Skip to content

Delta Wagon Pilot Run

July 24, 2018

Combating the modern malaise with aquatic art

The Sacramento–San Joaquin’s 10,000 miles of river delta offer a vast blank canvas for interactive floating art. This canvas moves and breathes with the tide. The flood tide holds back the river’s westward flow and the ebb sucks it out to sea with surprising speed. It took a little over four hours to tow my half-ton “Delta wagon” platform against the current four and a half miles to Mandeville Tip, home of the annual Ephemerisle festival (aka “Burning Man on the water”). I guess I had to learn my lesson about the tides the hard way before installing my first art project.

The Delta has mostly been the province of farmers, meth-heads, bass fishers, and too-tan river-rats. More recently it’s become a temporary home to a handful of festival goers and “seasteaders” looking toward the ocean as a future habitat for humankind. Seasteading aims to turn a political problem — the lack of diversity and choice in governance — into an engineering problem: the construction of floating autonomous communities to challenge the status quo. My interest lies there, not in all-night raves, but the Burning Man ethos of interactive art has created a bridge between a particular Wild West sub-culture and the drive towards earth’s last frontier.

I conceived of my platform as a standard module for “Deltasteading” to serve as an addition to sailboats like my little Columbia 24′. While the Delta is not a true frontier, it can serve as an incubator for the “life support” technologies that will make seasteading possible in the future. A small sailboat provides many of the amenities of a houseboat, except living space. I wanted a comfortable place to hang out, move around, and eat meals, all under a shade covering. More important than comfort and habitability, however, I wanted my platform to be inspiring and visually appealing like so much of the art at Burning Man.

I appreciate how much life slows down on the Delta, but the slog from the Pirate’s Lair Marina to Mandeville Tip was too rapid a deceleration given my low tolerance for boredom, reinforced by my worrisome addiction to distraction — especially coming off of a week of frantic construction and preparation. I alternated between checking my cruising speed and Google Maps, while listening to the last chapters of an audiobook — Kevin Starr’s California: A History.

Although more accurately described as a sailboat patio, the Delta wagon was inspired by the Conestoga wagon that opened new tracts of western land to American settlers in the 1800s — sometimes bringing them to the banks of the Sacramento in search of gold. In 2018, the gold is gone, but the dream of something glittering remains. Starr writes about California as a perpetual Shangri-La — a paradisal mega-state where countless pilgrims have flocked in search of a better life. Science and technology have been rumored to hold the key to this utopia, and California’s natural landscape has been reshaped by engineering to a greater extent than any other. The elaborate system of levees that divert fresh Delta water hundreds of miles to Southern California and farms in the Central Valley make Starr’s case in a single point.

The Build

In my last article, Building Delta City, I laid out my plans for the Delta wagon, using time-tested houseboat building techniques, but transposing the standard rectangular shape onto a triangular frame.

Here’s how that went:

Testing the limits of my trusty Toyota 1/2 pick up, and the patience of Pirates Lair’s management…

The platform — built out of just wood, bolts, barrels, and a few screws — took about a week of driveway prep, culminating in a day-long assembly sprint at the boat ramp at Pirates Lair Marina. It took another day of working on the water to lay smooth redwood floor boards over the coarse plywood and to set up a makeshift awning, repurposed from an old worn out jib.


In the end, we only got to enjoy the wagon/patio for a couple of days before towing it back to land (going with the tide this) and disassembling it in a record two hours.

Rapid houseboat disassembly as an Olympic sport.

Was it Worth It?

Jacob and Ben play improv games on the Delta wagon

I consider the pilot run a success. The thing got built and was safely transported to and from the event. It also hosted some overnight visitors, several hearty ketogenic meals, a workshop on writing blessings, and an impromptu improv session (h/t to Jacob Lyles). Few people from the festival came out to visit the Delta wagon, or were even aware of its presence — in part because I intentionally anchored it away from the earsplitting electronic dance music zone closer to the main islands.

Next year, the Ephemerisle festival will celebrate the 10th anniversary of radical freedom on the water, but I think I may opt out and instead come a few weeks earlier to enjoy the 243rd annual celebration of regular old freedom, at the Hilton-sponsored 4th of July fireworks show at the same location.

There’s a certain amount of dont-give-a-damn pioneering spirit that is necessary to break out of land-locked mediocrity. Toward this end, Ephemerisle has served a noble purpose. Society pats itself on the back for technological progress, yet this same progress seems to be driving us deeper into isolation and soul-sucking unreality. Hunched over our screens and peering into the abyss of our endless digital timelines, our shoulders curve in a bit more with every limp scroll and click. Our hands grip with less force, and our bodies have forgotten what it’s like to navigate a harsh physical environment in search of new means to sustain life and give it meaning. There’s much to be said for the effort involved in taking to the water and building stuff — physical stuff — to live on for a time.

I could harp on the shortcomings of Ephemerisle — the obnoxious music disturbing the peace, the gratuitous nudity, the grunge, and the mindless intoxication. But the biggest offense to my mind, more noticeable this year than in years past, was the lack of interesting interactive art on display and the incoherence of what little could be called art with the surrounding structures. An aesthetic and cultural monoculture seems to reign over the event — made worse by the lack of individual houseboats, and their replacement with bigger vessels (barges, tugs, and pressure-treated platforms in varying states of disrepair).

I did not end up putting too strong an emphasis on production over consumption, as I said I would in the last post. The “Ketosis Cafe” served approximately four “customers” besides its residents — a group of partiers who exchanged some of their grapefruit mezcal cocktails for Carbquik™ pancakes.

I did, however, remain fairly faithful to the original design (albeit scaled down), and am fairly certain I got myself into ketosis for the majority of the time, which gave me the extra endurance during long days of lifting, hammering, drilling, sailing, and swimming.

Finally, I kept my plan to make it an island of prayer — intercessory prayer, to be specific. One of my prayers was for the people on the other islands, that they might salvage the seed of goodness at the core of the Ephemerisle event. It needs more dissenters, and people splitting off to form their own island art projects.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “a dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.” Just as the land needs seasteads to demonstrate a better way of doing things, Ephemerisle needs more artists to challenge the status quo of what a festival is all about. The artist’s job is to fight the modern malaise. I believe this malaise is rooted in a general spoiling of our senses by inane distractions and overindulgence. The internet is partly to blame, but so are our cities and general recreational offerings (think Roman bread and circuses).

Festivals, floating or otherwise, should be a sharp break with the culture of frenetic intemperance and ugliness we’ve become accustomed to in our overstimulating cities. Ephemerisle needs a return to beauty, not only for its own sake but to point to a better way for all of those back on land still struggling to find meaning, still looking for Shangri-La.

Building Delta City

June 27, 2018

The frontier is near; the ocean is far

Back to the Future: Seasteading 1.0

This July, an eclectic mix of sailboats, DIY platforms, repurposed barges and tugboats will converge on the Sacramento—San Joaquin river delta for the 10th annual “Ephemerisle” festival. What began as a small-scale experiment in floating, autonomous living, aka “seasteading,” was supposed to give rise to more permanent communities and businesses that would carry the torch into deeper waters. Yet a decade later, it hasn’t happened.

The event has evolved, but perhaps the most significant development has been the closure of both of the large houseboat rental marinas in the area. That means that the core of the “islands” — formerly anchored houseboats, lashed together with ropes — has to be replaced.

Ephemerisle Documentary 2009b by Jason Sussberg from The Seasteading Institute on Vimeo.

Elysium, a large archipelago known for its raging parties, will be back this year with a large barge. DIYIsland has added some new platforms, and is bringing back the “Pontunery” — a mobile rave. That’s all fine and good, but I think it’s time to start envisioning what Ephemerisle could be beyond a temporary festival. As Brian Doherty notes in the mini-documentary above, there’s no real through-line from the consumption-based Ephemerisle to economically productive seasteads. I want to see a small outpost — a “Do Tank” — with the potential to inch towards a future city.

They say that competition breeds excellence. Toward that end, I’m planning a new island with an emphasis on production over consumption, reconnecting to the original incremental “seasteading 1.0” strategy of moving from the delta, to the Bay, and beyond.

May the best island win.

After Ephemerisle

I’almost surprised that more people don’t opt for a simple, low-cost lifestyle along the banks of the Sacramento–San Joaquin. The Delta is one of California’s splendors. Life slows down on the meandering waterways, and you quickly forget the stresses of the city.

I guess I can’t be too surprised that others haven’t done so, since I’m a prime candidate for such a move and have never seriously considered it. The main limitation is the culture in the delta, or lack thereof. This keeps people like me from ditching the cities while a blank canvas lies just an hour away. Even though cities grate at our nerves with traffic and noise, and extract a high cost financially, they are hubs of convenience, culture, and fraternity.

Creating a new culture takes work. It requires a compelling vision for what the dominant culture lacks, a narrative to supply meaning to the difficult early stages, and a physical space to demonstrate the missing values. Mandeville Point, the location for the event, provides the space. I believe the Ephemerisle community needs less partying and more pioneering. The pioneer looks at his milieu and says, “this rots!” But he also takes responsibility for his share of the rot, and sets out to build a stronger (and more water-resilient) foundation — it’s seasteading as an act of political repentance, as well as a commitment to help build each other up into better humans. That’s the culture I want to build.

My first few years at Ephemerisle, I felt like I was helping to found a new culture of practical dreamers — people who were living their ideals. The plywood decks and wobbly walkways seemed like a stepping stone to something sturdier, but subsequent years achieved little more than minor variations on the same “technology.”

Much of what felt original about Ephemerisle is in fact copied-and-pasted from Burning Man. There is the modern-day wild west ethos and culture of experimentation, all born of a rebellious spirit. This explains why most people can only sustain it for a week or two at the most. Although I respect the achievement (some of my closest friends are Burners), it’s not my scene. I’m wary of the pyrotechnics, the electronic dance music, and blanket rejection of norms, including sound ones.

A pervasive short-termism is the chief low trait of both Burning Man and Ephemerisle. The last year I attended (2016) felt more like Waterworld than Buckminster Fuller’s optimistic visions of an ocean future. But it also still has the seeds of a more stabilizing impulse: to create from the ground up in the relative wilderness, without the constraints of land-locked urban density. The chief high trait of Burning Man, mirrored at Ephemerisle, is the outpouring of creativity required to make voluntarism work.

Cooperation, yes. Coercion, no.

Channeling GMU economist Robin Hanson, I think construal level theory can shed some light on the problem of seasteading. Hanson would say that the ocean is far. When you try to imagine a seastead as a floating house or platform in the middle of the ocean, your mind goes into a different mode than everyday problem-solving. You begin to think of oil rigs, artist’s renderings of fancy man-made islands, and eccentric billionaires. It doesn’t seem likely, nor particularly desirable to most people. And that’s okay — the beauty of seasteading is that you don’t need to convince everyone.

In contrast, however, houseboat living on a river is near. Many people already live this way full-time, and we don’t consider it exceptional (although perhaps still a bit eccentric). I propose building on a concept which is still near, but which incorporates elements of the long-term vision that will elevate the appeal of floating cities through the pioneering identity that comes with owning and operating one. These elements are 1) the frontier spirit, 2) modularity, and 3) distributed but individual ownership. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, “The problem with Capitalism is not that there are too many capitalists, but that there are too few.”

The conestoga wagon was the single technology that did the most to open up the Western United States for settlement. It wasn’t a major innovation, but rather a new configuration of existing technologies and materials — lightweight, sturdy, and big enough for a family to get from point A to point B.

In order for Ephemerisle to make the leap to more permanent aqua firma, it needs the equivalent of the conestoga wagon. I plan to build it.

I am determined to demonstrate a proof-of-concept “Delta wagon”— something I can strap to the side of my sailboat and operate as an autonomous island, offering a peaceful alternative to the noisy archipelagos.

The Nuts and Bolts

“This is a fun sport: to build a houseboat, but to do it quickly and on the cheap.” — Handmade Houseboats: Independent Living Afloat, by Russell Conder

The minimum viable product is a semi-hexagon made up of three triangles.

The foundation is simple:

Wood, barrels, and bolts. It works!

The sides of each triangle will be 12 feet, for a length of 24 feet, and a width of 10.4 feet. Each triangle will be bolted at the ends and joined to each other by two sturdy joists, which fulfill the dual functions of connecting the triangles and supporting the flotation.

A 1:6 scale model, using jars for “flotation” instead of barrels.

The flotation consists of nine 55-gallon drums (purchased from Urban Ore for $20/each). That provides an ample 4,000 pounds of displacement for the topside structure — much more than is necessary. The dual forces of gravity pushing the platform down on the barrels, and buoyancy of the water pushing up will keep the barrels resting in the slots made by the joists — the width of the slots is just less than 2 feet, and the barrels are 2′ x 3′.

From *Handmade Houseboats: Autonomous Living Afloat*

Each triangle will be bolted together at the points with 1/2″ x 8 in. galvanized hex bolts. These can be assembled on the beach at the Berkeley Basin, and towed individually to the event.

The deck’s base structure will be plywood, covered by finer materials. The main rectangular core of the deck will be astroturf, while the isosceles triangles on the wings will topped with smooth, hard cedar. The floor is the most expensive part, but it’s also the part that people will be seeing and touching. It must be beautiful, grounding, and comfortable, because foundations matter.

Architect Darrell Caraway draws the original concept for the Deltastead. My drawings are less exact, but build on the fundamental idea.

The awning will be made of a used sail, suspended from a wooden truss that doubles as a pull-up bar (seasteaders have to stay in shape). The whole thing assembles and disassembles easily, but is sturdy enough to be deployed year round.

What’s it For?

The Delta wagon can turn any sailboat into an island campsite. At just under 400 square feet, the platform can be used for resting, fishing, praying, stretching, “MovNat”, diving, cooking, and sleeping. That’s one small step for seasteading and one modest-sized leap for mankind.

My island will be home to the “Ketosis Cafe,” a small kitchen open to the public, and offering delicious high-fat meals. I will also use it to teach and learn natural movement, and other seasteading-related embodied practices (knot tying, dingy operation, etc.).

Lastly, my island will be a place of prayer — specifically, intercessory prayer. As mentioned, the last couple Ephemerisles I’ve been to have felt like they were on the verge of going bad. The mix of over-indulgence and simultaneous senses of entitlement and irresponsibility is a dangerous one, but I believe there’s something worth saving at the core. Hence, intercession — i.e., praying on behalf of others.

After that, who knows what other activities — social, economic, and liturgical — will emerge as the most enjoyable, the most profitable, and the most venerable?

Who will show up? How long will they stay?

Will the wagons give rise to larger constructions, or band together in modular seasteads?

Even these questions are too far in the future to answer.

Pioneering campers and interceders who want a quiet place to eat, pray, love, move, swim, etc. can contact me at

Calling All Incredibles (Ephemerisle Alert)

June 12, 2018

Lebron James is strong.

How strong? So strong that he broke his own hand punching a whiteboard in frustration after losing the game 1 of the NBA finals against the Warriors. He admits he basically played the last three games (all of which they lost) with a broken hand. Clearly, this is not the kind of strength that earned Lebron the title of “King James” – it’s the lashing out of a man whose excellent beard conceals an inner childishness that cost his team the title.

Star athletes are probably the closest thing we have today to superheroes, which makes it all the more tragic when they fall. Knights are gone, as are the samurai. Modern warriors are mostly anonymous, kings are just figureheads (where they still exist), and politicians are mocked and scorned.

Apart from the silver screen, if you want to see superhuman feats, you either watch pro sports or you follow startups. In the Bay Area, entrepreneurs may have an even more prized social status. It’s inspiring to see Elon Musk succeed at launching a rocket and then bringing it back to the same landing spot, and it’s a refreshing break from the dominant leveling ideology that mires everyone in mediocrity.

With The Incredibles 2 coming out this week, I’ve been thinking about how one can embody the positive aspects of the hero archetype, without falling prey to its pitfalls. The original film made the case for “letting supers be super,” and took issue with society’s suppression of differences in the name of equality and extreme risk-aversion. It turned out to be a widespread feeling that we’d taken the culture of mediocrity too far, but no one was able to express it quite like Pixar and Brad Bird. My friend and colleague Caleb Brown just put out a short video essay (full disclosure: I worked with Caleb on the video) to go with the release of the film’s sequel, which picks apart the theme in more detail, and it explains how Bird got away with such a seemingly reactionary message.

Check it out:

But superpowers have a downside, as Lebron James demonstrated inelegantly last week. We can also look to the devastation wrought by strong men with big plans throughout history, and better understand why we’ve collectively chosen to shackle certain kinds of ambition.

To defend the superhero archetype, Bird has to show a change in Bob “Mr. Incredible” Paar from the blustering hotshot we see in the opening shots to the restrained-but-still-super husband and father he is at the end. In Aristotelian terms, Bob is the “patient” – the character who undergoes the most radical transformation at the hands of an “agent” who brings this change about. Helen (the agent) steps up to the many small challenges of motherhood and shows Bob how to find the fantastic in the mundane. You have to be more than incredible to be excellent in the small things and large things alike. Small things have big consequences, especially when it comes to the early stages of a venture, where little cracks in the foundation lead to future headaches.

As important as it is to take risks, we are often saved by the risks we decide not to take. Knowing when to apply strength and effort and when to choose passive restraint is a supernatural talent.

These lessons are especially relevant for colossal challenges like seasteading. Settling the ocean is a foolishly ambitious task. It would be stupid to try to make it in a single leap, but it would be cowardly to not advance the vision at all for those of us who understand the human potential it can unlock. Furthermore, there’s joy in each incremental step on the journey.

The Ephemerisle floating festival is happening again this July, from the 16th to the 22nd. People are already innovating to handle the lack of houseboats this year. People are building stuff:

Pictures from DIYsIsland.

You can expect a lot more DIY projects this year, which bodes well for the original seasteading strategy to start in the Delta and expand out into the Bay, and then beyond. Unlike, say, Burning Man, there are no tickets to Ephemerisle, but anyone who wants to get involved can find a way.

The additional building element brings new opportunities and new risks. Seasteaders in attendance would do well to study The Incredibles, and use the festival as a chance to discover their unique superpowers, maximized by an attitude of humility and renunciation of vanity (my island will be enforcing a strict “no capes” rule).

Podcast: Human Matter w/ Jacob Lyles

February 12, 2018

Lutte_de_Jacob_avec_l'AngeI recommend Jacob Lyle’s young-but-excellent podcast, Human Matter, to all readers of this blog.

It was clear from the first episode (on existential crisis), featuring Dane Johnson, that Jacob has a knack for making his guests feel comfortable – drawing out their stories and ideas – and “exploring the anomalies at the edges of human experience.”

The second episode features Thousand Nations founder Michael Gibson on Poly-centrism, Community, and Utopia.

The third episode has some discussion of Ephemerisle (Ep. 3 – PERMA-(sub)culture with Scott Jackisch) featuring the founder of the Oakland futurists.

I was honored to be Jacob’s guest on the fourth episode (The Holy Sea), talking about seasteading and competitive governance, along with my evolution from secular agnostic/atheist, to Christian, to Catholic Christian. We could have kept talking (and did after the mics stopped rolling), but I’m hoping there will be other chances to explore these ideas in person, in podcast format.

It’s worth noting that the figure of Jacob in the Bible is the one who wrestles with God, and is given the name Israel (“He Struggles with God”) as a result. I look forward to future installments. You can subscribe in iTunes here.

Joe Quirk on WIRED, “Seasteading: Come for the Algae Bacon, Stay for the Freedom”

January 6, 2018

WIRED podcast, Geeks Guide to the Galaxy, has a new hour-long podcast with Joe Quirk, in which he makes the case for seasteading to a sympathetic host:

Eventually the Seasteading Institute hopes to develop floating platforms for individual families, which would make it easy to leave one seastead and join another. Hopefully that sort of freedom would force seasteads to compete over who can treat their residents the best. “The idea is to vote with your house,” Quirk says.

It’s nice to see the single-family seastead concept making a comeback, even though Joe missed a golden rhyming opportunity (“vote with your boat”).

It’s also nice to see WIRED coming back around to the idea of seasteading. Their 2009 article, Live Free or Drown, was one of my first introductions to The Seasteading Institute. However, in 2015, they reported a greatly exaggerated rumor under the headline, SILICON VALLEY IS LETTING GO OF ITS TECHIE ISLAND FANTASIES.

Joe notes that the seasteading movement is as much about people as it is about the ideas of competitive governance, dynamic geography, OTEC, etc. I especially enjoyed this anecdote:

“A reality TV show got in touch with the Seasteading Institute and got very interested in showing the conflicts that occur between people trying to build a new society that floats. They scouted out Ephemerisle and became discouraged, because everybody was getting along—because you can take your house and float somewhere else. So they decided not to do Ephemerisle, and they basically imitated Ephemerisle, and went back to the UK, and tried to set up a TV show on several forts—old, abandoned military forts on the water—that are sort of set on land, where people are forced to live together. So basically they removed the dynamics of seasteading, which is if you don’t get along with people, you can simply take your house and go float elsewhere.

I wonder what ever happened to that reality show… Let’s keep Ephemerisle drama free in 2018 and beyond.


Moonbeam Howls

December 6, 2017

Governor Moonbeam is howling, and it’s not on account of this week’s supermoon.

“This bill will divide the blue states from the red, the Democrats from the Republicans. It is evil in the extreme,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a call with reporters.

Governors howl: Why tax plan would hammer blue states, SF Chronicle, 12/5/17

I’m not a fan of the GOP tax bill, but when my governor calls something “evil in the extreme,” my ears perk up.

What’s so evil about the bill? It gets rid of the state income tax deductions, so Californians will have to report higher incomes on their federal returns than citizens of states with lower income tax.

California has much to lose because it relies heavily on the income tax. It has the nation’s highest state income tax rate, 13.3 percent. And the income tax generates 32.2 percent of all state and local tax collections, the fourth highest of any state.

On its face, eliminating arbitrary deductions should be a neutral way to raise taxes – something we need to do at the Federal level unless we drastically cut spending. But blue states like California and New York tend to have higher income taxes, so it’s perceived as warfare.

Policy always involves winners and losers. A complex tax code, replete with special deductions and exceptions, makes any changes to the policy a source of contention and division. Governor Brown is under a lot of pressure because of California’s own long-term financial outlook. Now, increasing the income tax will be an even less popular option for digging out of the fiscal hole. I honestly sympathize–and I’m bummed that I will no longer be able to deduct state income tax–but this what happens when states become overly dependent on the Federal Government. California is a net contributor to other states, tax-wise, but the fact that it is so sensitive to small distributional changes in the tax code makes me think there’s a structural problem, and it’s not the GOP’s fault for exploiting it.

Mark this as another data point for “bad Federalism.”

Assorted Links

November 28, 2017

1. World’s first floating village to breathe new life into old dream, NBC News seems to like the environmental angle of the floating city project in French Polynesia:

A community afloat on the ocean, sometimes known as a “seastead,” has appealed to generations of thinkers and dreamers. Among the notable ideas is Triton City, designed in the 1960s by the American inventor Buckminster Fuller: a town of 5,000 people floating on Japan’s Tokyo Bay, as a seaborne extension for one the world most densely populated cities.

Bucky lives.

2. Trump advisors aim to privatize oil-rich Indian reservations, Reuters.

Native Americans make a distinction between privatization and self-determination:

“Our spiritual leaders are opposed to the privatization of our lands, which means the commoditization of the nature, water, air we hold sacred,” said Tom Goldtooth, a member of both the Navajo and the Dakota tribes who runs the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Privatization has been the goal since colonization – to strip Native Nations of their sovereignty.”

3. Man investigates noise, finds turkey knocking on window

Offered without comment:

“I heard a knocking on the window and took out my phone thinking it was something peculiar… and worth recording,” Seastead said.