18 January 2021

January 2021

Happy New Year!

Welcome to my first newsletter of the year – delayed, alas, but life is sometimes just a little too hectic and I don’t always find the motivation necessary to do things I had set out to do. Hopefully you didn’t miss me too much. If you think others would enjoy this email, forward it to them with no hesitation; if you received it from a friend and want to subscribe directly, click here.

1. Reading

1.1. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, is one of the most well-known examples, if not among the first, of true crime non-fiction. I had delayed reading this classic for more than a decade (it was published in 1965) because I wanted to gradually forget Capote, the excellent 2005 film depicting Capote’s research into the killers – and the compassion he developed for them. Least to say the 350-page book is riveting, elegantly alternating between the various real-life protagonists (some details were invented, so it’s technically not 100% “non-fiction”). More so than the single excerpt that I captured are the dozens of literary words (and a few typical Midwestern American words) which I had to look up to perfect my own vocabulary (I would generally get the context but this time, I felt compelled to look up definitions and translations): cinch, lanky, listless, forlorn, knead, querulous, whetted, cantankerous, mirthless, sartorially, staid, skimpily, billowed, uncongenial. Definitely recommending the book.

1.2. Ukulele. I’m trained as a below-average piano player although I haven’t played for years. My appetite for playing was perhaps not strong enough for me to purchase a piano while stuck at home the past year. Or perhaps I know I won’t invest enough time to improve my skills. Or it’s maybe my fondness for transportable objects (inflatable kayak, skateboard, etc.) that has led me to develop an interest for a string instrument, briefly the violin a few years ago, then the guitar two years ago, and lately the ukulele, in particular the baritone one which is the larger of the four sizes of the instrument (and which is theoretically stringed at a lower key – DGBE – than the other three at GCEA). I read a couple of books on the topic, motivated with the belief my musical background combined with a fairly easier instrument (that has nonetheless been played by George Harrison and Brian May) would give me a head start.

Until the instrument arrived at my door a few weeks ago (and making the “mistake” of ordering a GCEA-stringed “baritone”-sized ukulele), my head full of crazy projects started imagining setting up a show combining stand-up comedy, magic tricks and some ukulele. And perhaps reading some literature, in a style similar to Fabrice Luchini, a French stage actor. I think that would be pretty cool actually. While I wouldn’t excel at any of those in particular, I could probably create some decent show by combining all those interests of mine. Here’s a video of me very seriously playing the ukulele within a couple of weeks of self-training (using the excellent videos found on the All for Uke YouTube channel), although I have since learned to hold the instrument a little better (but no, I still remain shirtless at home, it’s simply too warm indoors) – for the anecdote, I recorded this video literally 5 minutes before heading to the airport (no pressure whatsoever!):


1.3. Tony Hsieh. He was the billionaire CEO of Zappos, an online shoe store later sold to Amazon. In my talks, I often quote the customer-oriented approach Tony Hsieh instilled in his company: he had truly restored the reputation of what customer service should be about, with a 365-day return policy and salespeople who didn’t have to stick to a script but instead be dedicated to truly helping customers (e.g. a salesperson sending flowers to a customer who had lost her husband). Tony Hsieh seemed to be a very kind person himself. Alas, he died at age 46 in a house fire, after months of drug abuse… possibly also surrounding himself with people taking advantage of his frail mental state, not without reminding me of Freddie Mercury’s life in the company of his so-called “friends” in Munich in the early 1980s.

1.4. How vaccines work. This other word starting with the letter V is all the talk in 2021. So it’s worth understanding how they work (fascinating): this French article is the best I found (use the Translate extension to automatically translate the page); this NYT article is pretty good too but only focuses on mRNA vaccines.

1.5. The Chinese Communist Party. This article written by a famous Chinese ex-professor will not surprise most of those living outside of China. I still found it enlightening to understand the intellectual shift that operates within smart and educated individuals, able to accept contradictions – which appear blatant and hypocritical in hindsight – before realising years later what truly went on. The article is particularly interesting as the author actually tried to conform to official policy by reusing the regime’s own words and by understanding, probably better than anyone else, the subtle nuances in expressions of political goals.

1.6. Happy relationships. The following quote by comedian Henny Youngman (via Oliver Burkeman’s newsletter) is priceless: "Some people ask the secret of our long marriage. We take time to go to a restaurant two times a week. A little candlelight, dinner, soft music and dancing… She goes Tuesdays, I go Fridays."

2. Watching

2.1. Exploring Alternatives. I’m not at all into building tiny houses or living off grid (which my sister is in the process of doing!) but for some reason, I got hooked into watching many videos of people living in creative shelters, watching them during my meal time. YouTube’s recommendation engine fully at work, it obviously led me to similar videos, including the best one I have watched on the topic so far (among the hundred or so). It’s the story of an 88-year old who has been building his home in the middle of the Californian forest for the past 50 years! The old man is amazing… and he’s looking for caretakers (if my sister reads this, she’ll likely take the next flight to the US, whenever that becomes possible again). For your viewing pleasure:


2.2. Marble Music. If you think I’m weird, do have a look at Swede Martin Molin’s absolutely crazy music contraption made of marbles and custom-made elements:


2.3. Lockdown. Hat tip to my sister for sharing that funny amateur music video (in French) which expresses well how most people feel about never-ending lockdowns and curfews.

2.4. Living in the future. Boston Dynamics keeps improving its humanoid and dog-like robots. The latest iteration is… impressive, as much as it’s scary if you’ve watched Black Mirror’s Metalhead:


2.5. Snowball fight. It snowed between half a metre and a metre over just more than a day in the village I live in, which is just by the Zürich lake at 400m above sea level. It’s the first time I see that much snow in 12 years of living here! Doesn’t everyone become like a child again whenever it snows? Just look at this video – and the corresponding analysis – of a snowball fight captured in 1897 (you read that correctly); it’s hilarious to see how they are pelting the cyclist with ferocious snowballs! If you don’t have a NYT account, simply open the link in your browser’s incognito mode and you’ll be able to read the article in full.

Following intense snowfall in my village

2.6. Top YouTubers in 2020. The list compiled by The Guardian surprised me: check the number 1 spot, as well as the second spot which led me to watch many of Mr. Beast’s videos and making me alternate between thinking “this is so dumb/boring” and “after all, he is giving money away, so it’s somewhat positive” and “why am I even working?!”.

2.7. Attack on the Capitol. Difficult to ignore that happened and still crazy to think that we were that close to lawmakers getting murdered. I had just finished dinner when I read the breaking news, leading me to waste hours in front of live television and leaving me bewildered at the duration of the riot. For a very comprehensive video account of what actually happened, check any of the 500 videos retrieved by ProPublica: fascinating to see how a mob can overwhelm police, scary to observe that it’s not just “rednecks” who are involved, frightening to hear the chants of “traitors”. I am absolutely certain that screenwriters are rushing to create a documentary: in fact, it’s very tempting to use those 500 videos and curate them into such a documentary… ah so many project ideas, so little time...

2.8. Films. Watched a few over the past weeks:

  • Tenet. Reminiscent of Inception but not as good. Don’t try to make sense of the “science”. The film is OK if you’re looking for some Sunday-evening-before-it’s-back-to-the-work-week entertainment.
  • Let Him Go. Good drama (unexpected with Kevin Costner) on the notion of loss. One funny exchange: “You didn't let me finish…”, to which the other responded “You finished now, but you just did not know it”.
  • Promising Young Woman. Reminiscent of Gone Girl but I’m not sure if I would rate it as high, I don’t know, initially I thought not but then there are some very interesting twists so it’s definitely worth watching.

  • Boss Level. Action film of a man trapped in a never-ending time loop on the day of his death. Non-intelligent, classic scenario (i.e. the construction of the film and its ending are obvious, following an overused pattern) but still makes for funny entertainment (with Mel Gibson).
  • News of the World. American Western with a classic scenario once again but entertaining with Tom Hanks and an incredibly blonde young actress.

3. Listening

Here’s what’s included in my monthly playlist:

3.1. Tiden Der Forstar, by Jacob Gurevitsch, a Danish composer. Sweet and melancholic, just the way I like it.


3.2. Run, by Thylacine. I guess I don’t get tired of that French band which I had mentioned previously.


4. Writing

In case you missed it:

4.1. The Mountain of Angels. A short picture-rich story I wrote about a recent weekend travel in central Switzerland.

4.2. Sharing intimate details. All the reasons why I write this monthly newsletter.

4.3. A beginner’s guide to playing the ukulele. My personal notes centralising some of the things I wished I had known more quickly upon learning how to play the instrument.

5. Creating

A few videos produced over the past weeks (switching to a fiber optic connection at home made me feel I’m back at the Google office when it comes to upload speeds, woohoo!):

5.1. Hot-air balloons over Säntis in Switzerland, in relation to its associated story published previously.


5.2. Magic airplane. This was in response to an optional request at work. Here’s the output:


6. Working

6.1. China. Very pleased to have hired someone on my team to cover China. The process took almost an entire year, in particular because an earlier candidate rejected our offer (for understandable reasons). This made for an interesting Christmas break as I kept on having meetings related to our work in China, feeling it was the right thing to do with a fresh new employee whom I will probably not meet in person before another year.

6.2. Developer-generated content. Mentioned in October, this project I’m leading is about encouraging developers to create interesting code samples and curating them so other developers can be inspired. This project is shaping up nicely after I pulled together a number of my own team members and people from other teams. It’s not only looking promising in terms of short-term and long-term results, but it’s also a welcome relief from work politics. As most things in life, I need to accept trade-offs and to learn where my red lines stand...

7. Projects

7.1. Coaching Experiment. It took me an extra few weeks to be sure I still wanted to do this project (just like everyone, I go through lulls of motivation – the lack of sunlight probably doesn’t help either). On Christmas eve, I finally sent an email to each of the 4 selected applicants: I thought it made for a nice Christmas present. Over the past few weeks, I have created my detailed project plan with an associated Gantt chart, sticking pretty well to my self-imposed timeline when it came to preparing key emails and documentation. Audio/video check-ups (I underestimated the need to explain what good recordings look like: clean audio, video at eye level, stable video, adequate lighting), a group call with all participants and the first coaching session have all already taken place. It’s exciting, mainly because the 4 participants all have interesting profiles and an array of skills that make me feel I need to get a move on with my life myself (it’s never too late)! The selected participants are Jono Hart from South Africa, Vaibhavi Desai from India, Larissa Pujol from Mexico, and Hasan Kubba from the UK. I’ll be sharing more details about this project in the coming months – you can already sign up here if you’d like to be notified when the video series comes out. In the meantime, here’s an exclusive introduction video of one of the participants:


7.2. 2debate, Season 2. Season 1 of this podcast with my co-host Dirk ended with the 100th episode during which we went over the most memorable episodes of the past 4 years (an entire presidency!) and during which we announced the new format of 2debate for Season 2. So don’t forget to tune in on January 20th for our very own inauguration day, that is the day when we will be releasing the season’s first episode. As an exclusive preview for you, I can already tell you that we’ll touch upon the closing of borders, the power of social media platforms, and, brace yourselves, a children's TV show about a man with a giant penis.

7.3. Coaching, continued. I still can’t say “no” so there were a few more instances when I organised ad hoc coaching sessions. Always interesting, undoubtedly, but I need to manage my personal time more effectively. In other words, I should ask myself the (reverse) question: if I were paid for this, would I even do it?

7.4. Online store. Finally resolved all the bugs to be able to open a digital store on seb247 which sales would go to Karimu. I’m thinking of selling the following: photos (a selection of the best ones), productivity templates (tools I designed and use every day), financial models (simulations like the one I had mentioned in November), possibly CV reviews (I have some automated mechanism in mind), and exclusive or NSFW stories. More on this whenever I prioritise this high enough!

8. Family

8.1. Family reunion. Despite the French political theatrics, there were no mandatory PCR tests nor quarantine required upon travelling to France from Switzerland. And so I was relieved that my plan to visit family for just a few days didn’t fall through (the only restriction was an 8-pm curfew): I could spend time with every close family member (mum, siblings, nephews and nieces) except my 97-year-old grandfather and thankfully no one got infected with any virus before, during or after our family gathering. I’m really happy this trip worked out – even if it was “intense”, as any family gathering can be! But for once, I wasn’t the one throwing a tantrum, instead trying to make things work for everyone. Tiring, but worth it, especially after not seeing family for a year.

Me and my 3 siblings & the 3 young children of my brother

8.2. Multi-skilled sister. My sister and I share many similar traits (actually all of us siblings share common characteristics), most notably when it comes to wide-ranging interests, from politics to science and the arts. I spent a few hours at the beginning of December to coach her over the phone (it went better than I thought – it can always be tricky when coaching family members, a little bit like one “shouldn’t” lend money to siblings or friends, which of course I have also done). In person, we prepared the content for her brand new website that currently highlights examples of her acting skills (why not, she’s only a holder of 2 Master’s in Engineering and a Master’s in architecture!).

8.3. Maths genius. I always love to tickle the intellectual curiosity of my nephews and nieces. My 9-year old nephew noticed I had typed a placeholder “x” in a document: he wondered what it meant. I naturally talked about variables. In a matter of minutes, he was mentally solving multi-variable linear equations. I was so impressed (he’s already a year ahead at school but that shows he’s even further ahead in the realm of maths) that I recorded everything:


He said it was “easy”. To prove his point, he explained the concept of variables to his younger 5-year old brother. “If one X is one apple, how much is 2X?”. The younger one replied: “2 apples, duh! That’s easy!”. Wow. My nephews and nieces have so much potential, it makes me sad that they are mostly left to their own devices – literally so when they are at their mum’s, because I know they’re left to browse on YouTube with no parental control. And so I have conflicting emotions: sadness in not being able to do more, disappointment in seeing wasted genius, satisfaction – perhaps even joy – to see that my gentle intellectual nudging is the main contributor to them being attached to me.

8.4. Mum’s memories. I’ve mentioned it many times, in emails, newsletters and stories: I acutely feel the passing of time. It’s getting worse as I get older, however fully I try to live. Seeing my mum in person a few weeks ago added fuel to that fire of sadness mingled with stress, however much I know I need to be grateful for what I got to live thus far. I should have captured more photos and videos, especially in a casual, non-posed manner, but at least I thought of recording my mother when she was going through the funny things her grandchildren had said over the years (I’m glad she barely got annoyed when understanding I was recording throughout). It’s so heartening to see my mum laugh this way – it makes me miss her terribly and it brings tears to my eyes to know what she’s going through (utter lack of sleep, stress for my brother’s divorce, and keeping busy because more afraid to confront herself with her wounds rather than having the willingness to heal).

9. Health

A month doesn’t go by without medical check-ups… One was to get my ten-yearly DPT vaccine jab (and the MMR one, which I wasn’t sure if I already had two of). The other was to keep track of the remaining kidney stone (after some lovely surgery, 3 years ago, for another kidney stone that just wouldn’t come out on its own and made me scream like never before, in a train what’s more, before being transferred to a hospital in an ambulance). Well the stone is still there, well-fed (it has doubled in size), and appears cosy enough that it doesn’t want to move. Fantastic, another thing to monitor! For those who never experienced the pain of a kidney stone before, it’s sometimes compared to childbirth pain (not me saying it, obviously), except you get nothing out of a kidney stone!

10. Upcoming

Among the things on my agenda for the coming weeks are the following items:

  • carrying on with the Coaching Experiment (coaching sessions and finalising the promotion plan for the video series);
  • writing and reading stories;
  • creating video montages of past travels;
  • hoping for some sunny weather to go skiing in “my” mountains (36 minutes by train);
  • continuing to practise the ukulele (something I have done almost every day so far);
  • possibly launching the digital store on seb247.

Considering we’re already well into January, I’ll probably send my next newsletter early March. It does take me an average of 10 hours from start to finish to write those newsletters.

One last thing

If you made it this far, fantastic! Specifically, I may (emphasis on the hypothetical nature of “may”) ship a small thing to you at some point in the future. If you are interested, please send your name and your delivery address in an email to mypostaladdress@seb247.com.

Thank you for reading. Hit reply if anything caught your attention.

Sebastian