#51 | Climate Tech, Sphynxes, Teaching Deep Tech, Boyz I & II, Asking Good Questions
Ben’s irregular newsletter mixes work and play.
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April became August and stories piled up. No mask outside this month, I hope reopening is going well for you!
1. WORK: Climate Tech
2. STUDY: Coding, BJJ, Chess
3. EXPERIENCES: Teaching Deep Tech Ventures, Sphynxes, Kapital game
4. CULTURE: Boyz I & II, French Tech, Indie Stuff
5. THOUGHTS: How Wrong? Good Questions, Playing With Kids
6. COVID LIFE: Risk Factors, Sweden, French Revolution
We put some order into the SOSV portfolio and published the list of our top 100 Climate Tech startups, which was covered by Techcrunch, and ran additional analysis on their investors and founders (40% co-founded by women, and 40% have a PhD co-founder). We’re now planning an event on the topic!
Select Fund & Unicorns
We raised a $100M follow-on fund to follow-on in our top startups (we reached our hard cap). We also had our fourth unicorn: NotCo (AI-powered plant-based food). It is the first coming from our IndieBio startup development program for life sciences. It joined the 3 existing ones: Getaround (car sharing), Formlabs (3d printing), BitMex (crypto exchange). More to come!
Climate & Energy
As we’re doubling down on Climate Tech, I took some online courses and did further reading (including Bill Gates’s book), here are some takeaways:
The Kaya Identity describes the link between emissions, population, GDP, energy intensity of GDP, and emissions per unit of energy: CO2e = Population x (GDP/Pop) x (Energy/GDP) x (CO2e/Energy). Can we decouple energy use and GDP, or achieve lower emissions per unit of energy? If not, something gotta give!
Transportation: all-electric works as long as the energy source is clean. Long-distance might be solved with hydrogen. Critical materials is another topic.
Energy: the global emissions problem is half-solved if we can get clean electricity at scale.
Solar and Wind are not well suited to all geographies and need storage, which makes them more expensive. They also take space and require critical materials.
Hydro and geothermal are great, but not everyone can be Norway or Iceland. Most hydro in developed countries is already in use.
Nuclear is low-carbon, low land use, but it has risks and bad press.
Energy storage is not cheap. Most batteries need critical materials, pumped hydro needs height and water. Storage with hydrogen using hydrolysis is an option, and Japan seems keen on it.
Meat (especially beef) is a problem due to animal emissions and land use (including crops for animals, and fertilizers for those crops).
Future proteins might come from plants, fungi, algae, insects, and modified yeast and bacteria (note: our program IndieBio has many investments in this space). The point is to make it as tasty and as cheap as meat.
Buildings: insulation and heat pumps could make them more efficient.
Building materials like steel and concrete are another issue.
A few more notes:
The world was 100% renewable / sustainable until deforestation and the first industrial revolution, when denser energy was found with coal, then oil. It was also much less comfortable (just remove all the machines).
As the energy expert Jean-Marc Jancovici says ‘we’re all Iron Man’, thanks to machines working for us, equivalent to hundreds of 'energy servants’ (an American consumes the equivalent of a constant 10kWh - a human can produce sustainably about 100Wh of work).
I continued my Python studies with courses in Natural Language Processing and Computer Vision (the rabbit hole is deep). One personal project involved scraping and automation, for which I looked for advice on Upwork. Capable developers can be found at $10 per hour! Accessing fast and affordable feedback is likely the future of online learning.
Regular training has resumed but - no surprise there - I have a hard times applying the techniques I didn’t pressure-test. I feel I’m at a plateau, which is frustrating. Let’s see if it all comes together in the coming weeks.
I peaked on Lichess at 1879 in rapid games (2x10min). This level still seems mostly about avoiding obvious mistakes. I also felt weaknesses in my knowledge of openings, and now considering looking online for coaching (maybe Upwork?). Meanwhile, I am solving chess puzzles to improve on tactics (I peaked around 1950, hoping to break 2000).
After joining sessions over a few weeks, I walked away and I am back to podcasts.
Deep Tech Ventures Course
I taught a 15-hours course on Deep Tech Ventures to masters students in engineering at Zhejiang University (#4 in China — thanks AH!).
With the advice of friends, I included some staples like classic Steve Blank, group activities, guest speakers, and created original sections on ideation and why startups fail. Ideation is not the concern of investors (they mostly select ideas) and founders often do it haphazardly.
The course worked out pretty well with high NPS, though I wish I had learned about best practices of ‘cohort based courses’ beforehand. I might teach it again next year (or earlier if I get the chance). As a side note, demands for online talks is picking up, at both conferences and corporate events.
Sphynxes & New Cat
I took care of two Sphynx cats for over a week. Those hairless cats cost as much as an iMac! The design is not by Apple, though, and they apparently startle other cats (and humans when they crawl up on you). They were very social (too much?) and loved blankets (remember: no hair). It was also an opportunity to watch Gremlins again, but I found the movie didn’t age well (or maybe I didn’t?). I have my own cat now (not a Sphynx), currently trying to train her for walks.
This glacier in the Alps used to lick the road in the valley. Not anymore: you have to hike half way up the mountain to reach it. An Indian plane crashed nearby in 1950, killing all passengers and the 200 monkeys headed for lab work. Some monkeys actually survived the crash and wandered around, but froze quickly. Plane parts, bodies and items are found from time to time when the ice melts. An eponymous movie was made using the crash as a back story.
What if sociologists specialized in the study of the ultra-rich made a board game? Kapital pits ‘dominated’ players against a single ‘dominant’. The game is 90% luck as you draw event cards leading to changes in your financial, social, symbolic and cultural capital.
Your daughter got into Harvard? That must be a card from the ‘dominant’ pile! You gain social and symbolic capital.
You sold a startup? Not bad for a ‘dominated’ but it only increased your financial capital. Wait until your car breaks down, or your next job is outsourced.
The message is pretty clear, but entertaining to show to friends. As a ‘dominated’ player, you might still win thanks to a social movement.
The son of the friend who asked me to help him write a personal statement got into Stanford! He was super impressive to begin with, but some families are able to pay for extra help (he also had a consultant help him with essays).
Across the pond, China is cracking down on cram schools, trying to grow its birthrate by lowering the cost and pressure of raising children. While lowering the social pressure, it might also make social mobility harder for the middle class.
Lille & Outsider Art
I went to visit Lille, a small town in the North of France, birthplace of the Paul bakery and the merveilleux meringue cake. Coal made it a powerful textile town, until both ran out (here is a song about it).
The city has a large museum of outsider art (‘art brut’ — artists not classically trained) with works donated by a former textile family which included art collectors. I like art brut and saw a few of those over the years in Paris, Baltimore (‘visionary art’ — including by inmates and mental ward patients) and even Japanese (several of which started after the nuclear bombings). As always, the quality was uneven but the intention genuine. The museum also had some modern and cubist art.
This practice, that falls somewhere between massage, kinesiotherapy and physical therapy, took a while to gain recognition in France. I had never tried it until I found this training school next door with very cheap prices. I was in pretty good shape and it felt pretty useless, but as I related this experience to a friend, he turned out to be a massive convert: he told me that he once had excruciating head pain that no other treatment could solve. His therapist fixed it painlessly. Who knew?
Movies & Video
South Korean immigrants to the US try to survive in rural America in the 80’s. I found the movie quite touching, and always enjoy dusting off my Korean :)
The Freedom Writers****
The true story of a teacher who turns her high-school English class for at-risk students into a supportive community. Good feels. Also shows how hard work, trust, and belief in people’s potential can outplay social determinism. One could argue that it’s yet another stereotypical and isolated ‘white savior’, that ‘the system needs to change’, but in the meantime — like the wanderer throwing back starfishes into the sea — it made a difference to those ones!
Boyz in the Hood****
I watched it a while ago but it was quoted in Freedom Writers, in a scene where the teacher tries to make students relate to each other. Great storyline and acting, also an example of social determinism.
Adapted from a manga, this Japanese indie hand-drawn animation by a solo amateur animator took seven years to complete, using rotoscoping. It’s a kind of ‘outsider art’. The topic (a rock band by high school misfits with no musical training) echoes the craft, celebrating the true ‘amateur’.
This Japanese movie was a bizarre experience despite the simple story: a man shows up at the house of a printing shop’s owner, and wiggles his way into the business and the life of the family. You might think “Parasite” but no: it’s pretty low budget, the acting is uneven, but what sets it apart is that the ending is very odd, in a surrealist kind of way (but not with an over-the-top stylistic change half-way like in Parasite). I gave it an extra star post-screening.
French Tech*** (‘Les Deux Alfred’)
On the surface, a comedy about an aging father-of-two joining a hip French startup with a ‘no child’ policy. Below it, a criticism of the ‘uberization’ of society, like Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, with humorous pokes at high tech stuff. And below that, a kind of poetic fairy tale, with a rather unlikely fairy.
A cute French movie about a young boy looking for his mountaineering mom, who died in the Bossons glacier, while looking for the plane.
I had high expectations for this movie sequel of the famed (French) Arthurian-themed comedic TV series (short episodes, in French, here — they are so busy with daily life that they never seem to look for the Grail). The director, Alexandre Astier, directs, acts and even scored the (epic & medieval) music. While the acting and production are very good, I found the storyline a bit so-so.
Upon reading about Astier’s background, I found out that he comes from a family of comedians of Protestant origin (a minority in France). His parents and several of his seven children are in the show. Last, his life as a writer was transformed following a course he took in 2003 with Christopher Volger, author of the ‘Writer’s Journey’ (inspired by Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”).
Bye Bye Morons**
A French ‘Brazil’ (as in Terry Gilliam’s) in modern days, with low budget. A burnt-out sys admin (who wants to die) meets a dying hair stylist (who wants to live).
I like a lot the director/actor Albert Dupontel, but this wasn’t his best movie. His insane Bernie, funny 9 Months Stretch and beautiful See You Up There, and even the interviews I watched about the movie were better.
A Prime show on unscrupulous and commercial super-heroes, based on a comic book series. Reasonably entertaining, though the first few episodes suffice to get the gist.
The Infinite Frontier… But what happens after the first contact with alien civilizations? This anime is about the the lower deck crew of the spaceship making second contact (sorting out contracts, etc.).
The end of the saga of the train that circumnavigates our future frozen Earth. Not groundbreaking but pretty good acting and interesting blend of sets and CG (external views are almost all CG).
La Cite de la Peur*
A humor movie by a French TV comedy trio. It was a cult movie in my youth but I found it didn’t age well.
About once every two years I leave half-way through a movie. This was the one for 2021. I am no fan of musicals to start with, but in addition to the poor singing, I couldn’t stand the story and text. I felt better as soon as I got out, and waited playing chess.
Meat The Future*** / Seaspiracy** / Cowspiracy**
The latter two are activism documentary pieces on our food system, and visible on Netflix. Their message is ‘eating meat and fish is killing our planet’, and point at plant-based solutions. The bias is pretty obvious but fit their purpose.
The former, Meat The Future, is a more serious documentary coming out soon, and is centered on Uma Valeti, a cardiologist and founder of a pioneering cell-cultured meat startup named Upside Foods (fka Memphis Meats, in which SOSV was the first investor). It makes a hopeful case on how biology could bring us meat without animals.
Operation Varsity Blues**
Fun to watch on Netflix after playing Kapital. Dominant classes know what a good investment looks like. Except this one was illegal.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, by Bill Gates***
A good primer on the 5 big greenhouse gases emissions culprits: energy, food & ag, industry, transport, and buildings. It’s an easy read and much more digestible than those of Vaclav Smil, that Bill likes — I also noted the Eddie Izzard bio on the book pile :)
How to Live, by Derek Sivers****
I first met Derek, a tech entrepreneur turned writer about a decade ago in Singapore. I remember he insisted on meeting people one-on-one to be able to dedicate all his attention. This book is another result of his continuous thoughtful approach. He detailed 27 approaches to living life, from “Make memories” to “Live for others”. I recognized some phases of my life in there, and might switch strategies again in the future.
Blue: The History of a Color***
How did blue become the most popular color in the Western world? How does it relate to other colors? What are the economics, the materials, the symbolic values? An interesting story.
The Relativity of Wrong
A valuable essay by Isaac Asimov on how ‘wrong’ is relative. Science progresses by proving previous science incomplete. And each application requires a particular level of precision. For instance:
The Earth is not flat as it has a curvature of 8 inches per mile (40cm per km),
But it is not a perfect sphere either due to flatness at the poles.
It is also not a perfect "oblate spheroid” as the difference between the longest and shortest diameter is 44 kilometers, about 0.33%).
Yet, it won’t be a cube or donut next. Things get finer.
He takes this idea to other areas of knowledge, explaining how science is often ‘enough’ for the purpose of its times, and improves in locksteps with instruments.
Asking Good Questions
Tim Hanson worked for over a decade at Motley Fool, including with Morgan Housel (now at Collaborative Fund, and author of the great The Psychology of Money). I’m not sure how I stumbled upon this one but his post ‘Questions that Matter’ was great. Tim explains how, as a financial analyst, he would often — like his peers — ask detailed questions to sound smart and hard working, but whose answers were inconsequential. Basic, short, important questions mattered more. Read also on being robbed in Paris and the Science of Losing.
One of my nephews likes chess. He’s a total beginner with no training, and has (had?) inflated views on his level. I first thought of going easy on him. Then I realized that (1) it amounted to lying (2) it might undermine his actual progress (3) it might lower his respect for his uncle’s chess abilities ;p
After destroying him during a first game, I felt it wasn’t that fun for either player. So we played again and - in a risky flex - I removed my queen. The game became much more interesting, and he had a fighting chance (he lost). But I think the real victory was after the match, when he asked about openings for the first time. He realized superior tactics required study, and started moving from a ‘fixed mindset’ (= ‘natural talent’) to a ‘growth mindset’.
In the ‘things hidden in plain sight’ category, I just learned that some fish, amphibian and reptiles have a proto-eye on the top of the head called a parietal eye. It can distinguish light and shadow, such as caused by a predator. How convenient!
Obesity and Covid: I came across this stat that 77% of hospitalized Covid patients were overweight (>25% BMI) or obese (>30% BMI), suggesting a direct link. Now:
74% of the US adult population (>20yo) is either overweight or obese.
Over 200,000 people protested against the ‘Covid pass’ in France last week. The government is offering a coercive choice between getting vaccinated and social isolation (or frequent tests). No dining, movies, gym, or long-distance transportation without it. I doubt the government will back down, as those protests bring only little disruption, and over half the population is already vaccinated and cast as implicit supporters. I noticed several mainstream media were conveniently picking what looked like isolated incidents to associate the entire movement with unsavory groups. Old tactics keep working.
As new variants spread, and challenge the efficacy of the first wave of vaccines, it looks like we’ll be long for both Covid and ‘Covid passports’. I suspect At least many countries now have their act together in terms of detection, early treatment and ICU support.
The stocks who benefited from Covid are pretty expensive today. I’ve been looking for ‘unfairly punished’ and ‘reopening’ companies, but the reopening is dragging… We’ll see in 6 to 12 months time how this turns out.
A passing thought I had during lockdown: carrying a Deliveroo bag or wearing a Pfizer jacket as ‘Covid pass’.
Adults in the Room?
Sweden didn’t rely on lockdowns and was harshly criticized. If you look at deaths per million, however, US is 1.87, France is 1.63 and Sweden 1.43 — within the ‘better half’ in Europe. Population density is a huge factor in contagion, but while other Nordic countries did better, it’s still remarkable. East Asia’s results are also astonishing. Maybe one day we’ll understand all of this. Here is a worldwide analysis by Oxford University on the effectiveness of policies (and another on ‘pandemic policy fatigue’). No silver bullet, I’m afraid.
That’s all for now!