Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Dealing With Insomnia

A couple of months ago I received a present, a small book titled ‘Why we sleep’ by Matthew walker. It is an interesting book that takes you through the physiological and psychological effects of sleeping and the damage done by lack of sleep. I don’t necessarily subscribe to each and every bit in the book, there are certain passages that ring as though the data does not support them but all in all it did open my eyes to how much damage I’ve been doing to my body over the years. It also convinced me that this needs to stop.

Ever since I started programming properly at the ripe old age of 15 it has been like that. My usual daily rhythm would be to sleep late, get up, slowly get started and by 8 pm or so I’d be moving fast and this would last until daybreak. Sometimes I’d go without sleep for a day, sometimes for two. Once messed up like that because of a single night it would take weeks, or even months to get back to ‘normal’. Because of the health effects and the fact that this makes it much harder to interact with the rest of the world (I do have a family and also a business to run) the time has come to put a stop to this. But it’s not that easy. Insomnia is defined as “having trouble sleeping or staying asleep”. It’s a symptom rather than a cause, and having trouble sleeping and staying asleep can have many causes. In my case: being a very light sleeper, worrying a lot before falling asleep over whatever I was doing just prior, being stressed about the (near) future such as some business issue or family crisis. Nothing better to stop me from falling asleep is knowing that I’ll have to be up and about at a certain time in the morning. It’s pretty much a guarantee for a sleepless night.

A contributing factor is that there is another small problem: I actually love the night.

What I love about the night is this one thing that I can’t seem to get during the day: it is dead quiet. Finally, the world is asleep and even a person who has trouble focusing in the face of distraction has a chance of getting something done. No more phone calls, screaming kids, traffic, airplanes and a hundred and one other sources of noise pollution. The only sound at night would be the clicking of my keyboard. I’ve had single nights that were more productive than the weeks preceding them and I never made the link with the sound levels before. So, noise pollution may well be the root cause of my lack of daylight productivity rather than that “I’m a night person” as I used to tell myself. But that night person typically did not get enough sleep because falling asleep was super hard for me regardless of when I tried it due to a lack of sleep-pressure (as the book calls it) when I needed it most. And just an hour or so of napping and I would be unable to sleep for yet another full day, and even the slightest disturbance when I was about to fall asleep would reset the counter and I could start all over again. Just falling asleep could easily take five hours, bonus stress points awarded if there was an important thing that needed doing the next morning, say a meeting or an external appointment.

I don’t need to explain to you how disruptive this can be to your family life or you interaction with other businesses, if you are simply not alive during the day then the world will pass you by when they are awake, so in the end you may end up being awake both at night and during the day. The number of days that I’ve gotten by on three hours of sleep (sometimes less…) must number in the thousands by now. This sort of sleep depriviation is very hard to deal with, at some point the only way that you can fall asleep is because you are so exhausted it doesn’t even matter anymore what the noise levels around you are. Contributing factor to all this was that I also have a serious jet-lag issue and that for many years I would travel back-and-forth between our offices in Toronto, Canada and IJmuiden, The Netherlands, a 6 hour time difference.

Countless are the nights that I’ve lain awake waiting for sleep to come, only to be greeted by the sunrise and birds chirping while still wide awake. It seemed impossible to break that cycle and still get something useful (writing, programming, practicing piano) done during the day and so I’d give in again and live at night. The alternative would be to live in some kind of weird zombie state, awake, but absolutely unable to concentrate on anything and feeling completely miserable and irritable.

This year, after reading the book I decided to finally make a break with this and it’s been pretty hard, especially in the beginning. Here are the things I’ve done to get my insomnia and out-of-phase life under control, and even though it is too early to declare a complete victory I do believe that the progress is substantial and I also believe that it is sustainable:

  • Get up at 7:30, take one of my children to school. One of my children goes to school in a neighboring town and every day he cycles there. That’s a pretty good distance with a couple of dangerous roads to cross so I ride with him which forces me to wake up at a regular time and to immediately do some exercise. After that I immediately go to work. On weekend days (when there is no school) I still get up at the right time as much as possible.

  • Absolutely no intra-day napping. When I violate this rule (as I still sometimes do) I usually have a bad night.

  • Moved my work spot to a different room in the house where it is more quiet during the day. It’s not a ‘nice’ spot by any means, it is sort of a lost space without windows or facilities but it has two advantages compared to where I sat before: it isn’t in the regular path of moving around the house but a ‘leaf node’, if you don’t need to be in this room you likely will not pass by or through (it is at the top of the building in the attic), the other advantage is that it is heavily insulated for heat which has the additional benefit of being insulated against traffic noise. Some still gets through though and when working on a hard problem or writing a hard text it is still far from perfect.

  • Enforce a rhythm, divide the day into regular blocks that get repeated every day as much as possible. The start - as mentioned above - at around the same time every day helps but the end is just as important. The evenings I keep as boring as possible, no interesting projects, just practice music and read a book just before going to sleep, and go to sleep before 12 pm if at all possible (due to the nature of my work there are sometimes deadlines to be met and then I do have to work in the evening to be able to deliver on time).

  • For a while I used an online noise generator to mask sounds, my favorite was to use rain and distant thunder. Quite effective but in a way it makes the situation worse, now there is even more noise. So then I got some noise cancelling headphones. After reading many reviews I kept on coming back to the same brand which I had sworn to never buy another item of due to their disrespect of users’ systems integrity, aka the ‘rootkit debacle’. But never is a very long time and even though the signal fuction of a boycott only shows up at the moment of change the cumulative effect of not buying this particular manufacturers stuff over that long a period of time meant that that money flowed to their competitors and if enough people do that then it should have a very distinct effect. Vote with your money, I guess. So much for principles I gues, I went and bought their product and I have to admit that their tech chops are undiminished after all these years, the product is excellent and works quite well. I’m seriously impressed with how with the headphones on and noise cancelling enabled I can get work done during the day, even the sort of stuff that I would normally reserve for the night. Even a neighbor mowing their lawn or running a chainsaw does not disturb me and the biggest shock I get is when taking the headphones off to take a break from work and I realize just how noisy it is around me. The only major downside I’ve discovered is that it is now very easy to creep up on me and to scare me in a terrible way (didn’t take long for my kids to figure that one out ;) ), I’m going to have to create some kind of early warning system for approaching people to solve that one.

So, it all started with a book, and now, three months later my life is more regular than it has ever been in the last 40 years, I wake up well rested and fall asleep (relatively) easily, usually within 30 minutes of wanting to sleep instead of many hours later. The noise cancelling tech is a key element in this story, and I sincerely hope that society will start to recognize the damaging effects of noise on people. Houses built right next to highways, motorcycles with ridiculously loud exhausts (or no exhausts at all…), increasing local traffic, airplanes flying low over inhabited areas, industrial noise, apartments with walls so thin that you can hear the neighbors speak it all adds up and for some people it adds up to a life of misery severly impacting their ability to function normally. If you’re studying for an exam, writing something hard or trying to solve a math or programming problem or anything else that requires your 100% concentration noise can really throw you off balance and may stop you from achieving your potential.

For me it looks as though the problem is now mostly solved. The next step in technology, which I assume is very hard to solve for a whole pile of technical reasons would be to have a room that still has daylight and fresh air and yet is quiet. This can be achieved in part by using sound deadening materials and in part by using technology such as room sized noise cancelling devices. But in spite of a lot of interesting research projects my favorite noise black hole (‘sound sucker’) does not exist yet, and maybe it never will.

The present day solution is good enough to give me the daylight part of my life back though and for that I’m very gratefull, both to Matthew Walker and the giver of the book to show me how serious the problem is and to the researchers and producers of noise cancelling technology, without whom I’d still be awake most nights and feeling like a zombie during the day. Forty years of lost sleep is not something I’ll ever be able to make up for, but at least I’ll be getting my regular sleep and hopefully I’ll be able to avoid further damage.

Restoring and MIDI-fying a Baby Grand Piano

As much as I love digital instruments, synthesizers and other electronic gear I also really love the look and feel of instruments made from wood, brass, steel and felt. There is objectively no difference between the best digitally sampled pianos but for some reason it doesn’t quite feel as much alive as an actual instrument. Unfortunately, this limits you to what you can actually play and this is where I’m still very much behind where I would like to be. After hemming and hawing over purchasing a piano I finally settled on a very small grand piano, it had had a rough life and I could buy it at a price you really can’t beat: 100 bucks, ex transport (it cost more to transport!).

The piano was in very poor shape when it arrived, it had suffered extensive water damage to the case and the strings were quite rusty. There were paint drips everywhere, some strings were broken. The action - notoriously bad on this particular model Zimmermann to begin with, even when brand new - was deregulated to the point that you could not even play ‘Three Blind Mice’ on it. No matter what your skills.

This is what it looked like in the advert:

After many hours of work on the action, replacing broken strings, general housekeeping (getting rid of 100’s of moth corpses, they simply loved the felt but for some reason only the green color, the red was in mostly good shape unless simply worn down), shaping the hammers, tuning it up (slowly, it had dropped quite a bit while stored in an unheated garage) stripping, sanding, then lacquering the case and many more hours polishing all the brass until it gleamed it looked like this:

At this point in time I spent a few weeks just playing it and then decided I wanted to ‘MIDI-fy’ the piano to allow me to run Pianobooster on it, a FOSS piece of software that helps you to study playing. Another advert on marktplaats (the local Ebay equivalent) and I had contact with an Amsterdam based piano trader that had a whole Yamaha Disklavier unit lying around gathering dust. Disklavier is something quite special, it is a solution that Yamaha developed to enable their instruments to have MIDI in and out, it is a super expensive option (10K or thereabouts) and the smallest grand that has it sells for 25K! Given the quality of the engineering that has gone into those systems and the fact that they probably don’t sell all that many of them it is understandable but for me this is hobby territory and given that I’m probably the worst pianist in the world I really could not justify an amount of money like that. But for 500 bucks the second hand unit was mine, unfortunately it did not fit the piano, but, the piano dealer had an elderly G3 that it should fit. Both were shipped, and then it turned out that it didn’t fit after all. Major let down.

After mulling things over for a couple of days and deciding whether or not I wanted to operate on a piano that nice I decided against it and back to plan ‘A’, convert the 100 euro piano. Some tests with the midi unit proved quickly that the output stage was going to work, but that the input stage was broken beyond repair, and even if it had worked the optical bridges that scan for keyboard and hammer movements were custom made to fit one piano model only and impossible to adapt. So scratch that bit, but the output alone would already be quite a step in the right direction, and the cost is still definitely justified because just the solenoids would have cost that much, and then you’d still need to control them requiring a lot of firmware and hardware work. It also really helped to keep this a real-world rather than a software project, which is a temptation I usually can not resist (ok, some minor mods to Pianobooster aside…).

This is what the (very old, 1986 or so) Yamaha controller looks like, it is called the Wagon for a reason:

And this is the solenoid bar as made by Yamaha:

Super heavy, about 25 Kg (50 pounds) for that bar alone.

After endless measuring and marking I decided to create a completely new bar from scratch, there was no way that the old bar could be repurposed. So I took out all the solenoids and the electronics and then built a new bar, mostly out of wood and aluminum. To avoid cutting a large gaping hole into the keybed I drilled holes through the keybed that accommodate small wooden sticks that operate the keys. The size of the solenoids is the reason why Yamaha staggered them and I adopted a similar pattern, spacing is so close in places that the solenoids butt up against each other. The stick dimensions are quite critical, as is their location, the back of the action was cut open to accomodate the sticks, and the back of each key was layered with felt to reduce the noise of the sticks acting on the keys:

There is a lot of material involved, each key has a solenoid, a pushrod, needs a hole drilled, a key to be covered with felt and so on. This made the whole project quite time consuming. And if you get something wrong then you are going to have to fix your mistake as many times as you have keys…:

I wished I could say that only happened once!

To make it easier to disassemble and fix than the original I’ve divided up the solenoids into groups which can be removed independently:

In this close up you can see how critical the spacing of the components is, it is close to 1/10th of a millimeter in places between ‘working’ and ‘failure’, that’s how irregular the action of the original piano is! This is in part what made this such a hard project, there was absolutely no regularity at all in spacing between the individual keys, it may look like that in the pictures but the thinnest key was about 8 mm wide, and widest 22!

And here is the finished article, playing Debussy’s Arabesque 1, note the pedal action (a giant servo controls the pedal):

So, now I need to find a way to do the input side and then tie it all together with the appropriate software, for now it works quite nice as a modern day Pianola or Player Piano. Maybe I’ll be able to scrounge up a second hand silent system from somewhere, if I can’t I may roll my own.

To be continued!

Please don't lie

The Netherlands is one of the wealthiest and most favored countries when it comes to dealing with nature. If it weren’t for our continuous watchful eye on nature this country would - in the most literal sense of the word - simply not exist. A very large part of our land area was won back from the sea over the centuries, and without continous maintenance the sea would reclaim it within a generation.

Within that context, I have to say I’m fairly disappointed in how such a technocratic society has been apparently blindsided by the Coronavirus crisis. This did not need to happen and I’m sad to see us very close to the top of the charts when it comes to the number of dead per capita, realizing full well that this is only just beginning and that many more will be added to that long long list of names of the deceased before we can say that this crisis is under control.

Contrary to other countries that are in bad shape we had plenty of warning. China, Italy and to some extent Spain had already gone before us and we have some of the world’s best institutes when it comes to virology right here in the country (at the University of Utrecht and the Erasmus in Rotterdam). So we were not exactly lacking in knowledge.

What happened when the first cases of spread within Europe were reported still angers me, we slow walked our countermeasures which took a serious toll on our healthcare system and caused a lot of unnecessary deaths. It also ensured that the peak demand on our healthcare system is much higher than it need have been.

Several key mistakes were made:

  • For some reason we felt that this virus would pass us by completely
    The authorities stated in this article of the 24th of January that the chances of the virus landing here are small. By then the virus already had a foothold in Europe and as closely connected as we are even the most skeptical people assumed it would also spread here. What magic would protect us from the virus has never been disclosed. This false sense of security effectively sleepwalked us right into the present day nightmare.
  • Initial government communiquees regarding the crisis underplayed its seriousness
    Our prime minister was making jokes about it, made people believe that washing your hands would be enough to keep the virus at bay, and we were told that the Italians have worse hygiene than the Dutch which is why they are more at risk (the opposite is true, but never mind) and so on. This set the stage for people not taking the matter serious enough.
  • Advisories rather than concrete directives were issued
    These were then interpreted in the most lax way possible by the population leading to very little actual change. Companies used the leeway given irresponsibly and insisted that non-essential personnel still report on-site even though there was no actual need. In crisis communications you have to use specific words: “must” rather than “should”. So, beaches were full, everybody was treating the directive to stay at home as one to have parties, go out into nature and start working on all those projects around the house leading to crowds at building markets.
  • Carnival was not cancelled
    In deference to either religion or the income of the hospitality sector carnival was allowed to go through. In a miss of epic proportions it was said that carnival is celebrated mostly in small private circles. The reality, however, is that carnival is a massive festival which brings tens of thousands of people that would not normally meet in close contact in various cafes and restaurants as well as closely packed parades. This has led to the epicenter of the epidemic being located around the towns of Breda, Tilburg and ’S Hertogenbosch, all of them very much in the middle of the area where carnival is celebrated extensively, the province of Noord Brabant. A similar thing took place a bit further South in Limburg, fortunately not as bad.
  • Schools were kept open way too long
    The government in one of its communiques managed to relegate teachers to child minders when they said that because children themselves (below 10, that is) are not at risk and our essential emergency services rely on parents being able to go to work the schools should stay open. This reasoning does not hold up to scrutiny: an exception could have been made to keep the schools open for those children that have both parents working in healthcare or other critical services (firemen, police, EMS), only a very low number of parents ended up having to use that exception once the schools were closed (for instance, in the schools of my children with 100’s of pupils < 20 made use of this), and finally, during pickup in normal times 100’s of parents congregate in the school yard for approximately 30 minutes which is of course an excellent spot to exchange pathogens. After pressure from health care professionals the schools were eventually closed. All this also totally ignored the fact that even though children may not get all that ill themselves they can still be asymptomatic carriers of the virus and given close contact between family members this is an excellent way to spread it around.
  • When the ‘smart’ lock-down was finally announced several municipalities contradicted government guidance
    For instance, in Amsterdam the Mayor announced publicly that they were going to enforce the government rules ‘reluctantly’, which undermined the connection between civilians and their government and which made it much harder for law enforcement to actually act upon that guidance if so required. When your ‘first citizen’ breaks your policies it really doesn’t help. This only topped a few weeks later by Amsterdam complaining that it is harder hit than other cities because of its reliance on the hospitality industry. Amsterdam has done everything it could to make itself as attractive to tourists as possible over the last couple of years, this has resulted in it being overly dependent on that one industry, which is not something it should complain about.
  • On multiple occassions the authorities have spoken in ways that are not solidly supported by the facts and needlessly optimistic
    For instance, two days of a few cases less than before are immediately jumped on to crow that we are seeing a ‘flattening of the curve’, whereas every statistician knowns that when you deal with noisy data you need to have much more of it before you can make such claims. The effect on morale with such claims is devastating, hope is given and then just as quickly yanked away again. Given the fact that we are undertesting, that plenty of people die and are ill at home and that there is a tremendous lag between reporting and interpretation a much longer period of better stats is required before such positive sounds should be given to the public. Good news followed by bad news is worse than no news at all.

But the biggest mistakes of all were that we wasted a lot of time and that we asked a scientist to run our crisis response, rather than a general. See, an epidemic is not a science problem. The science of epidemics has been studied for many years and is well understood. There is absolutely no reason to see this as an opportunity to do some interesting research. This is a CRISIS, and a crisis is a logistics problem, not a science problem. And for that you need a general and someone who preferably looks ahead rather than at today.

I don’t blame mr. van Dissel for this. He was named as the pandemic response team leader and as head of the RIVM infectious disease response team it must have made good sense. He stepped up to the plate and has been operating under immense pressure from politicians who do not always have our best interests at heart but simply want to score points for their electorate (I’d like to single out messrs. Baudet and Wilders here for special attention) and their lack of understanding of the base material doesn’t help. Then there are the media and annoying bloggers like myself. So far he’s done quite well in staying his course, unlike for instance our poor minister for healthcare who - quite literally - collapsed under the load and had to resign. Van Dissel has done his best to keep everybody informed. I don’t always agree with his choice of language, he continues to speak like a scientist and the press and the politicians have a hard time digesting that and making it actionable. There is too much room for interpretation and caveats and nuance tend to get lost. Speaking more directly and clearly would get people to realise the gravity of what he is saying in a better way, and this would help when making policy.

The logistics situation is simply terrible. Even though we knew by the middle of February that absent countermeasures and plentiful tests we might need lots more ICU beds and ventilator setups this part was neglected. Again, I can see how it happened. A lot of the slow-walking decision making was geared towards avoiding a panic and a nationwide shut-down, to try to protect the various markets that NL operates in and to try to keep the economy alive. That has backfired spectacularly, and - see intro to this piece - leaves me disappointed. Nothing would have stopped the authorities from trying to avoid panic while at the same time increasing their preparation levels, which was postponed until it was effectively too late. We really could have done a lot better here. But that would have required someone speaking bluntly, rather than carefully and nuanced. Every three days delay causes the peak load on our healthcare system to be twice as high, and will result in 100’s, possibly 1000’s more dead. That’s blunt language. But it does the job. Even now we could do better.

Finally, and this is the reason why I’m writing all this: If the RIVM, and mr. Van Dissel in particular want to be taken seriously by the citizens of the Netherlands then they should always aim to speak truthfully and consistently. This is not a time to lose the trust of your constituents, and that is why I am sorely disappointed to catch the RIVM in an outright lie. This should never happen again and it is angers me in a way that is hard to describe that this has happened. Such behavior in a minister of one of our departments would likely lead to someone stepping down. Now, there are some extenuating circumstances: van Dissel and the RIVM are under high pressure and it could have easily been a slip up, though, I honestly do not believe this to be the case.

In particular this centers around the on the claim by Van Dissel on April 1st that the RIVM did not have the data required to model the required ICU capacity prior to March 19th. The problem I have with that statement is that acquiring new data was not necessary in the first place. Van Dissel acknowledges [1] that the RIVM has relied on WHO estimates (and the RIVM has clearly stated from the very beginning that it follows the WHO; van Dissel himself has been following the situation ever since December [2]), then they were already aware that the WHO had already communicated as early as Feb. 28 [3] that recovery for severe/critical cases takes more than just two weeks [4].

Besides that, even the RIVM tweeted as early as Feb. 6 [5] that for patients requiring to be hospitalized the recovery can take even several weeks.

This is absolutely inexcusable and should never happen again during this crisis. Van Dissel should explain exactly why this happened, what reasons the RIVM had to ignore available evidence and should take responsibility for this and should do his utmost best to convince us all that this will never happen again. I’ll take a pinky promise that it was an honest mistake and that it is absolutely not the intention to mislead our politicians or to harm our healthcare systems, and that from now on all available data, including data supplied from abroad will be used to inform our response to this pandemic. ICU capacity is a critical component, as is the availability of personal protection gear (PPE) and tests. Germany, our next door neighbour has been doing much better in this sense, the RKI (Robert Koch Institute) had exactly the same data to work with, had its first confirmed Coronavirus patient a full month before the Netherlands did and yet has managed to keep things under control in a much better way, we could have done better than Germany, doing much worse on a per-capita basis is not acceptable.

[1] April 1st, 2020: “Van Dissel gaat nader in op de ic-capaciteit. Die dreigt eerder dan verwacht vol te lopen. Dat heeft ermee te maken dat het RIVM eerder uitging van een kortere opnameduur waardoor er sneller bedden zouden vrijkomen. Nu blijkt dat coronapatiënten gemiddeld drie weken op de ic liggen. Van Dissel wijst erop dat het RIVM geen data had om de eerste prognose te maken en zich beriep op schattingen van de Wereldgezondheidsorganisatie. Sinds 19 maart zijn er Nederlandse gegevens over de opnameduur. De modellen zijn daarna aangepast.” https://www.nu.nl/coronavirus/6036016/rivm-baas-volhouden-van-maatregelen-is-cruciaal.html?redirect=1

[2] Mar. 22, 2020: “Sinds de uitbraak in december in het Chinese Wuhan liggen er stapels gegevens over corona op zijn bureau.” https://www.parool.nl/nederland/op-dit-schaduwkabinet-van-deskundigen-vaart-premier-rutte~b054de45

[3] Feb. 28 is when the “Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)” was published. https://www.who.int/publications-detail/report-of-the-who-china-joint-mission-on-coronavirus-disease-2019-(covid-19)

[4] Feb. 16-24, 2020 - WHO: “Using available preliminary data, the median time from onset to clinical recovery for mild cases is approximately 2 weeks and is 3-6 weeks for patients with severe or critical disease. Preliminary data suggests that the time period from onset to the development of severe disease, including hypoxia, is 1 week. Among patients who have died, the time from symptom onset to outcome ranges from 2-8 weeks.” https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/who-china-joint-mission-on-covid-19-final-report.pdf

[5] Feb. 6, 2020 - RIVM: “Hoe snel kun je genezen van het nieuwe coronavirus? Iemand met milde klachten kan al na een paar dagen genezen. Als je bent opgenomen in het ziekenhuis met ernstige klachten, duurt dit vaak langer, soms zelfs enkele weken” https://twitter.com/rivm/status/1225367076602351616

Covid-19, a Retrospective

It’s been a couple of years now, since the 2020 Coronavirus disaster. Society is still not completely back to normal, and I doubt it ever will be. For instance, you can clearly see which movies were made before and after. People shake hands and hug complete strangers with abandon, something that today, even with the virus mostly under control still feels extremely un-natural and would immediately result in people freaking out or at a minimum speaking up and indicating the fact that they are unconformtable. The economy is still in recovery. And it probably will be for a long time. The see-sawing stock market was uncanny to watch. Fortunes were made, and fortunes were lost over the backs of the weakest in society, the elderly, the immunocompromised.

The virus didn’t really care much about the stockmarket. It didn’t read the newspaper, did not participate in politics and didn’t care one bit about whether or not we felt it was important or a danger. All it took was one butcher not cleaning his knife properly and it was done. Patient zero, a man in his 20’s in Wuhan, China, probably never even realized he had contracted it. By the time the seriousness of the situation was recognized it was much too late and the virus had been spreading for weeks. It’s a miracle of science that they managed to figure out how it happened.

Having a psychopath at the wheel of one of the largest and most influential countries in the world didn’t help, but, to be fair, his enablers and the callousness displayed by the people who believed themselves not to be at risk was as much or maybe even more of a factor than the leader. The progression right up to the point where the American ICUs started to overflow was mild enough that lots of people must have thought “I’m young and strong, nothing will happen to me”. If only. When Wuhan, China got barricaded everybody seemed to think: That’s China, far away from here. And when the North of Italy collapsed the same happened. Then Spain got the bill for that massive party they had, in order not to upset the tourism. By the time New York hospitals were overloaded you’d think that authorities would have wised up. But everywhere it was the exact same pattern: slowly trying to curb a disease that was spreading very rapidly with a long incubation time and zero immunity. It was a bad scenario, and collectively we made it so much worse than it had to be.

The deathtoll was well in the millions, and it hit the healthcare industry harder than any other. A large fraction of an entire generation of Doctors and nurses was lost. According to a randomized WHO antibody test which has by now been completed by most countries where the healthcare system has recovered (Spain and Italy are still too harmed to participate) only 35% of the world population caught the virus. It still springs up every now and then whenever a closely connected group of individuals gets infected, a bit like Ebola, only a lot closer.

Old people have become a rarity, especially in public. They as a group suffered more than most. It’s hard to meet their eyes, knowing that we live because so many of them died. Triage at the admittance to the ICUs was based on life expectancy and recovery expectancy. People over 60 were given some morphine for the pain and not much beyond that.

The online fora didn’t help. Tons of people mercilessly downplaying the risk and coming up with all kinds of utilitarian arguments about how it wasn’t such a big deal if a bunch of old people died, they weren’t a productive part of the economy anyway, in fact they only cost money. But they were just small fry compared to some of the politicians. Take a hit for the DOW, as one American politician put it. You couldn’t have made it up.

The hearings were harsh. Shades of Neuremberg, only now in almost every country in the world where the social order didn’t collapse entirely. A couple of country leaders got out at the last moment. Others were not so lucky and a couple met raging crowds before they could face justice. Those are images that remind me of how some of the worst SovBloc states came to their end, and I wish I could unsee them. Those that profiteered or sold their stocks before briefing the public, a surprising number of politicians and people peddling ‘miracle cures’ and hoarding personal protection equipment for the most part were dealt with fairly. They’ll be in jail for years to come. Re-instating the death penalty was - in my opinion - a mistake but I do understand the sentiment, some countries came out much worse than others and the demand for a payment in blood was too loud. The degree to which these people were gambling with and profiting off the lives of others was disgusting. But not that much more disgusting than some of the things that were happening before.

In almost every country the health care system collapsed and had to be rebuilt from the ground. That’s at least one thing that all parties concerned seem to agree on, retrospectively. That health care, even in times when there is no pandemic going on should be a universal right. And that infringing on that right is now seen as political suicide. I wonder how long that will last.

The world will heal, I don’t doubt it. There is already talk of reducing the danger pay for healthcare workers, and to strip them - and the emergency services, cashiers, stockers, food delivery people and everybody else that kept all of alive during the crisis off the ‘essential personnel’ classification that allows them to get some benefits and basics such as job protection and full pay if they should become infected or otherwise ill. Those very same gig economy workers that kept us alive were found to be without the protections that regular workers would have had if they got sick. And they did, in droves. Without any safety net to catch them quite a few of those didn’t make it. And worked much longer than they should have, which helped spread the virus much further than it would have if they were simply able to call in sick and get paid. Those are now things from the past. That lesson will stay learned, you would hope.

Things will get better, bit by bit. And then people will forget, a little cut here, another there. It will happen very slowly, almost unnoticably we’ll make a new house of cards. And everything will look just fine. Right up to the next pandemic. Which - it has to be said - could be a lot worse. R0 a little higher, incubation time a little longer, mortality a little higher. It’s all luck of the draw. History repeats, for those that do not learn from it. At least we now all have a basic understanding of exponential curves. That’s a pretty thin silver lining for such a dark cloud.

Hope you’re doing fine. Stay well. Stay indoors as much as you can. And wash your hands.

Anatomy of a Scam

There is a lot of material about the not-so-nice VCs who take advantage of young and inexperienced founders. But the reverse also happens, founders that try to get money out of VCs for projects that have zero chance of every coming to fruit. Or worse still, founders that pretend to have something on the go when they really don’t and are just looking for the cash to make a run for it. The Modular Company, the merry band of friends that I founded and that does technical due diligence has about 25 customers, mostly VC and PE companies. The partners of these companies are bombarded with decks from parties looking for investment and these decks vary greatly in both quality and degree of seriousness.

Every once in a while something pops up that is extraordinary, the deck below is one of those. The deck is included here in its entirety, nothing has been redacted, the only thing I changed was to reduce the images in size to save a bit on bandwidth and to make the page load faster. The analysis column on the right hand side is mine, the deck itself has an interesting origin, and it seems as though variations on this scam have been around for a while but this is the first sample of such a deck that I got my hands on.

Please note: The deck below is an outright scam, do not believe a word of what you read, do not believe that people mentioned in it exist or are aware of the fact that their name is used in this way (though they may very well be, there is no way for me to be sure). I obtained this deck without NDA and so I’m free to share it with the world as an example of what a scam can look like, even though the author has copyright on the contents, I think the gravity of this Public Service Announcement far outweighs the rightsholders claim. Note that the resources referenced in this post suffer from bitrot in a way that not much else on the web does, and that the players have every incentive to cleanse their reputation so if you read this long after it was posted the chances are that external links and search results referenced here will no longer work. If you want to enlarge a slide just click on it.

Predictably, all those terrible things that happen to all other currencies will not happen this one, it is different, better believe it. Lots of buzzwords and alert terms here: 'uniquely', 'mass integration', 'opportunity', 'invest', 'safe'. All clearly meant to get the blood of investors looking for a quick buck to warm up. Of course, you, gentle reader have now brought out your wallet and are in the 'shut up and take my money' phase already. Or maybe not yet, and you need more convincing.The influencer platform will be built with $1M in annual expenses, the Uber clone will be built with $5M annual. And some pocket money to keep the lights on and some reserve in case a golden opportunity comes by. Note that at this point you've seen the equivalent of several *major* startups, without a word about the track record of the team, lots of buzzwords and copies of success stories by others. None of this has given you any confidence that the people involved can actually pull *any* of this off, let alone several such projects at the same time.
The first thing you notice about this deck is that most of the slides look *really* good. A lot of work went into the presentation, the color scheme seems to have been lifted from the first Heroku iteration. The word 'Blockchain' on the opening slide is a bit of a tell, quite a few blockchain related start-up ideas have been floated in the last couple of years that were to use a charitable term 'less than stellar' and so DD professionals the world over will react with immediate suspicion upon encountering the term. Blockchain, like AI and many other terms that have come and gone over the years are investor bait, terms that are used to be able to lift along on a hype.
Can't argue with that. An important part of a good scam is apparently that you need to dress is up in such a way that *most* of it makes sense. That way a casual observer will see a lot of stuff that makes sense, and this feeling of things making sense then sets them up for when things make much less sense. They will interpret that then as feeling that maybe they simply do not understand, rather than that what they read is nonsense.
A bit more filler material. Like the previous slide, this one serves to set the reader up. A nice little detail for this slide is that relative to the scale of the Fiat economy the Bitcoin economy is vanishingly small but presented in this way it looks as though it is actually pretty much all of the world economy and the new player on the block.
This is an interesting slide. It makes a number of strong falsifiable claims. Let's look at them one by one: Bitcoin has outperformed any company in terms of ROI. ROI is typically presented as relative investment returns over time. Say you invest $10. Then after a while you divest and you find that your investment is now worth $20. Your ROI is 100%. Bitcoin outperforming 'any company' in terms of ROI is only true if you bought or mined your bitcoins early enough. If you bought your bitcoins just prior to the 2018 crash you would show a whopping 75% or more reduction in value. So while true for some people the reverse of this statement is also true for lots of people. Of course, the hype was promoted for years and the crash happened in a very short period of time. Since then Bitcoin has slowly regained some of its value but it is still trading substantially below the peak value of $19,891 in December 2017. The next statement is also interesting: "Cryptocurrencies and stablecoins are adopted by nation states and banks like Goldman Sachs." Banks 'like' Goldman Sachs, but not GS itself, they shelved their crypto plans, but JP Morgan rolled out their own. As for countries adopting cryptocurrencies, yes, there are some that did. But so what? It's just a name dropping and appeal to authority play. Even if banks and nationstates do adopt crypto currencies it doesn't really say anything positive *or* negative about the proposition in front of you. It's all still part of the setup. The second paragraph is also quite interesting, it is a neat trick that is being played on the reader here. *Of course* you are smart and already know that cryptocurrencies' value for the most part is based on speculation and nothing else. So that's why you should keep on reading, because the writers are transparent about this important fact and so build trust with the reader, and set the reader up to expect a crypto currency that *does* have a real use case and whose value is not based solely on speculation.
VC Buzzword bingo slide 5. TeMPOraL on HN writes: "I think the point of the graph is to just reinforce the mood. Be an emotional influence that makes you take the slide's message more seriously. Where the text talks about the reasons why other tokens fail, you see a line representing something going down in value fast. For some reason, just looking at it makes me feel sad, the "oh no my investments" kind sad. Which I believe was the whole goal.", which is likely spot on. I have no idea what the graph has to do with the words, maybe there is some connection here but I haven't found it yet. I don't see how direct integration of a coin with a company would combat volatility, nor do I see why other coins would eventually end up extinct because they are not tied to a company or a funding source. It sure sounds good but it is just a bunch of bull.
Fortunately, you're about to be rescued. Now we enter the 'pay-off' phase of the exercise.
If you still need more convincing, then there is a lot of material here to do just that. We'll take it slow, because you're apparently a little bit dense, but don't worry, it happens. Two trigger terms on this page: 'proprietary', one of those words that investors apparently love. Usually this refers to some unique piece of IP which protects the company from having its hard work copied. The second one is more subtle, 'Qapital', because this is new, and there is no word yet for what we do, so you take a regular word and mis-spel it on purpose to set your stuff apart from the rest.
So it's a payment system. And a currency exchange. Both of these are heavily regulated, especially if you hold balances. It's also an investment platform. This starts to look like the company is trying to solve too many things at once, each of these would be a formidable challenge (witness 'Stripe'), and this is even bigger. Of course, an investor might think 'wow, this will be even bigger than Stripe' (unlikely, to put it mildly).
And lets throw in a whole investment vehicle a-la Y-Combinator in for good measure, in case you weren't interested yet.
For my next trick, I'll need a gullible member from the audience. After all you've read before you'd think we would get to the numbers pages now (these decks follow a predictable pattern). But no, there is even more! Throw in an Uber clone ('MyChauffeur') and an influencer platorm ("Chirpley"). Each of these deserves its own little mini deck. If you feel like going through these feel free, or, skip to slide 25, where we get down to brass tacks.
So, this start-up that is at this point in time no more than a deck and a website wants to raise $30M.
There is no time to waste to get this show on the road, here is how it will be done, but not who will do it, where it will be done, whether they are actually already underway or any other details that might just tire an investor. FOMO, or 'Fear Of Missing Out' is the friend of legit start-up founders and scammers as well.
And there it is, the team page. Job ter Horst, CEO (A Job Terhorst actually exists, no idea if it is the same person or if he is aware his name and / or picture are used in this deck). The COO is cryptically named 'Sam'. It is fairly normal in decks such as these to refer to people by their full name, in fact I've never seen a deck that just gave the first name for a C-level exec, the Escobar look doesn't help either, but you can't really fault someone for how they look. The Head of Legal is called Richard. Rarely - no, sorry, - never have I seen a start-up that doesn't even exist yet that had a 'Head of legal'. You might have some legal company represent you for such things as incorporation, shareholder agreements and so on. But a head of legal for a company with 4 people and nobody else to be head of is a bit strange. Again, this legal eagle has no surname, a bit of sleuthing later and he *does* have a surname: Richard Nacht in the United States. And finally a man called David Freuden, assuming he exists. In a cheap pun on his name, I'm not sure if he is happy and aware that his image (if it is his image) and name are used in this deck.

The https://warpchain.io/ website is up and running, maybe that will give us some more information about this exciting opportunity. So we navigate there and have a look at their pages. Again, the same slick basic website. But when you get to the team photographs the Head of Legal seems to have vanished. And Sam now has a name: Sam Chester. That’s good, we can feed that into google. A link to Seelz.net pops up as the first result on Google. Unfortunately, the server is down, but Google has the result page cached. Let’s read up a bit on the founders:

Sam ChesterBitcoin Finance Expert

sam

Areas of expertise

BitCoin and ICO Research & Development
Competitive advantage
The Ethereum Platforme
Turnaround Consulting
Is your business ready for a blockchain?

Education

MBA, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University
BS, engineering, Technical University of Denmark
MBA, Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University

With over 20 years of experience in entrepreneurship, management, 
business planning, financial analysis, software engineering, 
operations, and decision analysis, Brandon has the breadth 
and depth of experience needed to quickly understand entrepreneurs’ 
businesses and craft the most suitable solutions.

Blockchain WP comes up with results that are actually implementable. 
That is their strength compared to other consulting companies. 

Before founding Blockchain WP in early 2001, Brandon started two 
Internet companies in Silicon Valley. Previously, Brandon held 
various management positions in New York at Simon Brothers, 
most recently as Vice President in Goldhill Group, focusing on 
new business development and risk management. He has also worked 
as a senior financial risk management consultant to the financial 
services industry; software engineer; advertising sales manager 
for the popular Caribbean travel guide series; general manager 
of an advertising and graphic design agency; and engineering 
intern at the Best Health Coach.

Wow, that’s quite a track record, you can’t make that up. Scratch that, maybe you actually can, and someone actually did. Also, amazing educational background. Management in NL, (twice!) and Engineering in Denmark. But what does ‘Brandon’ have to do with any of this, and what is this ‘Blockchain WP’?

Also interesting is how many other people have exactly that same combination of educational background: Anselm Hannemann/Peter Stumbles (that page is full of gems), Marko Dugonjić/Peter Stumbles (coincidentially, same phone number!),Clark Roberts (note how Clark Roberts does not appear on the team page itself, just on his own profile page), Veerle Pieters (who changes names and gender several times on the same page, and last (but not least) A lady called Mary Spencer, only she went three times to Rotterdam and twice to Denmark. What are the chances of this being coincicdence?

It appears that these sites have been compromised and the pages have been added surreptiously giving credence to the profiles linked. See, it’s not always that hackers want to have your data, sometimes your company can - unbeknownst to you - become part of an investor con.

The longer you dig, the more you will find with decks like these. The networks of content and people (real or faked) are vast. Decks such as these as well as the content pages on the websites can be made using stock photographs and templates. All you need to do is fill in the blanks and another scam is born. What I find surprising is how little effort has gone into creating a credible backstory for all this, even the most casual review of the data presented immediately leads to a ton of red flags and issues. Maybe this strategy is similar to how the Nigerian scammers work: put some obvious errors in the text, anybody that misses those is probably well worth the time invested and those that cancel early would have cancelled anyway, an optimization strategy.

Whatever your takeaway from this is, remember at least this: if you are an informal or angel investor, or even a VC that is not tech savvy or able to do research on the subjects of your prospective investments then there is a non-zero chance that someone will simply try to exploit that. Confer with your colleague investors, assume that if it looks too good to be true that it probably is, and that the other side is willing to invest a lot of time and effort into looking credible, they assume that you will do no background checks at all. If someone claims certain credentials, verify them. If they do business with certain parties check if they really do. If they don’t have lastnames, an online presence that is easily verified and they’re over 20 years old then there is probably something fishy going on. Honest mistakes of course do happen, but not at this level and when trying to pick up this much in funding.


Thanks to Jeff Laughton for corrections to the text.