Travel photos are underrated

June 9th, 2019

I snapped many photos while wandering Haifa last week, as I always do whenever I see something new or interesting while exploring a city. I was with my friend Tyler, who conspicuously does not take photos while exploring a new place. I asked him why, and his answer was, "It's a distraction, and I can find better images online." The first half of his answer really resonated with me. I too find it distracting to document something in the midst ...

Google Docs' sheet-of-paper metaphor

May 12th, 2019

For ages, I've wondered why Google Docs still clings to the sheet-of-paper metaphor when lots of its users never print out most of their documents. Of course it does make sense for "Print layout" to be an option. Many people do print docs, and students make up a huge portion of the users. What I find strange is that Google Docs imposes this UI—you cannot escape the sheet of paper with its edges and isomorphic physicality even if you're just c...

OSS lazy-loads governance

April 7th, 2019

A special characteristic of open source software (OSS) is that you don't need institutional support to get started. It's interesting to compare this to physical infrastructure, like dams or railroads. Before you can begin those projects, you need upfront capital, permits, rights-of-way, environmental impact reviews, community hearings... and so much more. By contrast, all you need in order to begin a digital infrastructure project is an inte...

Independence for whom?

March 23rd, 2019

I recently spent a day at Sea Ranch, a strange and beautiful place. Sea Ranch is a planned community with a distinctive architectural style: simple timber-frame structures clad in wooden siding, and gardens all planted with native flora. The Sea Ranch Design Committee enforces strict design rules on all 1,800 homes along that 10-mile stretch of the Northern California coast. The result is a cohesive, calming aesthetic unlike anywhere else I've...

Cities reading list

February 9th, 2019

Many people have reached out asking what books have been most impactful in shaping my views on cities. I've written and rewritten answers enough times that I figured it's most efficient if I just write it up one time here and share the link. 🙂 ~ Order Without Design by Alain Bertaud Reason to read this: Offers rigorous yet humble models for how urban systems work. This kind of analytical rigor is incredibly rare in urbanism! This was one ...

Empathy for the Devil

February 3rd, 2019

I. Loan application Before serving time for mortgage fraud, Toby Groves seemed like the last person who would get into that kind of trouble. His older brother had been sentenced for the same crime twenty years earlier, and Toby had seen how it destroyed his family. He swore he’d never make a similar mistake. Then in 2003, the company he’d founded ran into problems. Out of a sense of responsibility to his employees and their families, Toby to...

Re: For the greater good: the game theory of zoning

December 30th, 2018

Jake Auchincloss emailed me about my recent post For the greater good: the game theory of zoning and made the constructive point that a homeowner's mindset is "situation-dependent, not ingrained". At the end of the post, I had written that "Individualists and Regionalists are odd bedfellows". Jake pointed out that there may be tension at the abstract level of the Individualist-Localist-Regionalist framework, but that in practice people don't o...

Field notes: London, England

December 26th, 2018

I was in London for a conference for a few days in late October. The city was lovely, an unexpectedly nice place to wander. I came in with low expectations, expecting a drab, grey metropolis congested with traffic and filled with suited financiers scurrying from place to place. What I found was an agglomeration of charming urban villages, each with their own specific flavor. They were pedestrian-friendly, spotted with parks, and draped with tr...

Zonificación norteamericana vs japonesa

November 29th, 2018

This is a Spanish translation of notes from about a year ago. You can find the original in English here. Estas notas provienen de leer dos publicaciones del blog fantástico Urban Kchoze:Urban kchoze: Japanese zoning (aquí está la copia anotada)Urban kchoze: Euclidian zoning (aquí está la copia anotada) El sistema japonés es inclusivo, distinto al sistema americano que es exclusivo. La forma típica de zonificación en America se llama zonificac...

Language is like choosing which side of the street to drive on

November 17th, 2018

A debate I’ve come across again and again is whether language is objective or subjective. It tends to crop up in moments like when dictionaries update the word "literally" with contradictory definitions or when people argue that Ebonics isn't "correct" English. The working definitions we'll use:objective: something that can be correct or incorrect, i.e. really out there in the world independent of whether or not you perceive itsubjective: so...

For the greater good: the game theory of zoning

November 16th, 2018

Pro-housing advocates criticize "NIMBYs" as being uncooperative and selfish. However that's not how the so-called NIMBYs see themselves. The difference is a question of the granularity of your analysis. Individualists vs Localists A question I hear a lot is: "Why do NIMBY homeowners support zoning laws? Isn't it in their best interest to allow for the highest and best use so that they can sell their own property for the maximum price? Don't t...

City review: Manchester, England

November 8th, 2018

Update: A few people have criticized my spending only a single Friday night in Manchester. I meant to highlight the fact that that my experience isn't comprehensive, not to imply I think I have some deep understanding of the place after just one short weekend. However I realize it may have come off as the exact opposite. So to clarify the limited scope of this post: I was in Manchester for a short time, and some specific differences in culture...

Epistemic statuses are lazy, and that is a good thing

October 5th, 2018

Epistemic status: High confidence about my own experience, mid-high confidence that it generalizes to others'. Epistemic effort: Low-to-medium effort. It's a concept I've had in my head for a while, then I did a stream-of-consciousness oral draft with Otter.ai, and then I then read it over once for minor editing. I have received a lot of positive feedback for noting my epistemic status and effort at the top of my posts. This is hilarious, bec...

Ekistic lexicon: call for proposals

September 12th, 2018

In a recent conversation, Sebastián pointed out that there is a dearth of words to talk about cities. I gestured to a building while walking around the Fillmore and said "That's some nice urbanism!", and he grumbled that that's equivalent to pointing to a shop and saying "That's some nice economics!". His point was that the word "urbanism" is overloaded, and he's right. We use it to describe everything in the lexical space: concrete physical...

Notes on the streetcars vs buses debate

September 3rd, 2018

This was originally published in Oct 2015. It's a controversial question whether streetcar (also known as trams, trolleys) or bus rapid transit systems (BRT) are a better investment to solve cities' challenge of offering short-distance transit options. The two offer similar stop spacing, and both share the road with cars. However, they differ greatly in their cost structure, flexibility, and public image. Some notes on the subject... The arg...

A public bus named desire

September 2nd, 2018

This was originally published in Nov 2015. When I first stumbled across the streetcar vs bus rapid transit (BRT) debate, I was strongly biased towards streetcars. My opinion was largely shaped by the few weeks I spent in Berlin this past summer. While I was in Germany, I relied most heavily on Berlin's friendly yellow Metrotrams. I really only used the U-bahn and S-bahn when I had to make long, cross-city trips, where the travel time differen...

Comparison of text editing methods

September 1st, 2018

Given how much time I spend producing text, I've spent shockingly little of it considering the tradeoffs of various modes to input it. I had a vague sense that typing is faster than handwriting and that, despite this fact, I still prefer writing drafts by hand in my notebook. Recording audio notes while walking and using Otter's automatic voice-to-text transcription is fantastic for getting thoughts down in a steady flow, but the result is ne...

Productivity is like a heat engine

August 28th, 2018

When I started learning about thermodynamics, I was shocked to learn that the typical engine converts only about 35% of its energy into useful work. Just the theoretical maximum efficiency for a typical car is ~73%*—converting all of its input heat into work would violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease over time. And in practice engines operate at an actual efficie...

Twitter backup

August 22nd, 2018

I gave in to my paranoid tendencies today and wrote a little backup script for Twitter, which I figured I'd share here. Two requirements: github.com/sferik/t: A command-line power tool for Twittergithub.com/wireservice/csvkit: A suite of utilities for converting to and working with CSV, the king of tabular file formats To install these from the terminal: Here's the script to do the backup itself (which I plan to run ~1/mo): For some rea...

Advice on writing

August 5th, 2018

Sergey Zavadski emailed me today asking for advice on how to start writing, and I figured I'd share my response here and open an invitation for suggestions from others! The biggest advice I'll give is to find ways to hold back from self-censoring. There are three key tools I use to do this myself, though there are probably other clever ways I haven't considered. One is called The Most Dangerous Writing App, which deletes your writing if you ...

City review: A day in Bangalore

August 2nd, 2018

I spent Friday, 9 March 2018 in Bangalore, India, the last of the cities I visited that week. Of the five, Bangalore was the one that pleasantly surprised me the most. I had never been to India before, and I prepared myself for an underdeveloped, hectic urban experience. Its infrastructure was substandard, and it was not a sparkling metropolis like Singapore or a viscerally ambitious culture like Beijing, but it had a dynamism and cosmopolitan...

Thoughts on spaced repetition

July 24th, 2018

A common argument against spaced repetition goes something like this: If an idea or fact is useful enough to memorize, your brain will retain it anyway. If it's important, it'll just stick, because you'll use it enough times.There's some validity to this. If you find it is really difficult to remember something, you may want to examine whether it's really worth expending that memorization effort. Maybe you just don't need to know it that badly...

Agglomeration effects (might) change the YIMBY calculus

July 15th, 2018

Epistemic status: Pretty sure of the structure of the argument (~80%), not so sure of the valence of the coefficients (~60% that agglomeration does not overwhelm the supply-demand effect). Epistemic effort: Medium effort. This idea has bounced around my head for almost a year, and over that time I spoke with several friends about it. Then, I had a long conversation in which I formalized it a bit more, at which point I decided to write it down....

What do NIMBYs, lawyers, and ICE have in common?

July 11th, 2018

Zoning, occupational licensing, and immigration are all the same problem, just in different forms. They all reduce individuals' ability to move to the places with the greatest opportunity, and a few concentrated interests are overrepresented, trouncing the broader social interest. In the case of zoning, NIMBYs constrain the potential of a neighborhood or region for the sake of their own stability, comfort, and home values. Future residents are...

A steelman for tradition

June 3rd, 2018

Epistemic status: High confidence about the pros/cons discussed regarding my own experience, fairly low confidence about the parts I heard secondhand. Epistemic effort: Low-to-medium effort. I realized these things were connected while I was in the shower last night, then I spent two hours stream-of-consciousness writing to get them onto the page. I then read it over once for minor editing and shared it with a friend to sanity check. 1. "Bik...

Amateur space program of the day

May 31st, 2018

Today I learned of the existence of Copenhagen Suborbitals, the "world's only manned, amateur space program". From their website: Since 2011, we’ve built and flown 5 homebuilt rockets and space capsules from a ship in the Baltic Sea, and some day one of us will fly into space. It’s all crowdfunded and nonprofit, and has only come this far because people all over the world donate money that pay the materials, tools and rent. Our goal is simple:...

North American vs Japanese zoning

May 30th, 2018

I originally published these notes in April of last year in one of my old blogs. These notes come from reading two blog posts from the wonderful Urban Kchoze blog:Urban kchoze: Japanese zoning (here is the annotated and cached copy)Urban kchoze: euclidian zoning (here is the annotated and cached copy)The Japanese system is inclusionary, as contrasted to the exclusionary system common here in the US. The typical zoning form in America is calle...

Japanese street networks

May 22nd, 2018

I originally published this in May of last year in Idea Collector, one of my old blogs. Epistemic status: This is a quick write up of my personal experience wandering Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo last May. I'd be curious to learn how it compares to objective measures, models, others' experience, and so on! Epistemic effort: I noted my impressions in bullet-point form while wandering around the cities, then when I returned from the trip I spent ~1h ...

Continuous urbanization in Japan

May 21st, 2018

I originally published this in May of last year in Idea Collector, one of my old blogs. Epistemic status: This is a quick write up of my personal experience wandering Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo last May. I'd be curious to learn how it compares to objective measures, models, others' experience, and so on! Epistemic effort: I noted my impressions in bullet-point form while wandering around the cities, then when I returned from the trip I spent ~1h ...

City review: A day in Jakarta

May 21st, 2018

I spent Thursday, 8 March 2018 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Of the cities I visited during this trip, Jakarta was the one I disliked most. I try to be as positive as possible on the internet (it's just too easy to be negative), but in this case it would be ingenious. The parts of Jakarta I explored were unpleasant and a bit depressing. If Las Vegas and Mad Max had a baby... The main thoroughfare felt more like a highway than a street. This combine...

Memex: My personal knowledge base

May 16th, 2018

Epistemic status: This is a quick write up of my personal experience using Evernote as a PKB. The ideas/processes mentioned in here might work for others too, but I'm not prescribing them! There may be something that would work even better for you, and perhaps for me for that matter. (If you have suggestions please do tell me 🙂) Epistemic effort: I wrote up an email response to Nick quickly, and then I went back through it once to make sure n...

Scale-free travel

May 7th, 2018

Cities are fractal. You can always go a layer deeper and there’s just as much complexity. Following this principle, I sometimes think it might make sense to just stay in San Francisco my whole life and explore the infinite levels of that fractal. It’s cheaper than interstate or international travel anyway, and according to this framework you get the same amount of interestingness no matter how many levels deep you go. The catch is that whe...

Singapore and the international community

April 20th, 2018

A while back Daniel Frank emailed me about the essay I published about Singapore, and he was skeptical of the idea that the international community would act as a deterrent against authoritarianism in Singapore:First, I don’t think this applies to most countries (for example, look at the muted Western protest to changes in countries like Turkey and Poland). Secondly, I specifically think doesn’t apply to Singapore. The two most influential n...

A day in Singapore, Part I: Urban identity

April 19th, 2018

Epistemic status: My personal impressions from wandering the city for a day. Very likely that I'm missing important nuance in lots of places. If you notice a gap, please let me know! I'm so curious to learn more about Singapore. This is more of a diary entry than a worldview. Not sure how to put a confidence interval on that. 🙂 Epistemic effort: I jotted down notes throughout the day in the city and wrote up this post without lots of editing...

What would SB 827 mean for California?

April 17th, 2018

California's housing crisis is not a new problem, but for the first time there's a proposal facing the state legislature that could make a dent: Senate Bill 827, known as SB 827. The bill would change zoning around transit to allow for mid-rise housing. To get a sense of its potential, some friends and I created renderings to illustrate what the bill would make possible. Here's one of them: You can find the rest of the renderings plus more...

Strategically ignorant

April 1st, 2018

Effective software developers know how to manage their ignorance. Studying the inner workings of each dependency and every layer of your stack is a luxury you often can't afford, so it's important to know how and when to make leaps of faith. More than any explicit technical knowledge, this intuition is perhaps the biggest thing that differentiates experienced programmers from inexperienced ones. When I first started coding, painful awareness ...