1 October 2020

October 2020

Grüezi!

Another month has already passed so it’s time for me to share with you the latest on my side. If you want to unsubscribe, it’s a one-click process, no hard feelings! If you think others would enjoy this kind of email, it’s just as easy to subscribe.

0. Teaser

In this edition, I'll talk about lying, something we all do to varying degrees, including when we are trying to be kind. I’ll also cover the notion of happiness in life and at work: rest assured I won’t bore with “positive thinking”, that’s not my cup of tea, quite the contrary. I’ll also update you on how I performed at the official hearing as part of my attempt to acquire Swiss citizenship: it was tough but a bit of magic – quite literally – helped. You’ll also be able to check out some of the tunes that I have been playing on repeat over the past month, as well as watch some more beautiful Swiss scenery that I captured. Enjoy!

1. Reading

On the topic of reading, I came across this witty tweet on its value: "Books let you download somebody's brain for the price of a sandwich."

1.1. Everybody lies. This is the title of a book that’s very easy and quick to read, written by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a former Googler whose family name is “almost” as complicated as mine. He uses lots of anonymised data, some of it available publicly to anyone, to highlight insights about our behaviours, in particular discrepancies between what we claim and what we actually think or do. It can be:

  • funny: “a woman is likely to be interested [in a man] when she talks about herself”;
  • sad: “searches for “sexless marriage” are three and a half times more common than “unhappy marriage””;
  • interesting: “showing a violent movie somehow caused a big drop in crime [in the US]. (...) Alcohol is a major contributor to crime. The authors had sat in enough movie theaters to know that virtually no theaters in the United States serve liquor.”
  • outright scary: the hidden explicit racism of people searching for “n*gger jokes”.

I do have a weakness for data, but as the author writes:

“You don’t always need a ton of data to find important insights. You need the right data. A major reason that Google searches are so valuable is not that there are so many of them; it is that people are so honest in them. People lie to friends, lovers, doctors, surveys, and themselves. But on Google they might share embarrassing information, about, among other things, their sexless marriages, their mental health issues, their insecurities, and their animosity toward black people. Most important, to squeeze insights out of Big Data, you have to ask the right questions.”

As soon as I finished reading that book (you’ll find more excerpts in the “Books” section of my website), I naturally couldn’t help myself but play with Google Trends. I had however more fun checking out Google’s auto-complete predictions when starting searches in Google with sentences such as “why is” (and variations such as “why is my boss/wife/etc.”), “how to” or “when will”. Do note that what you’ll see are predictions i.e. not necessarily what people have searched even if they are likely to be related to historical search volumes. It’s even more fun when using Google search in different geographies (from the Google homepage, go to “Settings” then “Region Settings”) and in different languages, as the predictions can be wildly different, often sad (many are upset at their boss or loved ones being mean to them), a few times “funny” (only search predictions in French/France ask “why is my husband flirting with other women”).

1.2. White lies. The English language uses the expression of “white lies” for (supposedly) harmless lies. Reading Lying by Sam Harris almost 9 years ago dramatically changed my perspective on that notion: white lies are still lies. Among the excerpts I collected from Sam Harris’s short opus:

“By lying, we deny our friends access to reality – and their resulting ignorance often harms them in ways we did not anticipate. Our friends may act on our falsehoods, or fail to solve problems that could have been solved only on the basis of good information. Rather often, to lie is to infringe upon the freedom of those we care about.”

One of the most trivial examples he uses to illustrate his point is when a friend asks us how they look in a new dress: of course they only want to hear that they look great, but what if they don’t? Should we lie or tell them – kindly still – that they do need to eat less and exercise more?

The book’s conclusion is an excellent summary of Sam Harris’s thesis:

“Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship. By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make – and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to. And by lying to one person, we potentially spread falsehoods to many others – even to whole societies. We also force upon ourselves subsequent choices – to maintain the deception or not – that can complicate our lives. In this way, every lie haunts our future. There is no telling when or how it might collide with reality, requiring further maintenance. The truth never needs to be tended in this way. It can simply be reiterated.”

1.3. Kind lies. Have you ever said something like the following sentences to your loved one: “Darling, it’s been 10 years we’ve been living together. Over those 10 years, I have loved you and love you as much as on the first day”. Sounds sweet? Sure. Except that it’s a lie for philosophical and psychological reasons that I’ll explain in the “Watching” section below (point 2.1). Keep on reading if you want to find a more appropriate – in the sense of being (possibly) true – way to express your love, while still sounding very sweet.

1.4. Eight secrets to a fulfilled life. I had read many years ago The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman. It turns out that after doing enough research, he decided to write his last newspaper column on the topic. In it, he summarises the key lessons he has acquired, all of which I completely relate to and which I further shorten below:

  1. There will always be too much to do – consciously choose what to neglect, to focus on what matters most.
  2. When stumped by a life choice, choose “enlargement” over happiness – predicting what will make us happy isn’t easy, but the enlargement question elicits a deeper response.
  3. The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower – let any feeling of anxiety or boredom arise and fade, while doing the action anyway.
  4. The advice you don’t want to hear is usually the advice you need (watch out: bad advice from manipulative friends is also likely to make you uncomfortable – and should be ignored).
  5. The future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it – it’s still useful to make plans but don’t live each day anxiously braced to see if things work out as you hoped.
  6. The solution to imposter syndrome is to see that you are one – the reason you can’t hear other people’s inner monologues of self-doubt isn’t that they don’t have them. It’s that you only have access to your own mind.
  7. Selflessness is overrated – kindness and generosity may well lead to happiness, but you don’t actually serve anyone else by suppressing your true passions. By doing your thing – as opposed to what you think you ought to be doing – you kindle a fire that helps keep the rest of us warm.
  8. Know when to move on – know when something has reached its natural endpoint.

If you need an electroshock like I sometimes inflict myself when I want to put those key lessons into practice, read this short article written by a 31-year old diagnosed with cancer two years prior. He emphasises the importance of gratitude, the fact that a life, if lived well, is long enough, and the value of being vulnerable and connecting to others. When penning his article, he thought he had a few more weeks to live. He died the day the article was published.

2. Watching

2.1. Happiness at work. My sister shared an interesting conference (in French) by André Comte-Sponville, a famous French philosopher, touching on the topic of happiness (and not just “well-being”) at work. He weaves philosophy, from Plato to Spinoza and Schopenhauer, into a practical framework that anyone – managers and employees alike – can use at the workplace. What’s more, he explains everything in simple language, avoiding jargon while still allowing us to understand the complexity of the thoughts of famous philosophers. The professor actually responded to my email, allowing me to adapt his content in English. Here’s the presentation I created as a result, after 7 hours of work (4 hours of slide + speaker note creation, 1 hour of recording, 2 hours of post-processing), all the credit going to the philosopher (including the humourous bits):


It is in that video that you’ll have the explanation as to why the following sentences are better suited for your partner than the ones mentioned in section 1.3 above (in short, it has to do with the fact that the state of missing someone disappears, by definition, once that absence is filled, we thus cannot feel the same emotions and desire as initially, and therefore need to find other reasons to feel happy):

“Darling, it’s been 10 years we’ve been living together. For the past 10 years, the main cause of joy in my life is that you exist and that you are my partner”.

2.2. Alone. I mentioned the Alone show in my previous newsletter. Since then, I contacted the winner of the 6th season, 35-year old Jordan Jonas, as I had feedback to give him (couldn’t help myself) on how to improve the quality of his videos. Most viewers of the show probably became fans of Jordan because of his friendliness, his past experience living a little bit like a hobo across the US as well as his year spent in Siberia, and the fact that he’s the only contestant who managed to hunt a moose. So when I stumbled upon his poorly-made videos (he constantly scratches himself, there’s no proper intro or video, etc.), I thought I could suggest a few ways for him to improve them and capitalise more effectively on his fan base. I didn’t get a response though – perhaps was I a bit too straightforward?! Oh well, I had done something similar 3 years ago, sending a long handwritten letter by post to Elon Musk, criticising his presentation style and offering to help. Likewise, I never got a response, I’m still holding a grudge :).

2.3. Stuff made here. Nerds love nerds so I guess it’s no surprise that YouTube recommended this channel to me. You have to appreciate the level of intelligence of this guy, who’s equally good in hardware design and software coding. Oh and of course you’ll be amazed at the size of the plasma-cutting and other machines he has at home. If you’re like me or just curious, give a look at the following video – among the few available on the channel – which goes through his invention of a device that could potentially allow sight-impaired people to navigate spaces through touch:


3. Listening

Every month since 2012, I create a playlist of the songs – new and old – that I enjoy listening to during that particular month: it’s an audio memory as I mentioned in this article written in June 2014. My September playlist includes the following titles:

  • Moskva by Thylacine. I can’t recall how I stumbled upon this French band but I don’t tire out of the electro beats.
  • Diamonds by Jay Aliyev, a little known artist hailing from Azerbaijan. I particularly enjoy this remix of Rihanna’s song: much calmer, less screaming (okay, I’m not fair), easier to listen to.
  • Never by Jay Aliyev, again.

4. Writing

4.1. Articles. One small benefit of this newsletter for me is that it really forces me to finish some of my drafts. I still have a backlog but I’m very slowly finding some momentum – or maybe it’s because I decided to take a few days off, the first days off since the beginning of the year, to enjoy a bit of a “staycation”. Here are some of the latest articles I published:

  • Swiss citizenship hearing – long write-up of how I performed at that official hearing: in short, it went well (I was awarded the “citizenship of the village” as my application now progresses to the next cantonal and federal steps over the next 18 months). The questions were tough as I expected them to be, so I unsuccessfully tried to take control of the hearing. A magic trick did save me in the end. Read more if you’re curious!
  • Twitter strategy – personal guidelines on how I would want to tweet in a meaningful way, if I ever join the fold.
  • The Biden-Trump shitshow – suggestions given to Mr. Biden after watching the first US presidential debate.

4.2. Newsletter. Writing this newsletter takes a bit of time so hopefully you’re taking something out of it. Thank you to those who sent their appreciation or were encouraged to give me news as a result of receiving my opus. Here are some stats for the nerds among you. September’s newsletter was:

  • sent to 222 people;
  • opened by 75% of those;
  • clicked-through (links contained within the newsletter) by 32% of those who opened it.

Those numbers are better than I expected but it must be the novelty aspect that will inevitably wear off. In any case, I try to be as tell-all as possible, perfectly conscious that potentially anybody, including my employer, may read what I share – and that’s okay: in fact, my trademark is that I am “straightforward” and “candid” as reported to me directly and indirectly in my professional life. I’d like those qualities to remain so, as there are only very few things I would not necessarily disclose easily (for instance grabbing land on planet Mars at a discount before prices increase). As some of you know, I would anyway complement this newsletter with further personal details when I interact with you privately; but this newsletter hopefully still remains an accurate depiction of my (half-depressed) state of mind and of the (three-quarters-insane) output of my brain. As always, feedback is always welcome.

5. Creating

5.1. Matterhorn. As mentioned in the Travelling section below, I escaped the confines of my village to visit the most famous Swiss mountain earlier this month. The output is this short video combining footage from a drone and from cameras. This reminds me that I need to rethink my video backup strategy: for now, I’m deleting all raw footage once I have produced the video I wanted. But I realise I may need to still backup some of the best raw footage “in case” I want to reuse it in other videos in the future. I don’t know, I’m already late with some of my digital backups (photos mainly) and I feel I’m spending too much time backuping and archiving instead of enjoying the content I have created (on that note, I still haven’t finished my write-up on “trade offs in life” that I had mentioned a month ago).

5.2. Levitation. I have kept improving my magic skills. I’m still very much of an amateur but I finally succeeded in levitating, at the price of extremely intense efforts. I’ll let you judge (the gloves and coat were needed, it was super cold that day of September):


This experience reminded me of the TV series called Messiah, released earlier this year… and cancelled after one season as I learned while looking things up just now. Oh well, I guess there’s little point talking about it except to mention that what had drawn me to it, in addition of a strong endorsement by Le Monde, one of the leading French newspapers, was the world’s reaction to a man who appears to others as the messiah without ever claiming to be him.

In turn, this reminded me of an (unfinished) book project of mine from 2003, for which I have kept collecting pieces of research ever since. That book was to focus on what would happen if a new religion were to be created today. Oh not some crazy, illuminati sh*t, but a well-oiled organisation that wouldn’t necessarily call itself a religion but would have most of its core elements (rituals, a sense of belonging, answers to people’s doubts and questions, etc. – I had done some extensive reading on the history of religions). I wanted to incorporate the latest tech e.g. the badge to access the organisation’s HQ would be the size of a grain of rice embedded into the member’s wrist: it would be borderline sci-fi, taking inspiration from Black Mirror and the US National Intelligence Global Trends report published every 4 years (it imagines some interesting scenarios into the short-term and mid-term future). I also wanted to take the reader across multiple spots on the planet, a little bit like Dan Brown did in Da Vinci Code (which led to that surge in tourists in specific areas of Paris and London): I have a good memory (and plenty of photos) of those spots, I was even planning to leave well-hidden objects that could be found by the most audacious readers (a bit like this very real novel-based treasure hunt which is going on since 1993).

I believe the initial prompt for my project may have been Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut, which I could talk about at length but maybe another time. In short, it’s the story of the cult of the Assassins in twelfth century Iran. It was written in 1938 but reading it after the 9/11 attacks makes it incredibly modern and gives insights on how believers can be blindly led to convert others (e.g. by patiently listening to them and to their needs) and to commit to whatever the leaders want them to do (under the guise of some divine command).

6. Working

Three things come to my mind as I reflect on my work at Google over the past month:

6.1. Calibration. Something we do every 6 months which is spending about 10 hours with other managers to ensure that the ratings of our team members are fair and consistent across the organisation (e.g. if someone tends to rate their team members more harshly than other managers would, that calibration session is the confidential forum during which managers discuss and adjust ratings if need be). It’s a healthy theoretical principle, but which often leads to few changes in ratings: despite the best intentions, we remain human beings and so it can become quickly “political”, making it difficult for people to question things. Many other reasons increase the complexity to what would otherwise be a useful process.

6.2. User generated content. One of the big projects I’ve been designing for a while pertains to how we can better channel all that energy that is spent by developers out there who create tutorials, code samples, or documentation in their own language. It’s actually an exciting challenge which, if properly tackled, can lead to a better recognition of those developers (and their renewed appreciation and motivation), an increased awareness of the tech we think can be useful to many other developers, and even ways for us to learn internally what kind of content resonates well with users. It will take me a few months to show results but I feel I’m getting the various internal players excited enough to follow me in this endeavour.

6.3. Ethics trump everything. This is what I had to subtly (and not so subtly) remind my teams, especially after I’m dealing yet again with another ethics issue. It’s confidential naturally, but thankfully it seems pretty much black and white. It seems to be the inevitable law of time and teams of a certain size: there is bound to be some issues of that nature; and it’s mostly with experience (plus some prior training) that we get to respond adequately to those issues. I’m still surprised to know virtually no manager around me who’s fired anyone, when my tally (which is not a badge of honour) stands at 4 (granted, 3 had not been hired by me in the first place).

7. Projects

7.1. Coaching. The application form for the Coaching Experiment is finally ready, do circulate it! I’m looking for 4 people to coach for free over multiple months in exchange for creating a video series to document the entire experience, progress and – hopefully – success of each participant. I plan on drafting up a LinkedIn post, recording a YouTube video, and publishing a web page to explain in more details what the experiment is all about – but the application form is already accepting responses, game on!

7.2. Debating. My co-host Dirk edited and released last week an episode that we had recorded a while ago: should we tax the rich?

8. Family

One of my brothers is divorcing. The sad story is not only that 3 young children are involved (aged 9, 8 and 5) but that his ex-wife is a narcissistic pervert and manipulator, a disease that appears to be relatively unknown in France. I had always noticed that she was selfish and self-centred, an observation that was not shared by anyone around me. In the end, I was proven right (but who cares) except I didn’t realise it would be much worse than what I could have imagined, starting with her betrayal of my brother a year ago – and all the lies that ensued. I won’t bore you with the details: they’re too numerous and gut-wrenching (maybe I’ll write a story about it one day, I don’t know). But they’re all documented. It’s one of those rare times when the truth isn’t in between: it’s a clear-cut case but it’s another story altogether to make the case obvious to a judge when the opposite side is lying on pretty much everything (making unsubstantiated claims of violence, of persecution, of theft, of inability to be a parent – a classic projection of a manipulator’s own flaws).

The entire process has taken its toll on my entire family – and it’s not over yet. It’s incredibly difficult to read horrible lies, to kowtow to someone’s imposed unilateral conditions, to see my brother go through severe ups and (mostly) downs, to have my mother (and my siblings and me) live through yet another similar episode (my father was likewise a manipulator, compounded by physical violence). It’s been tiring to read and prepare legal drafts, to debate on what is the best strategy to adopt, to identify pitfalls to avoid. The hearing with the judge took place a couple of weeks ago: disappointingly, it didn’t go well – perhaps because the two sides are so much at odds. But we’ll have to wait for the final decision in the coming months.

The silver lining in all this is perhaps that it brought my mother, my siblings and me closer together. We’ve always been close but it’s heartwarming to see that in difficult times, we are always present for one another, despite the distance, despite time passing. I’m also predicting that the three children will gradually turn away from their mother, in different ways and to different extent (unless she miraculously changes, which is what anyone can hope for – and however much she’s hurt us directly and indirectly, I’m still thinking of the words to send her one day to help her realise what she needs to do to help herself). If there’s any telling sign that my prediction will become true one day, it’s that my eldest nephew and niece are now calling me regularly on the phone to talk about everything and nothing. I haven’t seen them for 7 months and yet those bonds have strengthened. Sure enough I have magic tricks in store for them and instinctively know how to adapt to them and awaken their curiosity. That my 9-year old nephew picked my first name as his name in German class still makes me smile!

9. Travelling

For additional photos of little gems discovered here and there, head to the “Photos of the moment” section of my website where, for the previous weeks, you’ll see a photo of a weird red square and the photo of a waterfall over a transparently-green pond.

9.1. Matterhorn, the most famous Swiss mountain. Since March, it’s funny how I received many questions about whether I was able to “survive” the lack of any international travel, considering I have been travelling quite a bit all my life and extensively over the past 10 years. Believe it or not, I actually still do travel, that is from a jetlag perspective: I generally sleep so poorly that I feel as if I’m constantly in another time zone. Seriously though, I miss travelling and don’t miss it at the same time. I like being home a little bit, in Switzerland, and the weather has been surprisingly good over Spring and Summer. But days have now very visibly shortened and temperatures are dropping – in one week, I went from swimming in the lake to exceptionally wearing a coat and gloves! At the same time, I miss going back to the familiar places and faces I know around the planet, as well as discovering new areas, from Taiwan to Argentina.

Despite living 12 years in Switzerland, I had not ever seen the country’s most famous mountain, called Matterhorn (or Cervin, in French). It’s famous because of its near-symmetric pyramidal peak, with each of its four steep faces in the direction of each of the four compass points. So a few weeks ago, I dared venturing outside of the immediate neighbourhood of my village. It did take about 4 hours to reach the village of Zermatt by train, my first experience with a mask (that should tell you something about how isolated I’ve been for the past half-year!). And from Zermatt, a 30-minute funicular that you can see at the beginning of the video I created, before enjoying the clean mountain air and the lunar landscape (especially from the top-down view captured by the drone):


9.2. Kayaking. I love transportable stuff so I can be self-reliant. That’s why I started skateboarding two years ago. That’s also why my cheap kayak is inflatable which has the benefit of fitting in a big bag that can be taken on the train. I had already enjoyed a few 3-hour trips on the Rhine but I had never been closer to home, on the Linth canal. This canal heads straight from one lake (Walensee) to the Zürich lake (a.k.a. “my” lake). The kayaking on the canal was easy – well, if you ignore the fact that I didn’t manage to fix a hole (the glue of my repair kit had dried up over the years, and even multiple layers of tape didn’t resist to the air pressure) and one tiny section of the canal actually had (small) rapids which led to the following 10-second exchange with my kayaking partner:
My partner: “Paddle more to the right!”
Me: “I can’t, let’s go straight.”
My partner: “Holy shit.”
Me, screaming: “Aaaaaaaaaaah.”
My partner: “I’m completely wet!”
Me, shrieking: “Aaaaaaaaaaah.”
My partner: “Oh fuck!”
Me: “Yes.”
My partner: “Oh shit I’m completely wet, I’m going to freeze. Oh my god!”

Rest assured, the sun rays were just strong enough to warm us up afterwards – and I had a (waterproof) Bluetooth speaker with me so an improvised dance on Jerusalema was all that was necessary to keep the spirits up (until we got hungry!).

View from the kayak. If you’re a bit confused with the photo, it’s because it’s taken upside down: the sky is below, and the water with the reflection is on the upper third!

10. Investing

Ever since I worked for a startup in 2002 that built technical analysis software for the stock market, I developed an interest in the domain. Yet, despite all my self-learning and research, knowing the evident strategies that limit risk (diversification, incremental purchases, keeping it simple, not thinking one can beat the market – 97% lose money after all), I have mostly invested in bursts. Considering the current state of the French market, I can’t say that strategy has been completely absurd – even if it does come at the expense of stress. While I’ve always “won”, my ROI is laughable if averaged over 20 years. It’s not that I gamble but rather that I take “calculated risks”: there are sure ways to lose everything, and there are other ways in which the risk is limited, especially over the long term.

The French market, why restrict myself to it, you may wonder? Good question! For one, it’s a market I “understand” for having lived in the country. Secondly, half of my savings are in euros: investing outside of the eurozone implies to hedge against currency fluctuations (and I don’t believe in the very long-term strength of the US dollar). Thirdly, I’m already invested enough with the Google stock I haven’t sold since I joined.

So yes, it’s true that I avoided the crazy US bubble (Tesla, seriously?!) that finally burst early September (Softbank and retail investors seemingly being the main culprits and who seem to succumb to the greater fool theory), although it seems to be resurging. What I did invest on though were 3 things: the French market index; a leveraged instrument that I quickly sold (okay, that’s a risky one, but I didn’t play with covered or naked call options… yet!); and a French bank (this one is a bit of a gamble, but considering the valuation is a mere 20% of the bank’s book value, I’m not too worried).

On the topic of money, you may be inspired (I certainly was) by the story of this billionaire who secretly gave away his $8-billion fortune:

“Feeney has lived a remarkably frugal lifestyle, not owning a car or home, and only one pair of shoes. He was known for flying only in economy class, even when members of his family and colleagues would travel in business class on the same plane. (...) [He] had once tried to live a life of luxury but it didn’t suit him. He had nice places [homes] and nice things. He tried it on and it wasn’t for him. He doesn’t own a place, doesn’t own a car. The stories of his frugality are true: he does have a $10 Casio watch and carry his papers in a plastic bag. That is him. That’s what he felt comfortable with.”

11. Upcoming

Among the myriad of things on my agenda for the coming month are the following items:

  • going through medical checks for the various lingering issues I mentioned last time;
  • fundraising within Google for Karimu like in previous years;
  • progressing on my projects e.g. the coaching experiment;
  • timing a day of hiking in the Swiss mountains, probably around Grindelwald, to use the remaining train day pass, hopefully on a day when it’s not too cloudy;
  • possibly figuring out how and where to escape to somewhere warm during the European winter.

Thank you!

If there are questions you’d like me to answer in an upcoming newsletter, feel free to email me or to submit them in this form.

Thank you for reading,

Sebastian