November 21st, 2023
If you're wondering how the heck a hardline libertarian just won the Argentinian presidential election, here's some background.
First, a key fact is that the government is printing money at an accelerating rate, resulting in 143% annual inflation as of the most recent count. The economy is deteriorating rapidly, the poverty rate has spiked to more than 40%, and the daily indignities of Argentina's topsy turvy monetary policy are mounting. If ...
September 10th, 2023
As a real estate developer, one of the big decisions you need to make is whether you will rent or sell the buildings you've built.
Income from rentals flows in steadily over years, while income from sales hits all at once. This essential difference is simple but has many implications for your risk profile, upside potential, capital requirements, and business model.
The following post is a writeup of my notes as I study real estate developmen...
July 4th, 2023
by Jason Benn & Devon Zuegel
So, you’ve been invited to an unconference! Maybe you’re not entirely sure what that means (did the organizers misspell "conference"?), or maybe you’ve been to dozens of these before and you’re looking for some ideas for how to run an awesome session.
This blog post will be a quick primer on what an unconference is, and then we’ll share some tips on how to make a session excellent, both as the host and as a partici...
July 1st, 2023
The saga of Israeli water management is one of the most inspiring stories of the last 75 years. Israel went from having a serious water problem to being a net water exporter to neighboring countries. Meanwhile, the population grew from ~1 million to well over 9 million.
With its land mass 60% desert, the region was originally thought to support a max population of just 2 million people. But with tireless work, financial support to find new sol...
June 14th, 2023
America hasn't built many walkable places in the last few decades, but there are a few exceptions. While collecting a list of these special places, I was shocked to discover that most are in the Southeast.
My mental image of contemporary southern development did not include an appreciation of urbanism, walkability, and public spaces. On the contrary, it conjured images of massive highways and repetitive suburban sprawl.
There certainly is ...
January 9th, 2023
A question that's puzzled me for a while is why home buyers focus on price/sqft so much more than renters. I asked around for what other people thought and got some interesting answers, so I decided to write up my takeaways.
I. Investments demand legibilityHomeownership is an investment and consumption good, while renting is just a consumption good. As a result, buyers are forced to think of it in more legible ways as opposed to just an amenit...
September 19th, 2022
Whenever I think about physical places, I find myself coming back to a few types of numbers again and again.
I've collected these into spreadsheets so that I can reference them more easily, and I figured they might be useful to others too:
Urban densities – Population density in various cities around the world
Wharton Residential Land Use Regulatory Index 2018 – How restrictive is land use policy in nearly 3,000 municipalities across the USA?...
September 10th, 2022
In Argentina, your money is worth double if you skip the airport currency exchange and instead go to one of the many black market exchanges hidden throughout Buenos Aires.
These illegal exchanges are called "cuevas" (the word for "cave" in Spanish), and they are a crucial part of Argentina's financial infrastructure. Argentinians are constantly exchanging their pesos (ARS) for other currencies, usually US dollars (USD), and back again because ...
September 10th, 2022
Pirate crews developed a surprisingly similar approach to compensation in the 17th century. Just like many startups, they also balanced equity incentives with other mechanisms that would be familiar to a startup employee today, such as bonuses.
These surprising similarities offer an interesting frame through which we can reflect on why startup equity and bonuses are structured the way they are. We can learn a lot about the theory of compensat...
March 6th, 2022
I wrote a Buenos Aires guide with recommendations and tips for a group of friends I was traveling with in December 2021, and I figured it might be useful to other people too. I adore Buenos Aires and spend about a month each year there, so I'm always thrilled to hear when friends are going to spend time in the city, and I love sharing what I know about the place with newcomers.
Buenos Aires is an underrated city. My friends are often surpris...
February 5th, 2022
I just spent a week in Panamá City, and figured I'd share my observations in case they're useful to anyone else interested in similar questions.
The purpose of the trip was to research locations for a gene therapy/stem cell clinic that my friend is planning to start. I also explored a few of Panamá's Special Economic Zones (SEZs) as part of my ongoing research about startup cities, as well as to learn about the opportunities they offer for bu...
January 2nd, 2022
Inflation hits some parts of the economy harder and faster than others. It's obvious once you say it, and yet the way pundits and academics talk about inflation glosses over this reality. As a result, most people who haven't had direct experience with high inflation have a flawed view of how it affects daily life.
Popular use of the term "inflation" makes it sound like the inflation rate is a single indisputable number that you can plug into ...
December 30th, 2021
I've long wanted a notes app with an optional chat style interface for append-only notes. The idea is that I'll use the simpler append-only interface while on the go, and then use full-featured interface to review, edit, and organize those notes when I'm back at my computer.
I realized recently that a combination of Telegram + Logseq will do exactly what I want! I jot down notes in a Telegram channel, and when I return to my computer, I find ...
November 8th, 2021
Remote work is creating a new economic niche, and countries that put in the work to fill it will finally be able to compete with the US to attract talent. This is the once-in-a-generation opportunity for small, stable countries to grow, diversify, and up-skill their economy.
The United States has been the #1 target destination for immigrants for generations. It has a mythical reputation as the place where anyone can go from rags to riches. It'...
November 4th, 2021
We tend to choose larger homes than we want our neighbors to choose. The result: sprawling development that doesn't match what people actually want from their communities.
People aim to maximize access and space when deciding where to live.
All things equal, most people like living in places with easy access to their day-to-day life. It's nice to be able to walk your kids to kindergarten, and it's easier to keep a social life when many of yo...
August 30th, 2021
I recently visited Próspera, a Honduran startup city. I had a ton of questions and figured others might too, so I wrote an FAQ to share what I learned:
This FAQ is intended as a reference, covering the basic facts and current status of the project. My hope is that this document will help startup city builders learn from the path Próspera is carving. It covers a range of topics:infrastructure in Próspera and its neighborsHonduras'...
August 26th, 2021
I haven't done a great job of tracking these, so this list is non-comprehensive:Urbanism and the Future of Cities (Jan 2023) – Narratives podcastInflation, Argentina, and Crypto (Oct 2022) – EconTalk podcastDevon Zuegel on Startup Cities (June 2022)Devon Zuegel, creator of GitHub Sponsors (Aug 2021) – Sourcegraph podcastCities with Devon Zuegel (June 2021) – Metamuse podcastThe City Guide to Open Source (Feb 2020) – a talk for Config, Figma's ...
July 10th, 2021
Alain was interviewed by our friend Anthony for a Brazilian urbanism blog called Caos Planejado, and we thought it would be fun to cross-post it here. They discussed Brazilian cities, municipal financing, what it was like to live in NYC in the time of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, how urban planners' thinking has evolved over the course of Alain's long career, and lots more.RSS · Apple Podcasts · Spotify · Overcast
Alain was interviewed by our...
July 2nd, 2021
While the startup cities industry is still small, it is already quite heterogeneous. Each project has its own distinct set of goals, motivations, and scope. However, this diversity isn’t fully captured by the vocabulary we use right now.
To help myself create a mental map of the industry, I’ve grouped these motivations into 5 categories. I’ve also included examples of places that personify each motivation. (Some of those examples wouldn’t sel...
April 21st, 2021
Update 5-Dec-2021: Read the updated version of these notes here.
These field notes are a bit different from previous cities I've explored, because unlike those, Miami is my home! So this post partially serves as a life update—I moved to Miami Beach from California a few months ago, and I'm excited to share my explorations with you.
What makes Miami special – A few things that stand out to me about Miami.Expectation vs reality – Miami is not j...
December 23rd, 2020
Mobility is central to living in every city. In this episode, we discussed how different communities tackle the question of transportation, and how culture shapes how different transport technologies get adopted.RSS · Apple Podcasts · Spotify · OvercastMobility is central to living in every city. In this episode, we discussed how different communities tackle the question of transportation, and how culture shapes how different transport technol...
October 12th, 2020
Michael Kaminsky recently emailed me an interesting post he wrote about bounties in open source, and I took the opportunity to write up some thoughts that had been swirling in my head for a while. You can find the (lightly edited) response I sent to him below.
Bounties are great for well-scoped, low-context work. For example, bounties work can quite well for things like penetration testing, because it's fairly clear what the objective is (sp...
August 16th, 2020
Natan Gesher sent me the following email after reading my post about why flaking is so widespread in San Francisco, and I thought you all might find it interesting too:
I saw your blog posts about flaking and wanted to share something I've observed from moving around a bit (four years in Manhattan for university, then two years in Jerusalem, five years in Tel Aviv, two years in San Francisco, three and a half years in Manhattan, one year in S...
August 15th, 2020
Every place has some dirty secrets, even Disney World. We all have to get rid of waste somehow! In this episode, the Bertauds and I discuss methods of sanitation and waste management from around the world, and how these hidden systems shape our cities. RSS · Apple Podcasts · Spotify · Overcast
Every place has some dirty secrets, even Disney World. We all have to get rid of waste somehow!
So in this episode, the Bertauds and I discuss methods o...
July 22nd, 2020
I want to tell you about the place I spent summers growing up. It's called Chautauqua Institution, and it's one of the most special places in the world — and not just because I spent my childhood there. Chautauqua is special because it is an idea embedded in a place.
The place is a small town in western New York, on the edge of the Great Lakes. Chautauqua's human-scale streets are lined with lovingly-tended gardens and charming Victorian cott...
July 8th, 2020
Alain and Marie-Agnes raised three children while living their nomadic lifestyle. So in this episode, we dug into how their role as parents shaped how they experience cities. Join us as we roam Bangkok, Guadalajara, Sana'a, Paris, Port-au-Prince, NYC and beyond!RSS · Apple Podcasts · Spotify · Overcast
Here's the full transcript. You can also find it with synced audio here. If you'd like to correct any errors in the transcript, let me know an...
July 2nd, 2020
Imagine you're at a dinner party, and you're getting into a heated argument. As you start yelling, the other people quickly hush their voices and start glaring at you. None of the onlookers have to take further action—it's clear from their facial expressions that you're being a jerk.
In digital conversations, giving feedback requires more conscious effort. Silence is the default. Participants only get feedback from people who join the fray. T...
May 7th, 2020
I'm starting a podcast with my friends, Marie-Agnes and Alain Bertaud, who also happen to be the most interesting couple I know. Over the course of this first conversation, we traveled all around the globe for a whirlwind tour of the adventurous life they've led together.Audio · Photos · Transcript
RSS · Apple Podcasts · Spotify · Overcast
As I mentioned in my recent post, I'm starting a podcast with my friends, Marie-Agnes and Alain Bertau...
May 3rd, 2020
The purpose of this writeup was to summarize something interesting I learned recently, to make sure I understood it. I figured others might find it interesting, too.
~ ~ ~
Digital signal processing corrects for errors better than its analog counterpart. This is one of the reasons why modern electronics are always digital.
Concretely, let's say you have a digital component that expects either 0V or 10V, and it outputs the same value it receiv...
April 30th, 2020
I'm starting a new podcast called Order Without Design with the most interesting couple I know: Alain & Marie-Agnes Bertaud.
This project is an extension of their book, Order Without Design: How Markets Shape Cities. With its focus on economic theory, you might not realize that this book is the product of the adventurous life these two have shared together. This podcast series is my excuse to hear and share those stories.
Join the three of u...
January 1st, 2020
The book that etched the deepest grooves in my mind last year was Against the Grain by James C. Scott. It explores how the unique characteristics of grain-based agriculture shaped the early history of states.
While I did learn many interesting historical facts and trends from the book, what stood out to me most was Scott's emphasis on epistemics. When he pointed to the archaeological record, he wouldn't simply cherrypick a basket of facts tha...
January 1st, 2020
Here are some notes and quotes that particularly stood out to me from each chapter of Against the Grain. This isn't a summary of the book. It's mostly for my future self to refer back to (and thus probably missing a lot for someone who hasn't read it), but the tidbits are so interesting that I figured I'd share it nonetheless in case it's remotely helpful to someone else.
You can read my more coherent review of the book here.
December 26th, 2019
Language skills are highly multi-dimensional*, so while learning a language, it's important to come at it from lots of different directions. Here are some of the tricks I've used to practice Spanish that I haven't heard so many other people use. (They're likely useful for other languages too, of course.)
(1) Translate past writing you've already published in English
One fun exercise is to take something you wrote in English, translate it t...
October 21st, 2019
Music enthusiasts will tell you there's nothing quite like "tube sound", the warm, rich sound quality that old vacuum tube amplifiers bring to the music played through them. And they'll pay top dollar for it! Once considered obsolete, vintage vacuum tube amps now sell at a premium, because audiophiles want to reproduce the harmonic distortions this old tech is so famous for.
This now-beloved distortion was initially seen as a bug, not a featur...
September 9th, 2019
Recently, Ayaz Matin sent me an email asking the following question:When I was looking at your website I came across these words:
Individual liberty is the single most important value that society should uphold.I’m more utilitarian and communitarian now.I still believe we should be extremely skeptical of sacrificing individual liberties for the sake of a greater good (in practice if not in theory), but I no longer hold liberty as sacrosanct.Th...
August 11th, 2019
You're not allowed inside the Duomo with your shoulders uncovered. We learned this the hard way. I was wearing a spaghetti strap dress (it's 92℉/33℃ and humid here in Milan), so they stopped my little group at the entrance, after we'd already purchased 3 tickets.
Luckily, we only had about 15 seconds of frustration. I said "Ah that's a shame", Sebastián responded "Oh I'm sure there's a shop around here somewhere", Tyler said "Markets in eve...
July 10th, 2019
My friends say that my calendaring practice is atypical (and mock me incessantly for it). They're not wrong, but I'll contend that most people underutilize this ubiquitous tool. A calendar is not just a reminder device for keeping track of external events. Used right, a calendar can be a full-fledged tool for thought. For me, it's a dynamic journal with a wide range of useful, meaningful, and surprising perks.
Here are some of the more idiosy...
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 ...
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...
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...
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...
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 ...