Detroit's Pink Zones, China's Special Economic Zones, and the upper and lower bounds on critical mass.

Detroit is following in China's footsteps. From the WSJ:

Developers and designers complain that, like many cities, Detroit’s onerous and outdated rules make it too difficult to rebuild or repurpose long-neglected retail areas. To try to reduce those obstacles without a time-consuming and expensive rezoning process, the city is proposing a handful of “pink zones,” where red tape will be cut to help small developers and entrepreneurs open new businesses and revive aging commercial strips. The goal is not to eliminate zoning but to ease some of the constraints faced by new projects, like minimum-parking requirements or environmental-impact reports.

This model of development, reducing red tape but only in certain geographic areas, reminds me of China's special economic zones. From ThoughtCo:

Since 1979, China’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ) have been beckoning foreign investors to do business in China. Created after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were implemented in China in 1979,  Special Economic Zones are areas where market-driven capitalist policies are implemented to entice foreign businesses to invest in China.

These zones were successful not only because they changed the rules, but also because they provide a strong focusing power. If you were someone who wanted to do business in China in the 1980s, your choice was clear, go to one of the special economic zones. This concentrated all of the economic activity rather than spreading it out across all of China, and concentration is the key to what makes geographically-dependent things (like cities) valuable.

What's also interesting about these policies is that they are examples of experiments that do better when kept smaller rather than larger. This is partly because a critical mass of concentration is necessary for the changes to be effective. Choosing 8 cities rather than 4 would have spread out the influx of investment, and probably would not have been as effective. Similarly, reducing red tape across all of Detroit seems unlikely to spur much development in a city that is already avoided by many developers.

This means that for an experiment like this, there is a tradeoff between keeping it small enough to achieve critical mass, and large enough to achieve critical mass. The conventional wisdom only recognizes the minimum threshold of critical mass, not the maximum threshold.

Startups that make useful niche tools available to a wider audience

My friend recently joined the Grammarly team. One really interesting comparison to Grammarly is the set of tools that help programmers write better code. Programmers have code linters that check for stylistic problems, compilers that check for invalid code, templates that help with common patterns, and more. Grammarly basically does this for the english language.

Another example of this is Dropbox, which took tools well known in the programming community like git and rsync and made them easy enough for anyone to use. 

I wonder what tools and best-practices are hidden in other fields that would be good candidates for simplification. 

 

Visible and invisible technology

I'm struck by how visible technology is in Sidewalk Lab's Street Life After Retail article. Every single one of their visualizations has some questionably-useful piece of technology in the foreground, including holograms, 3d printers, mini delivery robots, and robotic arms. While this is certainly a possibility--just look at how visible cars are--it's not at all a certainty. 

Furthmore, I'm struck by how business-like the community-led organizations they mention seem to be. Their examples include a senior center, public kitchen, montessori school, family health (doctor?), bike share, child care, and game room. These all sound like businesses to me. What's really striking about this depiction of a street is the lack of cars and the presence of people. The transportation and delivery mechanisms must be hidden from view. Subway? Roads with self-driving cars on the next street over? A daytime ban on delivery drones? Hard to say.

This leaves me asking a different question: What should be centrally planned and what should be left to businesses and individuals? In today's cities, the streets and sidewalks planned centrally, leaving almost everything else to individuals. It's time to re-evaluate that balance. Do central planners simply need to change roads and sidewalks for this new world or do they need to take on more (or less!) responsibility?

 

Startup founders are similar to artists, and each can learn from the other

Both founders and artists need to sell the story of their future success. Early angels and early art buyers give their support because they hope this future success will materialize, greatly increasing the value of their investment.

Arthena realizes this and wants to become a VC for art, letting other people buy into their fund, which Arthena turns around and invests in risky artists. 

Angels like Jason Calacanis also realize this and promote the startups they've invested in similar to how one might promote an up and coming artist.

How much should be spent on healthcare?

Given that it's always possible to spend more and get more healthcare, some interesting questions arise:

  • How much of a country's income should be spent on healthcare?
  • How much of your income should be spent?
  • If everyone suddenly made twice as much money, but costs remained the same, then do the answers to the first two questions change?

Chromium & amazon & distributed teams

Amazon wants to open a second headquarters. This means a distributed team, and I've found that not every team or project lends itself well to being distributed.

When I was traveling with Google a few years back I was stunned how every single office seemed to have a Chrome team. When I returned home, I looked for another team at Google that was similarly distributed, and couldn't find one. 

Chrome can be distributed because it's built on properties that work well without much communication. Namely:

- the goals are clear. Speed, simplicity, security
- who to ask for permission to contribute is clear: there is an OWNERS file in every directory and owners comments in every file. 
- the review process is public: https://codereview.chromium.org/
- the code is public and immediately available: https://www.chromium.org/

This structure makes it easier for people to contribute code without a bunch of communication overhead. From what I saw, Chrome engineers tended to communicate less than engineers on other teams at Google. I think this is a direct result of their organizational structure that makes contributing possible without much communication. 

 

A structure for trying something new: commitment, then deciding

Earlier this year I tried 30 days of yoga at home. My instructor never got tired, or expensive, or scary because she was a youtube video. At the end of the 30 days, I decided that I'd rather put more time into rock climbing than yoga. But I'm glad I tried, I've wanted to try yoga for years but never mustered up the energy to do it until now. 

I think this illustrates two important learnings.

First, that having a set time period associated with a new behavior makes it easier to commit to that new behavior even when it's not obvious that it will be good.

Second, that by introducing a decision sometime in the future, you avoid the trap of continuing to do something that's not that helpful just because you started and never really considered whether it was worth continuing.

Reducing danger by increasing danger

Earlier this year I talked about how making streets feel more dangerous can actually make them safer

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman gives an explanation for why this might be. Basically, the high =-energy state of the brain is activated when danger is perceived, and this state is better at avoiding pitfalls that fool the low energy state that the brain is in most of the time. Daniel calls these system 1 (low energy) and system 2 (high energy). 

Interesting to ponder: what happens when all of the streets feel dangerous? Do fewer people drive because of the stress it invokes? Do people become immune to this? Do they become fatigued? It's one thing to be in a high energy state for a few seconds at an intersection. It's quite another to be living in it for hours. 

Fooling computers that see and hear like humans

Computers can recognize traffic signs, but it's possible to fool them by adding some tape. Similarly, computers can understand speech but can be fooled by sounds that are too high for humans to hear.

An active and growing area of research is how to design systems that can't be fooled so easily like this. This will be critical expertise going forward, just like how network security is today. Great for up and coming security researchers wondering what to specialize in. 

Another interesting angle is that the very fact that these systems can be fooled by things that wouldn't fool a human means that these systems perceive the world in a different way than we do. These are the special effects and optical illusions of the computer world, and they look nothing like what we're used to. 

Fear of missing out (FOMO)

I hate feeling like I'm missing out. This feeling is unhelpful because there's no way I can do everything and be at every event. But somehow it persists. 

Originally I thought that an unstructured life leads to more FOMO, because the gaps and decisions about what to do next give time to wonder what I'm missing out on. However, I think this misses some of the nuance.

For me at least, the core feeling of missing out is triggered when I feel present, but not a part of, an activity that I want to participate in. The classic example of this is working out of a cafe on a Saturday. Everyone else is enjoying their weekend, but here I am, working. 

I tested this hunch last weekend by working out of my Wework office. I had drastically less FOMO and got vastly more done. The few other people crazy enough to be here on a Saturday were also working hard, and I surprised myself by staying the entire day.

FOMO is one of the worst feelings because it can give a good activity a sour taste, making life dramatically less satisfying. If you have your own methods for avoiding FOMO, I'd love to hear from you.