Gentrification in California

I live in Sherman Oaks, just north of a crusty (but delicious) little cantina called Casa Vega, but I fly up to the Bay Area every month or two for work.

The Bay Area is in many ways an incredible place. I lived in various places in San Francisco and the Peninsula for about five years before moving down south for graduate school, and believe me when I say that I enjoyed myself.

But by the time I left in 2009, things were starting to get really weird. Even at the outset of the Great Recession, at a time when the rest of the global economy nearly creaked to a halt, enormous waves of investment cash radiated outward from Sand Hill Road, transforming everything in their path.

When I visit San Francisco today, I see a Californian version of a Gulf Emirate or Victorian London. The income distribution has twisted so far towards an extreme power law distribution, where a tiny minority controls all the buying power, that individuals and families in the lower percentiles are being forced relentlessly towards the socioeconomic margins.

Extreme power law environments, whether biological or sociological, tend to promote hyper-specialization while killing off diversity. Biologists who analyze the effects of climate change on global ecosystems call this process ‘simplification.’

When sociologists, human geographers, and urban planners conduct a similar analysis on where people live in cities, it’s called gentrification — and it’s easy to recognize when you see it… especially if you look at housing data.

I made a visualization using publicly available rent data from Zillow. It ranks every zip code in CA by its percentage increase in rent between 2011 and 2016. Each zip is also colored according to its rent percentile rank in 2011, such that low-rent areas in 2011 are colored red, while high-rent areas are colored green. The dashed reference line is the mean rent increase across all CA zips (about 21%), while the dotted line is the rate of general inflation between 2011 and 2016 (about 7%).

screenshot-2016-09-18-14-39-31

If you want to see where gentrification is now causing real pain and loss of diversity, look for zip codes at the top of the chart that are also colored red. Those zip codes are largely in Oakland, which fits my experience when I visited a few weeks ago. Look a bit further down the charts at Richmond and Hayward to see what this chart is going to look like five years from now.

San Francisco zips also rank highly, but they’re already dark green, meaning that gentrification struck there more than five years ago. It is effectively too late for San Francisco. Many of the people left renting in San Francisco proper either don’t care about rent increases or are hanging on in rent-controlled and/or subsidized housing.

Wondering about places like Cazadero, Forestville, and Guerneville? These are tiny tourist towns in Sonoma County that are probably subject to a lot of rent volatility courtesy of Silicon Valley-dwellers buying up vacation housing (or AirBnBing it).

Believe it or not, some bargains remain in CA, especially in certain fairly affluent zips out in the Palms Desert, where rents have apparently gone backwards. I wonder if this isn’t either a data error or some idiosyncrasy in the local housing markets there.

On The Fear Of Sucking, And What To Do About It

I find it too easy to stick to activities that I’m already good at. It’s pleasurable to complete a task and check an item off a list. I get a nice little dopamine fix. My routine is strengthened, and there is comfort in routine. I get fractionally better at whatever it is I’ve just done. And, most importantly, I never have to suck at or struggle through anything. My illusion of mastery over my own little corner of the universe is maintained.

I could dwell forever in my self-created Era of Good Feelings… if I could just ignore the following irritating thoughts.

  • I don’t know whether the stuff I’m good at actually maximizes my enjoyment.
  • There’s a chance that I might be much better at something I haven’t tried.
  • I can’t say that the force that keeps me from doing new things–which are also things I’m comparatively not good at–is rational.

If I were to come at the question of whether or not I should try something new rationally, I would try to measure the opportunity cost of switching tracks against the potential awesomeness of the new venture, weighted by my probability of success.

But that’s not actually what I do. Instead, my intense dislike of sucking at something new regularly trumps the possibility that I might discover something excellent. So I never start, or I quit at the first sign of trouble, and that pisses me off. I hate feeling like I might be stuck in a local maxima simply because I’m scared to feel bad.

I don’t think I’m the only one who acts this way. Starting in childhood, we are carefully observed to determine where our natural talents lie. Those talents are cultivated over time by a number of powerful external feedback mechanisms — parents, friends, schools, the job market. They are turned into economically useful skills, and we learn to rely on them. Sooner or later, this feedback loop is internalized and we become our own cultivators. But we may not have very good control over the mechanism.

Imagine that a rabbit in a lab learns to press a button and receive a reward. The lab’s scientists can condition the rabbit however they like, using a carrot here, an electric shock there. But when the scientists leave, will the rabbit learn to reconfigure the experimental apparatus and teach itself new tricks? Or will it go on pressing the same buttons in the same order to receive the same reward?

As human beings, we have the tools we need to assume command. We can do a lot better than that poor imaginary rabbit… it just doesn’t happen automatically. In particular, we have to power through the negative feedback: repeated failure, frustration, self-doubt, embarrassment, feeling like a total idiot, and all the rest of it.

It’s freaking hard, especially when I know that I can go right back to doing what I’m good at and get the warm fuzzies that I love. But the potential rewards are too precious to leave aside.

So, what exactly am I sucking at in 2015?

  1. Building iPhone apps / software engineering. I’ve been someone who can come up with an idea and describe what it should look like–sometimes in considerable written detail–but I’ve never, ever been the guy who builds it. That is going to change. I’m starting with iOS because it’s easy to commercialize, it’s pretty self-contained from a technology standpoint, and going mobile-first just seems like a no brainer at this point. I’m aiming to have my first production app out by early April. Judging by how difficult this has been so far, that schedule might be a little optimistic. Suckage rating: Three roombas and a clogged milkshake straw.
  2. Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I like jiu-jitsu because it allows me to satisfy my lust for combat without getting punched in the face. I dislike it because, as a beginner, I have roughly the same chances against an experienced practitioner as Panama did against the US. My understanding is that this utter helplessness lasts between six and twelve months, depending on one’s spatial aptitude and flexibility (average and horrible, in my case). In other words, I may have found a really, really good way to practice sucking. Suckage rating: Congress.
  3. Electronic music. That’s right, I’ve started producing bad electronic music! I’m using a Maschine Mikro, a Korg NanoKey 2, and the seemingly endless amounts of IDM, chiptune, shoegaze, ambient, dubstep, and who knows what else lodged in my brain. Check me out on SoundCloud, yo. Suckage rating: Interstellar space.

ApplyMap and ApplyFacts

I’ve been working full-time on a new startup, ApplyMap, for about the last nine months now.

This, my friends, is the ApplyMap Mortarboard.

This, my friends, is the ApplyMap Mortarboard.

<elevatorpitch>In a nutshell, ApplyMap is a site that helps high school students decide where to apply to college. They give us their grades, their test scores, their school preferences, and how many applications they’re willing to fill out, and our algorithm returns the best possible mix of schools for them to apply to, including dream, reach, match, and safety schools. It’s not unlike the advice you’d get after spending an hour with a good college counselor or consultant, except it’s online, it’s free, and it takes less than five minutes.</elevatorpitch>

We’re up to all kinds of exciting things at ApplyMap, some of which will be called out right here on my personal site. Today I’m plugging ApplyFacts, our analytics blog. The first post, which I just put up, explains what we’re doing writing a blog when our job is to do math and help kids–especially kids from underserved communities–get into college. Hint: good science is only good when non-scientists hear about it!

Check it out and spread the word.

 

5 x 100: Taming the Fire Hose

Hi, my name’s Steve, and I play a lot of video games. In the past, I did this professionally, either as a journalist or for market research purposes. Now I do it because I built a Steam Box, and the Humble Bundle, where you can literally pay anything you want to download games by the half-dozen, has its hooks in me. There is no going back after crossing this threshold; there is only the next bundle, and the one after that. And the insidious Steam sales offering you last year’s Triple-A titles at a 75% discount. And of course there’s also the App Store, and PlayStation Plus, where games are so cheap and plentiful, or so heavily amortized, that they are effectively free. The flow of novelty is both intoxicating and addictive.

So you see, if I’m not careful, I will end up spending more time researching and downloading games than I do playing them. This blog post, which I hope to turn into a semi-regular feature in the new year, is intended to make me be careful. I am limiting myself to playing ten games at a time, while forcing myself to write about five. The thinking is that I will actually have to savor the games I’m playing, instead of simply burning through them on a mad search for the next high. I’ll write 100 words about each game at most. Economy of language leads to disciplined thought.

XCOM: Enemy Within

This year’s XCOM simply provides more of what made last year’s Enemy Unknown a great design, a perfect fusion of high-level management with detailed tactics. The new stuff–and there is a lot of new content–is built on top of the last game. This is an achievement akin to painting the Mona Lisa into the Last Supper. Play it on Classic or Hardcore difficulty in Ironman mode, so if you screw up a mission, it stays screwed up. The stakes need to be high for the game to work its magic to the fullest.

rymdkapsel

Games do not get more Northern European than this. rymdkapsel is a deep-space iOS strategy game engineered for maximum efficiency. The space station is made from pastel Tetris blocks, the characters are white rectanges, the controls only rarely require a second thumb, the music is a focused drone in the background, and the goal is to stay alive. These ingredients combine into a game that holds my attention for hours at a time, because figuring out which station modules to build where, and when, is a very interesting challenge.

The Binding of Isaac

This is a top-down roguelike adventure in the style of the original Legend of Zelda. Not very remarkable. The style in which it is executed, however, is… unique. The hero’s tears, born from extreme psychological traumas detailed in short cartoons, are weaponized. His enemies disgust on a visceral level–obese waddlers that belch flies, children with their eyes gouged out, bags of pus and filth that explode into blood. And it’s fun, even though playing it makes you feel dirty. This was made a small team of deviants who happen to know something about games.

Metro: Last Light

A post-apocalyptic FPS made by, for, and about Russians. It’s set in the subway beneath a thoroughly nuked Moscow, where survivors have split into gangs organized by territory. Contemporary Russian politics echoes through the tunnels, where neo-nazis, communists and nationalists kill each other with jury-rigged weapons. The air on the surface is poisonous, requiring the use of a gas mask that obscures your vision and doubles the claustrophobia. Russkies are survivors, though, and there is an undercurrent of dark humor that runs throughout. It’s worth playing.

Antichamber

In Antichamber, you dash around inside an M.C. Escher print. The game is series of optical illusions and oblique verbal clues to puzzle through before a timer runs out. The exit, inaccessible to the novice, is cruelly situated near the origin point, where you will be repeatedly deposited after failing a challenge. All of this is more intriguing than frustrating, at least from my perspective, because I rarely encounter a game that so openly jerks players around and messes with their heads.

Good Idea, Bad Idea: North Korea Edition

KJU

Kim Jong Un’s taking East Asia on a roller coaster ride.

Just how crazy is this Kim Jong Un guy, anyway? In the week or so since KJU had his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, branded a traitor, executed, and expunged from official existence, I’ve read several articles describing him as a dangerous enfant terrible, and perhaps even a “modern Caligula.”

That notoriously depraved Caesar was eventually assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard, and some voices in our foreign policy establishment would like to see the U.S. expedite this process. This argument comes in two basic flavors. The first is that we should try to get rid of KJU because he’s a really bad guy who commits crimes against humanity and flouts international laws, especially the nonproliferation regime, with impunity. The second is that KJU’s behavior has been so erratic that he cannot be trusted to make decisions that are consistent with the survival of his regime. In other words, he may not deterrable, which could be a big problem given the DPRK’s rudimentary-but-still-plenty-fissile nuclear stockpile.

Neither flavor tastes good, in my opinion. KJU is indeed a monstrous individual who deserves to be locked up in The Hague for 999 consecutive life terms, and so were the two previous Dear Leaders. Luckily, the state of North Korea isn’t a useful vehicle for causing serious international security trouble, because those three guys have driven it like a budget rental for 60-odd years.

Consequently, most of the nasty stuff the DPRK does on the international scene amounts to small-time mafioso crap: drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and illegal weapons sales, all done to keep the lights on in Pyongyang (12 hours a day). Peddling nuclear and missile technologies to the highest bidder is somewhat more serious… but what do the North Koreans actually have to sell, anyway? DPRK is very unlikely to sell a completed weapon or fissile material–the risks associated with that transfer are practically insurmountable, given how often DPRK’s weapons shipments are intercepted–and the other states in the market for nuclear weapons can likely do better with indigenous programs.

In short, DPRK is effectively contained, leaving the irrationality argument. The thing is that KJU’s purge doesn’t seem irrational to me. Quite the opposite, in fact. He was able to eliminate his uncle, an experienced and very well-connected politician who was close to the levers of power, suggesting both animal cunning and a knack for self-preservation, not madness. For all we know, KJU may not have lasted another year if he hadn’t acted when and how he did. Whatever the case, this kind of action isn’t unprecedented in new totalitarian governments.

I’ll end with this final thought: we don’t actually want KJU’s regime to collapse, and neither does South Korea, believe it or not. Nothing KJU has done to this point is as unpredictable as what could occur in the wake of a North Korean civil war or coup. And if you think reintegrating Germany was difficult for the Germans, just imagine what the South Koreans will have to do to bring 25 million of their starving Northern cousins up to speed.

I think the best way to get rid of KJU and his regime, ultimately, is to sign a peace treaty and formally end the Korean War, depriving the DPRK of its main excuse for oppressing its people so horribly under “wartime conditions.” From there, let the Sunshine Policy do the work, and maybe we get reunification several decades down the road.

Relaunch!

I’ve been no good at keeping this blog updated regularly… but I have a good excuse.

Initially, this was intended to be my professional grad student blog. My plan was to write exclusively about academic subjects, with an eye on boosting my web profile as I headed towards the job market.

The problem was that I had trouble identifying academic topics I felt like blogging about. Not because there was any lack of interesting developments in the real world, or of cool work being done in my academic areas of interest. I simply found that I would rather write about all the other stuff I like, such as:

  • Startups, entrepreneurship, the accelerating creation and destruction of markets.
  • My own projects, such as the new startup I’m working on, ApplyMap.
  • New developments in media, interactive entertainment, and games of all kinds.
  • Awesome books: fiction, nonfiction, prose, how-to.
  • Maybe I’ll pretend like it’s 2010 and do some games journalism.
  • Pro sports and sports analytics, which I’m really getting into, with a special focus on the San Francisco 49ers, the Sacramento Kings, and combat sports.
  • Not-so-pro sports, meaning all the sports and other athletic endeavors I injure myself participating in.
  • Current events.
  • Coding. I’m learning Objective-C and backend web stuff (JS, PHP, MySQL).
  • Okay, fine, academics. political science, development econ, complexity science, computational modeling. I may be on leave from UCLA right now to work on the startup, but I still love this stuff.
  • Food.
  • TBD.

So, with that in mind, I’m officially rechristening, repurposing, and relaunching this blog, just in time for 2014. Given this new list, I’d better be able to keep a regular posting schedule, because I’m out of excuses.

The Most Interesting Man In The World

Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that he will be returning to the Russian presidency in 2012 is about as surprising as a Yaakov Smirnoff punchline. In America, citizens choose president by voting… in Putin’s Russia, president chooses votes by citizens! Or something along those lines. Putin first won election in 2000 with 53% of the vote; in 2004, he smashed the opposition by winning 71%, a feat that his deputy Dmitry Medvedev duplicated in 2008. I would say that the over-under on Putin’s number next year is a healthy 75%.

Cool shades.

Why not something a little higher, like 80%, 90%, or even a Saddam Hussein-style flawless victory? It could be arranged. The Putin circle’s mastery of Russian politics is complete. The media has been brought to heel by years of mergers and acquisitions activity and well-placed bribes, not to mention a steady drip of journalist assassinations. The opposition has been cowed into silence–even the Communists, who were once quite adept at seizing and holding political power, but seem to have lost their street-fighting chops on their way to the Duma, where they are content to play the loyal “opposition” to Putin’s United Russia party with a token number of seats. The regional governments have been packed with cronies. The military just had its budget increased.

Medvedev, the most serious (and only realistic) threat to Putin’s control of the Russian state, is heading back to the prime minister’s office, where he will no doubt spend the next eight years (two Russian presidential terms, the maximum allowed by the constitution) waiting to spell Putin in 2020. Western hopes that Medvedev would play the Gorbachev to Putin’s Brezhnev were completely unfounded.

Yes, Putin would appear to have Russia on a string… and yet heavy lies the crown. Personalistic authoritarian regimes like Putin’s often lack the institutions necessary to “reproduce itself in a legitimate way,” as Vladislav Imozemtsev recently noted in a shrewd piece in Foreign Affairs.

The temporary switch to Medvedev only worked because Putin was still in the public eye, constantly reminding Russians that he was as vigorous as ever. Rather than a democratically appropriate alternation in power, the whole exercise was couched as a sort of four-year adventure vacation for the president.

Indeed, Putin’s roster of activities during his time away from the presidency reads more like a page out of The Most Interesting Man In The World‘s battered travel journal than a typical stint in a prime ministership. A partial list includes plumbing the world’s deepest lake in a sub, riding with notorious Russian biker gangs, shooting Siberian tigers with a tranq gun, and piloting various military aircraft (fixed- and rotor-wing!). The guy wasn’t just trying really hard–he was trying too hard.

So what? Maybe the guy’s having a delayed midlife crisis or something; maybe he’s just checking items off his bucket list. Could be, except that everything we know about Putin personally suggests that the man has few romantic or adventurous inclinations. He is most often described as a cautious–even colorless–pragmatist who is methodical to a fault. In fact, his efficient, calculating, essentially passionless nature was a major selling point for Boris Yeltsin, who needed to pick someone who could squelch Russia’s burgeoning economic and social anarchy as his successor. Putin got the job because he was the Least Interesting Man In The World.

The transformation from KGB suit to invincible muscleman strikes many observers in the West as overly facile and tone-deaf from a marketing point of view. But the fact is that Russians eat this stuff up. Putin’s personal popularity stands at 68%, a number that most US politicians would kill for.

Another fact is that Putin needs his personal numbers to be legitimately sky-high–much more so than Barack Obama, say, who can perhaps survive a personal popularity score in the high 40s. Putin cannot, for the same reason he can’t win the presidential vote with 100% of the vote.

Russia’s economic future depends on two things: rising commodity prices (especially in oil and gas) and foreign direct investment. The latter is more important than the former in the long run, in part because Russia’s energy infrastructure desperately needs to be modernized, but mostly because Russia stands no chance of escaping its steady decline without economic diversification.

In short, the Russians need General Electric (and similar firms) to come invest in their country. Investors, in turn, are looking for credible signals that Russia will keep its end of the many deals it wishes to sign. Risk management experts tend to look at absolute dictatorships with a jaundiced eye, particularly when it comes to longterm infrastructure investments, because the investment climates in such countries are actually less predictable than they are in democracies. Absolute dictators may decide to do impulsive things like revoke foreign property rights; they might privilege crony-owned local concerns over more efficient foreign investors; and, most importantly, their countries might explode into civil war upon the dictator’s death.

An anocrat like Putin, on the other hand, floats along winning 70% of the vote, generally without widespread fraud. His popularity is genuine–albeit heavily stage-managed and augmented by media control–and foreign firms are confident in it. By the time he’s on his deathbed, the public should be familiar enough with Medvedev (who is a full 12 years younger) that the transition will go smoothly.

Of course, Putin doesn’t look like a guy who’s going to be on his deathbed anytime soon, does he?