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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.

What distinguishes a seastead from a vanity project?

November 27, 2017


When a writer of the calibre of Izabella Kaminska critiques the economics behind seasteading, it’s wise to take note [On the (non) viability of start-up islands, Financial Times, Nov. 17, 2017]. Right off the bat, however, she’s blinded by the assumption that seasteads are fundamentally akin to special economic zones or tax havens, rather than being something brand new.  She’s right that a seastead cannot compete with the existing options on the basis of tax or regulatory evasion alone. Dubai, Shenzen, and the Cayman Islands already have that market cornered.

She also takes issue with the analogy of seasteads to the member nations of Hanseatic League – a maritime trade alliance among medieval city states – since the latter were not governed anarchically, but were subsumed under the authority of the Holy Roman Empire:

To the contrary, they boasted highly complex systems of civil governance which levied domestic populations. Some had a democratic flavour where decisions were forged according to representative consensus, some less so.

But no one has suggested that individual seasteads be governed anarchically. An alternative slogan for seasteading to “Let 1,000 Nations Bloom,” could be “Let’s have more, better rules,” or more accurately, more systems of rules.

Hansa League

The institutional ecosystem precedes the technological development.

But while Kaminska appears not to have done her homework on these counts, she does have two valid, related points:

1) Although she entertains the idea that seasteaders might be motivated by other concerns – like the American settlers escaping persecution – she maintains that there would not be enough intrinsic resources to sustain even the most die-hard pioneers. With nothing to trade, the platform would have to sustain itself with constant injections of capital.

2) In the absence of any real “homesteading” opportunities, artificial islands would have to provide services, and would be economically-disadvantaged compared to the aforementioned havens:


“In a global economy which already provides plentiful access to much cheaper special economic zones and tax havens, the exercise amounts to nothing more than a vanity project for billionaires with more money than sense.”

This brings me to the essence of seasteading, which has to embrace and the alleged “ocean tax.” Patri has predicted that seasteading will become a reality when the land tax (i.e., the costs of increasingly dysfunctional governments) exceeds the ocean tax, or the added engineering costs of building on the high seas. This formula computes the current (non) viability of politically autonomous artificial islands – vanity projects that may or may not ever come to fruition. But a politically autonomous artificial island is not a seastead. A seastead becomes a seastead when it turns the ocean tax into an ocean windfall, and reimagines the vast expanse of wind-swept waves as a dynamic, moist solar collector, ripe for harvesting in novel forms like algal biofuel.

What distinguishes a seastead from a vanity project? The seasteader isn’t afraid to get wet.

Settling the seas no longer science fiction, says NY Times

November 14, 2017

The New York Times has an article about seasteading:

[I]n 2017, with sea levels rising because of climate change and established political orders around the world teetering under the strains of populism, seasteading can seem not just practical, but downright appealing.

It mentions Ken Neumeyer’s “Sailing the Farm,” and gives an early history of the Institute – starting with Patri Friedman’s Burning Man talk, and  Peter Thiel’s 2009 Cato Unbound essay. The article is surprisingly optimistic about the prospects, and with good reason. It’s worth remembering that Thiel framed seasteading as the more realistic option for building the future when compared to outer space:

 In a 2009 essay, Mr. Thiel described seasteading as a long shot, but one worth taking. “Between cyberspace and outer space lies the possibility of settling the oceans,” he wrote.

The open oceans are still a desolate place. Outside of a few die-hard cruisers, we don’t really know how to safely, comfortably, and affordably inhabit them.

French Polynesia lowers the barriers to entry, by allowing certain geographic and political barriers to perfect mobility and autonomy. It makes sense to try to align the seastead’s interests with the political unit – in this case French Polynesia – to achieve something like an incubator for seasteading technology. These are the same technologies that islands will need in the event of extreme climate change: steady open-ocean platforms, next-generation transport vessels, and life-support systems for a new kind of society.

Seastead incubator

Update: Both the NY Times piece and a more recent VICE news article strike a different tone from most previous coverage. The change in major media reports on seasteading brings to mind Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the paradigm shift – the tipping point, when a new theory becomes recognized by a majority of the scientists in a field. First a theory seems crazy, but gradually, it begins to explain more and more of the anomalies of the old paradigm. Seasteading can be thought of as the ultimate counter-cyclical industry. As government/climate/the economy become less tenable in their present, a radical “reset” becomes more attractive.