How to Raise Money


“A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me.” -Emerson

Rejected for a vital business loan, FedEx founder Fred Smith took the young company’s final $5,000 to Las Vegas, where he successfully ‘raised’ $24,000 at the blackjack table just in time to pay their fuel bill and keep the company afloat. Today FedEx has over $46 billion in assets. I have always admired the resourcefulness Fred displayed to save his company. There is always another way.

A startup may have little to no revenues and insufficient operating history to be considered for a bank loan, yet one of a founder’s chief responsibilities is ensuring their company has sufficient capital to operate and grow. Hence, an entire industry of “angel investing” and “venture capital” has sprung up to help fledgling companies and share some of the value if the are successful.

As a young entrepreneur I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the process and terminology (IRR? pari passu? clawback?? oh my…) of fundraising, so I have written this in the hopes of helping an inexperienced founder navigate the stormy waters of one of the most exciting yet infuriating parts of growing a business: fundraising

1. Are you sure you need to raise?

It is entirely possible to build a company with little to no outside funding. Mailchimp did it. Amazon raised less than $10m before going public. In fact, according to Fundable, only 0.91 percent of startups are funded by angel investors at all, while merely 0.05 percent are funded by VCs.

There are numerous sources of capital besides equity financing. Have you considered crowdfunding? An SBA loan? An SBIR grant? Your city, county, and state may have economic development programs that would consider you for a low interest loan or even a grant – free money! For example, the Los Angeles Economic & Workforce Development Department (EWDD) has an annual budget of almost $75m and provides loans and grants.

Don’t raise money for the wrong reasons or at the wrong time. If you are losing money on your customers don’t go pay to acquire more. Fix your margins first. Don’t scale an inefficient process.

Don’t optimize your business for investors. Optimize your business for customers. If significant equity financing and many years are required to reach profitability you may want to reconsider your product or business model. A big raise may get you a sexy headline but might not be the best thing for the business. Employees will inexorably become less disciplined with how they spend.

2. The Process

As the great PG says, fundraising is a huge distraction. If you are raising you are not focusing on the business, which is going to make it harder to raise money. Investors are chronic teases. They love talking and they hate writing checks. Get in, get your money, and get out as quickly and cleanly as possible. They have all the time in the world on their side. Don’t let them waste yours. Everyone evolves their own style but here is a textbook fundraising process:

a. Determine how much you want to raise and at what price
b. Make a list of 8-10 investors that match the profile you want
c. Set a timeline (I suggest 4-6 weeks) and stick to it

One of the most common rookie mistakes is trying to raise too much at too high of a valuation too early. Investors need to see their investment go up with subsequent rounds (IRR). The lower your early rounds the happier they’ll be with the progress of a subsequent round. And few things are more demoralizing than a down round.

Take your metrics and accounting seriously. If you raise money on false numbers, even mistakenly, it’s fraud. Hire a professional experienced in finance and accounting. Investment bankers can help you with valuation services and auditing and it’s never too early to start building a relationship. They can also help you pick potential investors and make introductions. I highly recommend Pitchbook for seeing which investors know your space, like making investments of your size, and are at a good point in their funding cycle. Remember VCs themselves raise money from LPs and are looking for returns within 8-10 years. Bigger and more famous funds aren’t always better. It’s about finding the right fit.

Now package up your sell story (most investors expect a slide deck but some bold entrepreneurs go without) and metrics and go pitch. Remember you are selling each other. They want to sell money as much as you want to sell shares. What makes their money better than the firm across the street? What makes your shares more valuable than the last pitch? There is a bit of an art to picking the right time to raise and playing different funds off each other, but people will remember if you shop around a term sheet and provoke a bidding war.

Choose the partner you will work with very carefully. This is even more important than the fund. You are going to spend a lot of time and go through a lot of stress with this person. Make sure you are a good match. Chris Dixon has been a rock for Soylent. We have been through a lot and he and his firm have always been there for me.

If someone likes you you’ll get a term sheet. Congratulations! Nobody ever wants to make the first offer so if you get this far you’re in a good place. Now sit down with a good lawyer and make sure you understand each and every term in exhaustive detail. There is a lot more to a deal than share price. Do they want a board seat? A liquidation preference? Preferences on future rounds? Preferred stock or common? The details matter. It can be smart to take a lower price for better terms.

A good partner can be a huge asset as a board member, but try not to load up your board with too many VCs. A good board is balanced between investors, independents, and founders. Don’t put too many executives or cofounders on the board. You don’t want to report to the same people that report to you. Find thought leaders of your industry and offer them independent board seats.

3. Diligence

Before the round is “closed” the lead investor will conduct “due diligence”. This can vary by fund but the process with Andreessen Horowitz was pretty grueling, which I suppose is to be expected of a top tier firm.

After some negotiations, I signed their term sheet and was invited to their headquarters on Sand Hill road. The attractive secretaries greeted me and ushered me toward a wing of the building I had never been in before. I walked alone down a long hallway with photos of exploding nuclear weapons lining the walls. I could have sworn the corridor became narrower as I walked down but maybe it was just my imagination. At last I reach the door at the end. Only then I noticed a placard, similar to the ones on all the other offices reading “000 – Data Room”. The moment I open the door a hand reaches out from the darkness inside, grabs my wrist, and violently pulls me in. The door slams shut behind me.

Slowly my eyes adjust to the twilight. Pillars of flame that seem to be suspended in mid air provide the only source of illumination. Silhouetted against them I count 10 figures in black, silk, body-length robes with hoods over their heads. I note this corresponds to the number of general partners at the firm. The one exception is Chris Dixon, the lead partner on the deal, who has his hood down and is wearing a white robe with a large jewel encrusted dollar sign emblazoned on the chest.

“Greetings, Mr Rhinehart” a deep, disembodied voice bellows from the darkness.

“Welcome to the Data Room”

“DATA ROOM DATA ROOM DATA ROOM” the hooded figures repeat in unison

“The time has come to conduct our diligence”

“DILIGENCE DILIGENCE DILIGENCE” they repeat again, louder this time

Chris Dixon approaches me. With trepidation and care in his eyes he produces a weighty bronze key from his robe and places it in my hands. Wordlessly he motions to my left, where I see a large, circular door, like the entrance to a bank vault. A small keyhole is recessed in the center.

A bit unsure of myself, I shuffle toward the door and lift the key toward the hole. Before it even makes contact a beam of coherent light shoots from the end to the back of the keyhole. Immediately I hear the rush of gas escaping and the huge door disengages from its locks and lumbers to the side.

“Good luck” Chris whispers, with no small amount of consternation in his voice. As soon as I enter the door slams shut behind me.

More pillars of flame light this room, which is bright enough I can see its extremities. An archway leads to a cavernous expanse where I hear deafening creaking and whooshing noises. Above the archway, in gilded Helvetica the words – “BOARD ROOM” are printed. A plaque on the ground has an inscription

“The entrepreneur must be an expert of timing under pressure”

A twisting stone walkway extends before me. On either side is a sheer drop of at least 50 feet, with boiling Soylent at the bottom. That’s just the beginning though. Huge columns of timber are swinging violently across the walkway, suspended by frayed ropes and actuators at the top that help them keep their momentum. At the end of the walkway is another round door, behind a rectangular glass case, the contents of which I can’t quite make out.

“This will be a cakewalk” I think, scarfing down the two Food Bars I keep in my pocket.

The swinging logs follow a regular pattern so by simply timing my sprints I make it across most of the serpentine walkway, which grows narrower near the end. The hardest part was the last round with two logs in tandem so that I could either jump over the lower one as it passes, or slide under the upper one. I choose to jump and roll and make it through unscathed, then sprint up a hill toward the glass case and door.

I wrap my fist in my hoodie and punch through the glass. The glass is thin enough and I avoid getting cut. In the case lies another key and an immaculate pair of Moon Boots. Nice. I throw my Birkenstocks in to the Soylent lake and don the Moon Boots, noticing a new spring in my step. The soles must be quite elastic.

This door opens in a similar fashion to the first. Behind it another archway opens to another cavern, this one much larger than the last. “LIQUIDATION PREFERENCE” is the marking on this one. An inscription reads

“The entrepreneur must be able to find balance among the many competing forces of the business universe”

On a cube of stone just past the archway sits a Soma pitcher, filled to the brim with Soylent. A simple diagram shows the pitcher pouring in to a spherical gold reservoir, resembling one I can barely make out at the other end of a sight of terror.

Small, irregular stones dot a vast lake of water, filled with sharks and alligators who are embroiled in a bloody battle royale throughout the entire scene.

“Let’s do this” I say aloud, though my voice cracks a bit.

My Moon Boots allow me to jump farther and higher, though I have to be careful not to spill any Soylent. I land on the first stone squarely in the middle, but some of the sea carnivores have noticed me, and I jump off just as a row of razor sharp alligator teeth snap behind me.

I keep my momentum going, barely outpacing the violence, and around jump 10 start to near the end. Except, there is no stone to bridge the final expanse. Trying not to panic I see a particularly large shark gathering momentum toward me through the depths.

“If I time it just right…”

I jump just as the shark’s head breaks the water in front of me, then land one foot barely on its nose, deftly take two steps down its back and jump again with both legs. But I undershoot.

My feet enter the water and I desperately grasp at the edge with one hand, while keeping the pitcher upright with the other. It slams on the stone with a sickening thud, but doesn’t crack. I notice with near panic a splash of Soylent on the ground beside it.

“I hope I didn’t spill too much…”

I pull myself up before the gator to my right can reach me and run to the gold sphere. It has a funnel on top, in to which I pour the Soylent. I hear a sound as it fills reminiscent of Link refilling his health in the Legend of Zelda, but even as the pitcher empties the reservoir seems to deem my offering inadequate. At last, with the final, slow, drop I hear a sound of 8-bit victory and a glass case rises from beneath the ground.

I kick through the glass with my Moon Boots and recover another key and 2 identical steel warglaives, sharp to the touch. They remind me of The Twin Blades of Azzinoth, wielded by Illidan Stormrage. Sweet.

Another chamber. I had hoped that was the end. “CLAWBACK PROVISION” is the inscription on this one.

“That doesn’t sound fun”

More guidance:

“The entrepreneur must persevere through the forces of status quo and entropy”

Inside appears a vast, lush forest. I smell sweet wildflowers and damp soil. Hm, doesn’t seem to be so bad. Suddenly living vines grasp me from all directions and I notice towering carnivorous plants approaching. Thinking quickly, I shred through the biomass with my blades and continue forward. They are too many, though. For every vine I slash two more seem to grasp me.

I am about to lose hope when I realize that the thick trees are not bearing typical fruit, but packaged food products like twizzlers and oreos and…Coffiest! I rejoice. I free one hand by slashing a particularly thick vine, and lunge at the bottle, severing it neatly from the tree and the cap in one motion. I catch it in the same hand and promptly imbibe it.

With newfound strength and energy I begin making forward progress again. These plants can’t hold me back. At the end is a sheer wall with a single redwood tree, must be 30 in diameter, climbing to the top. I dig in to the trunk with my blades and make the grueling climb to the top.

Another glass case, which I slash cleanly through with my left blade, contain two matching Asus Zenwatch 3’s. Awesome. I put them on, one on each wrist, and use the key to open the circular door.

“Well done Mr Rhinehart” the same voice from before booms through the chamber. “But greater founders than you have failed the final test”

I notice I am standing on a vast expanse of steel grating with bubbling lava beneath me. The room seems to expand infinitely in all directions. I am just beginning to feel the extreme heat and tearing off what is left of my shirt when suddenly something hits me in the chest like a sledgehammer. I double over, the wind knocked out of me, and feel the steel grid shaking beneath me.

As I look up from my crouched position I see a massive white unicorn charging directly towards me, its brilliant skin reflecting heat and light and its sinuous muscles rippling with rage. Its horn is razor sharp and covered with diamonds. Thick pink laser beams periodically blast from its eyes. Another beam strikes me in the shoulder and knocks me flat on my back. I skid backwards several feet and panic when I realize I’ve lost grip on my right blade.

Another beam seems trained on my skull when I instinctively lift my right wrist to protect my face. The laser beam harmlessly bounces off the face of the Asus ZenWatch 3 and disappears in to the darkness. Suddenly I realize I stand a chance.

I take a moment and marvel at the beauty of the creature.

“Such a shame I must destroy you, beast” I shout in its direction, which seems to anger it even further.

We sprint toward each other, each covering huge swaths of ground in a short time. I start bouncing farther and faster directly toward the unicorn with my moon boots and deflect its lasers with my watches. Just as we are about to collide I fake another jump, instead using my momentum to duck and slide under the rampaging horse-like mammal. Using my left blade I slice the belly of the beast open and emerge on the other side.

After skidding to a stop I slowly stand up and notice an unnatural calm and quiet fill the room. Turning around gradually I see the unicorn has stopped, but is still standing. An ear-splitting scream explodes from its mystical lungs and out of its belly pours not flesh and blood but gears and wires. Of course! Unicorns aren’t real. It’s animatronic. No wonder VCs invest so much in robotics and AI. It helps with their diligence.

I walk toward the dying creature, almost sympathetic. It falls in spasms and sparks and I taste victory. But it was premature.

Without warning the front half of the robo-beast gains a supernatural burst of strength and lunges at me. I am knocked over and my blade falls behind. Sharpened steel teeth are at my neck and emblazoned pink eyes stare in to mine, ready to execute.

I have failed my company…tears well in my eyes and I am about to accept the end when I hear the unicorn speak, its mouth unmoving. It has the tender voice of a woman.

“Did you fudge your churn numbers?” it says

“Yes! Yes!” I cry in desperation. “I’m sorry! It was my CFO’s idea! He said it was ‘investor accounting’ but I knew it was wrong! I’m sorry I’ll never do it again! The true number is 2% higher!”

The unicorn’s eyes go dark and its strength deflates like a balloon. Instantaneously I see a square outline of light open from the ceiling far above. A platform suspended by chains gradually lowers in to the chamber. On it stands Marc Andreessen, donning a full suit of barbarian armor and holding a massive jewel-encrusted broadsword. At his side is Ben Horowitz, in purple regalia holding a crooked wooden staff with a glowing blue orb at the top.

“Oh no…” I think. My stamina exhausted, my flesh covered with cuts, bruises, and burns, my watch batteries deceased.

“Do not worry Mr Rhinehart” Marc says, his rapid speech dripping with wisdom and strength, his face beaming with pride. “Your trials are over. You did well.” He offers me a hand and helps me up. Then he reaches in to his leather pouch and pulls out a check for $20 million. It is addressed to Rosa Foods, Inc from Andreessen Horowitz Fund IV.

My trembling hand grasps the fragile paper in disbelief. I see Marc’s eyes glow radiant gold and he points his broadsword at the check in my hand. A signature materializes on the endorsement line.

Ben points his staff at me and I feel myself lifted off the ground on to the platform. As we rise in to the blinding light I feel myself drift off to sleep.

I awake in a fresh set of clothes and realize I am sitting at the head of a long table on the patio of the Rosewood. Nobody else is there. They must have bought out the restaurant. The whole partnership is there, however, dressed in their normal clothes. We feast on roast boar and shark, drinking goblets of wine as the partners recount their own tales of diligence. It was a blur but I do recall Chris Dixon telling a vivid story of wrestling an alligator in the Liquidation Preference room, while Lars Dalgaard rolls his eyes.

After a good night’s rest I get back to work. But I can’t help but wonder…what will the Series B be like?


Public Apology


Over the last week, there have been news reports regarding my shipping container project on Flat Top Hill. I have since removed the container, and brought the land in to compliance with city
building and safety codes. I would like to offer my sincerest apologies to my neighbors who I upset.

As a first time property owner, the container was meant to be an experiment in sustainable housing. In the future, I will ensure that I do my due diligence with regard to all city and neighborhood regulations. Flat Top Hill is a gem of Los Angeles, and I intend to make only positive contributions to the neighborhood and community going forward.

How I Simplified My Phone

I fear falling into the abyss of the phone. Is it really better than the world outside? Electronics used to be a tool. A means to an end. Now they are becoming a destination. The harsh glow of the TFT panel has become a security blanket, filling every spare moment with entertainment, making reflection and relaxation a distant memory.

Personally, I found my life was evolving into a struggle to clear notifications. The smartphone, like an abusive partner, lures you in with promises of comfort and help, but in time, combined with endless complicated apps, causes more anxiety than you had before. Something had to be done, and yet, I’m addicted. Most of my life was spent without a smartphone. How did I become so dependent on it? So I decided I would start by simplifying my device a bit. If nothing else maybe I can at least get the battery to last longer.


Iphones, which seem to get bigger, heavier, more expensive, and more complicated with every release, not to mention a complete lack of customization and control, are obviously off the table. Iphones have also gotten worse battery life per mAh with each subsequent release while other manufacturers have improved.


Even android phone makers seem dedicated to ever more power and more features and don’t trust their users. Every smartphone I’ve owned has left me frustrated with its complexity, battery life, bloatware, and lack of control. I resent not having root access to a device I paid for. However, I had heard good things about Xiaomi and after some time studying GSMArena I settled on the Xiaomi Redmi 2. The Redmi 2 has a highly capable Snapdragon 410 quad core CPU manufactured on a 28nm process node, 8MP camera, 2GB memory, QuickCharge, and though designed for the primarily 3G Chinese market, has LTE capability. Another nice feature is dual SIM cards. I feel for people that have to carry around 2 phones. It also costs $129 unlocked, weighs 133g and is 9.4mm thick. Not bad.


However, I was searching for a phone with an HSPA+ radio only. LTE is unnecessary and wasteful. To optimize for battery life and network speed we look at spectral efficiency, a measure of the amount of information that can be sent over a radio link per amount of bandwidth. Thanks to a brilliant encoding scheme, HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) has spectral efficiency of 4.22, while LTE is 4.08 and LTE-Advanced backtracks further to 3.75. LTE does, however, support wider bandwidths and so in theory can download faster, but only at the expense of battery life and spectrum clogging. HSPA+ supports downlink speeds up to 337.5 Mbit/s, many times what I should need, while saving power and using less spectrum, hopefully meaning fewer retransmitted packets and lower latency. As an aside, I’m still miffed carriers haven’t adopted SCTP over TCP, which makes much more sense for mobile.

LTE also has a tangled web of frequency bands, over 40, meaning engineers have to make different radio front ends for the same phone in different markets or different carriers. Designing antennas to support even the LTE channels for one carrier in one market severely hurts performance. The UMTS bands used by HSPA are much more streamlined and standardized, residing on the same 5 frequency bands worldwide, and are shared with the much older GSM bands, simplifying carrier upgrades and speeding deployment.


Bands supported by various iphone 6 models. That’s a lot. The radio and antenna are hamstrung due to a high number of disparate LTE bands. Note HSPA frequencies are supported by all models so if your iphone is unlocked you can switch to Ting

With a more sensitive antenna and simpler radio front end, HSPA devices should in practice have better reception and battery life than those using LTE while making development easier for phone designers and carriers alike. The Redmi 2 does support 6 LTE bands, none of which are common in the United States. With deployments scattered across so many bands LTE makes a global smartphone practically impossible.

Next I had to ditch Verizon. I don’t need their contracts, their horrible customer service and their aggressive advertising. I also don’t think phones should be sold in silly dealerships like cars. I bought a new Redmi 2 on Aliexpress and it arrived in less than a week, free shipping. To my surprise it came not just unlocked but rooted. Even though designed for the Chinese market the Redmi works on the UMTS HSPA+ bands used by T-Mobile. I got excited when I heard about Google’s “Project Fi”, which allows you to pay for data as you go, but then found it requires use of an expensive Google phone. The MVNO Ting provides the same pay as you go model, and also allows BYOD (bring your own device). I popped in a SIM card I bought from, entered my ICCID, and it worked right away. They even grabbed my number from Verizon overnight. I thought I’d be a heavy data user since I tether and travel a lot but so far I am saving over $100 / month. Maybe I’m on wifi more than I thought.

Service is fantastic. Verizon used to drop my calls and time out for data all the time. Maybe it’s because the UMTS bands are mostly empty these days but I haven’t dropped a call yet and I get a consistent 6.5MBps downlink on HSPA+, indoors and out. That’s fast enough to torrent a movie while I’m in line to board a plane.

I’m still optimistic one day we’ll have true mesh networking, or LEO satellite internet, but Iridium is probably going to have investors scared for some time.


One of Xiaomi’s main value adds is the beautiful and capable MIUI. However, I personally found it buggy and slow, and I wish manufacturers would make life easier on app developers by sticking closer to the stock UI. I installed the TWRP recovery image and CyanogenMod 11S, which is a version of the CyanogenMod Android ROM customized by OnePlus, a promising new smartphone maker. CyanogenMod replaces the OS entirely with a baseline version closer to the Android Open Source Project. This means I can get the latest versions of Android without waiting for the manufacturer or carrier and all bloatware is stripped away. Installing CM11S brought significant improvements in speed and responsiveness, on par with my previous phone, the much more expensive LG G3.

I cleared out the home screen, uninstalled most Google apps, and now run all the programs I need from a sidebar and gestures via NovaLauncher. Swiping up opens Chrome, which is easy to remember as I feel like I am looking up in to the information ether. Swiping down opens Maps, which feels like staring down on the earth. Pinching in opens Slack for internal communications, pinching out opens Gmail for external communication. Double tapping opens the camera. Other than these I use Lyft, Spotify, Dropbox, Drive, Amazon Underground, Phone, SMS, and Calendar. Instagram is my only social media app, mostly because I think the @soylent account is awesome. That’s all I allow myself. So I have no need for an app drawer or multiple app pages. I also used the Xposed framework to center the clock and disable most of the annoying ever-present status bar. I left the network icon though so I know when I’m on HSPA or HSPA+, mostly out of curiosity.


Previously, opening my phone lead to instant confusion and analysis paralysis. Now I’m in and out and back to what I wanted to do. This also helped me silence the itch that used to make me pull out my phone and disappear whenever I had a split second of down time. For better or worse, my friends and significant other don’t expect me to respond to messages immediately, but I pay them back by not constantly checking my phone when I’m with them in person.

I also finally got the battery life I was looking for. My LG G3 would require charging in the middle of the day or I would lose it at night. I had to get in the habit of carrying around a bulky external battery and still I would sometimes be stuck with a dead phone when I needed it most. I’ve spent more on gas station and convenience store chargers in the last year than I spent on this new phone. The Redmi 2 lasts me a solid 2 full days on average, more if I’m not traveling and diligent about turning off wifi and bluetooth, and it refills fast with QuickCharge.

But most importantly, I feel like I got a big chunk of my brain out of my pocket and back in my head. Software may be eating the world. But it’s not going to eat me.

The Appeal of Outsourcing


I am thrilled my blog post earlier this week sparked such a vociferous debate on energy conservation. Among the colorful responses were a few criticisms that I was merely externalizing my impact rather than reducing it. This viewpoint fails to account for the crucial factor of utilization. Pooling labor and sharing resources is much more efficient than doing everything yourself. Automation and globalization grants us both conveniences and energy savings and I am in favor of both.

For its nutrition Soylent 2.0 is perhaps the most ecologically efficient food ever created. You may think me smug but I and many other people have poured their lives into creating something amazing and we have every right to be proud of it. Using algae ingredients over farmland, avoiding refrigeration, spoilage, animal products, retail, cooking, using entirely recyclable packaging and considering the long term potential of synthesising the whole thing biologically off grid provides unprecedented environmental savings and potential. It is sterilized and packaged in a continuous, automated, scalable process with negligible human labor. It really is amazing. Soylent makes up about 80% of my calories and I eat out the rest of the time. This lifestyle is absolutely affordable to the mass American market, with people on average spending $600 / month on food[1]. The time savings could be used for economic gains from studying, or just allow people to relax more or catch up on some sleep, which America needs a lot more than organic produce. I never plan to give up traditional food and don’t expect others to. I love meeting people that are passionate about food. I want food to be made by people that enjoy making it, and are good at making it. I’m just not one of them. Having fewer kitchens that are more heavily utilized is leagues more efficient than everyone having their own kitchen and ingredient inventory sitting around unused most of the time.

Similarly, ridesharing is obviously more sustainable than individual car ownership. Automobile utilization in the United States is as low as 3% according to some studies. UberPool alone could yield enormous savings by moving twice as many people per car per gallon. Not only is the price broadly accessible, it could save millions from the debt and risks that come with car ownership. I do take public transit when it makes sense. For the record I think Los Angeles mayor Garcetti is doing a fantastic job of investing in public transit. Sharing also accelerates the adoption of newer technologies since the aggregate savings are so great. Consider how quickly Uber drivers adopted hybrid cars to save fuel. A personal vehicle may stay on the road for 25 years, leading to “clunkers” with soft tires wasting fuel. Every Uber driver I’ve spoken to enjoys the job for its flexibility. However, part of me knows that they will soon be replaced by self driving cars. More on that later.

Finally, asserting that every factory in China is a sweatshop is prejudiced. I have personally seen factories in the United States (Las Vegas if you’re wondering) with worse working conditions than what I saw when I lived in China. Surely we both have room to improve, but every supplier I use is audited by third parties. Where do you think the clothes in American retail stores come from now? I find it more efficient and cheaper to buy direct and actually use the product than to have clothes sit around in warehouses and retail outlets for months or years. When I donate my clothes they get washed, which takes energy, but it’s in a larger centralized facility so more laundry gets done per person per machine. Again, higher utilization. It would be wasteful for me to run entire loads of wash with my few pieces of clothing. And shipping via ocean is shockingly efficient.

Let’s take the Emma Maersk container ship for example, even though the newer Triple E class ships are 35% more efficient. A trek from Hong Kong to Los Angeles takes about 14 days and burns 1,209,600 gallons of fuel. That’s a lot but it’s moving 15,000 shipping containers, each capable of fitting 36,864 t shirts. So, each shirt is responsible for 8mL of oil, which is what I would burn driving a car 266 feet. Shipping a container from China to LA uses even less fuel than trucking it from San Francisco. Buying “local” is ineffective from a sustainability perspective. It’s just ingroup bias.

On the production side I lean mostly toward polyester, which is not only easily recyclable, it has a negligible water footprint. For energy, a polyester t shirt takes about 12.5MJ to make, which is 3.5kWh, less than half a cycle in a washer and dryer. So if you’re not washing a bunch of clothes at once it can be more efficient to make new clothes than to wash them.[2][3][4][5]

Besides the usual ad hominem I found a lot of people concerned about outsourcing, almost ideologically. I suppose the worry is if we don’t win at everything someone else will take us over, foreign made t shirts and real estate investors ruining our culture. This is ridiculous. Foreign influences like films and architecture and food don’t destroy our culture, they enrich it. Global communications and transportation infrastructure is not going away, in fact it’s exploding. We can’t get enough of it. This invariably leads us to an increasingly global world, and collaboration can bear incredible fruit, as we see already in the sciences. Does anyone really think in 20 years nations will be more insular? Don’t panic. A little conservationist thinking and a few technological improvements will make many of today’s struggles irrelevant. Competition will be around art and discovery. There are plenty of atoms and the sun provides plenty of energy. Pretty soon robots will do all this work and this us vs them mentality will fade as resource conflicts become obsolete. It’s been happening for generations, violence and hunger declining. Our wars today are with debt and health and what temperature to set the air conditioner to. Can you imagine growing up in an era when food and air travel is free?

I’m not telling people how to live. I’m just showing what is possible. If a lot of people met me in the middle I think that would do the job, but to each his own. I know some of what I wrote sounded extreme, but sometimes it takes an extremist to get people to reflect.


How I Gave Up Alternating Current

The walls are buzzing. I know this because I have a magnet implanted in my hand and whenever I reach near an outlet I can feel them. I can feel fortresses of industry miles away burning prehistoric hydrocarbons by the megaton. I can feel the searing pain and loss of consciousness from when I was shocked by exposed house wiring as a boy. I can feel the deep cut of the power bill when I was living near the poverty line. I can feel the cold uncertainty of the first time the power went out due to a storm when I was a child. How long before the delicate veil of civilization turns to savagery with no light nor heat nor refrigeration?

The grid, smart or not, is wasteful. Power generation produces 32% of all greenhouse gases, more than any other economic sector. Most power in the US is generated by burning coal, immediately squandering 67% of its energy, then run through a steam turbine, losing another 50%, then sent across transmission lines, losing another 5%, then to charge a DC device like a cell phone another 20% is lost in conversion. This means for 100 watts of coal or oil burned my phone gets a mere 25. In this light a solar panel that is 18% efficient doesn’t seem that bad.

Instead of ever increasing our energy production, what if we focused instead on reducing our consumption? I expect power will be at a premium in our first space colonies, and DC only from solar cells. So, I embarked on an experiment to see if I could survive without the luxury of alternating current.


In 2013 United States utilities generated 4,066 TWh of electricity and collected $370 billion in revenue. Of this, 70% came from fossil fuel sources like coal and natural gas. Nuclear has a strong showing of 20% and “renewables” are the other 10%, the majority of which is hydroelectric. In fact, the 5 largest power plants in the world are all hydroelectric. Three Gorges Dam alone generates 22,500MW, 10x the capacity of a typical US coal plant. In the US the highest consuming segment is residential, over commercial and industrial, with average use of 909 KWh per month per customer at a cost of $110.

My home city of Los Angeles has peak power demand of 6,125MW. Most of it is imported from coal plants in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. The city generates about 25% of its own power from 4 local natural gas facilities, and another 11% comes from Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, whose twin reactors generate 2,242MW with 193 fuel assemblies. Each assembly contains around 200 fuel rods and each fuel rod contains roughly 400 half-inch Uranium pellets, which are 3.5-5% Uranium-235. That is about 75 tons of Uranium, which must be changed out every 2 years. Still, I prefer it to coal.

Diablo Canyon with its twin reactors employs 1200 people and generates 7% of California’s power

Maintaining these facilities takes thousands of workers and outages are still common. Los Angeles uses overhead power lines that are unsightly and vulnerable to auto accidents. In 2005 a DWP worker accidentally cut a line that severed power to half of Los Angeles. In 2013 Diablo Canyon was forced to shut down due to an influx of jellyfish. Diablo Canyon is also built less than a mile from a major fault line. The largest photovoltaic power plant in the world, Topaz Solar Farm cost $2.5 billion and while its “nameplate capacity” is 550MW, due to solar’s low capacity factor really generates a paltry average of 125MW.

Now I don’t need any of them. I am electrically self reliant. My home life runs comfortably on a single 100W solar panel, which cost $150 and was available on Amazon Prime. I tracked down a few manufacturers in China who all said it costs around $40 to make. The US for some reason leverages massive tariffs on Chinese solar panels, so they ship them through Malaysian customs. Why do the politicians even bother?

For storage a $65 lead acid deep cycle battery does the trick. It’s 12V so can be charged directly from the solar panel, and holds 420Wh, way more than I use in a day. That’s $0.15 / Wh so I don’t see why everyone is so excited about Tesla charging $0.43 / Wh for the Powerwall, sans inverter and installation.

My New Power Source

Note 12V -> 5V Buck Converter; Voltmeter monitors battery charge

I have been living on this system for a few months now and am thrilled how well it works. Every morning I arise and marvel at the free, reliable energy generated in a cosmic fusion reactor and beamed to my apartment through space. Of course, solar would have been prohibitively expensive and complicated had I not reduced my consumption to a fraction of what the average home uses. Here is how I did it.


Kitchens are expensive and dirty. This home manufacturing center has been by far the most liberating to eliminate. They are the greediest consumers of power, water, and labor and produce the most noise and garbage of any room. Moreover, they can be made totally unnecessary with a few practical life hacks.

First, I never cook. I am all for self reliance but repeating the same labor over and over for the sake of existence is the realm of robots. I utilize soylent only at home and go out to eat when craving company or flavor. This eliminates a panoply of expensive tools and rotting ingredients I would need to spend an unconscionable amount of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning.  It also gives me an incentive to explore the city’s fine restaurants and ask friends out to eat. In fact, I find soylent has made me more social when it comes to food. I can spend the money I saved from groceries and take out to buy a friend lunch or dinner. When soylent 2.0 reached private beta, I was thrilled to learn that thanks to aseptic processing the product does not require refrigeration, and will still keep its nutrition for at least a year. It tastes better cold but I think it’s fine warm. Getting rid of my fridge was one of the greatest days of my life. Nevermore will I listen to that damn compressor moan.

I have not set foot in a grocery store in years. Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears. Grocery shopping is a multisensory living nightmare. There are services that will make someone else do it for me but I cannot in good conscience force a fellow soul through this gauntlet.

I buy my staple food online like a civilized person. It takes me mere seconds to order enough soylent for a month, and version 2.0 does not require any preparation, so I got rid of my noisy blender. At less than $2.50 / meal it also saves me loads of cash, and I appreciate the use of more soy and less rice, finally bringing a nutritionally optimal PDCAAS score of 1.0 while improving the taste and especially texture. I also think it’s crazy cool that some of the ingredients are made by algae rather than water-guzzling pesticide-spraying farms.


Soylent 2.0 from private beta

Next, I switched from beer to red wine. I buy with Saucey so I don’t have to use awful retail stores. Decent red wine is surprisingly cheap, pleasurable, and does not require refrigeration. I also end up drinking less liquid overall, meaning fewer bottles to throw away (I average about one trashbag / month) and fewer trips to the bathroom, meaning for a comparable amount of alcohol, when wine is consumed instead of beer there is less electrolyte loss and less after effects.

For coffee and tea I use a butane stove. It is much cheaper and more energy efficient than a Keurig, which can use $160 of electricity / year. It doesn’t waste endless non-recyclable “K-Cups” and I find heats water about as fast. Also fire is much more beautiful than blinking LEDs.

Space Stove

With no fridge, no dishes, no microwave, no oven, no range, no dishwasher, no utensils, no pests, no cleaning products nor dirty rags, my life is considerably simpler, lighter and cleaner than before. I think it was a bit presumptuous for the architect to assume I wanted a kitchen with my apartment and make me pay for it. My home is a place of peace. I don’t want to live with red hot heating elements and razor sharp knives. That sounds like a torture chamber. However, it’s not a total loss. I was able to use the cabinets to store part of my book collection.


Without sustainable power production electric cars are not that great. Charging an 85kWh Tesla would still burn the equivalent of 10 gallons of oil at the power plant.[a] With a range of 265 miles the Tesla Model S really uses 26.5 mpg, barely over the average american fuel economy of 23.6 mpg.

Public transportation is leagues more efficient and I love trains. Still, the energy costs are substantial and the infrastructure requires a lot of maintenance. I take Uber around the city and to work (most of them are Priuses which use DC motors so I’m good there). I take the bus often too. It’s pretty good in LA. Runs on CNG.

Perhaps a cross between a subway car and an automobile: some sort of self-driving electric pod that carried a dozen people in a UberPool model would improve on this. Either that, robot horse cheetahs, or drone multicopters.

The streets were originally made for people. The automobile’s takeover has destroyed more than millions of lives (cars have killed far more Americans than war and AIDS combined), it has trampled the prime conduit of community in our cities and exiled us to the indoors to sit in front of televisions. I hope the next generation of transportation technologies will give us back the streets.

Topaz Solar Farm

For today though, Uber works pretty well. Traffic isn’t so bad if you’re sitting in the back with a book, and since I buy everything I need online I’m never running errands, which makes UberPool cheaper and more convenient than car ownership. I also found myself constantly distracted by my phone while driving, and knew other drivers were too. So, with a simple lifestyle adjustment I find Uber eliminates the pain points of transportation much the same way soylent eliminates the pain points of food. I miss my car sometimes, and I miss frying burgers, but I know both behaviors would have eventually caught up with me. After two years of relying on soylent my blood and body metrics are still optimal, and I no longer have to worry about drunk or distracted driving.

It’s easy to demonize “big food corporations”, but the majority of America’s calories come from home-cooked staple meals. Most of us are driving drunk when it comes to how we eat. At some point we are going to have to admit that we suck at cooking, and we suck at driving. Let’s automate them already so we can focus on art, and science, and exploration. Food can be art, and driving can be exploration, but it’s mostly manufacturing and commuting. I don’t miss them.

All of my scars are either from cooking or driving. I noticed I have not collected any new ones lately.


Today’s computers are remarkably efficient. But we could always do better. I winced as I ditched my homebuilt desktop for a cheap, low power Intel NUC. Giving up my tower for a mini PC felt like when I lost my beloved ‘86 Ford F250 and started riding around in Uber Priuses. It’s the future. But it still stings a little.

The NUC and my displays, 2x AOC 17in USB DisplayLink monitors, are amazingly efficient and serve all my daily needs. When I want some real computing power I SSH or RDP in to an EC2 instance and have all the power I need. Intel has really stepped up their graphics game too. The HD 6000 integrated GPU runs League of Legends and Kerbal Space Program great. Skylake should bring further improvements this Fall. I power the NUC directly from the battery since it runs on 12V and draws less than 1A of current even with the monitors. That’s 72Wh if I use it for 6 hours straight, which my panel produces in less than an hour in direct sunlight, an abundant resource in Los Angeles. No more power blocks, wall warts, or rats nests of cables. My Android phone charges at 5V and uses less than 10Wh / day, which isn’t a lot but I still think is atrocious for what it does. My old Nokia would run for a week on that.

DC Desktop


I enjoy doing laundry about as much as doing dishes. I get my clothing custom made in China for prices you would not believe and have new ones regularly shipped to me. Shipping is a problem. I wish container ships had nuclear engines but it’s still much more efficient and convenient than retail. Thanks to synthetic fabrics it takes less water to make my clothes than it would to wash them, and I donate my used garments.

The overwhelming majority of clothing Americans buy is made overseas anyways. I just buy direct. And container ships are amazingly efficient.

It bothers me immensely that all clothing is hand made. Automation is woefully absent from the textile industry, but I don’t think it always will be. For now a few new t shirts and jeans per month is not very offensive. I certainly buy less clothing overall than a typical consumer. Synthetic fabrics are easy to recycle and I believe will soon be made with biofuels. Still, this area needs some work.

Intermountain Power Plant in Utah cost $4.5 billion, generates 1900MW, and is operated by LA DWP

Climate Control

In Los Angeles climate control is leaving the windows open. My apartment came with a Nest but I removed it and have not felt the need for either heating or air conditioning. Even in less temperate locales I wonder if we really need to define our environment to within single degree Fahrenheit. I am not so controlling, but I do want to take back the rooftops from those horrible HVAC units.


As mandated by modern building codes my apartment building uses harsh overhead LED lighting. At first I switched to electroluminescent wire, which shines much more evenly and calmly while being remarkably efficient. However, it uses AC so I rewired with adjustable RGB LEDs, 12V so they can also be run straight from the battery. I love being able to change the color and brightness remotely and quickly found a more comfortable hue and strength.


I am blessed with nice weather, a nice view, and a full bookcase so see no need for a noisy, unsightly television, a black hole that living rooms arrange themselves around like an altar. I prefer to read, study, code, or go for a walk to one of several parks in my neighborhood. However I do enjoy movies so I set up an LED projector, a “RIF6 Cube”, which blew me away by how great the picture quality is for the price, size and power consumption. I use an Amazon Fire TV Stick which supports Miracast so anything my phone can play my projector can play. I’ve never had cable TV but I was finally able to fully ditch my ISP and Wi-Fi router and use an LTE hotspot. T Mobile provides unlimited data if you’re on their network so since my apartment is near one of their towers it works almost as well as cable.

The RIF6 Cube is simpler, cheaper, and more flexible than a television


The whole retrofit cost $1450, which is steep but I will make it back in due time since I don’t pay for an ISP bundle or power. To me the real upside is the pleasure in being electrically self reliant. Nightmares about being trapped in a coal mine have been replaced by pleasant dreams of basking in the sun’s glory. It got a little weird when I had to prove my existence to a local government and they asked for a utility bill. Good thing I still use water, for now.

If you can strip wires you can set this up yourself. Everything I used is available on Amazon except for soylent 2.0, which is only available at

The first space colonies will have no coal power plants. I am ready. For now though, as I am driven through the gleaming city, my hunger peacefully at bay, I have visions of the parking lots and grocery stores replaced by parks and community centers, power plants retrofitted as museums and galleries. Traffic and trash and pollution will evaporate, if only we are willing to adapt some routines.

R. Buckminster Fuller thought we should connect all the world’s power grids. What if instead we could all connect through the sun?

edit: follow up post The Appeal of Outsourcing


[a] 85kWh = 306MJ

Grid loss is 75% (67% lost on burning * 50% steam turbine loss * 5% transmission line loss * 80% “supercharger” efficiency)

Then need 306MJ / 0.25 = 1201MJ of oil at the plant

Petroleum is 32.4 MJ/L

1201MJ  / 32.4 MJ/L = 37L

37L = 10 gallons

11 Great CEOs by Haiku


1. Sam Walton – Wal-Mart (former)

believed in people
lower prices, more cash flow
unspoiled by wealth

2. Morris Chang – TSMC

just wanted to write
priced chips ahead of the curve
he writes checks all day

3. Jeff Bezos – Amazon

keeps teams small, quiet
pays attention to detail
patience, scale, service

4. Steve Jobs – Apple (former)

design solipsist
luxury brand silicon?

5. Jack Ma – Alibaba

humble; persevered
leadership is character
you’re not crazy, jack

6. Elon Musk – SpaceX + Tesla

lives in the future
has the power to inspire
where’s my hyperloop?

7. Jack Welch – GE (former)

simplifying worked
people don’t like to be ranked
expensive divorce

8. Bill Gates – Microsoft (former)

brilliant hacker
too aggressive in business
what the rich should be

9. Mark Zuckerberg – Facebook

helped make hacking cool
digitized socializing
broke too many things

10. Theodore Newton Vail – AT&T (former)

saw power of phone
profit not the only point
ahead of his time

11. Henry Ford – Ford Motor Company (former)

treated workers well
master of efficiency
production brings peace

Who Owns Los Angeles?


“What is this you call property?”, asked Massasoit, the leader of the Native American Wampanoag tribe. “It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?”

Good question, Massasoit. Yet, due to a tragic combination of the pathogenic bacteria Leptospira and aggressive colonists the answer became irrelevant and the concept of land ownership proliferated through the majestic lands of the new world like a virus.

Today, the dust has settled and the iron horse has carried the white man to the west coast, where I currently reside. As I explored the wonderful city of Los Angeles I began to wonder to whom, exactly do I owe the pleasure of my environment? Who “owns” the dirt I stand on? So I did some research.

The “United States” is divided into 3,144 counties and county equivalents. Of these, Los Angeles county is the most populous, with over 10 million residents. The least populous, Loving County, Texas has only 82. Funny story, in 2006 a group of Libertarians attempted to buy up land and seize power in Loving County with the goal of establishing their ideals, but were thwarted by the local sheriff. The group is currently featured on a “Wanted” poster in the county’s sole courthouse.

LA County has an area of 4,751 mi2, divided across 88 cities and 2,379,680 parcels. However, much of the land is “unincorporated”, meaning it does not fall within the jurisdiction of an established city. If you would like to establish your own city in LA County you can apply to the LAFCO for as little as $2,5001. The information regarding parcel owner, location, and “assessed value” for collecting property taxes is maintained by the Assessor’s Office2.

Formats and Tools

Most, if not all, counties use GIS (geographic information systems) to maintain this data3. The LA office uses Microsoft Access for ownership and assessed value information, and the popular Shapefile format for geometry and mapping. ESRI (environmental systems research institute), founded in 1969, dominates land-use consulting with their popular ArcGIS software and Shapefile format developed in the early 1990s. A Shapefile consists of several different files, 3 of which are mandatory:

.shp – feature geometry as a set of either WKT (well known text) of WKB (well known binary) coordinates. Each of these entries can be one of several different simple datatypes such as

POINT (30 10)

LINESTRING (30 10, 10 30, 40 40)

POLYGON ((30 10, 40 40, 20 40, 10 20, 30 10))

MULTIPOLYGON (((30 20, 45 40, 10 40, 30 20)), ((15 5, 40 10, 10 20, 5 10, 15 5)))

.shx – index of positional geometry to allow quickly stepping forward and backward

.dbf – old school simple database format popular in the 1990s, here stores attributes for each shape

There are several optional files, the most important of which though is

.prj – represents the projection information of the coordinates in the shapes. More on this soon.

I performed extensive cleaning and simplification on the assessor’s office data as part of this analysis, the bulk of which was done with PostgreSQL and the fantastic PostGIS extension4.

If you want to follow along, say with an EC2 instance, first grab some dependencies.

 sudo apt-get -y install postgresql postgresql-contrib postgis

Now let’s create a database for our geospatial data

createdb gis
psql -d gis -c 'create extension postgis'


The earth is not a perfect sphere. We represent it instead as a “geoid”, a mathematical object that, ideally, represents the precise shape of the earth if it were only under the influence of gravitation and rotation. While imperfect, the geoid, combined with satellite data provides a somewhat close approximation to the actual shape of the earth. The geoid works in tandem with different “datum”, which are coordinate systems used by regions to define a coordinate system consistent with the geoid. Today, improvement to the model and coordinate systems has led to the possibility of a single global standard for the globe, WGS84, that is gaining in popularity. Still, datums are typically more precise when defined only for a single region.

The datum used by the LA Assessor’s office is NAD1983. The naming convention originated with the first North American survey in 1901, based on an ellipsoid geoid model developed in 1866. The system was updated in 1927 based on surveys of the entire continent but using the same geoid, and updated again in 1983 using satellite and remote sensing data using GRS 80 as the geoid, the same model originally used by the popular global standard WGS84. If it sounds simple, it is not, but if you’re interested it’s a great reason to learn spherical harmonics.


Just remember a datum is a coordinate system defined on a geoid, which is a model of the earth. Geoids and datums exist for other planets too, like Mars.

I re-projected the assessor’s office data from NAD1983 to WGS84 using QGIS. All projections have a corresponding SRID (spatial reference system identifier). Let’s load the shapefile into a PostGIS table, making sure to tell it the projection WGS84, which has an SRID of 43265. You can download it from me.

tar -xvf la_parcels.tar.xz
shp2pgsql -I -s 4326 -g geom la_parcels.shp la_parcels | psql -d gis > import.log

Basic Queries

Next let’s get an SQL prompt

psql -d gis

And run a simple query. This should improve performance a bit.

vacuum analyze;

Now let’s have some fun. What are the most expensive pieces of land in LA County?

select land_value, owner_name, address_number, street_name
from la_parcels order by land_value desc limit 10;
land_value owner_name address_number street_name
183,110,154 MOBIL OIL CORP 3700 190TH ST

Entertainment and oil companies dominate here. That is land only though. I wonder which of these has the most expensive “improvement”, or building? Let’s use a nested query.

select improvement_value, owner_name, address_number, street_name from
(select land_value, improvement_value, owner_name, address_number, street_name
from la_parcels order by land_value desc limit 10)
as lands order by improvement_value desc;

20th Century Fox wins with $265 million. Exxon Mobil’s sprawling refinery is assessed at only $19 million. Someone must be trying hard to keep property taxes low. Okay what about the most expensive properties overall? Combining land and building value?

select (land_value+improvement_value) as
total_value, owner_name, address_number, street_name
from la_parcels order by total_value desc limit 20;
total_value owner_name address_number street_name
466,751,222 TRIZEC 333 LA LLC 333 HOPE ST
364,457,522 1999 STARS LLC 1999 AVENUE OF THE STARS

Hospitals monopolize the top spots. Healthcare is expensive. No surprise to see the magnificent Getty Center either. I wonder if the multiple entries are redundant or it’s worth $2 billion. Wouldn’t be surprised either way. Did you know it’s free? Free! Unlike the hospital.


Let’s find another landmark. How about Dodger Stadium? We’ll use a forgiving string compare to make sure we match the street.

select (land_value+improvement_value) as
total_value, owner_name, address_number, street_name
from la_parcels
where address_number = 1000 and street_name ilike 'elysian park%'
total_value owner_name address_number street_name

Dodgers stadium must be worth more than $84 million. How do the assessed values compare to real world values? Let’s use One Wilshire as an example. It sold in 2013 for $437.5 million and its assessed value is $297.5 million. Not too far off.

Now let’s use the aggregation function sum() and group by to find the most expensive cities by area in LA County. Since the city column is still a bit messy we’ll use having to eliminate the outliers.

select city, price_per_area from
    (select sum(area) as area, sum(land_value) as land_value, count(ain) as parcels, city,
    (sum(land_value) / sum(area)) as price_per_area
    from la_parcels group by city having count(ain) > 1000
    order by price_per_area desc)
as cities
city price_per_area total_value
MANHATTAN BEACH 110.6230954 12516203385
BEVERLY HILLS 82.13910857 22623901990
HERMOSA BEACH 60.45970815 5267669536
PALOS VERDES EST 47.59576314 4671096274
W HOLLYWOOD 44.57732453 2080465255
SANTA MONICA 43.00346533 26202224215
SAN MARINO 42.27213826 4967172261
LA CANADA FLT 31.25619651 3794539133
EL SEGUNDO 21.44013791 5831487943
BURBANK 21.05596602 17013420158
SOUTH PASADENA 20.63481846 3601284180
MONTROSE 20.56928866 560769462

I still want an answer to my original question. Who owns the most land?

select owner_name, count(ain),
sum(land_value)+sum(improvement_value) as holding,
sum(area) as lands from la_parcels
group by owner_name order by lands desc limit 10
owner_name parcel_count holding_value holding_area
U S GOVT 2695 406477416 33837253322
STATE OF CALIF 1387 271712949 2551166380
L A CITY 5498 1123805464 1586934789
SANTA CATALINA ISLAND 79 22222591 1504028479
L A COUNTY 1768 603224059 870795789
TEJON RANCH CO 59 5411765 703066562
L A CITY DEPT OF WATER AND POWER 2340 212220963 627091955
NEWHALL LAND AND FARMING CO 415 199329086 618742553
MOUNTAINS RECREATION AND 622 70849023 487140373
L A CO FLOOD CONTROL DIST 3916 54042362 448175685

By area huge swaths of the county is controlled by the federal and state government, with a few agriculture companies such as Tejon Ranch and Newhall Land and Farming Company sprinkled in.


More Advanced Queries

I wonder what percentage of LA County is not held by one of the 10 entities above or is unincorporated? Here we will use a view, which allows you to treat a query like its own table.

create view top_owners as select owner_name from
(select owner_name, count(ain),
sum(land_value)+sum(improvement_value) as holding,
sum(area) as lands from la_parcels
group by owner_name
order by lands desc limit 10) as owners

Now in order to select the lands these guys own we’ll use a join statement, specifying where the view and table intersect. Join by default is inner, meaning we’ll only get rows where the field matches. Now we can succinctly find the parcels owned by these entities.

select count(*) from la_parcels join
top_owners on la_parcels.owner_name = top_owners.owner_name

And finally use a union operation, which can combine multiple select statements into a single column.

select sum(area) from la_parcels join
top_owners on la_parcels.owner_name = top_owners.owner_name
union select sum(area) from la_parcels

About 30%. And finally what % of the land in the city of LA is devoted to public space? I think this is an important metric for any city.

select sum(area) from la_parcels where owner_name ilike 'l a city'
 or owner_name ilike 'l a city park' union select sum(area)
from la_parcels where city ilike 'los angeles'

8%. Not bad. Griffith park, Elysian park, MacArthur park, Runyon Canyon, Grand park, Vista Hermosa, LA has some fantastic public spaces. The largest green areas are owned by the federal or state government and are outside the city, though not terribly far. Due to lack of Zoning Code standardization it is difficult to get a good picture of what the lands are used for.

Spatial Queries

At last, we unleash PostGIS. Note that since we are using WGS84 our results will be in latitude and longitude rather than meters as above.

First it’s good to know what we’re working with.

select distinct GeometryType(geom) from la_parcels

The geom field is exclusively MULTIPOLYGON. If we want to work with simpler shapes we can unroll them with ST_Dumps() in to the POLYGON type.

Alright I wonder where is the geographic center of LA County? We’ll use ST_Extent() to roll up all of our geometries in to a bounding box, and find the X and Y coordinates of its center with ST_Centroid().

select ST_Y(ST_Centroid(ST_Extent(geom))),
ST_X(ST_Centroid(ST_Extent(geom))) from la_parcels
latitude longitude
33.80924996626 -118.29553231211

This result is from a simple box around our shapes. That is not very rigorous. Instead we should roll up all of our shapes together and form a “convex hull”, the minimum geometry that encloses them, and find the centroid of that. Let’s find how far the center of Malibu is from that point. Here we use a geometry constructor. the true in the ST_Distance() function gets us the distance across the geoid rather than straight through.

select ST_Distance(malibu_center, ST_MakePoint(-118.29553231211, 33.80924996626, 1))
from (select ST_Centroid(ST_ConvexHull(ST_Collect(geom)))
as malibu_center from la_parcels where city ilike 'malibu') as malibu

0.505358312522112 is our answer. That’s quite a drive. Especially in traffic.

Last but not least, I took the liberty of creating a web interface to this dataset. Moving around the whole dataset would be inefficient, so I use google maps and javascript to ask a minimal flask application, which in turn asks the database which parcels are within the bounding box of the map’s current view. The @ operator finds the geometries inside the envelope I build. The core query is simply:

select distinct
    land_value + improvement_value as total_value,
    from la_parcels
    where geom @ ST_MakeEnvelope(%s,%s,%s,%s)

The bounding box of the map is passed to the %s parameters. A few of the geometries are invalid so ST_MakeValid() helps us out there. The query is amazingly fast, around 12ms. Drawing on the map is the slow part. Google Maps has gotten too complicated. But it still works pretty well as long as you don’t zoom out too far and avoid residential areas. The american dream of individual home ownership is slowing down my app. Hopefully I can speed it up but for now you can play around with it here. Click on the geometry to see the value. Some buildings are broken up in to many individual parcels in three dimensions. That is the difference between an apartment and a condominium. In a condo, you own the parcel from the county.



I was disappointed with how difficult it was to obtain this data initially and the poor quality it came in. Governments and constituencies of all sizes stand to benefit enormously from investment in modern software tools and stronger commitments to transparency.

While building I began to dream of having all the parcels of the United States in a single database. That would be a fascinating study, but the data is horribly spread about and fragmented. If you are interested in obtaining the data for your county, or another, and structuring it in to the same schema I would be very grateful, and promise to share the collected information. You can track the completeness of what has been gathered for California here. Please contact me if interested in contributing.

What if we had the data for other nations too? Could we put the entire world in a computer?



[3] to the pedants that still insist on using “these data” give it a rest, it’s confusing to most people

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Soylent Raises Money


Three years ago I drove across the United States because I was looking for something. I wanted to join a community of benevolent technologists, laboring for the betterment of society at large. What I found were startups serving startups. I found billions of dollars of private education building apps. I found people with PhD’s eating organic, as if they were afraid of fertilizer. It frustrated me to see the fruits of engineering siloed in redundant electronics and digital advertisements, and it frustrated me to see food siloed from the culture of progress. Why did a tomato cost as much as a million transistors? Why have all our products gotten better and cheaper but food has gotten worse? Perhaps it doesn’t have to. Perhaps the food industry could leverage the forces of science and technology, rather than fighting them. And if it did, what sort of world could we create?

Two years ago today I decided to bet my life on the idea that food could be empirically rebuilt. I theorized that food and the body were reducible and a novel foodstuff could be superior to that which was naturally occurring. Three months of “Soylent” produced a remarkably healthy physiology, and continues to do so years out. Next, while the systemic advantages were obvious, I theorized that there would be consumer demand for such a product. Perhaps food focused on function, simplicity, and transparency would be a relief to a consumer burdened by a vain, frantic, confusing food market and culture. Turns out it was a good bet, and, while profitable, our growth has continued to accelerate and having more resources for expansion and research seemed logical. We are honored to accept an investment of $20 million led by Andreessen Horowitz, who has been behind us the whole way, with participation from Lerer Ventures, Index Ventures, and David Friedberg. Chris Dixon is joining our board. The money will be used to expand manufacturing and invest more in research.

However, the most beautiful theory can crumble under the weight of a single experiment, and the brightest idea can fizzle overnight if packaged in a subpar product. Making and shipping a million of anything is non-trivial, and yet we went from an idea to a shipped hardware product in barely a year, even achieving multiple iterations since. This is largely thanks to our COO, the indispensable Matthew Cauble. CTO John Coogan built an e-commerce powerhouse overnight, CMO David Renteln does the work of 10 men, and Julio Miles is the Steve Wozniak of branding. Without my friends I am nothing.

Similarly, Soylent would be a mere shell of a company without the support of our fantastic community. The patience and passion of our users gives our work meaning on a daily basis, and gives us the drive to do better all the time.

What is it that we have made? Quality without luxury. The world’s most useful and popular products are deceptively cheap and simple, deftly abstracting away volumes of complexity. This is the dream of Soylent, to be so useful it is taken for granted, like tap water or climate control.

The insatiable demand for Soylent is telling. Consumers demand and deserve a food system that is more transparent and more practical. Producers deserve the ability to develop and use new technologies and tools to improve their production. The environment deserves more than a modicum of long term thinking.

Like life, culture is in a constant state of evolution. Today cooking is manufacturing. Tomorrow it will be art. Domestic kitchens will go the way of the loom; the grocer the way of the bank teller. Dishes will be for satellites.

It doesn’t end there. The entire protestant ethic underpinning capitalism stands atop the inefficiency of food production. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat”. Shoving the largely unsavory business of food on to the weak was the genesis of social stratification.  Suppose we were fed from the eternal bounty of the sun, tireless fusion reactions creating all the energy we will ever need, structured, automatically, by the machines tailored to our exact requirements..

Look to history. The market, and most physical systems, obey the principle of least action. Why hunt for food when the food comes to you? Why go to the store when you can order online? Why order when you can subscribe? The automation of basic tasks frees the mind to focus on higher arts.

Humans are distinct from animals in that we possess the ability to increase our means within a single generation. The automation of food production is distinctly and proudly part of our lot as an intelligent species. Cows don’t seem to mind chewing all day, ruminants who never ruminate. Only humans have developed processing, agriculture, pasteurization, and fortification, all of which began with reflection and ended with serialization.

Food tradition is often upheld as an inalienable part of humanity or society. This is backwards. Society as we know it would not exist without food processing and humanity is unique in its capacity to break free of tradition. To structure is human.

We have successfully structured communications networks and antibiotics. Why are we putting up with the waste and violence of agriculture? Agriculture butchers billions of animals, covers over a third of the earth’s habitable land and uses 80% of our water supply. Every year. One day the vast swaths of polluted land will be free. Our Anthropocene will be beautiful, peaceful, and healthy.

The future of food is not the return to an agrarian society but the transcendence of it. In time Soylent will be synthesized directly from light, water, and air with designer microorganisms. Genetic engineering to enhance our microbiome, and eventually ourselves. I don’t know who was the first farmer, but I want to be the last. We will make food so cheap only the rich will cook.

Life Without Water


Which is more valuable: diamonds or water? It’s clear to me. Water is the perfect product. It is endlessly useful, cheap, simple, ubiquitous, and beautiful. Water is essential to all forms of life and is used in every industry, not to mention its calming presence. As our species continues to shape the planet I find it increasingly important that we take pains to conserve the purity of this critical chemical. This is why, when my friend George McGraw of invited me to take the 4 Liter challenge I jumped at the chance.

The rules are simple. Do not use more than 4 liters of water per day. I also decided to track ‘virtual’ water usage. That is, be mindful of the water used to produce a good that is used, in addition to water used directly. Given that a single toilet flush takes over 6L of water, and the cotton in a pair of jeans takes about 7000L to grow, some changes to my life were clearly in order.


I awake the morning of the challenge and throw off my cotton sheets with disgust. From this moment on every drop counts. I brush my teeth without water and put on dry deodorant. Relieving myself in the toilet is not an option. For a moment I consider following Clinton’s advice: “if it’s yellow let it mellow”, but decide to go full Bukowski instead: “sometimes you just have to piss in the sink”. Could we engineer more efficient kidneys?

For number two I had to plan in advance. Inadequate sanitation is an enormous quality of life problem globally. The most popular toilet in the world is no toilet at all as 4 in 10 people in the world defecate in the open. Flush toilets use enormous quantities of water so I needed a way to make it unnecessary.

Feces are almost entirely deceased gut bacteria and water. I massacred my gut bacteria the day before by consuming a DIY Soylent version with no fiber and taking 500mg of Rifaximin, an antibiotic with poor bioavailability, meaning it stays in your gut and kills bacteria. Soylent’s microbiome consultant advised that this is a terrible idea so I do not recommend it. However, it worked. Throughout the challenge I did not defecate.

In lieu of showering I sprayed myself with AOBiome’s custom skin bacteria blend. Body odor is caused by the emissions of proliferating skin bacteria, as unique as a fingerprint. The Nitrosomonas eutropha taking over my skin now metabolizes ammonia into odorless nitrite and nitric oxide. Success! I wish I had a strain that excreted lipases, as my hair was still greasy.

Direct water usage: 0L

Virtual water usage: 0L


My standard outfit is mostly cotton, which takes 20,000L of water per kg so I had to improvise. I did some research and settled on Nomex, a meta-aramid invented by DuPont in the 1960’s. Nomex is a fantastic material used in applications as diverse as circuit boards, loudspeakers, and clothing. Made via condensation from m-phenylenediamine and isophthaloyl chloride, its production uses no water. I found a Nomex flight suit on Alibaba and added a “Soylent” patch. I love it. It’s cheap, simple, comfortable, and fireproof, just in case. I also did no laundry of course, which would have used 170L.


Direct water usage: 0L

Virtual water usage: 0L


There are some species that never drink water. They obtain it from the food they eat, or synthesize it biochemically. Humans only synthesize about 10% of their water needs which means I’ll need to drink some. I also need food, the production and distribution of which is the single largest burden on the water system by a mile. Agriculture constitutes 80-90% of the water used in the United States. A mere kg of red meat takes 15,415L of water to produce. I was a little crestfallen to learn that a single cheeseburger can outweigh using a high efficiency toilet for a year.[1][2]

To avoid this issue I consumed nothing but Soylent throughout the challenge. Soylent uses no meat or dairy and only 1.6L of water. To avoid dishes and their subsequent water usage I poured my Soylent one meal at a time in to a polystyrene cup, which takes less than 1L of water to make.[3] Soylent does not contain enough water in itself so I begrudgingly drank an additional 400ml of tap water.

If there’s anything as amazing as water it’s petroleum. My clothing and dishes take less water to make than they do to clean.

Dying to know the virtual water footprint of Soylent, we contracted an analyst at a Chicago think tank to run a study on the product. The complicated formula and numerous sources, as well as proprietary manufacturing and process information made this difficult and a bit imprecise. However, there was enough published data to end up with a conservative estimate. Rice protein was the biggest issue, given that rice is relatively water intensive to grow and is only about 10% protein by mass. Our rice processor claims they have a 0 carbon footprint and reclaim much of the water used but I couldn’t get many specifics. Not accounting for this we still ended up at 2030L per day of Soylent, which is about 50% of the virtual water footprint of the standard american diet (SAD), 4000L. Not bad. I bet we could lower it though.

Complete analysis here (criticism encouraged):

Final tally:

Direct water usage: 2L

Virtual water usage: 2031L

US Average:

Direct water usage: 1135L[4]

Virtual water usage: 7570L[5]


Water is the most popular beverage in the world, and still 20% of us are living without enough even to drink[6]. Our foods, our bodies, and our planet are mostly water, and yet, we are spoiling and wasting what the cosmos has made[7] at an unsustainable rate. I don’t expect anyone to live as I did during the challenge. Even I missed coffee and a hot shower. However, I do think it is important to be mindful of the network effects of one’s lifestyle. With water, as with most things, it is better to do more with less.










It is possible that a substantial amount of earth’s water was synthesized by purple sulfur bacteria in the photosynthetic reaction

[latex size=”2″]\mathrm{ CO_2 + 2\ H_2S \rightarrow CH_2O + H_2O + 2\ S }[/latex]

This means we could manufacture water out of sunlight, CO2 and flatulence. What if we scaled this up?

Soylent Announces New Line of GMKs


It gives me great pleasure to announce the first public release from Soylent X, our research arm focused on “solving the unsolvable”. After solving physical health with Soylent, we sought to tackle the elephant in the room of America’s healthcare system: mental health. Americans suffer from the highest levels of anxiety in the world. Research shows we’re lonely, stressed, overworked, and underpaid. While problematic overall, I find the gist of this trend encouraging. Work is the lifeblood of a thriving economy. Work has given us space shuttles, particle accelerators, and a booming finance industry. Work is the noblest of man’s pursuits, and just as violence has declined, economies have grown, and life has lengthened, I believe workdays will continue to get longer.

If only we could relax more efficiently, we could work more, and better, and be happier. Research shows people spend their free time with family or friends, wasting time and money at expensive parties, restaurants, and bars. These same people report relationships as a primary source of stress. Therein lies the problem. People are vexing. You are more likely to be murdered by a lover than a stranger. Gossip is ubiquitous and no one can be trusted.  The way we relax is only adding to our anxiety.

The solution? Cats.

Humans are social animals. We need to be needed, yet today demand a high level of convenience, ruling out the emotional distress of dealing with other humans. Originally incorporated in to society as useful vermin hunters, house cats have since been cultivated as baby replacements. It took centuries to domesticate feral cats in to playful, personal felines. To do so we had to rely on primitive techniques such as artificial selection and cross-breeding. New strains have been periodically introduced in order to provide consumers with greater selection, and today genetic engineering and synthetic growth lines allows for greater control, efficiency, and sustainability. This is why we are expanding our business to offer the world’s first Genetically Modified Kittens (GMKs).

The timing and the technology are perfectly aligned. The pet industry is growing rapidly, and is divided among thousands of local, independent, brick-and-mortar stores. Cats are the most popular pet in the world. A higher degree of customer service, control, efficiency, and sustainability is poised to disrupt a fragmented, entrenched industry. The explosion in 3D printing and hacking has made it clear that personalization and customization is the future of manufacturing. Furthermore, synthetic biology and tissue engineering technology have not only made the genome rewriteable, but embryos producible without the unpredictability and cost of a natural medium.

Our beautifully well-designed web site offers an intuitive interface to allow customization of nearly every aspect of your feline. You may even code one from scratch if you’d like and upload a CSV of Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs). Options include:


Physical Characteristics

Hair Color
Eye Color
Ear Length


Sanguine <> Truculent
Curious <> Oblivious
Pensive <> Negligent
Progressive <> Conservative
Astute <> Obtuse

For the “kitten connoisseur” our premium service also offers clones of celebrity cats. Note that these remarkably skilled felines, famous in their own right, could be a serious asset and should be seen as an investment.

Grumpy Cat – $15,000
Lil Bub – $50,000
Maru – $100,000
Keyboard Cat – Call for Pricing

Our companion product, “Soylent for Cats” is another innovation and a massive improvement over the status quo of feline nutrition. Perfectly balanced and optimized for the needs of your cat, Soylent for Cats is a genetically engineered mouse which has the precise nutritional balance needed by your cat. It also has no bones.


Soylent for Cats is designed to be completely absorbed by your animal’s bloodstream, obviating the need for defecation and smelly litter boxes. Your cat will still pee. More than normal actually. But, thanks to a clever transgenic modification, it will smell like lavender.

Do not feed a natural cat with Soylent for Cats.

Customer service is our top priority for our GMK line. If you are unsatisfied with your kitten for any reason you may ship it back for recycling. GMKs come neutered and immunized, and arrive, beautifully packaged, in a chemical-induced coma. It may be a bit groggy for a few days but don’t worry, it will wear off, and testing shows it’s adorable to watch them stumble around.

  • Abnormal blood pH
  • Weak immune system
  • Banana rather than lavender-scented urine
  • Insatiable desire for human flesh

These will be fixed by the final release. I would also like to point out that the controversial paper published recently in Journal of Housecat Toxicology deliberately used the media to sensationalize bad science. The statistical methods were amateur at best and deliberately misleading at worst. The paper has since been removed by the editors. GMKs are completely safe and due to genetic engineering are far healthier and robust than naturally occurring cats, especially when fed exclusively with Soylent for Cats.

Cats are an excellent investment in social capital. Users have reported a 38% increase in social media likes and shares after incorporating cats into statuses and photos. Unlike friends, cats will not talk about themselves, ask you to pick them up from the airport, or analyze your facial expressions. However, they will eat you if you die in their presence.

The despondency industry in America is growing 7% year over year, and has not seen innovation in centuries. It is time for disruption. By providing a superior, customizable product over natural cats at a lower cost, Soylent Corporation is positioned to take a lion’s share of a fragmented market. According to our projections, the synthetic companion market segment is due to grow by playful leaps and bounds thanks to innovations in the underlying biotechnology of dependency. The future is meow.