Category Archives: Must watch or read

What we cannot know

It’s the 3rd book I read by Marcus du Sautoy. After the Music of Primes and Finding Moonshine: A Mathematician’s Journey Through Symmetry, here is What we cannot know.

Seven frontiers of knowledge according to du Sautoy: Randomness and Chaos, Particle Physics and the Infinitely Small, Space and Quantum Physics, The Universe and the Infinitely Big, Time and Gravity, Consciousness, Mathematics.

To illustrate some of this, here are tww short extracts:

Du Sautoy asks, what is the B. in Benoit B. Mandelbrot and the answer is Benoit B. Mandelbrot. Nice!

And quite nice too about the “purity of fields” by xkcd.com

If you love science(s) or mathematic(s), a clear must-read!

Hillbilly Elegy, Powerful and Moving

Another must read about the crisis of our times. Following Piketty or others, or lesser known analysis of Small-Town America of living anywhere vs. somewhere, here is J. D. Vance’s “great insight into Trump and Brexit”.

If ethnicity is one side of the coin, then geography is the other. [Page 3]

It is unsurprising, then, that we’re a pessimistic bunch. What is more surprising is that, as surveys have found, working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America. More pessimistic than Latino immigrants, many of whom suffer unthinkable poverty. More pessimistic than black Americans, whose material prospects continue to lag behind those of whites. While reality permits some degree of cynicism, that fact that hillbillies like me are more down about the future than many other groups – some of whom are clearly mode destitute than we are – suggests that something else is going on. [Page 4]

The scale of migration was staggering. In the 1950s, thirteen of every one hundred Kentucky residents migrated out of state. Some areas saw even greater migration: Harlan county, for example, which was brought to fame in an Academy Award-winning documentary about coal strikes, lost 30 percent of its population to migration. In 1960, of Ohios’s ten million residents, one million were born in Kentucky, West Virginia, or Tennessee. This doesn’t count the large number of migrants from elsewhere in the southern Appalachian Mountains; nor does it include the children or grandchildren of migrants who were hill people to the core. [Page 28]

Mamaw’s family participated in the migratory flow with gusto. Of her seven siblings, Pet, Paul, and Gary moved to Indiana and worked in construction. Each owned a successful business and earned considerable we lath in the process. Rose, Betty, Teaberry, and David stayed behind. All of them struggled financially, though everyone but David managed a life of relative comfort by the standards of their community. [Page 29]

Moving and powerful…

Claude Shannon, an honorable mathematician?

A Mind at Play is a very interesting book for many reasons. The subtitle “How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age” is one reason. It is a great biography of a mathematician whose life and production are not that well-known. And what is Information? I invite you to read these 281 pages or if you are too lazy or busy, at least the Shannon page on Wikipedia.

What I prefer to focus on here is the ever going tension between mathematics and engineering, between (what people sometimes like to oppose) pure and applied mathematics. Pure mathematics would be honorable, applied mathematics would not be, if we admit there is such a thing as pure or applied maths. So let me extract some enlighting short passages.

The typical mathematician is not the sort of man to carry on an industrial project. He is a dreamer, not much interested in things or the dollars they can be sold for. He is a perfectionist, unwilling to compromise; idealizes to the point of impracticality; is so concerned with the broad horizon that he cannot keep his eye on the ball. [Page 69]

In Chapter 18, entitled, Mathematical Intentions, Honorable and Otherwise, the authors dig deeper: Above all [the mathematician] professes loyalty to the “austere and often abtruse” world of pure mathematics. If applied mathematics concerns itself with concrete questions, pure mathematics exists for its own sake. Its cardinal questions are not “How do we encrypt a telephone conversation?” but rather “Are there infinitely many twin primes?” or “Does every true mathematical statement have a proof?” The divorce between the two schools has ancient origins. Historian Carl Boyer traces it to Plato, who regarded mere computation as suitable for a merchant or a general, who “must learn the art of numbers or he will not know how to array his troops.” But the philosopher must study higher mathematics, “because he has to arise out of the sea of change and lay hold of true being.” Euclid, the father of geometry, was a touch snobbier “There is a tale told of him that when one of his students asked of what use was the study of geometry, Euclid asked his slave to gibe the student threepence, ‘since he must make gain of what he learns’.”
Closer to our times, the twentieth-century mathematician G. H. Hardy would write what became the ur-text of pure math. A Mathematicians’ Apology is a “manifesto for mathematics itself,” which pointedly borrowed its title from Socrates’ argument in the face of capital charges. For Hardy, mathematical elegance was an end in itself. “beauty is the first test,” he insisted. “There is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.” A mathematician, then, is not a mere solver of practical problems. He, “like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.” By contrast, run-of-the-mill applied mathenatics was “dull,” “ugly”. “trivial” and “elementary”
And one (famous) reader of Shannon’s paper dismissed it with a sentence that would irritate Shannon’s supporters for years: “The discussion is suggestive throughout, rather than mathematical, and it is not always clear that the author’s mathematical intentions are honorable.” [Pages 171-2]

This reminds me of another great book I read last year Mathematics without apologies with one chapter entitled “Not Merely Good, True and Beautiful”. Shannon was a tinkerer, a term I discovered when I read Noyce‘s biography, another brilliant tinkerer. He was a brilliant tinkerer and he was a brilliant mathematician. He had himself strong vues about the quality of scientific research (pure or applied – who cares really?): we must keep our own house in first class order. The subject of information theory has certainly been sold, if not oversold. We should now turn our attention to the business of research and development at the highest scientific plane we can maintain. Research rather than exposition is the keynote, and our critical thresholds should be raised. Authors should submit only their best efforts, and these only after careful criticism by themselves and their colleagues. A few first rate research papers are preferable to a large number that are poorly conceived or half-finished. The latter are no credit to their writers and a waste of time to their reader. [Page 191]

A brilliant tinkerer as the video below shows…

and it seems he designed and built the (or one of the) first computer that played chess. He was a juggler and a unicycler.

In the chapter Constructive Dissatisfaction, the topic is intelligence. It requires talent and training, but also curiosity and even dissatisfaction: not the depressive kind of dissatisfaction (of which , he did not say, he had experienced his fair share), but rather a “constructive dissatisfaction”, or “a slight irritation when things don’t look quite right.” It was a least, a refreshing unsentimental picture of genius: a genius is simply someone who is usefully irritated. He had also proposed six strategies to solving problems: simplifying, encircling, restating, analyzing, inverting and stretching. You will need to read that section pages 217-20.

He was also a good investor. In fact he was close to a few founders of startups and had a privileged access to people like Bill Harrison (Harrison Laboratories) and Henry Singleton (Teledyne) and although he used his knowledge to analyze stock markets. Here is what he has to say about investing: A lot of people look at the stock price, when they should be looking at the basics company and its earnings. There are many problems concerned with the prediction of stochastic processes, for example the earnings of companies… My general feeling is that it is easier to choose companies which are going to succeed, than to predict short term variations, things which last only weeks or months, which they worry about on Wall Street Week. There is a lot more randomness there and things happen which you cannot predict, which cause people to sell or buy a lot of stock. To the point of answering to the question of the best information theory for investment with “inside information.” [Page 241-2]

A genius, a wise man, an honorable mathematician.

The start-up of You by Reid Hoffman

I have never been a big fan of “How to” books, sometimes called “personal development”. Even if Reid Hoffman is a brilliant entrepreneur, he did not really change my mind with his Start-up of You. His book which sometimes look like an ad for LinkedIn and which is strangely written with four hands, one saying I (Reid) and the other, He (Ben Casnocha) is still a good description of what it requires to look at improving a career:
– know thyself,
– be adaptable,
– network,
– look for opportunities,
– assess risks.

He also has beautiful ideas. When he quotes authors such as Jonathan Franzen – “Inauthentic people are obsessed with authenticity” – or David Foster Wallace – “There is no experience you have had you are not the absolute center of”. (Pages 93-94) I assume Hoffman knows Franzen and Wallace were great friends until the death of the second – strong ties in networks.

He also prones diversity in networks. If people know each other too well, there is not enough diversity, if they do not each other well enough however, trust is tougher to build. You need both old blood (trust) and fresh blood in a team. (Page 118)

But a team is only as good as its members. team quality requires individual quality. Look below at the famous Paypal mafia(Page 159)

Even if Hoffman gives good advice t the end of each chapter, he is not over-analyzing. For example, when talking about risks: Of the voluminous research on risk, remarkably little of it actually analyzes how real businesspeople make real decisions in the real world. An exception is a study done by professor Zur Shapira in 1991. (…) What he found likely came as a disappointment to architects of fancy decision trees. The executives surveyed didn’t calculate the mathematical expected value of various scenarios. They didn’t draft long lists of pros and cons. Instead, most simply tried to get a handle on a single yes-or-no question: could they tolerate the outcome if the worst-case scenario happened?


Impressive panel @ESPCI_Paris #SiliconValleyinParis with @reidhoffman @tfadell @Hemaisphere, Sebastian Amigorean and Stephen Quake moderated by @APapiernik

You could ask me why I decided to read that book. In the end, it shows entrepreneurs are really good at action, less at analysis… The truth is I went to Paris to listen to him at a great event called Silicon Valley comes to Paris. I wanted to approach him, network! Without knowing I applied some his advice and also made some of the mistakes he is describing. My main mistake was not knowing his interest about European start-ups. In fact he has not invested in Europe, he does not know EPFL. It makes you humble and willing to network even further. Reid, would you come back in Europe and inspire aspiring young entrepreneurs?

Leslie Berlin strikes again with Troublemakers

I had read a few years ago the great The Man Behind the Microchip by Leslie Berlin. After the biography of Robert Noyce, one of Intel’s cofounders, Berlin comes now with Troublemakers, a description of “How Generation of Silicon Valley Upstarts Invented the Future”.

The title is a reference to a famous Apple advertisement: The crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. One of the great merits of the book is to focus on 7 individuals (2 women and 5 men) which are relatively unknown compared to the stars of Silicon Valley. Will you recognize them on the following image? (The answer is at the end of the post).

The book is not only great storytelling. It describes the dynamics of Silicon Valley from the late 60s to the early 80s and how “five major industries — personal computing, video games, biotechnology, modern venture capital, and advanced semiconductor logic — were born”. You can also listen to Leslie Berlin here:

The close-to-400 page book also has more than 80 pages of rich notes. It is really a must read for anyone passionate or just interested in Silicon Valley. Here are a few quotes:

Indiana Jones: I’m going after that truck.
Sallah: How?
Indiana Jones: I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.

“We didn’t want to be considered part of the flock. Eagles don’t flock, was our joke.” (Tom Perkins when asked why KP was not initially on Sand Hill Road – Page 192)


Let me make a short parenthesis. While reading this book, I read a very interesting article in the FT entitled Silicon Valley’s founder factory ‘Silicon Valley is lacking in one core area — a sense of entrepreneurial hustle’ (Leslie Hook – Jan 2018): “When I moved to San Francisco four years ago, I noticed something odd about the start-up founders I met: many of them resembled each other. Not just physically, though most were men under 35. But also in the way they spoke about their companies. They had PowerPoints at the ready, and big numbers on the tips of their tongues. Everyone seemed to know exactly what the total addressable market of their start-up was, even if they hadn’t yet made a single dollar of sales. […] By contrast, while there are a lot of founders in Silicon Valley, I have found relatively few entrepreneurs. The founders are smart and hard-working. But many are simply products of a system, which is why they all seem vaguely the same.” Interesting food for thought in comparison to the 70s…

As my personal contribution, here are 4 of my “usual” cap. tables. Ask Computer, ROLM, Cetus and Atari are companies from the 70s mentioned in the book that I had not studied yet… Ask was one of the first software companies and Cetus the 1st biotech company…


Ask Computer cap. table


ROLM cap. table


Cetus cap. table


Atari cap. table

Well to show the complexity of the exercise, here is a second Atati cap. table based on its S-1 IPO Filing…

In her final pages, Leslie Berlin also mentions another company founded by Mike Markkula, Echelon Corp. Echelon had the ROLM founders as well as Arthur Rock and Larry Sonsini as stakeholders. Here is a 5th table:


Echelon cap. table

Answer to the quiz, the seven troublemakers, from left to right:
Top row: Sandra Kurtzig, Mike Markkula, Fawn Alvarez, Niels Rimers.
Bottom row: Bob Taylor, Al Acorn, Bob Swanson.

How Do You Teach High-Tech Entrepreneurship according to Randy Komisar

It’s the 4th time in a few days that I show the video below to people. It is rather old (dated 2004) and it is just great. A sentence I remember from the first day I watched it is the following: “I think there’s stuff you can’t possibly learn in school and I’m not even sure you can learn that on the job. There’s an entrepreneurial character. Some people have it and some people don’t. Some people may not think they have it, and they may have it. A lot of people they think they have it, and many don’t.” Here is the video and then the full transcript…

I think what can be taught, by and large, is a set of very basic skills about the various domains required for startup to succeed: finance, organizations, transactions, strategy, business models. You can get an exposure to that which can raise your entrepreneur IQ a hundred points. Because starting without that context, it could be awfully hard to understand what’s happening around you as you work in these environments let alone try to do it. I also think you can get exposure to the personality and character of entrepreneurship through the case study method in particular. You can begin to see the tortured lives that many entrepreneurs have to live in order to pursue their dreams. And you can get a sense of how that relates to your abilities to cope and to make tradeoffs in your life.

I think there’s stuff you can’t possibly learn in school and I’m not even sure you can learn that on the job. There’s an entrepreneurial character. Some people have it and some people don’t. Some people may not think they have it, and they may have it. A lot of people they think they have it, and many don’t. The entrepreneurial character is very, very comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. That entrepreneur character is very capable of understanding and targeting opportunities that others don’t see and is tenacious about their pursuit. At the same time, they remain permeable to know ideas and to course corrections from feedback from the market and from people who might have more experience or more insights than they’ve got. There’s a personality that works in this environment. And there’s a personality that I think is uncomfortable. And I try to explain this in particular in the classes that I teach. There is a badge of courage in being an entrepreneur. I mean, we sort of, you know, if you read the press and you read the local technology rags you know there is a real sense that entrepreneurs are a special super breed. They’re different. They create a lot of value. I love working with them.

But if you’re not an entrepreneur that’s OK too. There’s lots of other value to be created. There’s lots of other things to be “attacked” in the market place that maybe more appropriate. So I think you can learn a lot. And I think you can accelerate your ability to learn more by building a context. But I think ultimately you got to ask yourself a hard question. Am I suited for the uncertainties and ambiguities, the ups and downs, and the risks of being an entrepreneur, or am I not?

Facts, Truth, Courage…

The word Start-up is controversial. Money, business are often the synonymous and at the time of the Paradise Papers, they do not have good press, with reason! I sometimes had to “defend” and I would still defend a world that is important … And more widely, I believe, we must fight to defend the importance of facts and a “dirty word”, truth, with courage. In a world where communication is confused with information (already at the beginning of the 20th century, Schumpeter explained that capitalism could not exist without marketing and advertising) it is important that the voices defending the facts, truth with courage be heard. For this reason, I have sometimes come out of the strict framework of technology, innovation and high-tech entrepreneurship to mention intellectuals who seem important to me. Harari, Piketty, Fleury, Stieger, Picq.

A long introduction to mention a beautiful interview of Pascal Picq on France Inter this morning: “We must deconstruct male domination in Hollywood as elsewhere.” The link to the site in French is here. A brief excerpt: “Note: the bonobos, who are close to us, have not evolved like us. Homo sapiens is one of the most violent species towards its females, so women. The degrees of this violence vary according to time and culture. The dominant status is exercised with regard to Nature on the one hand, and women on the other hand. The behaviors of male dominance that are rooted in our human societies are the result of a behavioral evolution, and not of a natural and genetic determinism. In the bonobos, the female is dominant, the violence of the relations is mastered by the hedonic relations, and the bonobos live according to a model of gynocracy. The bonobos and the men did not have the same behavioral evolution. And I say that we can not blame our nature, as some do, in the principles of male dominance that have been imposed on humans. It is a behavioral evolution that has become embedded in agricultural societies and industrial societies. Historically, where foods or things are produced, men tend to take control of production and reproduction.”

I should have added that this interview is related to the Oscar granted last night to Agnès Varda for her career and coincidence or not, my previous article in French only – If you do not love me, I can tell you that I do not love you either – dealt with Sandrine Bonnaire, the actress of Agnes Varda in the magnificent Vagabond.

In all disciplines, scientific or not, complexity makes it difficult sometimes, not to say often, to assert truths. They seem sometime to be moving. But there are facts that one must always analyze as honestly as possible with courage and then we can come out with truths. Thanks to these intellectuals who work without dogma and help us understand the world.

And to finish on a “lighter” touch, here are two works by Obey whose artistic fight is magnificent!

Hopeful Monsters

‘What are hopeful monsters?’ I said ‘They are things born perhaps slightly before their time; when it’s not known if the environment is quite ready for them.’
Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley [P. 71]

Hopeful Monsters could have been startups, but it is a novel, a marvelous novel written in 1990 and that I am reading again these days. I had read it in another century, when there were only books in paper and independent bookstores still existed. I had bought it in the late Black Oak Books in Berkeley, California.

Bruno held out his hands to the flames and talked to them in an unintelligible language. Minna said ‘What do you say to the fire?’
Bruno said ‘I say “Come on up! Do as I say or I’ll punish you!” ’
Minna said ‘And does it?’
Bruno said ‘If it wants to.’

The first 3 chapters begin this way:
Chapter I – if we are to survive in the environment we have made for ourselves, may we have to be monstrous enough to greet our predicament?
Chapter II – if we are talking about an environment in which the acceptance of paradoxes might breed, then this can happen in an English hot-house, I suppose, as well as in a melting-pot of Berlin streets.
Chapter III – if, for the sake of change, old ground has to be broken up, one or two seeds lie secret – what terrible opportunities there were during those years!

I had never read a novel which mixes philosophy and science with beautiful story-telling. Not an easy read. Not sure it is a masterpiece either, though…

“Don’t f**k it up” – Advice to founders

I should not like “Don’t f**k it up”. Just because I am not a big fan of “how to” books in high-tech entrepreneurship. There is another reason why I should not like, i.e. the subtitle: “How Founders and Their Successors Can Avoid the Clichés That Inhibit Growth”. Usually I think foudners should not have successors. But I did not hate les Trachtman’s book at all. The reason is Les gives good advice to founders, the main one being “Trust and Empower”.

Let me give you examples:

I know that every founder believes his company is special, exceedingly complex, and unique. I can assure you that the challenges confronting you are just not that different. Ninety-five percent of your problems are shared by other founders, which is good news because it means your problems are solvable. They’ve been seen and handled many times before—all that is required is the smarts and the courage to address them. [Page 2]

“Employees who are taught to mistrust their own instincts are not very likely to trust their colleagues’ instincts, either.” Fear of failure can easily poison a company culture. Team-building efforts are useless when everyone’s first imperative is CYA — cover your ass. [Page 12]

The process of building a team is not that different from raising a healthy, self-sufficient child. […] You want them to learn from their mistakes and the
resulting painful consequences.
[Pages 15-16]

Micromanaging can often be an excuse for not developing and committing to mid-range and long-range goals. It can also serve as an excuse, changing your mind about what’s most important from one day to the next. A lot of founders run small companies that way, and they never scale those companies because it’s impossible to run a larger company on the basis of what the founder is feeling that particular day. [Page 20]

and his advice to foudners is to give more and moe importance to strategy by [Pages 31-33]:
1. Track your time.
2. Decide what not to work on, and stick to it.
3. Plan for the unexpected.
4. Write down your goals and revisit them quarterly.

More in another post…