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Seasteaders Plan to Build a Libertarian Utopia on the High Seas
Silicon Valley engineers and financiers make up the lion’s share of the movement.
Looking at the world today, all of its gnawing problems and near daily tragedies, one might easily dream of escaping to their own small, well-designed utopia. Here, like-minded individuals would help build a better society, one based on their own beliefs and values. America has had many such groups immigrate to its shores and lose themselves in the frontier in order to breathe life into such a vision. Usually, religious persecution was the push factor. For a group of modern day libertarians, its government overreach. But today, with almost all the land on Earth accounted for, this group has set their eyes on a different kind of real estate, the high seas.
The idea is to build a floating city at least 200 miles off of a country’s coastline. This is international waters by UN treaty, out of the reach of the world’s governments. But creating a seafaring utopia isn’t so simple. The Seasteading Institute is now in friendly talks with French Polynesia. Among the movements bigwigs is PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who is currently helping the Trump campaign in their transition into the White House. Jim O’Neil, who worked for the second Bush administration and is a possible Trump FDA appointee, is another.
Thiel is a co-founder of the Seasteading Institute, along with Patri Friedman, a former Google software engineer and grandson of famed economist Milton Friedman. Thiel and Friedman announced their plan in 2008. Should the president of the French territory sign off, the project could begin as early as 2017. It is slated for completion in 2020. Thiel, who invested $1.7 million in the project, has spoken of the settlement as a libertarian utopia. Though no longer on the board, he continues to support the project financially.
Originally, the plan was to be completely independent. But the estimated cost of such a project was $225 million, with an annual operating cost of $8 million. Soon, seasteaders were starting to see the benefits of having a nation to partner up with. French Polynesia was chosen because it has a fiber cable run from Hawaii which allows for the same kind of bandwidth would-be residents are used to, and it’s only an eight hour flight from Los Angeles. For French Polynesians, whose land is being threatened from sea level rise due to global warming, the idea of a floating city has tremendous appeal.
PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is one of the major financiers of the project.
Randolph Hencken is the Seasteading Institute’s executive director. Though for a period there, it looked as if the project may never see fruition, the plans are now awaiting the signature of the French Polynesian president, Édouard Fritch. Hencken told Business Insider that his life probably won’t change all that much. He’ll still spend most of his day behind a desk talking with clients. "The difference would be, I would probably start my day going kitesurfing," he said. His diet will also include more fish and breadfruit.
Hencken foresees yoga classes and trips to the nearby islands for sumptuous dinners with his wife at high class restaurants. He said that anyone can go off and be a hermit on a sailboat for a year or longer. So what makes this different? "Seasteading is for people who want to engage in the marketplace of ideas, the marketplace of commerce, and the marketplace of government," he said.
The plan entails building two or three platforms off the island chain, each about half a football field long. These will have on their surface communities housing around 30 people each. One model displays streamlined buildings reminiscent of a tech campus, along with a beachfront area, and a full size swimming pool.
Though the plans for stabilizers are in place, those who understand the sea know that even a series of small waves on a flotilla can make humans disoriented, never mind seasick, and storms can affect people in ways far worse. Knowing this, one wonders if even the best design can overcome the volatility and ever-changing nature of the sea. Oil platforms drill supports into the ocean’s bottom to secure them against wind and waves. But this is very expensive.
As it stands now, construction alone is projected at $30 million. Each platform will cost $15 million. A small group of anonymous inventors are said to be footing the bill, all of whom will become residents. In 2013, the project raised $27,000 via a crowdfunding campaign. But according to the institute’s director, those funds have already been paid to Norwegian design company DeltaSync, seemingly to engineer models for the platforms.
One of the designs for the seasteading initiative.
Should the project prove successful, more platforms may be added as time goes on. These will be self-sufficient cities. Even so, speedboats would be made available to take trips to the nearby islands for supplies or a visit. Each housing unit would be its own module. Those who were sick of their neighbors could just move to another place on the platform.
Seasteaders won’t be free of all governance. The community may be subjected to some French Polynesian laws, and as the islands remain a territory, French laws as well. These are expected to relate to environmental regulations and crime. But Hencken doesn’t see these as too stifling.
Challenges remain. Will the foundation last? What kind of economic zone will the floating nation create? Will there have to be new business and trade laws imposed on it, or will these be the same as that of their island hosts?
Then there is the most basic question. What will seasteaders do for a living, and what will be the floating island’s biggest industry? The place could quickly turn into a hedonistic destination. But if the teeny nation took to prostitution and illegal drug soirees, the countries whose citizens had moved there might pressure French Polynesia to get the seasteaders under control. Institute founders say they are aware of this possibility.
Then there are questions of culture, political rule, immigration rules, and others. In a Silicon Valley presentation in 2009, Patri Friedman likened the development of a governing body much like that of creating a software startup. "You could roll your own government out of pieces copied from all the societies around you,” he said. From there, a simple applicable government system could be created that would easily be adopted elsewhere.
Patri Friedman, co-founder of the seasteading movement. By Hannu Makarainen [CC BY-SA 2.0], Wikimedia Commons
"If we make one seastead, there's room for thousands," he said. What might life be like at such an outpost? Will people move there en masse or will it be a ghost town? Certainly those from big cities would miss the cultural trappings, restaurants, and other amenities. There’s also a general fear that the experiment will fall on its face. This isn’t the first attempt at a floating libertarian utopia. There was Operation Atlantis in the 1960’s, the Republic of Minerva in the 70’s, and the Oceania project of the 90’s. All ended in failure.
It was former software engineer Wayne Gramlich’s 1998 book SeaSteading—Homesteading on the High Seas, that inspired this current venture. Gramlich and Friedman together developed the initiative, which Thiel initially funded. Though a long and strenuous process awaits, one with an unknown outcome, seasteaders are in it for the long haul. Thiel said of the venture, "Decades from now, those looking back at the start of the century will understand that seasteading was an obvious step toward encouraging the development of more efficient, practical public-sector models around the world."
Yet, with a cadre of successful tech geeks and financial pros lining its ranks, a group by the way almost entirely Caucasian, one wonders if they are out to, as they claim, address humanity’s most daunting problems, or merely proposing a clever way to evade regulations and avoid taxes.
To learn more about seasteading, click here:
A team of archaeologists has discovered 3,200-year-old cheese after analyzing artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It could be the oldest known cheese sample in the world.
A team of archaeologists has discovered 3,200-year-old cheese after analyzing artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It could be the oldest known cheese sample in the world.
The tomb that held the cheese lies in the desert sands south of Cairo. It was first discovered in the 19th century by treasure hunters, who eventually lost the knowledge of its location, leaving the Saharan sands to once again conceal the tomb.
“Since 1885 the tomb has been covered in sand and no-one knew about it,” Professor Ola el-Aguizy of Cairo University told the BBC. “It is important because this tomb was the lost tomb.”
In 2010, a team of archaeologists rediscovered the tomb, which belonged to Ptahmes, a mayor and military chief of staff of the Egyptian city of Memphis in the 13th century B.C. In the tomb, the team found a jar containing a “solidified whitish mass,” among other artifacts.
“The archaeologists suspected [the mass] was food, according to the conservation method and the position of the finding inside the tomb, but we discovered it was cheese after the first tests,” Enrico Greco, the lead author of the paper and a research assistant at Peking University in Beijing, told the The New York Times.
To find out what the substance was, the team had to develop a novel way to analyze the proteins and identify the peptide markers in the samples. They first dissolved parts of the substance and then used mass spectrometry and chromatography to analyze its proteins.
Despite more than 3,000 years spent in the desert, the researchers were able to identify hundreds of peptides (chains of amino acids) in the sample. They found some that were associated with milk from goat, sheep and, interestingly, the African buffalo, a species not usually kept as a domestic animal in modern Africa, as Gizmodo reports.
Those results suggested that the substance was cheese, specifically one that was probably similar in consistency to chevre but with a “really, really acidy” taste, as Dr. Paul Kindstedt, a professor at the University of Vermont who studies the chemistry and history of cheese, told the The New York Times.
“It would be high in moisture; it would be spreadable,” he said. “It would not last long; it would spoil very quickly.”
The researchers also found traces of the bacterium Brucella melitensis, which causes brucellosis, a debilitating disease that can cause endocarditis, arthritis, chronic fatigue, malaise, muscle pain and other conditions. It’s a disease usually contracted by consuming raw dairy products.
“The most common way to be infected [with Brucella melitensis] is by eating or drinking unpasteurized/raw dairy products. When sheep, goats, cows, or camels are infected, their milk becomes contaminated with the bacteria,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control wrote on its website. “If the milk from infected animals is not pasteurized, the infection will be transmitted to people who consume the milk and/or cheese products.”
Dr. Kindstedt said one reason the study is significant is for its novel use of proteomic analysis, which is the systematic identification and quantification of the complete complement of proteins (the proteome) of a biological system.
“As I say to my students every year when I get to Egypt, someone has to go ahead and analyze these residues with modern capabilities,” he told the The New York Times. “This is a logical next step and I think you’re going to see a lot more of this.”
'The Great Pyramid of Chee-za'. An artist's interpretation of a very ripe, slightly deadly Egyptian tomb cheese. (Credit: Creative commons/Big Think)
However, Dr. Kindstedt did offer a bit of caution on the conclusions the researchers drew from the findings.
“The authors of this new study did some nice work,” he told Gizmodo in a statement. “But in my view, on multiple grounds (I suspect in their zeal to be “the first”), they inferred considerably beyond what their data is capable of supporting within reasonable certainty, and almost certainly they are not the first to have found solid cheese residues in Egyptian tombs, just the first to apply proteomic analyses (which is worthy achievement on its own).”
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- A new study suggests that tabs can cause people to be flustered as they try to keep track of every website.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.