Sunday Snapshots (15th September, 2019)

JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Street designs, Botanical Gardens, and Apple Sign In

Hey everyone,

Greetings from Madison, Wisconsin! I’m here visiting one of my oldest friends, Devang. Since I moved a lot when I was kid, it was difficult for me to maintain lifelong friendships. I got to know Devang in Manila, then he joined me in boarding school in India, and now he goes to college just a 3 hour bus ride away. Our families are as tight as us – our mothers lovingly call each other “sister.” It’s been a fun weekend of recounting the stories during the years when we were both awkward kids just trying to fit in.

This week, I want to talk about:

  • JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis

  • Simulating people-first street designs

  • Chicago Botanical Gardens

  • Apple’s masterstroke to disrupt Google and Facebook

  • Cheese curds

  • And more!

Book of the week

This is the last week of talking about JFK. He’s a complex figure who is viewed through the lens of his charisma and his assassination in 1963. The latter gives the title to Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy. Having finished this book, three things stand out to me:

  1. His health: JFK was diagnosed with Addison’s disease in 1947 when was 30 years old. For these 30 years, he had intermittent crippling pain throughout his body. He even took hormonal steroids as a result of various misdiagnoses, probably exacerbating his Addison’s. He spent years in the Navy without letting anyone know – we only know about his superhuman stoicism through his letters to his friends. Even as president, his health was a closely guarded secret and he operated effectively in situations that required extraordinary resilience and would have broken a lesser man.

  2. His decision to go into politics: JFK wasn’t groomed to be in politics. That would have been his elder brother Joe Kennedy Jr. But when Joe died during World War 2, JFK became the eldest son of the Kennedy family. The patriarch Joe Kennedy Sr. had already amassed a fortune through his time as a merchant and then later through his government work. There was little point in adding to a multi-million estate. Therefore, JFK was pushed towards a more noble profession that was looked at as ideal for a second or third-generation immigrant like him. He definitely did some post-decision justification:

    I saw how ideally politics filled the Greek definition of happiness: "A full use of your powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope."

    Our parents shape us all in good and bad ways. In some cases, parental pressure means choosing a stable job over a risky one. In this case, parental pressure meant giving America its 35th President.

  3. Cuban Missile Crisis: Perhaps the most shining moment of the JFK presidency was his role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. At a time when his military advisors suggested war with the Soviets for their transgression in placing nuclear weapons in Cuba, he absorbed the pressure and remained balanced. His ability to withstand the pressure of his advisors meant that the world didn’t slip into nuclear winter.

    In the days leading up to the crisis, he was giving away copies of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August to everyone at the White House. The book is about the series of events that led to the World War 1 and how leaders in various states didn’t do enough to stop the buck when they could have. What followed was less a war, more a human meat grinder featuring trench warfare, the lost glory of war, and the seeds of the Third Reich.

    Kennedy was determined to not make the same mistake. He even left the room at times so that the military advisors could left off some steam and essentially bad mouth their commander-in-chief. There was a strong sentiment that Kennedy was just a “pretty boy” and didn’t know enough about military affairs to lead effectively. It’s this image that lead Nikita Khrushchev to underestimate Kennedy and put missiles in Cuba.

    Ultimately, Kennedy’s deftly named “quarantine” stopped the construction of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Nuclear winter was averted. Not bad for a “pretty boy.”

JFK was a flawed human. His numerous affairs and mistreatment of Jacqueline Kennedy are well documented. Like any president, he would had a complicated legacy if not for his assassination. He is seen through the lens of his assassination as much as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are seen through the lens of Vietnam and Watergate, respectively. In JFK’s case, the lens are a lot more rose-colored than his successors.

After reading about him for the past four weeks, it’s difficult to say whether I like JFK. I’m certainly in awe of him.

I highly recommend Dallek’s An Unfinished Life if you’re interested in the life of JFK, his presidency, and his legacy on American politics.

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Long read of the week

Simulations on people-first street designs

Sidewalk Labs is Google’s urban innovation organization that is reimagining how cities should look like.

Earlier this year they released four street design principles:

  • Principle 1: Tailor streets for different modes.

  • Principle 2: Separate streets by speed.

  • Principle 3: Incorporate flexibility into street space.

  • Principle 4: Recapture street space for the public realm, transit, bikes, and pedestrians.

Of course, they can’t advise cities with just amigious principles. Any principle must be backed with lots of data when billions of dollars are at stake.

So they ran two simulations:

  1. The base case: A simulation of a city block roughly one-fifth of a square mile big. They limited driving speeds to 40 miles per hour and assumed 70% of people traveling in this simulation would drive their own car. This reflects the average city block so it serves as a base case for any and all improvements.

  2. Their proposed design: This simulation incorporated their suggestions – prioritizing different modes of transport for different lanes on the roads, separating streets by speed, having dynamic curb spaces depending on the time of the day, and building spaces for public and transit use.

The results?

  • Throughput – the number of people going through the city block over a given time – remained the same for the proposed streets.

  • The proposed streets had lower average speeds. This makes sense given the segregated lanes for different modes of transport.

Read the article to see more detailed takeaways, along with some pretty neat GIFs like this one:

Personal highlight of the week

In addition to traveling to Madison, I also got the opportunity to visit the Chicago Botanical Gardens in the northern suburb of Glencoe earlier this week.

It’s been a real grind of a summer, so it’s finally good to kick back and relax. There is not a better way to do that than spending time in nature with friends. Thanks to my friend Idan (and recent Snapshots subscriber) for showing me around.

If you’re visiting Chicago during the summer or spring, I highly recommend the Chicago Botanical Gardens. You can take a Metra train from downtown and be there in less than an hour.

Business move of the week

Sign in with Apple (WSJ)

Disclaimer: This is my analysis of Apple Sign In. If you have thoughts that don’t agree with this take, please reply to this email and let me know. I’m curious about the magnitude of this move.

This is a masterclass in disrupting your competitors core business by leveraging your own core competencies. Apple Sign In basically creates new phantom emails for every service a customer uses on an iOS device. That’s important because Google and Facebook make most of their profits through ads that have specific attribution rules. For example, if you click on a GrubHub ad on your laptop today, any GrubHub purchase in the next 30 days on your desktop will be attributed to that ad. You can change that attribution window (make it 7 days or 60 days) and could even do some cross-device attribution.

But with Apple Sign In, two things break:

  1. Discontinuity in user history: Presumably, by using Apple Sign In, you’ll create a discontinuity between your historical activity on an app and your future activity. This creates all kinds of issues for analysts trying to calculate ROI on marketing campaigns, accurate LTV:CAC ratios, and precise targeting information. Google does some of this, Facebook does a lot more. Google’s offerings are also more diversified and have stronger lock-in – you’re not going to get a “Sign with Apple ID” option for Gmail any time soon, if ever. Ultimately, I think the moat of exceptional ad targeting by Google and Facebook will mean that companies will actually opt-out of allowing Apple Sign In, but in general I would say that Zuck has a lot more to worry about than Pichai.

  2. Few defections affect the entire network: One of the core reasons why Google and Facebook allow users to sign in using their credentials is to build a user profile. Did you start using Tinder after a 6 month break and are also listening to Sam Smith on Spotify (both allow for Facebook log-in)? You’re probably going through a breakup and Facebook can target products to you accordingly. Even if one of these nodes in this network of services breaks, you have a much foggier picture of what’s happening. So you don’t even need everyone to adopt Apple Sign In, even if a few defections decrease your ability to successfully target ads.

Companies that need to re-target their existing customers on a regular basis will try to shy away from using Apple Sign In. Even though it’s good for the customer, companies have too many incentives to know their customer in detail. Apple Sign In breaks that. In anticipation of this, Apple is using its platform power to force developers to offer Apple Sign In:

Apple’s newest developer guidelines require any apps that offer a social sign-in to also implement Sign in with Apple. As of last week, new apps submitted must offer the button. Existing apps and app updates must follow by April 2020.However, with strict guidelines for the App Store means not allowing Apple Sign In is equivalent to not getting access to more than 50% of the US population on mobile.

What’s stronger – incentives to know your customer or lock-in of the iOS platform? I suspect the latter, but it remains to be seen how this plays out in the coming months as Apple rolls out iOS 13.

Random corner of the week

How do you create art using algorithms?

Ask Tyler Hobbs.

He consistency puts out beautiful designs which you can check out on his website.

What stuck out to me about this video was how even though all his artwork is generated by algorithms he writes on a computer, his process still starts from his notebook. I’ve found that there is no better medium that forces you to ask the fundamental questions about any type of work like “What’s the purpose of this?” and “Who is this for?”

Go check out some of Tyler’s work!

Meal of the week

The meal of this week of course involves cheese curds. This was at Graze right next to the State Capitol building. It’s a great breakfast spot to try out if you find yourself in Madison.


That wraps up this week’s Sunday Snapshots. If you want to discuss any of the ideas mentioned above or have any books/papers/links you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of Sunday Snapshots, please reach out to me by replying to this email or sending me a direct message on Twitter at @sidharthajha.

Until next Sunday,

Sid