4 November 2020

November 2020

Grüezi!

Another month, another newsletter. If you think others would enjoy this email, you’ll be doing me a favour by forwarding it to them; if you received it from a friend and want to subscribe directly, click here.

0. Teaser

This edition has a common, unexpected theme: US elections. Just kidding, it’s actually about mortality. And this time I’m not joking, but hopefully the various facets of that topic will prove interesting and offer a break from the daily news. I’ll focus on a few angles. How we shy away from facing ours. How I am unfortunately reminded of it when receiving moderately bad news regarding my health. How we can become better at planning – and most importantly, living – our lives.

1. Reading

1.1. Die With Zero. A random Bloomberg article mentioned this book by Bill Perkins, which title caught my attention. The book is quick and easy to read (excerpts), the concept simple: there’s no point dying with a bank account flush with cash. It may sound obvious but do you know how much you need to spend per month to make sure you end up with nothing? Because any amount that’s left over is time you have spent acquiring that money, time that could have been better spent otherwise. If you really want to leave money for children and charity, the author rightfully demonstrates that it’s better to pass that money on when it actually matters, that is, sooner rather than later (i.e. when your children are in their thirties building their own household rather than in their sixties when they’ve accumulated their own wealth). But then how to spend the money? That’s actually not a stupid question, for me at least, because while I never constrained myself, I’ve been raised to be thrifty, to plan for the future. The answer is simple, again: anything that creates memories – ”experiences” in most cases, but also material things which can enhance the enjoyment of those experiences.

The book acted as a trigger in my brain and may finally help me complete a draft essay on trade-offs in life which I’ve kept mentioning in past newsletters. And so I created my own detailed mathematical model with 50 different settings and code that uses a simple dichotomy method. Running dozens of simulations really opened my eyes on the fact that I need to change something in my life, especially considering I didn’t get great news regarding my health a few days after building this model (see section 8.2. below). Trying to spend money and enjoy life is a bit ironic in a world that’s locked down for the years to come (did you really expect a vaccine to be available to you for Christmas?).

If you’re curious, here’s a video that shows you how my model works using hypothetical data:


I honestly think everyone should be doing the maths to better plan their lives (coincidentally, I read this article about a well-known American radio host who’s patiently helping people to get out of debt). I’m building an automated system that can take in a modest fee in exchange for running the model automatically for anyone, with proceeds going to charity. It’s not quite ready though, I’m stuck with a bug or two. In the meantime, if you’d like me to manually run the model on your data, use this form (it’s free).

1.2. Yoga. If this book by French author Emmanuel Carrère hadn’t received positive reviews, it’s very unlikely I would have picked it up: I’m simply not interested with yoga and the preconceived notions I have of it. But it’s actually more of a slightly fictionalised autobiography of a depressed man who’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder late in life. Yes, it’s also a personal interpretation, in layman’s terms, of what yoga and meditation is. But it’s also full of self-deprecating humour, the kind of humour possessed by people with low self-esteem, the kind of humour I have. Here’s a translated excerpt among all the other ones:

“I explained to him at length that life had led me to a dead-end from which I would never get out and that the only way out for me was suicide. When you say such things, you wait to be contradicted but instead of contradicting me Roustang [the psychiatrist] told me quietly: "You are right. Suicide doesn't get very good press but sometimes it's the right solution." I looked at him, appalled. If there is one thing that a therapist, of whatever obedience, cannot say, it is this: that suicide is the right solution. Then he said, "Otherwise, you can live."”

Carrère is the same one who wrote L’Adversaire (I had enjoyed the film version in 2002), the real story of a Frenchman who claimed to be a doctor at the WHO but was actually spending his days in his car; when the truth and debts started to catch up with him, he killed his family and himself. Yeah, this newsletter is grim.

1.3. Concorde 2. Hopefully this new version won’t go Boom (despite its name!): this Bloomberg article proved actually insightful on what to expect and on making the case once again for founders who aren’t necessarily insiders and instead come up with fresh ideas.

2. Watching

2.1. The Farewell. A beautiful Chinese-American film very much in line with the concept of white lies that I was exploring in my October newsletter. It’s the true story of a grandmother whose family is hiding from her that she only has a few more months to live. Here’s the thing, they are all Chinese and a Chinese saying goes like this: “When people get cancer, they die. It's not the cancer that kills them – it's the fear”. I cried, I laughed, it’s an excellent film that also elegantly explores differences between Chinese and American cultures. Here’s the teaser:


2.2. Borat 2. I find Sacha Baron Cohen very ingenious and mostly funny but I don’t recommend this second iteration of Borat. It’s over the top and the main actors speak gibberish (literally) too often. And I don’t need another reminder of how dumb people can be...

3. Listening

3.1. Infinity. Schiller is the name of a famous German poet. It’s also the pseudonym of a German electronic musician from which I knew – and enjoyed – one or two creations in the past until I discovered some of his other albums in the spring. Colors is his latest album released just a few weeks ago: most of the tunes are a little too slow to my taste, but I particularly like Infinity.

3.2. Elimi Tut. Relaxing, calm, motivating, it’s all that at the same time for me. Apart from that I know nothing except that it’s Turkish and that the title of the song means “take my hand”.


3.3. I can see clearly now. I had always thought the author of that song was Jimmy Cliff because of an album CD that my family had when I was a teenager. I had to wait until Johnny Nash died last month to realise I was mistaken, but I can see clearly now indeed.

4. Writing

4.1. A message to my father. I haven’t seen my father in more than 20 years. He was a criminal. I wrote that article hoping I can arrogantly prove to myself that my words are powerful enough to elicit change. Unfortunately, that article briefly angered my mother before she understood my intentions. To this date, my article has not triggered any response from my father.

4.2. The coaching experiment. I finally published the official call to applications. Do share this article with anyone you think could be interested to receive free coaching and participate in that experiment in the future.

4.3. October newsletter. As expected, a smaller proportion of people opened my last newsletter, but a higher proportion seemed to have read it. I’m still a bit sad that my own siblings don’t take much interest in what I think and do – I would have loved reading about their own lives too, instead of the irregular catch-up over the phone… or when they seek my help.

5. Thinking

5.1. Coronavirus. It’s not going away, is it? Far from it in fact… I don’t have much hope for any start of a solution before the Summer. I’m privileged, I can’t complain: generation Z though, with constant school interruptions, or seniors, at higher risk if infected, or those who cannot work from home, have it much harder. I still don’t know when I can reasonably visit my family in France though. It’s quickly going to be a year since I last saw them.

While I mentioned above in section 1.1. that I should find ways to better enjoy life, I can’t help but also think of business opportunities connected to the pandemic, for instance offering business training on how to be effective while working from home, or how to cope mentally with a situation that may (will) not change for some time.

5.2. Elon Musk. What am I going to do with him if he ignores my offers to help? I stumbled on this video interview. Now I don’t know if he suffers from a mild form of dyslexia or if his brain works faster than his mouth, but come on, man, I can help you make a much clearer presentation of the very interesting ideas you talk about. I really do believe he would have an even wider, positive influence if he could express himself articulately and with a bit of structure.

5.3. Swiss citizenship. Emboldened by the hearing that went well last month and even if the rest of the process will take another 18 months, I couldn’t resist looking up how to run for office in Switzerland, as an independent candidate. I guess that’s a bit of French arrogance still left inside of me. The thing that saddens me the most though is that I’ve immediately stopped practising German once the hearing was over: just like everyone else, I struggle with motivation when not challenged.

6. Working

6.1. Case studies. I’m a “program manager” at Google. Believe it or not, there’s no manual to be one at Google. Yes, there are training workshops and a bunch of ad hoc, theoretical resources here and there. But it’s pretty much free for all and completely unstructured. I had thought of writing a book to help my colleagues, focusing on very practical examples, a bit like a “Program management for dummies” book. It would have been too big of an undertaking so instead, together with a couple of colleagues, we released half a dozen practical case studies based on our experiences: all are structured the same way, with key lessons summarised at the end. It proved to be quite successful, in the number of views and the feedback ratings (93% positive). Despite my call to action though, very few people offered to contribute further case studies. Not a big surprise there, it’s a bit similar to Facebook where I believe 80% of users are merely consuming content and not posting anything.

6.2. Happiness at work. Last month, you had the exclusivity of the slightly philosophical video I had created on the topic of happiness at work and in relationships. Over the past weeks, I had a few opportunities to share it among colleagues and managers, just as yearly performance results were being discussed with employees (since you’re asking, mine went well, what did you think?!). I easily predicted some people would be disappointed and would be likely questioning their motivation. The video came in handy, viewed 1,000 times as a result (even though the average viewing time was a mere 6 minutes, about 20% of the viewers making it till the end). Out of courtesy, I sent a summary of the positive comments with André Comte-Sponville, the thinker whose presentation I adapted in English.

6.3. Fundraising. November is going to be an important month for Karimu, the charity I’m very modestly supporting by coordinating its fundraising within Google. Every year, Google is offering to match any donation made by employees, but that only applies during a few days, usually in November. This year, we’re trying to raise $400,000 because there’s a lot to be done – and Karimu does it really well, but that’s not a surprise when one knows that its COO is my former boss and dear friend, Nelson Mattos. One of the half-regrets I have is to have missed the on-the-ground volunteering last year; it’s only a half-regret because it did happen right when I had new health issues that landed me at hospital emergencies. But I can’t wait for the pandemic to be over to travel, to see people, to help if I can.

7. Family

7.1. Divorce judgement. Like clockwork, the judge in my brother’s divorce process delivered their judgement mid October. It was bad for my brother and has caused a lot of stress in my family since. The judge went exactly midway between what my brother’s ex-wife wanted and… the status quo, ignoring completely my brother’s requests and the numerous, documented examples of the ex-wife’s appalling behaviour. Life is unfair, this is just another stark reminder. It also goes to show that everyone, in every profession, falls within a bell curve: the excellent, the average, and the mediocre. It’s obvious the judge in this case didn’t bother reading the hundreds of boring pages of the case.

Unfortunately, the outcome – even if temporary until further requested investigations are completed and until all appeals are exhausted – can give the impression that the ex-wife won and my brother lost. Because after all, the justice system in France isn’t one of the worst on the planet. It sure isn’t – in general. But as much as performance and promotion processes at Google are the best ones I have encountered, it’s not immune to biases, political games and mistakes.

I’m not overly worried because my brother’s 3 children understand mostly what’s going on and express enough desire to be with their father. But it’s infuriating when unethical people get rewarded. I’ve lost my sleep several nights because of my brother’s misfortune, not only because of the blatant unfairness but also because it’s affecting him and my entire family, and finally because it potentially makes it even more difficult for me to stay in touch with my nephews and niece (as an uncle, I have no legal recourse).

It’s been on my mind to produce a documentary, if anything because the case is so thick that no one, not even the children, will want to go through it and see what is otherwise obvious to understand: that she has denied my brother’s parental authority multiple times, that she is still driving the children in an uninsured car and without properly fastening them, that she dresses the children with inadequate clothing (too small, full of holes, or not adapted for the weather). I could go on with the other more serious allegations. But alas I also did some research on what I can legally say and do, namely for that documentary I have in mind. Since the protagonists are not public figures, nor is this case of public interest, I cannot therefore release anything that wouldn’t risk me being attacked in court for public disclosure of private facts.

I had intended for that documentary to be an easier way to factually explain the truth – if anything to the children one day. You know, the kind of documentary in which witnesses talk in front of a black background, sometimes with their voices changed to protect their privacy, and in which written evidence is highlighted with a yellow marker. It would have been broken down in clear chapters: family life & early signs; family background; betrayal, theft & lies; breach of ethics; children; manipulation & narcissistic perversion; current status. Thinking of it, I could complement the whole thing with the – legal, psychological, ethical – perspective of professionals. I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend a couple hundred hours on this project. The legal complications rendered it stillborn.

I know I sound disgruntled and that it’s not easy for anyone who’s not privy to the evidence I insinuate to know the truth. I can only use my integrity for you to believe me. If you have any experience in how to (1) cope with such situations of absolute unfairness, (2) make the truth emerge, do contact me.

7.2. Voice typing. I’m always trying to come up with ways to entertain and develop the intellectual capabilities of my young nephews and nieces, which is not necessarily easy over the phone. Heck, as an 8-year old, I don’t think I would have wanted to talk to my uncles so often! The positive thing for me is that they are the ones calling me, often when I’m in the middle of something (well, when am I not?!). It’s perhaps because I listen to them, I adapt to their level, but also perhaps because I don’t buy their nonsense and try to reason with them (I’m not always successful). In a way it encourages me to develop my magic tricks (the latest ones being to transform paper into coins and to suspend objects in air). The latest idea I came up with was to develop their imagination by encouraging them to invent their own stories. It’s interesting how eight or nine years olds are ignoring transitions and the minimal explanations to guide the reader into the story. Also, they are unable to write quickly enough: to make sure they don’t get bored too quickly, they discovered and embraced voice typing in Google documents. They loved it! But it only worked if I helped one child at a time. More than one child, and they obviously giggle and talk shit (literally) to see if the machine recognises the silly things they say (and of course it does!). One more thing I haven’t tried yet is to get them to use an AI tool like AutoDraw to improve their illustration skills.

One of the stories written by voice by my 8-year old niece

8. Health

8.1. The good news. I don’t have cancer yet: the macro-nodule in my thyroid has remained unchanged over the past months. The endocrinologist did scare me though as he didn’t follow the same routine after examining me with the ultrasound device: instead, he auscultated me, tapped on my arms with some metal rod. It’s only after a minute or so that he exclaimed: “of course everything’s fine!”. Argh, don’t make a hypochondriac wait for the diagnostic, doc! In other “good” news, my teeth and corresponding hygiene are generally okay except that my gums are receding around my first lower molars (don’t brush your teeth too hard!) which causes the roots to be visible (yeah, I look like a monster, thanks) and to feel acute pain when I’m accidentally brushing them.

8.2. The average-to-bad news. My left knee was still weirdly in pain for the past 4 months (a burning sensation, in particular at night) but the orthopedist’s tests didn’t reveal anything dramatic. It was likely some swelling because of exercise, confirmed by an MRI a week later, which I underwent because pain was persisting despite the painkiller cream and ice. In the meantime, my stress levels increased as I was worried about a possible surgery needed in case of a more serious lesion of the meniscus (the initial diagnostic). Thankfully, it wasn’t the meniscus and it was indeed just swelling that was causing the pain.

But of course a visit to the doctor is a bit like bringing your car to the mechanic: there’s always something new that’s wrong. Just like last year, the MRI revealed a “very rare” tumour, this time in my bone. It appears benign. I’ll admit the truth: the news made me dizzy. On the instant, I simply couldn’t cope with the fact that I was again in the extreme minority of problematic cases: 1 in 10,000 when it comes to my pneumothorax, last year with the thyroid tumour, now this. I guess I am truly unique, but I’m not sure it’s enough to make me smile (okay, it actually does... I’m fucking unique… great, lovely, fan-tas-tic...). The doctor tried to reassure me... in his own way: “there’s nothing to worry about, yet”. What do you think I remember from that? “Yet”.

Oh and no, there’s no treatment, the tumour will always be there. So I need to monitor it, just like the rest. I guess I’m still alive, otherwise I wouldn’t be typing this, right?! Yay…

9. Travelling

I went abroad for some of my medical check-ups. That’s because I trust the doctors who have seen me for my various issues. I delayed it for a long time because of the pandemic but I just couldn’t wait anymore. Ironically, I was gone right when the rate of infection shot up in Switzerland, so much so that upon returning, no quarantine was required any longer, since Switzerland was doing way worse than most other European countries.

That’s how I travel these days.
White on white, with a touch of red.

However, the real travelling highlight of the past month was hiking in the Swiss Alps, above the village of Grindelwald. “Hiking” was made easier by taking a gondola all the way up to the summit: there wouldn’t have been enough time to walk up during 5 hours, after having already travelled 4 hours by train from home. I’ll leave you with two shots before I take the time in the coming weeks to process some of the video footage.

The first photo is of the cliff walk: while I’m not (too) afraid of heights (hmm actually I don’t like it too much), this 5-minute walk was relatively easy because the metal structure feels sturdy enough(!) and you’d really have to first be depressed, come with a trampoline (if you can even carry one), jump on it and be unlucky enough to land over the fence.

Cliff walk at First, above the village of Grindelwald

The second photo is among my preferred shots: the quiet tranquillity of the lake, the reflections of the mountains, the blue sky painted with a few clouds, the landscape hesitating if it should already welcome the snowy hint of winter.

View of the mountains from Bachalpsee

10. Upcoming

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

  • getting my knee to heal from the 4-month long pain and avoiding to think too much about tumours by enjoying life a little more;
  • selecting the participants to the Coaching Experiment (and finding the courage to undertake this for the next months);
  • fundraising for Karimu;
  • fixing the last bugs in my code to sell digital goods (stories, photos, financial modelling, etc.) and give all proceeds to Karimu;
  • creating a video montage from the footage taken at Grindelwald;
  • helping my brother with some more write-ups of legal documents;
  • reviewing my sister’s dissertation to validate her architecture diploma (just one of the millions of graduate degrees she has!);
  • figuring out how to be more livable.

Thank you for reading!

Sebastian