expert on infectious diseases, and one of the points he’s also making is that antiviral treatments might only work early on. By the time you’re in ICU, the virus might already be receding, but your immune response is killing you. So a different treatment is required there. Unfortunately, his videos are all in French - the one from last week already clocked 1.4 million views. I made a rough subtitled version here (you might need to turn on manually the English subtitles).
Trump announced he’s canceling WHO payments, saying they failed at their basic mission and many people, including Bill Gates, are very unhappy. The US contribution is about $120 million per year. China contributes about half of that and France 1/6th. Tuvalu, of the ‘.tv’ domain fame pays about $5k. Sounds about right. Oddly, the Guardian article mentions that Hong Kong followed the WHO guidelines — but their experience with SARS and others, and the proximity of Wuhan helped act faster.
What’s worse than confinement?
Many things, surely. But an outbreak of mice while you’re confined is probably one of them. When it became clear that my apartment had become a destination of choice after nearby restaurants closed and neighbors took off to houses in the country, I had to learn how to deal with the unexpected rodents. For the record, I never saw more than two at any one time, but that was enough to take action.
So do you go for slap traps, sticky pads, poison, or traps keeping them alive? If you’ve ever seen how the sticky pads work, and how the poor thing tries to rip itself off it, you might have gone, like I did, for the classic ones (1.2 euros each).
But how to bait? Should you use Emmental, Brie or Parmesan? I learned later that meat was also good. Anyway, Emmental won hands down.
After catching two with the traps, plus one that fell on its own into an empty trash can (not the smartest one for sure), and reading that mice can have up to one litter of 6 to 8 young per month, I realized I had to take another approach. I looked for holes and cracks, and ended up doing some improvised woodwork and masonry. So far — no new mouse — so good.
Another fun thing when you’re locked down is plumbing issues. An unnamed relative had a major issue, whose solving involved calling a plumber with an electric drain snake, who removed the blockage 7 meters into the pipe, and ended up charging 800 euros. A friend whose dad was a plumber said anyone could DIY this with a mechanical snake and a bit of patience for less than 100 bucks (and keep the tool). Get yours early, and better do some maintenance before pipes get stuck!
France limited outings to one hour, and to the vicinity. It is now only possible to exercise outside between 7pm and 9pm (I was reminded once by a policeman, who fortunately didn’t fine me — it’s 200 euros, I think). After trying online workouts (I got bored with those—and yes, I received my kettlebell), I am now practicing jianzi. I also received notice of drawing classes with live models from two studios and might give it a try. If you’re curious to know what people do in confinement, here is a chart of the most and least sold items on e-commerce.
Overall, the stock market is very interesting to look at, as the continuous updates on lockdowns and government bailouts introduce much variability, and some stocks can go up or down by 10% in a single day.
Of course, some sectors have a much better outlook than others:
Some are logically up: Amazon, eBay, Chewy, Shopify, JD.com (e-commerce), Slack, Zoom (remote work tools), Teladoc (remote consultations), Peloton (home sports), Nintendo (gaming), Delivery Hero (food delivery).
Some kinda logically: Upwork and Fiverr (freelancers platforms), though not sure who’s buying from the influx of freelancers.
Some are down: anything retail, cinema and senior care.
I haven’t been very active with stocks for years, but I had bought Zoom stock in November. I sold all of it a week ago, when it seemed that it was all ‘priced in’ at around $150. Days later, security issues and a lawsuit sent the stock down to $110. It’s now back to $150 … but I sleep great.
Now, I was also eyeing Luckin Coffee, the ‘Chinese Starbucks’, for a while, waiting for the stock lockdown period after IPO to end to observe what would happen. Imagine the potential of a Chinese Starbucks! Great pitch to Wall Street indeed. It reminded me of the no less great pitch of Renren, the ‘Facebook of China’ — which, with a closer look, had little to do with Facebook in terms of business model ... Anyhow, Luckin had deployed thousands of stores in just 2 years, and seemed like it could be something. Now, I’m glad I waited: a massive fraud was revealed, the stock plunged and is now suspended. The guys at Muddy Waters (a short seller specialized in China stock) had announced their short based on a leaked report back in January. Maybe they are retired by now? Citron Research announced other shorts too. Chinese listed companies definitely have some transparency issues … And remember: as some bankers say, a long is a short that failed! ;)
Funny enough, Nassim Taleb, the ‘Black Swan’ guy who’s a very strong finance expert, wrote a piece saying that this outbreak is NOT a black swan (sorry, Sequoia) but a white swan (here on Bloomberg too), as:
We knew something like that would happen at some point. Among others, Taleb wrote about it in 2007 and Bill Gates gave a talk at TED in 2015.
It was - with preparation - largely preventable.
He’s also very critical of bailouts of the companies (rather than the people) that were not cautious, saying ‘If it’s bailed out, it’s a utility’ and that ‘You don’t try to time insurance’.
Wimbledon, for instance, is getting $141 million for canceling its tennis tournament, after paying for insurance for 17 years.
Cirque du Soleil, on the other hand, is considering filing for bankruptcy after it had to cancel its shows and ended up $900 million in debt.
A friend commented that while real estate (especially commercial) might tank, if you consider how much they made over the past decade, you need to average things…
Taleb is one of the few economists that is actually strong at maths and statistics, and loves to use his skills to humiliate the less numerically-armed economists and sociologists. Here he is destroying IQ.
Putting now everything together:
If there is a low, but not negligible, chance for either total destruction or wild success, insuring yourself or buying an option seems - if well calculated - quite sensible (to simplify: a 1 in 5 chance of a 20x return?). That’s the point of insurance for houses, cars, health and more. So why didn’t governments plan better than Wimbledon?
Do ‘active pessimists’ (or realists?) survive better than optimists? And are maybe also more successful? In Man’s Search For Meaning, the author recounts that people who had found meaning for their life survived better in concentration camps. I would argue that the active pessimists did even better by packing away and living abroad since the 1930’s.
As an example, one NYC-based friend sensed, back in February, that if the virus spread it would send airlines, retail and others tanking. He bought put options that went straight up when the virus spread. A few weeks in, looking at Europe and its connection to NYC, he thought things might worsen quickly there too, he bought plane tickets and left (the same or next day) with his family to a safer country. Worse case scenario would have been a slightly expensive trip abroad. As it turned out, it was the right call.
Nothing very new as all theaters are closed, but the catalog has gems!
Jean de Florette****
An oldie based on a novel by Marcel Pagnol. This was a fortunate find. A city man inherits a countryside land that a greedy neighbor wants to buy. The neighbor and village know the land has a spring but will anyone tell? The acting is top-notch with Depardieu, Auteuil, Montand and more.
Manon des Sources***
The sequel to Jean de Florette, some years after the events. Good acting and storyline though Depardieu is not in it.
A woman disappears from a unhappy marriage. What happened to the model for her parents’s popular children books? Quite good.
This one was promoted by Netflix with good reviews. Sure, this one is more modern, but I think on the topic of divorce Kramer vs. Kramer has my preference.
The School for Wives***
Some theaters are sharing their stage plays online for free. This one is a Moliere play by the Comedy Francaise. An aging middle-class bachelor afraid of being cheated on has sheltered a young girl for a decade in the hope of making her the most naive and faithful wife the world has seen. Unfortunately, as she gets to marrying age and before any wedding, a handsome young man sees her at her window… Not the most beautiful verses (I’m a Cyrano fan), but still an entertaining classic.
Better Call Saul****
The new season is ending soon. It’s still very good. For memory, this show focuses on a good-hearted lawyer that cuts corners. It might last longer than the Breaking Bad series it spun out of!
Curb Your Enthusiasm***
This last season was pretty, pretty good. Sadly it came to an end. I am re-watching some bits of older episodes. If you’re not familiar, Larry David is an old and rich TV writer. In each episode he breaks some social convention (e.g. complain about the quality of the lemonade at a kid’s stall) and is ready to defend his views and face the consequences (which often ends in him getting shouted at, or banned of some place).
The — quite promising — story pits a super A.I. in a battle of determinism vs. free will. I don’t mind contemplative movies — I loved 2001 when I watched it again as a grown-up — but here I couldn’t resist the urge to watch the show at 1.7x speed. The main characters seem to be able of only two facial expressions each, and the whole plot was, to me, too weak. A friend who works for NASA was raving about it, but I failed to be ravished. This show is by the same director who made Ex Machina, which I also didn’t like much, and that my NASA friend — again — loved. We generally have similar tastes, but here we’ll have to agree to disagree!
By Nobel-prize winning Albert Camus.
The story of a (fictitious) plague outbreak in a city of Northern Algeria, from the perspective of various French citizens and visitors — a priest, a journalist, a doctor, a smuggler, a civil servant, a criminal in hiding, a judge and a wealthy dilettante.
I didn’t realize it when reading, but the story is also an echo to people’s behaviors during WWII (the book was written in 1947): the unsung heroes who fight daily without shine, the ones answering the call early or later, those in denial, those taking advantage of others, those who flee for various reasons, the great unifier of a common threat and the equalizer of death — taking young and old alike—, and the reality that the battle will never be over, lurking underneath, waiting to reappear.
As a side note, Camus was born in Algeria in 1913 (a French colony from 1830 to 1962), raised by a deaf and illiterate single mom. He was likely headed to a bad place, but a teacher noticed his potential and everything changed. Long story short, he gets the Nobel at age 44, then dies in a car crash two years later.
After reading up on the birth of spy characters OSS 117 and 007, I came across the real-life inspiration for the arch-villain Blofeld. It is a Russian-Greek fellow named Basil Zaharoff who became a successful arms dealers during the Spanish War, WWI, then ventured into oil, casinos, financed a Greek war, and even funded a few early aviation projects and various philanthropic donations (including monkey house of the Paris zoo). When Zaharoff died, Georges Soros was 6.
Some new Covid-related words.
Coviolent: when confinement becomes too much.
Covid pop: stocks that benefit from the pandemic.
Zoom bombing: trolling a Zoom call uninvited.
Coronorphans: a bit dark… but I saw a Curb episode where one of Larry’s friends (likely in his sixties) announces that he’s now an orphan because he just lost his last parent (Larry mocks him).
Covidepressed: it could be from confinement, or PTSD of frontline workers.
Virus/Mask Diplomacy: donating medical equipment as a form of ‘soft power’
That’s about all for now. Wear a mask, wash your hands, and I hope your government and mine build testing capacity, look into repositioned meds, and does selective confinement, otherwise we might be in this for a while!
Confined in Paris,