1 December 2020

December 2020

Grüezi!

This is my last newsletter of the year. 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.

1. Reading

1.1. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami (2007). You know the (self-centred) feeling you get when reading a book gives the impression it has been written for you because you relate to little anecdotes disseminated here and there? To be fair, that’s often the impression I have when reading any book… Anyhow, I picked up that short, autobiographical book (170 pages) of an author from whom I had enjoyed the multi-volume dystopian novel called 1Q84 and the collection of short stories (aptly?!) named Men Without Women (my excerpts). In it, he draws interesting parallels between the creative art of writing and his interest in running (he runs, at least until then, one marathon each year), for instance in how he sees writing and running as not necessarily being competitive forms, unless it’s about competing to “attains the standards you’ve set for yourself”. Or that writing requires talent, obviously, but also focus and endurance, both of which can be “sharpened through training”. Here are the excerpts I selected from that book, in particular:

  • on the importance and risks of solitude: “In certain areas of my life, I actively seek out solitude. Especially for someone in my line of work, solitude is, more or less, an inevitable circumstance. Sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart and dissolve it.”
  • on finding reasons to stay motivated: “If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I’d never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.”
  • on the “advantages” of growing older: “As you age you learn even to be happy with what you have. That’s one of the few good points of growing older.”
  • on his own character: “My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative, often self-centered nature that still doubts itself – that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or something nearly funny, about the situation. I’ve carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path.”

As for the additional narcissistic appropriations that made me smile:

On knee pain. Murakami suddenly feels similar pain as I did: “When was the last time I gave my knees any serious thought? As I was pondering this, I started to feel a little remorseful.” – it’s a little ironic I would read a book about running when I am certainly not allowed to run for the time being, and running is probably what caused my own knee problem.

On Jesus’s age. “At any rate, that’s how I started running. Thirty-three – that’s how old I was then. Still young enough, though no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died.” – I had made the similar (sarcastic) comment when I survived my first collapsed lung (a.k.a. pneumothorax): “at least I made it till the same age Jesus died”. It’s the type of comment which reveals having read up on the history of religions (Murakami is known to incorporate references from multiple religions) – assuming the figure of Jesus as commonly depicted did actually exist as opposed to being the superimposition of multiple historical messiahs (let’s not get into that debate, shall we).

On seeing water. “Seeing a lot of water like that every day is probably an important thing for human beings.” – perhaps I shouldn’t delay too much living even closer to the water. And I also miss the sun on my skin. Says the guy stuck in meetings and suffering from sunset at 4.30pm.

On the habit of taking notes. “As I read these notes ten years later, all the thoughts and feelings I had that day come back in quite sharp focus.” – I do possess dozens, if not hundreds, of incomplete story drafts but I live with the uneasy feeling that I simply don’t remember experiences with the same acuity unless I pen them down. I’m still hoping the photos I have taken will enhance those memories, but I know some details (emotional, humourous, colourful) will be lost forever. It’s painful. Perhaps I should adopt the same method I already use at work: to take notes of everything, and when it’s about personal notes, accept that I don’t have to instantly transform them into publishable stories. In fact, systematically capturing every day’s humourous details could also help with improving my stand-up comedy script.

On additional side benefits to corporate work. “Thanks to this, though, I met all kinds of offbeat people and had some unusual encounters. Before I began writing, I dutifully, even enthusiastically, absorbed a variety of experiences. For the most part I think I enjoyed these and all the stimuli that they brought.” – this would be true in the world without lockdowns though… hopefully soon...

1.2. Electrified wingsuit. Before you get any ideas, no, I won’t do any of this myself. For one, I would need proper lungs. For two, I’d be way too scared. Although flying does look pretty fancy. I read up about electrified wingsuits after the following video had been “automagically” recommended to me – it’ll probably leave you wanting to see more (I couldn’t find much more though), but it’s already joyfully impressive to see what happens when he clicks on the button to activate the electric engine (put your seatbelt on):


1.3. Folding proteins. Hot off the press is DeepMind’s impressive results to the apparently difficult and 50-year-old problem of understanding how proteins fold. The reason why this matters: “Most biological processes revolve around proteins and a protein’s shape determines its function. When researchers know how a protein folds up, they can start to uncover what it does. How insulin controls sugar levels in the blood and how antibodies fight coronavirus are both determined by protein structure.” Read more.

2. Watching

2.1. The Crown. Gave up after two episodes of this series on the life of Queen Elizabeth, despite its fairly good reviews. Found it too cheesy at times, or perhaps it’s just made it plainly obvious that the royal family has had very little political – and historical, frankly – impact since the 1950s. I already knew that the lack of political influence is constructed by design in the UK’s constitutional monarchy. I also had some fondness for anything British ever since I lived in London as a child. Reading some of The Guardian’s critical reviews, in particular on how the series tends to be more fiction than fact, put the final nail in the coffin.

2.2. Upload. Science fiction series on a topic that’s “sensitive” for me: having one’s consciousness remain alive after one’s physical death and be uploaded to a virtual world that’s still connected to earthly life. It’s reminiscent of the excellent Black Mirror episodes but it’s far from being as good: its scenario is fairly predictable, but it still makes for some pleasant, quick entertainment (each episode lasts roughly 20 minutes).


2.3. Wildlife photographer. A beautiful documentary (in French) on a well-known wildlife photographer called Vincent Munier (hat tip to my cousin for sharing this). If you don’t speak any French, have at least a quick look at his photos of white wolves and other wild animals.

2.4. Veritasium. A great YouTube channel that I’ve started watching recently: it explains scientific concepts in simple – yet not simplistic – ways. The latest one will likely give you a few forced laughs when you’ll hear that there are thousands of sizeable asteroids, some of which we have no way of preventing from destroying cities, let alone being able to track. When you thought the coronavirus pandemic was almost over...


3. Listening

3.1. French pop/folk/blues. For some reason I went back to listening to some old French classics of the past 20 to 40 years. I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan but that’s perhaps my way of not openly admitting that I could like songs that aren’t always musical or poetic masterpieces. Here are some in case you are curious or want to rediscover some of those that have been playing in loop on my end over the past month:

Daniel Balavoine died in a helicopter crash in 1986… at the same age when Jesus died (see section 1.1. above as to why I say this). This led me to read again about Nino Ferrer’s suicide and his personality with which I felt a connection (I had mentioned this French-Italian singer in a travel-story about California’s Big Sur): in his personal diary, he thus asks forgiveness from his relatives for his irascible character. According to close friends, Ferrer had always been “excessive, ultra-sensitive and inconsistent” – and his situation kept on undermining him.

One thing leading to another, I wanted to read again about the poetess Sylvia Plath’s suicide at the age of 30 (by putting her head in a gas oven)... only to realise that the mistress, Assia Wevill (also a poetess, who had escaped the Nazis), of her husband (the poet Ted Hughes) would also kill herself the exact same way 6 years later, in 1969. Ted Hughes had also been blamed, at least by parts of the public opinion, for their deaths. I had studied Plath’s poetry in high school and it has stuck with me since – so it’s not so much morbid interest into suicides as much as reminding myself of biographical details to fully appreciate their poetry (e.g. well-known Tulips and Daddy by Plath).

“The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.”

Sylvia Plath (left) and Assia Wevill (right)

3.2. Numb, by Dotan. Now for something more contemporary (2020) by a Dutch-Israeli songwriter, but not necessarily less sad except that the chorus and the melody are quite lively and paradoxically motivating.
“No one’s reading
All the words that I write
Low
Feel the weight of the world in my bones
Tried to swim but I’m sinking alone
Always falling in the deep unknown”


3.3. Condor, by Thylacine. I had mentioned this French band in my October newsletter. This tune is found on one of their latest albums, Roads, published early 2019. Electronically energising.


4. Writing

4.1. Säntis: the mysterious mountaintop. A story (4 minutes reading time) about the highest mountain in northeastern Switzerland, enlivened with many of my best shots of hot-air balloons and paragliders.

5. Playing

5.1. Sniper Elite 4. Sounds childish but nevermind: I’ve been playing that first-person shooter game on Stadia (Google’s online game engine). It’s been a while since I have played video games but I sometimes just want to feel like a hero! Even though the game has been out for almost 4 years, I found it realistic (bullets follow a ballistic trajectory, breathing affects precision, enemies become more suspicious when hearing noise) and quite enjoyable with a gameplay that’s straightforward to learn. You’ve been warned that you shouldn’t mess with me, I’m (virtually) trained as an excellent soldier!

5.2. Brain teaser. I don’t do brain teasers often but when I do, it takes me… forever to solve! This silly little heart-shaped one took almost two hours to recreate (without having initially looked at how it was constructed). If you are feeling like cursing and wasting your time, head to your favourite AliExpress store to order this inexpensive wooden toy.

The devilish brain teaser

6. Projects

6.1. Coaching Experiment. I know some of you have been waiting for this: I’ve been slow, I hate myself for it, because I haven’t spent enough time preparing everything I wanted regarding that project. But I need to adopt the principle which I’m preaching, which is to “just ship it” once things are good enough (except I don’t think they’re good enough yet – says the perfectionist). It’s been on my to-do list every day, I guess that didn’t work for me – in part also because of my permanently semi-depressed state of mind that makes me question why I’m spending all this time  – and planning to spend even more time – helping others instead of doing all the other things I also enjoy, in particular more selfish activities as simple as reading or setting up real-life photo exhibitions (one of the things I’ve added to my list of things to do to enjoy life a bit more and to avoid dying in a golden coffin as I was discussing in my previous newsletter, section 1.1.). Anyway, it’s not as if I don’t get a kick out of coaching others and seeing them succeed in their endeavours. So I’ll be finalising the selection process in the coming days, expecting to start the experiment either this month or right at the start of the new year.

7. Family

7.1. Legal stuff. The sad saga of my brother’s divorce continues. It’s difficult to say if the situation is worsening, considering how bad it already is. Among the latest “fun”, my brother was kept in police custody for a full day, following false accusations of his future ex-wife. A stressful event for him of course (who wants to be locked up, even if for a few hours), but thankfully he’s taking charge of all of this and is (finally) surrounding himself with more pugnacious, if expensive, lawyers. So he may well be hitting rock bottom, a year on, before slowly reclaiming his rights and winning every single court battle that is to come (I hinted previously at some of the dishonest accusations he has to face). I ceaselessly try to support him by reviewing legal drafts and reminding him that he is faced with a narcissistic pervert (this article in French explains the concept very well, hat tip to my uncle for sharing it).

7.2. Nephews and niece. My brother’s children let me know they were not allowed to call me when they are at their mother’s. I couldn’t avoid a sad-angry, sleepless night as a result. This led me to write a brief, polite email to their mother, asking for them to be permitted to call me as they wished. This effort proved pointless, as we had expected, but it was important for me to tell the children that I had tried to fight for them. Unsurprisingly, but that’s also why I had opted to write and not call my future ex-sister-in law, my effort was officially used... against my brother through a complaint from her lawyer. Yes, you read that correctly: she is falsely claiming that (i) I am harassing her, (ii) I am the one requesting to call the children. It’s so absurdly depressing that I could almost laugh, if it had not been going on for a year now. If you want to get a minuscule glimpse at how crazy the situation is, have a peek at the lawyer’s complaint and the email conversation (redacted to remove personally identifiable information). It baffles someone would lie when everything is written down – but then it's consistent with the symptoms of a narcissistic pervert who attempts to manipulate everyone.

7.3. Christmas gifts. I often struggle finding interesting gift ideas, but that joy of giving is thankfully made easier when the recipients are children. Sharing with you what I picked for my nephews and nieces in case you find any of them useful in your own act as Santa: magnet building blocks, DIY 3D puzzles, Jenga wooden blocks, big colourful plush toys, books and colouring books.

7.4. Sister’s architecture thesis. I failed at reviewing her entire thesis. It was just too abstruse for me. Oh not my sister’s writing style – which is excellent – but the topic, which is so different from what I’m used to. I had to intensely focus on every single sentence to make sure I grasped what it was all about, not leaving any room at all for me to provide any meaningful feedback beyond the obvious correction of typos. She thankfully received enough feedback from more expert eyes! This also confirms that she should write fiction: her vocabulary is extremely rich and she possesses a distinct style, in addition to being a fine analyst of people’s psychologies. Writing is indeed one of the numerous projects she has in store. My sister and I are quite similar when it comes to that intellectual curiosity into different fields, at the risk of being dispersed and struggling to complete projects. To help her in getting things done, I’ve just started coaching her. Her first assignment? List everything she wants to do. Oh, she already has written many of such lists? Perfect, consolidate and have one master list, ensure it’s up to date – can you have it ready by next week? Oh next week is going to be tight, she tells me. Well, if not next week, then when, because you know we all make excuses for delaying things. My sister stayed silent. I insisted, half-jokingly: what about by tomorrow? Yikes… but OK, you’re right, I can’t just delay things! (For the record, my sister was ready by the next day).

7.5. Papi Francis. My grandfather turned 97 years old at the end of November. No visit was possible – distance and pandemic being to blame – so I gave him a short phone call that let me test his distant memories: I had read that it was often easier for older people to recall things that happened a long time ago as opposed to very recent memories. He did quite cheerfully remember when he was training teachers, organising summer camps and camping with family, using a small tent he had as a bachelor for storing his children’s toys. But he vehemently denied having ever been the school’s headmaster, even though he had been for many years: I didn’t dare contradicting him, there was no need! I still remember when I had wished him a happy 75th birthday, pointing out to him that it represented three quarters of a century. He’s now just 3 years short of a century (yes, I’m that good at maths).

8. Health

8.1. Tumour. The second medical opinion I requested confirmed the initial diagnostic and necessary, regular follow-up regarding the tumour in my femur (and the corresponding low risk of it developing into cancer). I find it challenging to cope with such health issues for two reasons: (1) most of what I have is idiopathic (that means there’s no known cause) so there’s nothing I could have done to avoid them; (2) the waiting time between the moment the issue is discovered and the first check-up many months down the road is stressful as I hope for tumours to quietly stay where they are, not evolving in any way that would require any intervention. As time goes by, as more medical check-ups confirm that things are “fine”, my stress mostly dissipates. Just like I have forgotten most of the pain following my pneumothorax and kidney stone surgeries.

8.2. Vastus medialis. Me neither, I had never heard of that name: it’s one of the muscles of the quadriceps, connected to the knee. This muscle is the one that requires strengthening, to avoid further patella-femoral pain syndromes (lovely name). So I have now my daily reminder to do my very specific squats with isometric hip adduction and other leg extensions. I’ll soon be looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger (sure…). Speaking of Arnold, and since I love digressions, one of the psychological techniques he was using was to look at his bodybuilding competitors, point at their knee and naively ask them “is everything OK with your knee?”, knowing full well that nothing was wrong. The competitor couldn’t but doubt that there was perhaps something wrong, and thus Arnold had ever so slightly shaken his competitor’s confidence! An entertaining film retracing that part of Schwarzenegger’s life is called Pumping Iron – the documentary about the film itself is just as interesting and available on YouTube. If you’re like me, you probably have no interest in Schwarzenegger; but I did come to enjoy watching that documentary.

9. Travelling

Switzerland, as always, is a beautiful country to be stuck in while the entire planet is mostly under lockdown still. But it’s getting really cold, with temperatures hovering around zero Celsius (it started snowing just today), not even mentioning daylight disappearing at 4.30pm. I’m no longer used to it as I have been intensely travelling in and out of Switzerland for work and leisure for the past decade.

Over the past month, I did however emerge from my hibernation cave a couple of times:

9.1. Säntis: the mysterious mountaintop located less than 50 kilometres from where I live. Click on the link to read the short story and see more photos.

One of the mysteries at the top of the Säntis mountain

9.2. Titlis and Engelberg (literally the mountain of angels). It’s funny because it’s at the same bird’s-eye-view distance as Säntis is from home (about 50 kilometres), but because there are mountains and lakes (in this case, the lake of Lucerne) on the way, the detour by train takes twice as long (3 hours in total, one way). The hikes (if sitting down in a cable car counts!) and the views are however always very rewarding, especially when encountering one of the 1,500 lakes the country possesses. Here are a couple of photos before I share more in an upcoming short story.

Reflection of the mountains on Trübsee lake
What’s Switzerland without its cows?

10. Investing

The announcement of Pfizer’s vaccine led to the 8th highest increase in the history of the French stock market. I saw this as a classic emotional overreaction, since no details about the vaccine were published yet, beyond the much-touted success rate above 90%. As a result, I decided to sell all my positions (except Alphabet, but that’s partly irrational due to being employed and half-blindly believing in the future of the company). For a day or two, as the markets dwindled, I felt vindicated. And then the markets continued to trend upwards with the announcement of Moderna’s and AstraZeneca’s vaccines. So I was wrong – for now.

I say “for now” because I don’t think investors are truly appreciating the damage that’s been done to economies everywhere as well as to the health of a fraction of the population (the possibly-permanent organ damage of those who were infected). As such, markets breaking records (in the US) or close to their all-time highs (in Europe) make me particularly skeptical. But of course the market is always “right” in the sense that I don’t get to choose what’s the appropriate pricing (but Tesla, seriously?!). Nor is it an efficient strategy to try and time the market, despite some successful, “obvious” gambles based on human psychology and its emotional overreaction e.g. when the Brexit referendum results surprised everybody but at the same time nobody knew the exact consequences of what they meant from an economic perspective (in fact, 4 years down the road, we still don’t really know).

All in all, I don’t have many regrets in having sold my positions, let’s not be too greedy. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if markets pause or even correct in the coming months. Time will tell.

11. Upcoming

Among the things on my agenda for the coming month:

  • finally starting the Coaching Experiment;
  • coaching my sister and continuing to help my brother with legal stuff;
  • visiting family at the very end of the month;
  • creating pending montages of video footage taken across Switzerland;
  • still trying to fix the bugs in the code to sell digital goods;
  • starting to play a new musical instrument (more on this next time).

Thank you for reading – hit reply if anything caught your eye.

Happy healthy holidays!

Sebastian