Getting geeky about home espresso with a La Pavoni

I’ve been using an Aeropress to make myself good coffee at home for many years now. But well, you know, I like a challenge so I picked up a manual lever espresso machine on eBay.

My choice was a La Pavoni Europiccola — I think made in the 1990s — which has no thermostat, no pressure gauge and no pumps to help you out. Those in the know though say it makes perfect espresso. It turns out there is no shortage of how-to videos on Youtube but this is seriously geeky stuff and, one week in, I’m nowhere near to mastering it.

Less news feels like more news

Last year I was a voracious consumer of news on the web and my phone. I would check twitter and facebook multiple times a day, often clicking through to links that people had posted. I was using apple news on an ipad we have and I would often check BBC news and BBC sport websites and apps. At a guess I’d say I was ‘checking’ what was going on well over 100 times a day.

It made me really grumpy and I’m not sure I gained anything more of a deep understanding than just what events have happened. Sometimes even that was tricky to work out.

I’ve gradually broken the habit. Partly it was that I didn’t get data for my phone while we were away on holiday but I also began to realise that even the headlines on more reputable old media outlets were being dramatically spun. It wasn’t even that they were being spun in one particular direction as was the case in the New Labour years. It was that they were being spun to confuse deliberately. The Trump team are masters of layers of misinformation where not only are the stories spun, the way that the stories are put out is spun so that nobody really knows what’s going on.

It has highlighted to me that most of what is reported is what people say (not what is done) and even if it is in quotes in the headline, it has no impact on the world other than to confuse. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism put it:

“As happened in the UK in the run up to Brexit, lots of American media outlets treated Trump as entertainment — his soundbites, as shocking as they were, provided fantastic content on social media. For months, many newspapers allowed Trump to get away with making blatantly untrue statements — and elevated those untruths to their front pages.”

Journalism as entertainment is unfortunately going to continue to increase for the next few years unless the big media companies that point to it (Google, Facebook, Twitter) decide to stop. It’s just too lucrative. Jimmy Wales is having a go at addressing it as are some of the other big foundations.

Business model wise, I don’t know what the answer is. It can’t be state funded. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is funded through philanthropy, most notably by David and Elaine Potter who made their money through the founding of Psion. The problem of course is that it’s perfectly possible for people who don’t like the position that the BIJ take to ‘philanthropically’ fund others to muddy the waters or come up with alternative ‘facts’. At worst this is the fake news industry but PR has pretty much the same intention.

My only reflection on all this is that it’s driven me away from the thing that I think it is meant to create — attention. I spend far less time reading news — fake or not — than I used to.

Staying calm

I’ve had a tough day with lots of difficult situations but I think I’ve managed to just about stay calm about everything.

There’s a good bit in Tim Ferriss’s embarrassingly titled Tools of Titans about how highly valuable a skill staying calm under pressure is. I’m not a military person at all but it’s apparently the defining feature of successful special forces commanders. The ability to step back and analyse a situation when all hell is breaking loose can be the difference between life and death for everyone under your command.

My BGV colleague Melanie once joked that I might be like a duck. Calm on the surface but paddling like hell under the water. Generally I am actually pretty calm — it’s not an act — but it is something that I’ve tried to learn how to do over time.

I guess my top tips for staying calm are:

  • Try to stop stressful situations from happening in the first place — put a lot of work into building relationships in a way that makes it unlikely people would fall out. I’m a strong believer that if it’s got to the point of an argument both sides have probably lost out.
  • Diffuse tension with humour if it does happen — if you can manage to make people take themselves a bit less seriously, they’ll take the situation a bit less apocalyptically. It’s almost certainly not as bad as they think.
  • When bad things do happen, think of it as an opportunity. The first thing to say to yourself is ‘good — this is something I’m going to be able to learn from’. Then step back and try and help people see the bigger picture first before trying to resolve the situation.
  • Meditation helps. If you can find time to practice when you do have time, you’ll reap the benefits in the times when you might not.

If you’re in startup life (or investment life for that matter), your ability to stay calm is not a bad thing to try and improve. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice.

The Undoing Project

Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman (image from this article in the New Yorker)

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis is the story of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the two Israeli psychologists who created a whole new discipline — behavioural economics — and in doing so, changed the way we think about thinking.

The book starts in a strange place — with a basketball game and links the reason for Lewis writing the book back to a previous best-seller of his — Moneyball. That was all about the use of statistics in baseball by the Oakland A’s coach Billy Bean who beat the system by choosing to look at things that the big teams missed when making his draft picks or transfers from other teams. He looked for value rather than assuming that because somebody was a big hitter they would be the best player. It worked of course and now the rest of sport has cottoned on to it — ‘moneyball’ is the dominant approach in a lot of professional sport. When Lewis was reading the reviews of the book somebody said that the book was great but that it was something that was already known in psychology and economics because of the work of Kahneman and Tversky. Lewis had never heard of them but soon started to find out more.

Tversky died in 1996 well before Lewis started writing the book but Kahneman took part in interviews as did many of their collaborators over the years. The key to the story though is something Lewis never saw, the relationship between the two men and that’s what the book is about. Lewis tries to get to the core of why these two people were able to question so much that had gone unquestioned before. Both admitted that it wasn’t something they would have come up with on their own but they were an unlikely couple save for the fact that they were both Israeli psychologists and bumped into each other at the University of Michigan in the 1960s.

The book does explain most of their work but you can get that from Kahneman’s excellent summary Thinking Fast and Slow. What it tries to dig deeper into the creative partnership and how it worked. Strangely an academic interviewed them both about it in the 1970s as part of a book about creative double-acts. Tversky and Kahneman claimed they didn’t know themselves but admitted there was a hint of competition about it. Ultimately they fell out over the way that the profile and plaudits were shared. Tversky’s outgoing personality meant that he was the most in demand and Kahneman felt slighted by that. In the end it was Tversky’s illness and impending death at the age of 59 that brought them back together.

It is an amazing story but one you wouldn’t think could make a good book (or a movie, although you can bet after Moneyball and The Long Short there will be one), but it does. It’s a wonderful exploration of the relationship between two incredible people and how that relationship changed the world.

Finding all the Tech for Good Meetups in the world

The phrase ‘tech for good’ seems to be resonating with more and more people as a shorthand for using technology to purposefully address social or environmental problems. It’s not just about use of technology by existing not-for-profits (although that can be part of it and Netsquared/Techsoup have done a fantastic job of promoting that), it’s also about doing new things using technology including for-profit ventures that aim to benefit millions of people and deliver returns to impact investors.

Meetups have become a really important gathering point and place where people can find co-founders and investors and bounce ideas around. In the UK there are already Tech for Good Meetup groups in Bristol, Cambridge, London, Manchester and Sheffield and I know people are thinking of setting them up in other parts of Europe too. At BGV we’re really interested in helping the movement grow, so if you know of groups you think we should know about please add them here or if you’re interested in starting one, also let me know and we’ll see if we can help.

Update: You can add Meetups to this spreadsheet!

What really lives in your lower intestine?

I surprised myself by really enjoying Gut by Giulia Enders. I’m generally fairly squeamish about all things medical but I I’m glad I picked this one up. It’s full of interesting stuff from the emerging science of our digestive systems. There are some great sections about what actually happens in all the processes we don’t like to talk about and Enders has a lovely turn of phrase, writing that the movements involved in burping or breaking wind “are as delicate and complex as those of a ballerina”.

Gut bacteria are such an interesting area and we barely understand anything that goes on in there. For a long while we thought that there were very few types of bacteria but it turned out that there were many other types but they just didn’t survive when they were cultured outside the body. We’ve probably still only just started to scratch the surface of the types of creatures that are in there and we know even less what they do.

Gut science has also taught us a bit about human history. By looking at the strain of Helicobacter Pylori in our stomachs we can see where people in particular countries came from. So when the strain in the stomachs of pacific islanders was found to be the same as those from latin america it proved that they’d come that way round. The scientists who proved that there was a bug capable of living in stomach acid did so by drinking the stomach contents people with ulcers and making themselves ill. They won the Nobel prize for medicine 20 years later.

One of the lovely things about the book is Ender’s absolute fascination with her subject. She’s a young doctor who has specialised in gut research but she writes so well (and not without humour). The book was written in German so some credit should go to the translator as well because it’s a fantastic read.

We focus so much on heart health and brain health but actually gut health is just as important. There’s pretty good evidence that it can be linked to depression, heart disease and many other things. I think we’ll see it develop as an area pretty rapidly over the next few years as the tools to decode the composition of the bacteria and other critters in our intestines start to be understood.

What if we all lived at the same urban density as Hong Kong?

Hong Kong (source: Wikicommons)

There’s an interesting little stat in the FT today. If the whole world population lived at the same density as Hong Kong we’d all fit into an area the size of Egypt.

Now of course that might bring it’s own problems but if you look at the trends, it might not be crazily unrealistic. The world’s urban population was 54% of the total in 2015 and the global rate of urbanisation is currently estimated at 2.05% per year (says the CIA). If that continues, the percentage land area occupied by humans looks set to decrease considerably over the next 30 years. We could see total depopulation of many rural areas in our lifetimes.

We’ve got a lot of work to do to create the tools that will help us live sustainably in cities. Whether it’s aquaponics, lab meat or vertical farming it looks to me like we’ll need to become less dependent on rural food production. We’ll also need new solutions to housing, transport and democracy that are able to cope with higher levels of density.

When I think about it, it’s one of those mega-trends that creeps up on you over decades but is driving so much of the way that things are changing.

Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman!

Life lessons from a physics great

I think I was 17 or 18 when I read ‘Surely you’re joking’ for the first time. We had an amazing physics teacher at sixth form called George Andronov who introduced us to all sorts of popular books about physics including Flatland by Edwin Abbott and the Mr Tompkins books by George Gamov as well as Richard Feynman.

I recognised Feynman from the Challenger disaster. I think probably not directly from when it happened (I would have been too young) but from a Horizon documentary several years later — perhaps even a repeat. I remembered the way he showed what had probably happened in a press conference in a way that anybody could understand — just one example of his skills as a communicator as well as a great physicist.

When I got to university I did ok in the first year of undergraduate physics but I really started to struggle in the second year when physics became much more mathematical. It was the Feynman lectures that got me through. I couldn’t afford a copy but there were plenty in the library and I’d sit there in the gaps between our lectures trying to really understand what was going on by reading up on how Feynman explained things.

But physics was just part of Feynman’s life. ‘Surely you’re joking’ is a collection of reminiscences of how the physics came to happen rather than the physics itself. There are so many amazing stories of how he didn’t take the conventional path — how he was able to choose to do things in unusual ways because of his brilliance. He was almost always in demand but would never really play up to what was expected of him.

Feynman’s approach was really forged when he was sent to Los Alamos (pretty willingly given what he and all the other scientists at the time thought Hitler’s Germany might be capable of) and as a 21 year old found his mathematical approach was useful. Some of my favourite bits are about that time when everybody in the science world came together to achieve something extraordinary in just a few short years. Feynman’s boss — Robert Oppenheimer — was perhaps one of the greatest managers and technical leaders of all time. What’s most interesting of course is that they found out fairly quickly that they’d been sold a lie by the military and in turn by the politicians. Feynman found he regretted a lot later on. Oppenheimer was pilloried by the McCarthyite idiots as a communist for the fact that he went public about his regrets and his criticisms of the politicians of the time. He’s best know for his deliberate citation of the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds”. They were momentous times and perhaps tell us something about how science and technology should respond to the momentous times we find ourselves in politically today.

What shocked me reading ‘Surely you’re joking’ for a second time was how much of a dinosaur Feynman comes across as being. His attitude to women seems pre-historic these days and some of the arrogance comes across as really old-fashioned. I have no doubt that he was an amazing person to hang out with at the time but I think these days he’d just be an inappropriate bore. It only slightly detracts from the book though — it’s still a wonderful read.

Can we help turn your tech for good idea into reality?

There are many great things about working at BGV. There’s watching our later stage teams reach millions of users, watching the founders grow as leaders and people, celebrating as teams raise money along the way, bringing new impact investment into their businesses. There’s working with teams during the accelerator programme as the figure things out and test their assumptions. There’s the moment when we say ‘yes’, helping people realise that there might just be something in that idea they had and that we believe in it just as much as they do.

But my particular favourite part is when we open up applications and say to the world — how can we help you turn your idea into reality? It’s a bit like turning on a firehose of positivity — we love all the people getting in touch and coming along to our Q&A events or drop-ins. It’s a huge amount of fun because we get to meet people who are totally passionate about social or environmental problems and talk through their ideas. We can’t invest in them all but we try to be as helpful as we can even if there isn’t a fit between what we’re looking for and what people are working on.

So what are we looking for? Well, generally we’re best suited to helping idea or prototype stage companies run by a small team of people who really understand a particular social or environmental problem. The idea will have the potential to benefit millions of people and generate real financial value by addressing a problem in health, education, sustainability or democracy. We’re interested in ideas that nobody has done before and we’ll be thinking about how the idea could be protectable as well. Is there a moat that could make this venture the one that wins when other people realise it’s a good idea and try to copy it?

We like teams (ie more than just one person) who are able to show us that they really work well together and bring the best out in each other. We’re looking for people who are super ambitious but have a willingness to listen to feedback and recognise when their assumptions are wrong They are always ready to get out of the office and talk to people to find out what they really want. They’re absolutely committed to addressing the problem they’ve set out to solve and are driven by that strong urge of ‘this needs to change’ no matter what obstacles people put in your way.

Starting a tech for good venture is hard. We know that and we’re complete fans of the people who set out to do it. We spend all our time with them and can’t help but have a sense of awe about their drive and energy in the face of almost constant knock-backs. But when it goes right, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing something that you built positively benefiting other people.

What I love about our call for ideas is meeting people who are at that ‘just an idea’ stage and helping them work out whether it could be something that really does positively change the world and improve peoples’ lives.

So if you’ve got an idea to solve a social or environmental problem using technology, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We’ll help in whatever way we can.

The Long and the Short of the pensions business

The Long and the Short of It is John Kay’s attempt to defog the world of professional investment for people who might as well manage their money themselves. Because BGV is an ‘alternative investment fund’ I work in the finance industry (I’m regulated by the lovely FCA) but there are many things about other parts of the money business that I don’t know about. The technicalities of government bonds or ETFs are a long way from what we do at BGV.

It’s a fantastic book. John tries to dispel as much jargon as possible (high net worth individuals = rich people) and helps you to understand the motivations of many of the money managers in the system. He also helps you understand what risk really means in terms of losing your money. There are also some useful rules of thumb for your personal finances and retirement. I don’t really ever imagine retiring in the way that the baby boomers have but I still know that I need to plan for the future.

It’s been interesting to watch the current pension reforms working their way through the system in the UK. Overall I agree with the change that means people now opt out rather than opting in. In a few years time it will make a huge difference to the fund management business because there will be so much more money that needs to find a home. The UK already has the second highest amount of pension assets and that’s expected to grow further.

If all goes to plan, many people will have some security about the future that they’ve never had before. I wonder whether it will make working for an organisation rather than being self-employed much more appealing and have a big effect on the gig economy. From a public policy perspective it makes sense to build more support for people from companies as long as it’s really well regulated and fits with the way that small companies work.

That’s where my worry comes in. We’ve just gone through ‘auto-enrolment’ at BGV and some of the processes just don’t make sense. The standard of the information that’s being offered both by the Government and the pension companies is awful — full of jargon and bureaucracy rather than making it clear what the risks and benefits are. Really they should get people to read John Kay’s book.