#47 | Waterpark physics, Cats, Coding and More Deep Tech Podcasts

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I got a bit distracted by a certain pandemic. I moved my musings on Covid to the end as everyone is probably over-informed. Best wishes to all, and in particular to those in California and Australia, who — between Covid and fires—have had a particularly rough year.

MENU

1. WORK: Portfolio updates, More podcasts
2. EXPERIENCES: Sew me, Waterpark physics, Cats and Coding
3. CULTURE: Dark III, some YT and podcasts
4. THOUGHTS: Pyramids, Meritocracy, Bac pour tous, Bullshit Jobs
5. COVID LIFE: Fight Cub, Numbers, Treatments, S&P Mystery


1.
WORK

Portfolio Updates

Some great things happened in the SOSV portfolio:

More Podcasts

I focused on the Deep Tech: From Lab To Market podcast.

  • Over a dozen episodes are now live with companies such as Khosla Ventures, E14 Fund (from the MIT Media Lab), DCVC and more.

  • After a series of investors, I am now also inviting deep tech entrepreneurs and domain experts. Recommendations and contacts are welcome!

Programs

As you probably know, our fund’s investment model is to sign our first checks via our vertical accelerators in hardware, biology, food and cross-border software (with packages of $100k-$250k). We then follow-on with larger checks for seed, A, B, etc.

Like many, we had to quickly find ways for our programs to go online, and it seems to be working so far. Despite the many challenges, there are some benefits:

  • Startups do not need to relocate, which makes our programs more accessible.

  • Many mentors and investors have also been more reachable than ever, now that they don’t need to travel and have gotten used to online meetings.

  • Online events also gather larger audiences.

2.
NEW
EXPERIENCES

Waterpark Physics

I took my nephews to a waterpark with a dozen rides, slides and falls. It was all fun and games until someone said ‘heavy people go faster’.

36 hours later I was still looking for a satisfactory answer. Note that I hold a MSc. in fluid mechanics, and looked for answers on Quora, Stackoverflow/physics and explored comparables in skiing, bobsleighs, free fall and more.

Here are my thoughts for now:

  • We’ll assume the initial speed is zero.

  • Potential energy is converted into kinetic energy and heat from friction (with air & water).

  • The elements at play are: gravity / free fall (independent of mass), air friction, waterslide friction (plastic on skin / swimsuit), water friction (which also acts as some kind of lubricant), current (low depth water), floatation (archimedes force).

  • Air friction depends on the surface area and aerodynamics. In free fall, a heavier object with similar dynamics will reach a higher terminal velocity than a lighter one. We can probably assume air friction differences are negligible between light and heavy people there.

  • It is not clear that heavy people go faster but they might seem to. They might just have a bigger ‘splash’ at the end as they move a larger volume of water.

  • Surface friction varies with the contact area, ‘type’ (rough vs. slippery), and mass

  • Floatation depends on volume and density.

A friend working for NASA suggested that the scientific approach would be to run an experiment with maybe a small and a large plastic bag full of water to simulate a human body. I don’t have plans of going back to the waterpark right now, so other ideas are welcome!

Sew Me

I was walking back from watching a movie (my first post-lockdown). I had stopped to browse the menu of a restaurant, when a waiter stepped on my foot and kept it there. I then sensed a light contact in my back. I looked at the waiter: he wasn’t a waiter at all but a suspicious guy stepping on my foot! I checked my phone in my back pocket, and there it was: gone! I turned around and saw another guy walking away. Walking up to him I found my phone in his hands, grabbed it, scolded him, and both of them walked away.

Thinking back, I am still unsure of what the best reaction would have been. You never know how many and how dangerous thieves are. And from what I heard, if they get arrested, they will most likely be back on the street within days, to the great despair of the police.

I mentioned the incident to a few dojo friends, one of them said that before engaging in a confrontation, he always checks the hands (for size and fighting marks), the ears (for cauliflower ears that show a practice of contact sports), then keeps an eye on the neck (as punches and more can be read from there). My solution to avoid future trouble? Sewing my short’s back pockets.

New Laptop, Old Specs

I had not been paying much attention but it seems that the processors of laptops have barely changed for years… I also realized my 2015 MacBook was vastly underpowered to handle my many browser tabs, large Keynote files, and editing podcast files. I even had gone back to my 2012 MacBook Air for audio editing… Eventually and despite the slowdown of Moore’s Law I bought a MacBook Pro.

Lend Me Your Cat

There is a website where volunteers can offer free hosting to cat owners and we hosted two cats for a week each. Owners provide the cat, food, equipment, and pay a tiny fee to the website. The first cat spent most of his first 3 days hiding under the bed and fasting. He was either on the shy side, or working on his summer body … The second one was a large beast (8.5kg—maybe a rogue Maine Coon?) who ate every 2 hours and did a great job at being a cat. The third guest is arriving in a week.

Coding

I haven’t coded for almost 20 years when I did C and Matlab in engineering school (aside from some tiny HTML and CSS), but I had been looking into automating a few tasks I perform regularly. Rather than use online tools or ask Fiverr or bother our internal IT team, I thought it could be interesting to do it myself.

A friend mentioned a method he said his mother completed so the gauntlet was thrown. A few weeks in, I completed the course and can code a crude web crawler or bot in python with libraries like BeautifulSoup, Selenium, Pyautogui … and it’s been highly satisfying.

Python is very easy to understand despite some quirks in some of the syntax, and coding small custom tools is probably one of the skills office workers should hone sooner rather than later. Python is half-way between ‘proper code’ and the bright future of ‘no code’ programming. If some of your tasks are repetitive, check it out!

3.
CULTURE

TRAVELS

Since business trips are out and lockdown is over, I took the chance to spend some weekends around France.

Brittany

Brittany was pretty nice, with some mysterious old stones and open sea. I did some wind kart, which wasn’t so easy to handle.

Camargue

The South of France with a spectacular village in a ‘hole’, a Templar town, a bird park (seeing flamingos take off is always quite a sight), an insect park (including scorpion flies, which luckily do not sting) and the Larzac region famous for its roquefort cheese.

French Riviera

Remote work and occasional swimming (with the ‘Decathlon respirator mask’, because you never know when Covid might catch you), paddling, a couple of swings sailing a catamaran (solo was a bit stressful).

MOVIES & SHOWS

I didn’t do a great selection I’m afraid…

Dark (third season) ***

It’s an intentionally convoluted affair involving time travel and 4 families across at least 5 different time periods (I had to watch a recap of the first 2 seasons to get up to speed, and still more after it ended). You might end up thinking either that the story is amazing … or that some of it doesn’t add up and that the authors even left some loose ends. I am still swaying between the two opinions!

My fair lady***

I am not a big fan of musicals but this movie is an old favorite for its acting and general theme, around linguistics, phonetics and social class. Watch it if you get the chance.

Snowpiercer**

I watched the movie before, and on a slow evening embarked on the subsequent Netflix series. It was reasonably entertaining, thanks to the acting and atmosphere and despite a fairly predictable script. Quick reminder:

  • The world is frozen, save for a small group living in a 1001 cars-long train that has been circling the Earth for 7 years.

  • There is a boss / chief engineer nobody ever sees, and passengers from first, second and third class with decreasing privileges in food quality, living arrangements, leisure options and reproductive rights.

  • A series of murders disturbs the established order.

I loved the director’s Memories of Murder but found his (acclaimed) movie Parasite too over-the-top in its second half. Snowpiercer is sort of half-way. Wikipedia kindly reminded me Snowpiercer is based on a French graphic novel.

Capital in the 21st Century**

I haven’t read the book by the famed French economist Thomas Piketty, and figured his movie would be a convenient shortcut. While I didn’t feel I learned a whole lot, and found the images used manipulative, what I took away is this: “if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call ‘the market’ reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else”.

Grossophobie** (Fatphobia / Fatshaming)

A documentary on a plus-sized French writer who discusses her size-related challenges, from school to dating, clothing, work and the perception of others. I found this personal account quite effective.

Ten Per Cent**

A Netflix show about a French talent agency dealing mostly with actors. Quite entertaining, with numerous cameos from recent and older French celebs.

Hotel by the River**

A Korean movie about an aging poet who left his wife and two sons many years prior. He invites his sons to visit him at an isolated hotel by a river as he’s pondering about life. The acting and aesthetics were good, but it’s a very minimalist movie and not for everybody. I also enjoyed being able to follow a large part of the sparse Korean dialogue. Some of the attitudes are, I think, typically Korean and might surprise viewers.

Tout simplement noir** (Simply Black)

A mockumentary about an unemployed French black actor who decides to stage a protest in Paris for black men. As he’s struggling to gather support from black celebrities — who seem to find anti-racism a tired theme — he realizes he might need to adjust his message, while being reminded by his supportive white working wife of his domestic duties. A bit of lightness and subtlety in the treatment of this theme was a welcome and fresh angle, compared to the transatlantic tension that France had been importing recently.

MOVIES & SHOWS

I’ve enjoyed those more than movies.

  • Sam Harris had some great podcasts on Meritocracy, Wokeness and more.

  • Eric Weinstein’s older podcasts of ‘The Portal’, with Werner ‘wirecutter’ Herzog, Peter Thiel and a recent one with Josh Wolfe.

  • The YouTube channel on ‘everything music of Rick Beato had some gems.

  • I watched every video published on the channel of Professor Raoult’s infection center.

  • Several Penn & TellerFool Us’ episodes were interesting. This lead me to Takumi Takahashi and Lennart Green.

4.
THOUGHTS

Pyramid Scheme

I know Elon twitted that aliens built the pyramids, but If you’re connected to him, send him this: this is a fascinating and highly credible demonstration that the giant blocks were agglomerated on site rather than carved and hauled from miles away.

I find it a sad state of affairs that Egyptologists don’t seem to take it more seriously. That said, it’s a common situation that (1) The most interesting ideas come from the intersection of fields (2) ‘Science progresses one funeral at a time’, when established authorities die and make space for new ideas.

Meritocracy

Sam Harris on meritocracy is worth a listen. He’s talking with the author of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles The Middle Class, and Devours The Elite.

They cast a light on what everybody knows already:

  • Success generally requires enormous amounts of support early on.

  • Thinking the US is, for instance, a true meritocracy is just promoting a myth.

  • It also has the unpleasant implication that if you’re not successful it’s because you’re either dumb (then it’s not your fault) or lazy (then it is your fault, if you assume people have free will).

Le Bac Pour Tous

With the lockdown, high-school students in France didn’t have to take on the end of secondary school test (the Baccalaureat or Bac). They were evaluated instead based on the grades they received along the year. A whooping 96% passed. Note that 2019 was already about 90%, which to me is proof that this exam has become entirely meaningless.

It also reminded me of an article I read years ago in a very interesting blog about media, sociology and psychology named The Last Psychiatrist. It was run by an anonymous doctor until he got doxxed and decided to stop writing (a big loss).

In the article, he was taking the example of a Psychiatry and Neurology certification program that 99% of applicants pass. He wrote that the test was merely a fetish, whose purpose was to have us believe NOT that we learned or know something-- but that there is something to know. He argued that psychiatry had made no progress in almost 20 years, (a claim no other medical specialty can make), and the truth cannot be spoken out loud. Hence an exam.

So here we are: the Bac is a fetish, because the reality might rather be:

  • Middle-class success lies in the knowledge you get about the right study tracks within your family, and that the Bac results (who come in late) are irrelevant to get into the right school.

  • The working class will probably discover soon that the bac is now merely table stakes to flip burgers,

  • While the upper class is all about networks in certain schools rather than any particular study specialty.

Bullshit Jobs

Useless Bac or not, there might still be a job for most! A friend pointed me to this article (that later turned into a book), which describes how a significant number of jobs are self-assessed as ‘bullshit jobs’: millions of meaningless, soul-sucking, and sometimes downright destructive jobs. This phenomenon could be described as an ‘emerging property’ of capitalism.

A summary I read:

“Real, productive workers are exploited. The remainder are divided between:

  • A terrorized stratum of reviled unemployed,

  • A larger group (managers, administrators, etc.) basically paid to do nothing

The latter are in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (and particularly its financial avatars) but, at the same time, foster resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.”

5.
COVID LIFE

It’s a confusing time. Currently, my view is that for countries with low death numbers, widespread testing, it might be time to reopen more widely while ensuring selective confinement and treatment. I don’t put much hope in a vaccine for now. Note that there are still unknowns regarding possible new strains, and long-term health damage.

Anecdotes

  • The ‘Spanish flu’ got this name because most countries were covering up the outbreak, and only the Spanish media did their job. As we can witness on various sensitive topics, self-censorship can be worse than the law.

  • The name ‘vaccine’ was named by Pasteur after the research done by Jenner on cowpox inoculation as a way to prevent smallpox.

Fight Club

Since we’re post-lockdown in France, I can now mention it: a friend from my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu club converted his 9m2 bedroom into a dojo during lockdown. It was more a ‘BJJ pod’ than a ‘speakeasy gym’ as mentioned by NPR but it was a great pleasure to train.

It proved so effective that when gyms officially reopened, I managed —for the first time— to win a few bouts against some blue belts, and even surprised a black belt with an unplanned reverse triangle (a bit like that — he was going easy on me…). Everything comes at a cost so I’m now recovering from an arm-bar…

Aside from that, I feel things are more confusing than ever:

Numbers

  • The number of daily deaths in places like Spain, Italy and France is now in the low double or even single digit. By this account, the disease looks contained.

  • Also, what counts as a Covid death varies according to each locale, but that part is impossible to sort out…

  • The number of cases might be growing simply because there is now more testing in place (observation bias).

  • On the one hand I hear what I think are credible professionals like Professor Raoult talk about numbers, scientific publications and field results. To him, in many countries the epidemic is almost done (deaths are now very low). On the other I hear the media emphasizing the number of cases over the number of deaths, and injecting politics into science.

  • To give some perspective: France reported about 30k deaths in 5 months (in line with the 150k in the US as France’s population is 1/5th). But about 600k people die in France in any given year. Will this year’s number deviate much from the average?

  • Sweden, which was heavily criticized for its laissez-faire approach of not closing its economy ended up with less than 6k deaths for a population of 10M, roughly in line with France’s and US numbers. Despite the decision maker’s hesitations on the policy, the economic impact seems much lower.

  • Japan, now blamed for being too sure the pandemic was over, still scored only about 1,000 deaths though it has 126M people, and the world’s oldest population.

  • Other East Asian countries, New Zealand, and many developing countries also did well.

From those numbers my current view is that East Asian approaches worked, that several countries might be overly cautious, and that Sweden picked a courageous trade-off for its economy against the world’s entire public opinion, that seems to have yielded good results. It will likely become more apparent as other countries enter recessions.

Treatment

  • The Lancet published then pulled out awkwardly the main article claiming HCQ was ineffective, proving that HCQ had become a political drug, and that top scientific publications could also be manipulated.

  • The WHO and various governments had followed blindly the ‘authority’ without reviewing the publication independently and suspended the use of HCQ, embarrassing themselves when they had to walk the decision back.

  • Yet, HCQ as an early treatment to reduce the viral load seems to work according to numerous practitioners and the numbers of the largest treatment center in the South of France.

  • Most developing countries that are frequent users of HCQ, have less choice and less Pharma lobbies seem to be doing fine… or are they under-testing and under-reporting?

  • Other treatments seem either far away or have little evidence of efficacy. I put Remdesivir in there (read the conclusion of this study and see if it convinces you).

Further thoughts on scientific publications:

  • Anything truly effective doesn’t need randomized double-blind trials with thousands of people — it will be observable with the naked eye among a small group of patients.

  • In fact and beyond that, most (medical) publications are false (h/t Nicolas Colin).

Economy

  • The lockdown has wrecked numerous economies, likely durably.

  • Many sectors fired a significant part of their workforce — maybe a blessing in disguise for some that needed restructuring?

  • The economic burden is now both on the state and the unemployed themselves.

  • This situation created a proto-form of ‘universal basic income’.

  • Who’s paying? You might ask. The large amounts injected in the economy by various governments (the US in front) mean that there is now more money representing less economic activity. The only possible outcome I see is inflation. The dollar is already dropping against several currencies.

I am also baffled by the S&P 500 now at an all-time high when nothing is back to normal. What might explain it partly:

  • Large tech stocks are significant in the index (Apple’s $2T?) and some are benefitting from the ‘online shift’.

  • The stock market prices the future, which means it includes the very likely coming inflation (as the money supply is growing while the economy is shrinking). In other words: the stock market is priced in 202X dollars, which are worth notably less than 2020 dollars.

  • Bored retail investors are putting their money in. I don’t have a better explanation for now and the mass media I glanced at seemed unable to explain any of this logically. You decide.

  • Last, I had bought some stocks and warrants of companies I considered overly penalized. Unfortunately the reopening has been slow and while the stocks are ok, the warrants aren’t. I am thinking about what the current stop-and-go situation, and growing ‘confinement fatigue’ in many places might bring.

Finally, I hope the next newsletter will find the world in a better place. Until then, stay safe!
—Ben