SRINI schools, how to read 1000 articles a day, and how we learn.

Sajith Pai's 'sort of weekly' newsletter #2020-05

Writing

Do VCs discriminate against founders who aren’t from IIT/IIMs?

I write why it isn’t so and why these more clickbaity questions and content around it are obscuring us from the real issues. And along the way I introduce a neologism - SRINI for elite schools - IITs, BITS, NITs, IIITs and even the RVCE, PESIT, VIT, DTUs and Osmanias of the world. SRINI stands for Selective Residential Insitute with National Intake:)

The post is here - Does alma matter?

Listening

Robert Cottrell runs a newsletter business whose key product is The Browser, which sends 5 pieces of writing every weekday - hyperlinks to the stories with Cottrell’s distinctive take on each story, which both hints at the essence of the piece and contextualises it. I love The Browser, and i have been subscribing to it for over a year now. I have often thought Cottrell has the best job in the world, for he reads 1,000 or so articles a day to put together The Browser.

Cottrell recently did a podcast with David Perell under the North Star podcast series. From the podcast, please find Cottrell’s perspectives on reading and journalism. I find them fascinating! (My comments are in italics)

Economics of Journalism

  1. There is more variation within a publication (Vanity Fair, New Yorker etc) than there is between the same writer’s piece across publications. Writers discussed are Susan Orlean and Taylor Lorenz.

  2. The minimum viable unit of journalism is the article and not the subscription to a publication as it is now. At some point, this model of subscription to the publication will break. (The content or journalism bundle reflects the needs of the ad market - the primary revenue stream, and the constraints of the distribution technology, i.e., the printing press)

  3. Top journalists are hugely underpaid. Cant recall any other profession where there is such little difference between the elite and the rank and file, or where the elite are so low paid. Exceptions include Bill Bishop (Sinocism) and Ben Thompson (Stratechery) who make money off their newsletters.

  4. Great journalism is a bargain. (I remember Rory Sutherland talking about living in a house designed by a great architect and paying a pittance in premium compared to a a house next door designed by a random architect. Similar).

  5. Journalism puts a lot of premium on recency. This is a function of the newspaper mindset and its overhang. But we don’t say give me only this year’s music or books.

  6. In future, we will see direct payments by readers to the writers. Cottrell says he expected ‘Medium’ to be that platform but it moved in a different direction.

Good writing

  1. Good writing always starts off well. 

  2. The best predictor of the quality of a piece is the reputation of the writer, not the publication it appears in.

  3. Cottrell doesn’t always finish everything he starts, unless it is by a writer he respects. 

  4. Hence he says, he evaluates but doesn’t always (finish) read 1,000 pieces

  5. One of his favourite types of writing is content that is typically written by an industry practitioner (who is not a professional writer) for a certain limited industry audience, which actually holds a universal appeal.

  6. The greatest virtue in writing is honesty. It comes out of a deep sincerity of wanting to communicate what you are doing. To be honest, you need all the facts, which in some senses means you have to have lived the life. Example of above - Marshall Project - where the articles are about prison life written by inmates.

  7. The great pieces - the ones that change the furniture in your mind or changes your worldview - are always written by people who live those lives.

How he works / The Browser

  1. A chunk of his day goes into discovering new sources of content. Uses a tool called Pinboard (a site for saving / bookmarking links which can also help you track which links are also bookmarked by other people using the service).

  2. The Browser and Cottrell are the opposite of ‘personalization’. It is entirely his perspective and taste.

  3. Cottrell working with a ML expert who is training a model for predicting what piece will get selected and what wont. That way Cottrell can evaluate more stories for inclusion.

  4. The Browser open rate is >50% but the click rate on each link is much lower. Clearly the key product here is the summary / take by Cottrell.

Insights / Recommendations

  1. “Avoid reading breaking news—there’ll almost always be a more detailed—and better—story about the event the following day or week”

  2. In Britain next year - end of 2020 - the sale of audiobooks will overtake the sale of ebooks. Cottrell enjoys listening to audiobooks. In this regard, Cottrell thinks airpods are a huge innovation, on par with iphone he says. Recommends Clair Danes’s reading of Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey.

  3. Ideal length for a book is 172 pages, ideal length for a movie is 1 hr. Cottrell says he leaves parties also after 1 hr. Why should books and movies be >1hr or 100 pages he asks? The present length reflects historical contexts including production and distribution technologies and constraints.

  4. Machine translation of content / news stories from one language to another is getting shockingly good - German to English is 95% accurate, Russian to English about 80%, Arabic to English about 70-80%. This is likely to revolutionise consumption of non-english content. Per Cottrell, Der Spiegel is the best newsmagazine in the world. Gazeta Wyborca in Poland too is very good per him.

  5. Interesting hypothesis of whether a ML engine can be trained on the work of an author long died (Isaiah Berlin e.g.,) and then after a plausibly Isaiah Berlin like style is developed, to be let loose on news happenings.

  6. Interesting insight by David Perell - the quicker something is to produce (Youtube, podcasts, UGC content etc.) the more fragmented the industry is. The harder something is to produce or more time-consuming, the more consolidation in the industry (movies, video games, writing kinda etc.)

Reading

What I read and found interesting last week

(1) Good piece by Can Duruk (@can on twitter) called Software will eat software in a remote-first world on some of the second-order implications of remote work - tldr; as WFH / remote goes mainstream (& as no code becomes more prevalent), big tech's tech talent will see lower salaries and lower bargaining power.

(2) Well-written, nuanced but celebratory portrait of polarising entrepreneur and founder Elon Musk - written before the SpaceX rocket launch - by Ashlee Vance, who also wrote the definitive biography of Musk - Elon Musk is the Hero America Deserves

(3) Kevin Kelley’s 1000 True Fans theory - that 1,000 or so fans who can each pay you say $100 can sustain you is coming true. Supporting these creators are a bunch of apps and platforms such as Patreon, Substack and now even Cameo. NYT story on how these apps keep the creators going. Some interesting data points here.

(4) How we learn today vs the past. From an article on the impending reinvention of Journalism schools by Frederic Filloux.

(5) Class wars on the Indian interweb: A fascinating online war broke out last week between youtubers and tiktokers. At the core of it is this: ”Among the first gen of YouTubers, there was a collective feeling that while they had to slog & build their fan following over 4-5 yrs, these TikTok creators would amass a similar number of followers with “cringe” content virtually overnight”. Link.

(6) Taylor Lorenz is the Margaret Mead of Tiktok, and this is what 21st century cultural anthropology reads - more fun, without the boring academic claptrap. There are no more unknown lands or islands out there anymore in real life. The interwebs have aplenty. Piece on the rise of Tiktok cults - this one is a fun one called Step Chickens.