Sunday Snapshots (5th July, 2020)

Cable Cowboy Pt. 2, The Sci-hub effect, Apple and centralization, Delightful writing, and a few odds and ends

Hey everyone,

Greetings from Evanston!

For the very first time, this email is going out to more than a thousand Snapshot-ers. I've always said that:

Over the course of writing Snapshots, I’ve realized that I’m not competing with other newsletters for it. I’m competing with your favorite influencer’s Instagram stories, your friend group’s juicy messages, and the latest fortune cookie wisdom on Twitter. Billions of dollars are spent on making these platform algorithmically perfect to maximize engagement. These are tough enemies to fight in the battle for attention. I’m grateful that you think that I’m good enough to defeat them at least once a week for a few minutes.

My North Star remains to make it worthwhile for you to give me those few minutes every week.

On a less self-congratulatory note, welcome to the second part of 2020. July kind of snuck up on me as I'm sure it snuck up on many of you. If the last few months haven't gone your way, this is your chance to take some time out to reflect on how you can get back to being a better friend, partner, parent, employee, entrepreneur – whatever you want to focus on. I'll certainly be doing my fair share of that this week.

Finally, I created a public notes page at notes.sidharthajha.com. Every week, I'll publish my notes on 1-2 essays or podcasts. They’ll be less polished than commentary on Snapshots and will typically be a compression of what I took away from these pieces. Sometimes, I may add questions that stick out to me or a comment when I strongly disagree with something. If you have essays or podcasts that you’d like to see my notes/thoughts on, reply to this email with a link or send me a DM on Twitter.

With all that out of the way, in this week's issue of Snapshots, I want to explore:

  • The 2nd half of Cable Cowboy by Mark Robichaux

  • The Sci-Hub effect, the democratization of science, and the internet

  • Why Apple's moves towards greater privacy are troubling

  • A delightful piece of writing

  • Egg Toast, Craig Mod, and Andy Roddick

Book of the week

Last week, I wrote about the first half of Cable Cowboy by Mark Robichaux in which John Malone used guerrilla-styled tactics, tech-styled governance, and sheer cult of personality to dominate the nascent cable industry.

Here were my takeaways from the rest of the book:

  • New tactics: The tactics that got him to the top were not the tactics that kept him there. The second half deals with how that nascent cable industry went from an unthreatening toddler to a troubled teenager. During this time period of the 80s and 90s, Malone used a series of maneuvers to skirt regulations. He set up Liberty Media as a holding companies for seemingly disparate cable and content companies with a 20% ownership stake in it. This scale allowed him to get discounts and overall favorable terms. He liked to hold stocks – and not the underlying assets – of companies so he could avoid scrutiny while still receiving the upside.

  • The savior: In the mid 90s, these aggressive tactics led to a re-regulation of the cable industry by the FCC and it seemed doomed to fail, eclipsed by the internet. Bill Gates saved them by buying $1B in Comcast stock in 1997. It was the ultimate vote of confidence for a crippled sector. In fact, he bought on the cheap and rode the wave of rising stock prices as these companies offered internet services.

  • The final act: Ultimately, Malone sold TCI to AT&T for $48B. His personal stake was worth $2.4B in AT&T and Liberty Media stock. He had cashed out and later got into raising cattle.

The second half of the book is less exciting as an entrenched Malone keeps winning – you get the feeling that TCI was too big to fail. Bill Gates serves as the deus ex machina when all seems lost. The book is still worth reading for the first half. Check it out.

Long read of the week

The Sci-Hub effect

Sci-Hub is a website that hosts millions of academic papers without regard to copyright – it's technically illegal. However, many in the scientific community have acknowledged that scientific journals paywalling research makes it inaccessible to large parts of the population.

This paper by a team of researchers across the world looks at why that is important. They compare papers from 12 leading journals in economics, consumer research, and neuroscience to find out the effect of a paper being "pirated" on Sci-hub.

Turns out that the number of downloads from Sci-hub was a good predictor of future citations – these papers were 1.72 times more likely to be cited compared to papers not downloaded from Sci-hub. That means that more people were able to build on existing research.

Sounds all good right?

While I think the conclusions are directionally correct, I see some caveats with the analysis:

  • It's very difficult (impossible?) to design an experiment that controls for the availability or non-availability of the same paper. A paper's availability on Sci-hub by definition makes it more accessible and therefore much more likely to be cited. Maybe controlling for large universities that do have access to these publications could be way to untangle these confounded variables.

  • Papers that have created a lot of buzz in a particular field are more likely to be "pirated" and posted on Sci-hub. This creates a positive feedback loop: papers that would have been popular anyway are more likely to be posted on Sci-hub which in turn makes them more popular. It's not clear to what extent Sci-hub is a "hit-maker."

Side note: another finding was that papers with more figures were more likely to be cited as well. Even researchers prefer reading with pictures :)

Despite those caveats, this whole paper underlines the massive leverage that the internet creates. Sci-hub was created by one person – Alexandra Elbakyan, a computer programmer from Kazakhstan. In no other time in human history could a woman from Kazakhstan have had such outsized effect on the world. She is literally increasing the rate of knowledge creation.

Archimedes said, "Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth." Alexandra's lever is the internet and she doesn't even need to stand – she can move the scientific world from the comfort of her chair.

Business move of the week

Apple’s Safari tracking blocker in iOS 14

Apple has made privacy a key differentiator and a PR wedge against its other big tech competitors. At WWDC, they announced further restrictions on how your activity can be tracked as you traverse the interwebs. While users and developers have praised such moves, Apple's dominance and the apparent lack of competition in the consumer tech space is extremely troubling on two levels: practical and philosophical.

1: The Practical

This move has massive second and third order consequences.

The one casualty that immediately comes to mind is the whole idea of niche-driven companies. These companies – companies like Allbirds, Native, Harry's, Warby Parker – capitalized on the ability to target advertising users that had high purchase intent. They found these users through this tracking apparatus. These companies have not only disrupted long standing monopolies and conglomerates, but have served historically under-represented audiences. For example, the razor company Bevel caters to Black men who have different needs from their grooming products. Bevel is uniquely enabled by the internet and its tracking apparatus.

This move only effects usage on Safari. But iOS controls a large part of the market and Safari is the default browser on the platform. Defaults matter, and defaults on 1.4 billion devices matter a lot.

Let’s say that these companies find out a way around this (they probably will). There still remains a philosophical problem with future moves like this.

2: The Philosophical

Even in the supposed meritocracy of the internet, we're seeing immense centralization. Apple is increasingly a part of how we pay and how we look at our health. It's also a gatekeeper for how we log in to other services. While this centralization does offer a more unified and seamless experience, this perspective can switch on a dime.

Consider this: Would you be okay with giving Facebook this level of power over your pockets, your health, and other parts of your life? I'm guessing not. Well, then you shouldn't be comfortable giving any company this level of power. Most worrying is that Apple and its users are completely convinced of its righteousness. They may even be correct in their thinking – today. Expansion of authority and centralization sounds nice when its in the right hands. Tim Cook might be the best and most considerate CEO ever, but what happens when the baton gets passed on the next generation of maybe-not-so-great leaders? You don’t need to think too hard for parallels.

Add to this the fact that at the center of this empire sits the device that controls your entire life and literally gives you separation anxiety.

Beyond the strategy and specific features talk, we must think more structurally about the tech industry. There's tremendous scope for good, but we must not have pollyannish assumptions.

Note: This is obviously a much more nuanced topic than what I've laid out above. I'm curious about the technicalities of this new blocker and the more abstract questions of the kind of internet (and by extension, world) we want to accept. If you have any thoughts, I'd love to chat. Just reply to this email or send me a DM on Twitter.

Random corner of the week

One of my goals is to create a sense of delight in these newsletters. That's an elusive feeling which is more art than science.

And this page from the "dean of science fiction writers", Robert Heinlein is art indeed. With a desire to reply to every single letter he got, he created a template for replies that his assistant would then type out and send to the original sender.

My favorites:

You say that you have enjoyed my stories for years. Why did you wait until you disliked one story before writing to me?

Thanks for the stamped & addressed envelope – a rare courtesy today.

Your letter was most welcome! – loaded with friendliness and with no requests or demands. You suggested that no answer was expected but I must tell you how much it pleased me. I wish you calm seas, following winds, and a happy voyage through life.

Full of delight, sprinkled with whimsy, and a dash of edgy – exactly how good prose is written.

Odds and ends of the week

Three things to wrap up this week – a video, an author, and a tweet.


That wraps up this week’s newsletter. 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