All posts tagged seasteading

Book review: Seasteading, by Joe Quirk, with Patri Friedman.

Seasteading is an interesting idea. Alas, Quirk’s approach is not quirky enough to do justice to the unusual advantages of seasteading.

The book’s style is too much like a newspaper. Rather than focus on the main advantages of seasteading, it focuses on the concerns of the average person, and on how seasteading might affect them. It quotes interesting people extensively, while being vague about whether the authors are just reporting that those people have ideas, or whether the authors have checked that the ideas are correct. Many of the ideas seem rather fishy.

I suspect that seasteading’s biggest need now is businessmen and/or VCs who can start cruise-ship-sized projects. Yet the book seems aimed more at creating broad, shallow support among ordinary readers than it is at inspiring competent entrepreneurs.
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The biggest news at the 2012 Seasteading Conference was the donation (not quite complete) of a 275 foot ship (formerly used for gambling) to the Seasteading Institute. I doubt the Seasteading Institute has much ability to use such a ship directly. It sounds like they will rent it out to some organization that is better suited to managing it, although the obvious choice (Blueseed) probably needs a bigger ship in order to achieve enough economies of scale to be profitable.

This is the first seasteading conference with a seasteading related startup (Blueseed). Most of what they said has been getting publicity for months. What seemed new about the presentation was that a quarter of those expressing interest in living on the ship are from the U.S. and are seeking a place with lots of “cool” people (i.e. not motivated by the visa problems Blueseed is designed to solve). Also, Blueseed has been turning away some businesses that might create political risks (they mentioned Bitcoin, but it wasn’t clear whether that referred to an actual business or a hypothetical).

There was talk about “Peak Phosphorus”, which might say something important about future phosphorus prices, and which is one of several motivations for growing algae, combined with some method for raising nutrient-rich deep water to the surface. The most visionary approach to raising deep water is OTEC, which is a plausible plan for producing power, but would require a fairly large initial investment, and I don’t know how to figure out whether it’s a wise investment.

I didn’t hear much about eating the algae directly, but LiveFuels Inc. has a plan to raise fish from algae. That would produce tasty food with a better omega-6/omega-3 ratio than most farmed fish (such as the soy industry backed Kampachi also at the conference).

Two lawyers who seemed to know everything possible about the Law of the Sea treaty, but not much about its relevance to seasteading, provided some interesting anecdotes. They claim that the controversy over the common heritage of mankind provision originated when Lockheed claimed to be interested in deep seabed mining as a cover for a CIA funded operation to retrieve a Soviet nuclear submarine. Competitors decided that if Lockheed thought the mining might be profitable, they should also research it. (The reports I see on the web differ a bit from what I heard at the conference).

There is a recently renewed push for U.S. ratification of the treaty. The speakers didn’t think it would have much effect on seasteading. For a better analysis of why it would create some risks of tragedy of the commons type problems, see section 4 of Charting the Course. See also the opposition to a similar provision in the Moon Treaty by the space colonization movement.

Book review: City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism by Jim Krane.

This book describes how a nearly barren piece of land became a prosperous city. Dubai sounds like what you’d expect if Bill Gates had taken over a small desert tribe and turned it into a real estate development company.

Part of its success is due to having the right amount of oil given its population size. Most non-industrialized countries that find enough oil to affect their economy are corrupted by dependence on it and by political fighting over who profits from it. Dubai found enough to finance a good deal of growth, but quickly saw that oil revenues would decline before long. Also, it had few enough people that the ruling family could afford to buy off any potential opposition.

But Dubai’s development started before it had much hope for oil money, and is partly due to the ambitions of a few people who ruled it. There must be a fair amount of luck involved – it seems to be an accident that Dubai is ruled by competent businessmen who are uninterested in politics (one ordered his reluctant brother to become the ruler). British rule over the region early on also helped ensure political stability.

The book’s description of Dubai’s legal system is confusing. How did a tribe with no tradition of private property make investors feel safe? I’ve read elsewhere that importing a British judge and British common law to the financial district is part of the explanation. The rest of Dubai seems to manage with virtually no legal system. I’m still puzzled about how Dubai provides enough predictability to attract large investments.

He describes Dubai’s lack of democracy as “an embarrassment”. But most of the book suggests that Dubai has been doing better than a democracy could. It makes much faster decisions than a democracy, and it forces bureaucrats to compete for performance scores that would be too easily gamed if voters were in charge.

Dubai’s ambitious expansion has made it resemble a financial bubble for much of the past 55 years, but most of its gambles have succeeded. This makes me wonder how to distinguish similar expansions from bubbles in the future (or in China, the present).

Dubai is an important model for how seasteads might develop, and will compete with any seastead.

The author has a modest pro-Dubai bias, but reports some serious problems such as workers being unable to leave because their passports has been confiscated, and wasteful subsidies of energy and water prices.

He claims that until 2008 the region “hadn’t experienced a financial shock for more than three decades”. Was the 1982 Kuwaiti stock market crash in a different region? It’s not obvious where to get enough financial data to say how the shock from that affected Dubai.

How can a hospital-like business operating outside of existing territorial jurisdictions avoid harrassment by governments whose medical lobbies want to spread FUD?

Given that these businesses will initially have no track record to point to and less protection than existing medical tourism providers from whatever government provides a flag of convenience to the business, merely providing comparable quality medical care won’t be enough for such businesses to thrive. So I’m proposing practices which could enable those businesses to argue that current U.S. hospitals are more dangerous. I’m not suggesting this just for marketing purposes – I want safe hospitals to be available, and regulatory costs in the U.S. make it easier to start an innovative hospital offshore than in the U.S. (especially for types of innovation that don’t respect doctors’ prestige).

It has been known since 1847 that doctors kill patients by failing to wash their hands often enough. Yet this threat is still common. An offshore hospital could offer patients documentation showing when medical personel who touch the patient washed their hands (e.g. by providing the patient with video recordings of the procedures sufficient for the patient to verify cleanliness), with a double your money back guarantee. There are many other less common errors that patients could use such videos to check for.

The book Counting Sheep argues that hospitals often impair patients’ health by disturbing their sleep. Paying patients if night-time noise or light levels exceed some pre-specified limits should reduce this problem.

Next, I want the hospital’s fee structure to give it increased incentives to avoid failure. For procedures with objectively measurable results, I want the hospital to charge the patient only if those results are achieved, and to pay the patient some pre-specified amount if results leave the patient measurably worse off. (For hard to measure results such as change in pain, this approach won’t work).

The article You Get What You Pay For: Result-Based Compensation for Health Care has more extensive discussion of incentives and of strategies that hospitals might use to reduce the rate at which they harm patients.

I attended about 2/3 of the recent Seasteading conference. There were plenty of interesting people there. But I became less optimistic that seasteading will be implemented within the next decade.

The most discouraging news was that floating breakwaters probably won’t work with using propulsion to control location. They might work if anchored (which needs shallow water that only provides a little usable area outside territorial waters), and should still work with seasteads that drift were the currents take them (only suitable for people comfortable with being isolated).

The medical tourism ship business idea had last year seemed the most promising stepping stone on the way to seasteading. This year’s talk by Na’ama Moran on that subject provided better talking points that might be used to interest investors, but had nothing resembling a business plan. A year ago there was some hope that moderate changes to SurgiCruise‘s business plan could turn it into something viable. The seasteaders who were involved in that gave up on working with SurgiCruise recently, and no progress appears to have been made yet on creating an alternative.

I was also disappointed that she described no plans for dealing with the U.S. medical establishment’s ability to smear competitors. A company with no track record and weak regulation by, say, Panama can be made to sound dangerous to patients even if it provides care as good as U.S. hospitals. Could a medical cruise company hope to get accreditation early enough? There are large uncertainties about how much that costs and how soon it would be needed. I want a medical tourism company to prepare to demonstrate ways in which it provides higher quality care than U.S. hospitals (more on this in a later post).

Kevin Overman presented a vaguely promising idea for using RepRap and products from algae to build (print) structures at a cost that he hopes will be an order of magnitude less than with the materials currently envisioned to build a seastead. If he’s right, he should be able to make a nice profit building things on land before anyone is ready to build a seastead. The one drawback that I noticed is that it requires thicker structures (2X?) to get the same strength.

I also stopped by Ephemerisle for Saturday afternoon. It shows some promise as a competitor to Burning Man, but it’s unclear whether anything people learned there is related to skills needed to hold a festival in international waters. Possibly the design of the main platform can be adapted to the ocean without radical changes, but virtually all the other activity was done without any apparent regard for whether it could be repeated in the ocean.

Book review: The Law Market by Erin A. O’Hara and Larry E. Ribstein.

This book describes why it has become easier for parties to a contract to choose which legal system will be applied to their contract, both in terms of the political forces that enabled choice and why it’s good that choice is possible.

The political forces include the ability of some parties to physically leave a jurisdiction if they have inadequate choices about what law will be applied to them. Often enough those parties are employers that legislators want to remain in their jurisdiction.

The benefits include simple things like predictability of contract interpretation when the contract covers things that involve physical locations associated with multiple jurisdictions where there otherwise would be no reliable way to predict which court would assert jurisdiction over disputes. They also include less direct effects of providing incentives for legal systems to improve so as to attract more customers.

The book mostly deals with contracts between corporations, and is much more tentative about advocating choice of law for individuals.

The book provides examples showing that as with most markets, competition for law produces better law. But is also mentions more questionable results, such as competition for most effective tax shelters or the easiest terms for divorce (for divorce, the book suggests those who want divorce to be hard should try to arrange contracts that allocate assets in a way that discourages divorce; it would be harder for easy-divorce states to justify ignoring those contracts). There’s also a risk that the competition will sometimes benefit lawyers rather than their clients, as clients often rely on lawyers to decide which legal system to use without having a practical way to check who benefits from some of those choices.

The book is often dull reading because it often describes case law to explain quirks of current law that will be of interest to few non-lawyers.

One part that disappointed me was the assumption that the choice of jurisdiction should dictate the physical location in which plaintiffs must argue their case (the travel costs can make some lawsuits unpractical to a consumer suing a company if the company decides the location at which a suit is argued). Why are we trapped in a set of rules that requires travel to a possibly distant court when we have technology that provides reasonable remote communications?

The first Seasteading conference went rather well. It got a good turnout of intelligent people, in spite of being on a weekday (they didn’t plan far enough ahead to find a good weekend spot).
I was somewhat disappointed by the time spent on the basic motivations behind seasteading (do people come to this kind of conference without understanding the motivations?), and I wanted to focus more on a serious analysis of how close the business plans are to being a good investment.
One interesting idea that was briefly mentioned is unmanned farms, herded by small robotic boats. If you’re willing to lose farms to an occasional storm, that drastically cuts costs. But when I imagine the cheapest possible farms, it seems the plants would get significant salt spray, which drastically limits the types of crops which will thrive.
The most interesting subject was Ephemerisle. Before the conference I had been wondering whether it would be interesting enough that I would want to attend. The conference convinced me that it will attract the kind of people I like, and that there will be some interesting technical challenges. Since my very rusty knowledge of sailing seems to leave me better informed than most seasteaders about some of those challenges, I will want to provide some help with the planning. It’s still too poorly thought out for me to feel confident that it will be done safely, but it can probably be planned well enough to be safe under most conditions (and hopefully people will be prepared to cancel it if unusual winds make it look unsafe).
The location seems very uncertain, and will have some important impacts on the risks. During the conference, the tentative plan seemed to be a few miles of the southern California coast, but afterward I got some indications that the plan had changed to the San Francisco bay, which would be a good deal easier but which would do less to promote any long-term vision.

This post is a response to a challenge on Overcoming Bias to spend $10 trillion sensibly.
Here’s my proposed allocation (spending to be spread out over 10-20 years):

  • $5 trillion on drug patent buyouts and prizes for new drugs put in the public domain, with the prizes mostly allocated in proportion to the quality adjusted life years attributable to the drug.
  • $1 trillion on establishing a few dozen separate clusters of seasteads and on facilitating migration of people from poor/oppressive countries by rewarding jurisdictions in proportion to the number of immigrants they accept from poorer / less free regions. (I’m guessing that most of those rewards will go to seasteads, many of which will be created by other people partly in hopes of getting some of these rewards).

    This would also have a side affect of significantly reducing the harm that humans might experience due to global warming or an ice age, since ocean climates have less extreme temperatures, seasteads will probably not depend on rainfall to grow food, and can move somewhat to locations with better temperatures.
  • $1 trillion on improving political systems, mostly through prizes that bear some resemblance to The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership (but not limited to democratically elected leaders and not limited to Africa). If the top 100 or so politicians in about 100 countries are eligible, I could set the average reward at about $100 million per person. Of course, nowhere near all of them will qualify, so a fair amount will be left over for those not yet in office.
  • $0.5 trillion on subsidizing trading on prediction markets that are designed to enable futarchy. This level of subsidy is far enough from anything that has been tried that there’s no way to guess whether this is a wasteful level.
  • $1 trillion existential risks
    Some unknown fraction of this would go to persuading people not to work on AGI without providing arguments that they will produce a safe goal system for any AI they create. Once I’m satisfied that the risks associated with AI are under control, much of the remaining money will go toward establishing societies in the asteroid belt and then outside the solar system.
  • $0.5 trillion on communications / computing hardware for everyone who can’t currently afford that.
  • $1 trillion I’d save for ideas I think of later.

I’m not counting a bunch of other projects that would use up less than $100 billion since they’re small enough to fit in the rounding errors of the ones I’ve counted (the Methuselah Mouse prize, desalinization and other water purification technologies, developing nanotech, preparing for the risks of nanotech, uploading, cryonics, nature preserves, etc).

Seasteading Institute

When I first heard and read about Seasteading, I thought it was mostly well thought out, but that it hadn’t reached its goal of providing a business plan that would support a small group of non-wealthy people to set up the first seastead in international waters.
Now Peter Thiel has donated $500,000 to fund a new organization called The Seasteading Institute. My intuition is that it will take somewhere between $2 million and $20 million of charitable contributions to reach the threshold of resources needed for a seastead to become viable in international waters. But the first big donation is typically harder for a nonprofit to get than subsequent donations, and the size of this initial donation (with only a rudimentary organization) suggests that there’s a good chance that more money can be raised once more specific plans are developed and more people indicate commitments to implement them.

Book Review: FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication by Neil Gershenfeld
This book brings welcome attention to the neglected field of personal, general-purpose manufacturing. He argues that the technology is at roughly the stage that computing was when minicomputers were the leading edge, is good enough to tell us something about how full-fledged assemblers as envisioned by Drexler will be used, and that the main obstacle to people using it to build what they want is ignorance of what can be accomplished.
The book presents interesting examples of people building things that most would assume were beyond their ability. But he does not do a good job of explaining what can and can’t be accomplished. Too much of the book sounds like a fund-raising appeal for a charity, describing a needy person who was helped rather than focusing on the technology or design process. He is rather thoughtless about choosing what technical details to provide, giving examples of assembly language (something widely known, and hard enough to use that most of his target users will be deterred from making designs which need it), but when he describes novel ideas such as “printing” a kit that can be assembled into a house he is too cryptic for me to guess whether that method would improve on standard methods.
I’ve tried thinking of things I might want to build, and I’m usually no closer to guessing whether it’s feasible than before I read the book. For example, it would be nice if I could make a prototype of a seastead several feet in diameter, but none of the examples the book gives appear to involve methods which could make sturdy cylinders or hemispheres that large.
The index leaves much to be desired – minicomputers are indexed under computers, and open source is indexed under software, when I expected to find them under m and o.
And despite the lip service he pays to open source software, the CAM software he wrote comes with a vague license that doesn’t meet the standard definition of open source.