A Bookish Review of 2017

Counting books I’m currently in the middle of I have read 75 books this year.

A few of these are children’s books in Russian and German so if we subtract those out it’s ~70.

This includes three trilogies (Ramez Naam’s ‘Nexus’, Hannu Rajaniemi’s ‘Jean Le Flambeur’, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars’), and one pentagy (George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’).

Six titles were from the ‘Very Short Introduction’ series (Postmodernism, Logic, Mathematics, Relativity, Plants, Stem Cells) which, despite their lilliputian profiles on the bookshelf do pack a lot of punch.

I got through several textbooks, of which the most difficult was “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach”. This was also the most difficult book overall, though Bob Murphy’s “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and New Deal” was a definite contender, as it is a complete statement of the Austrian view on the origins of the great depression.

Jeffrey Biles’s “Mages Must Fall” was the only title written by a personal friend: an athletic little fantasy book which stood up admirably to some of the other titanic volumes in the list.

My science fiction reading was mostly standard fare: Robert Heinlein (“Farmers in the Sky”), Neal Stephenson (“Anathem”, “King of the Vagabonds”, “Snow Crash”, “Cryptonomicon”). But I also deliberately made a point to engage with authors with whom I was unfamiliar, like Ben Bova (“As On A Darkling Plain”) and James Blish (“Titans’ Daughter”).

Ayn Rand made five appearances: I read three of her four fiction works (“The Fountainhead”, “Atlas Shrugged”, “Anthem”) and the compelling defence of her economics called “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”, which also featured a cameo essay by future Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Anne C. Heller’s biography of her did a great job of neutrally exploring the brilliant, profoundly controversial figure.

In economics I also read Murray Rothbard (“For a New Liberty”), Alex Epstein (“The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels”), F.A. Hayek (“The Fatal Conceit”), and Thomas Sowell (“Intellectuals In Society”), this last of which might’ve been my favorite. Besides this I also read a history of the Austrian School and a towering, 1000-page biography of Ludwig Von Mises which did a lot to flesh out my view of the man.

There were two pop business books (“Abundance”, “Bold”) by Peter Diamandis and Stephen Koettler which I liked more than I thought I would, and Winnifred Gallagher’s “Rapt” was a pop psychology book that easily bests anything put out by Malcolm Gladwell.

I had hoped to make it to 100, to include works in Korean/Spanish/French, and to have gotten in another textbook or two, but considering that I also published my own book (“The STEMpunk Project”) and had a baby, this isn’t too bad.


Peripatesis: The Blockchain.

Doubtless all of you have heard of the cryptocurrency ‘bitcoin’, but this is merely one application built atop a deeper technology called ‘the blockchain’. Recently I have been doing some serious research on this emerging technology and I thought I’d collect the resources in one easily accessible place.

I will continue to update this page as my knowledge grows.


What is Blockchain“: Explains blockchain as a combination of open and distributed ledgers, and miners’ essential role in validating transactions on the blockchain network.

19 Industries the Blockchain Will Disrupt“:  Everyone is familiar with the disruptive potential of bitcoin for the banking industry, but have you considered what the blockchain could mean for the internet of things, supply chain management, decentralized prediction markets, insurance, charity, energy management, voting, or online music?

Blockchain 101 – A Visual Demo“: An outstanding demonstration of how the cryptographic elements and distributed nature of the blockchain make it extremely difficult to hack, clarifying terms like ‘hash’ and ‘nonce’ along the way.

Blockchain: Massively Simplified“: Elucidates the concept of a distributed, immutable ledger with an extended comparison to centralized, mutable ledgers in real estate. This talk makes it clear that what the blockchain is really changing is something more fundamental than money or any other surface-level economic phenomenon: it’s changing the way we trust. (SEE ALSO: “Sapiens“).

Dubai Blockchain Strategy“: The government of Dubai is using blockchain in a number of areas, possibly paving the way for future-oriented governments to do the same in other parts of the world.

Blockchain Demystified“: Covers much of the same material as other sources, and motivates the development of blockchain technology by noting that the original white paper debuting the concept appeared just months after the 2008 financial crisis.

Blockchain is Eating Wallstreet“: Lots of interesting graphs illustrating the impact blockchain technology will have on finance, accounting, and related value-storing/value-transferring industries.

How Bitcoin Works Under The Hood“: Is a detailed breakdown of how actual transactions occur on the bitcoin blockchain, complete with discussions of how various sorts of illegal maneuvers are avoided. (Written version)

Bootstrap a Blockchain Career“: Ivan on Tech discusses technical and educational pathways into a career utilizing blockchain technology.

Blockchain For Beginners“: Another blockchain tutorial for beginner’s from blockchain expert Andreas M. Antonopoulos. Interestingly, Antonopoulos advocates investing in learning the technical skills required to work with blockchains, he discourages speculative investing in bitcoin.

Code Implementations

Ivan on Tech walks us through a Java implementation.

Daniel Van Flymen builds a blockchain with Python.

SavJee does one with javascript.


Because I’m an aspiring hyper-poly-xeno-glot I thought I’d have a bonus section which contains blockchain discussions in some of the foreign languages I’ve studied.



(Русский) Блокчейн

(Français) Blockchain

(Español) Cadena de bloques

(Deutsch) Blockchain











Profundis: “Sapiens”, by Yuval Harari

Harari’s “Sapiens” is a quality work of popular science. As is usually the case with books of this sort most of the material will be review for anyone who has been paying attention to evolutionary biology, anthropology, and religious and economic history. But “Sapiens” nevertheless manages to be an engaging and thorough treatment of these fields. Better, it has a number of compelling definitions, generalizations, and claims which I would like to catalogue here.

First, though, let me briefly summarize the book’s thesis, which is essentially this: around 70,000 years ago a ‘tree of knowledge mutation’ caused changes in the neural architecture of the human brain. The brain had been increasing in size for about two million years, but it wasn’t until this mutation that we gained the ability to use exceptionally sophisticated language to represent entities that not only might not be currently present (i.e. bison glimpsed near the river earlier in the day) but might not exist at all (a pantheon of sky gods).

This was significant because it allowed for the creation and promulgation of shared myths which facilitate cooperation at super-Dunbar scales. The ‘Dunbar number’ is about 150, which is thought to be the theoretical limit on how big groups can be with all members having personal, detailed knowledge of all other members.

Groups at this size and lower are held together by kinship and perhaps friendship. Beyond this, something else must provide cohesion, and throughout man’s history this ‘something else’ has been shared fictions. The Catholic religion is vastly bigger than the Dunbar number, and Catholics distributed in both time and space can cooperate with one another because of a shared belief in the divinity of Christ (among other things).

Markets, science, religion, and indeed civilization itself stemmed from this supreme ability to cooperate. What Hariri calls ‘fictions’ and ‘imagined orders’ provide the basis for this ability.

Now, on to the compelling bits:

  • On an individual level humans aren’t significantly different from chimpanzees. We are only superior in large groups.
  • Early humans did not live is idyllic harmony with nature. They routinely burned huge swathes of land through the practice of ‘fire farming’ and were directly responsible for the extinction of hundreds of animal species.
  • For a long while the Agricultural Revolution actually didn’t make life better. It did support the population explosion which eventually gave rise to a profound division of labor, and that did make life better.
  • Cultures are defined as ‘networks of artificial instincts.’
  • Our ‘imagined orders’ (cultures, religions, jurisprudential customs, etc.) affect our lives because 1)they are embedded in our material world, 2) influence what we desire and how we pursue our desires from a very early age, 3) are intersubjective (i.e. ‘held by most other people’) and thereby acquire a kind of force.
  • Something is ‘objective’ when it does not depend on the contents of anyone’s consciousness, ‘subjective’ when it does, and ‘intersubjective’ when it isn’t objective but is believed by enough people that it does matter in the way objective facts might.
  • At least as important as a method of writing was a way of storing, indexing, and retrieving documents.
  • One of the earliest forms of money was barley, which has biological value, but it is hard to store and thus doesn’t facilitate the accumulation of wealth, which means no loans, no credit, no investment.
  • How do we tell what is biology and what is culture? A good rule of thumb: ‘biology permits, culture forbids’. There is no biological reason that two men shouldn’t have sex, but cultures have reliably been unenthusiastic about the idea.
  • Cultures are rife with contradictions because they are not bound to the rules of consistency the same way physics is. This isn’t a weakness, it’s a virtue, because exploring contradictory terrain propels cultures forward.
  • The ‘us v.s. them’ distinction seems hardwired into humans, but the religious, imperial, and economic imagined orders are capable at least in theory of subsuming everyone.
  • Trust, more than money, powers the economy.
  • Money is remarkable because it is able to transform anything into anything else and it enables profound cooperation. But it is denigrating, too, because when people cooperate they value the money, not each other, and for a high enough payoff people have been known to do unspeakable things.
  • ‘Empires’ must have two characteristics: 1) they must rule over numerous (more than two or three) different peoples; 2) they must have an insatiable desire for more territory. So size isn’t a factor here. The Aztec empire was a true empire even though it’s smaller than modern Mexico, because it subsumed some 300 different tribes and was constantly expanding.
  • Empires are often criticised as being unstable and evil. The latter claim is problematic because empires have done quite a lot of good throughout history, but the former claim is plain nonsense. Empires are one of the oldest and most stable forms of government, and most people have lived and died within empires.
  • The Persian King Cyrus the Great (c. 600-530 BC) was the first ruler to claim to be conquering on behalf of the conquered. He didn’t consider himself a Persian king subjugating the jews, he saw himself as the rightful king of the jews and thus responsible for their safety and well being.
  • Religions are defined as imagined orders which must be based on tenets that are supernatural in order and binding. Religions tend to have a missionary element.
  • The development of theism had a lot to do with the Agricultural Revolution. Before almost everyone was an animist, perceiving valuable sentience in every fern, rock, and river. But once farming became commonplace it felt silly to try and commune with things you owned, so people began to conceive of distinct gods acting on their behalf in the natural world.
  • Polytheistic empires like Rome were pretty religiously tolerant. They tended not to care much who you worshipped, so long as you also worshipped the gods of the ruling state. Two Egyptian gods, Osiris and Isis, were even brought into the Roman pantheon without trouble. The Romans persecuted the monotheistic Christians primarily because they refused to play by these rules.
  • There are two kinds of chaotic systems. Level 1 chaotic systems like the weather do not respond to attempts to predict their behavior. Level 2 chaotic systems like the stock market do.
  • The scientific revolution was unique in a few different ways. First, unlike religionists, scientists were willing to admit ignorance; Second, no theory or concept is sacred within science; Third, science leads ineluctably to the development of new technologies and new powers.
  • We take it for granted that superior military technology is a decisive advantage, but this was not always the case. Scipio Africanus would’ve had a decent chance of defeating Constantine the Great, who lived several hundred years later. But Napoleon would’ve been slaughtered by McArthur.  The difference is that the intertwining of capitalism, science, and imperialism caused arms development to become extremely quick, so a few decades or centuries would matter a lot in determining the outcome of a conflict.
  • There are two kinds of poverty — social and biological. Social poverty is not having the same opportunities as everyone else, and might be ineradicable. Biological poverty is not having enough to eat, and certainly is eradicable.
  • What made Europe great was a set of prevailing myths which encouraged expansion and discovery. The first commercial railroad was opened in Britain in 1830 and fifty years later there were a quarter-of-a-million miles of railroad there. There were only something like 22,000 miles in the rest of the world put together, much of which had been laid by the British in India. The difference? The imagined orders of science and capitalism.
  • Prior to the 15th century mapmakers usually pretended a vague familiarity with unknown parts of the world by putting monsters there. Afterwards, they made no such pretenses.
  • The discovery and conquest of America was truly unique. Most empire-builders sat out thinking they basically knew what the world contained and they wanted to rule over it. Not so with America, where the conquistadors and their financers knew damn well that they were totally ignorant of what awaited them.
  • European empiro-mancy was aided by scientific advances, and reciprocated by being very generous in funding scientific ventures. Most expeditions had more than one scientist among its team members.
  • Throughout history profit has been seen as evil because economies were tacitly viewed as being zero-sum, so any money I accumulated had to be taken from someone else. But once scholars realized that the size of the economic pie could be increased by productive effort, views on profit began to change.
  • Adam Smith’s view that selfishness can drive benevolent, prosocial behavior was among the most remarkable claims ever made. I think he was right.
  • The distinguishing feature of capitalism is that profits are reinvested in expanding production and distribution. Wealthy dukes or barons mostly sat on their wealth, they didn’t apportion a fraction of it to researching how to grow more wheat per acre.
  • In early-modern history it wasn’t unusual for private companies to hire armies, generals, ships, artillery, and everything else.
  • A big reason France didn’t emerge as the financial center of Europe to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Dutch merchant empire was because of an enormous hit she took when the bubble growing around development of the Southern Mississippi river collapsed, wiping out most of the French financial apparatus. Britain did managed to fill that vacuum, and France never really caught back up.
  • With the development of a strong central state the family and community had less and less of a crucial role to play in individual development, regulation, and protection. Occasionally this trend reversed: one reason the spectacular Carolingian empire collapsed a mere generation after the death of Charlemagne was that the crown was unable to adequately defend against Magyar and Viking raids. The fragile ties binding these communities the state began to fray because the state couldn’t provide them with adequate defense.


A Science Podcast?

I had an idea for a podcast the other day exploring plausible, radical alternatives to accepted scientific theories which are carefully supported by available evidence.

For example, Julian Jaynes famously argued that the ancient Greeks were not conscious in the way that you and I are. Instead, they were more like automatons occupying one part of the human brain, with dictats coming from gods which occupied the other part. Eventually developments in language led to a unifying of human consciousness and the rise of modern humans.

….which sounds completely ridiculous, right? But Jaynes spends 500 pages very carefully building his case with evidence from linguistics, exegesis, history, and art. I remember reading his book and thinking “welp, this is a lot harder to dismiss than I first thought.”

I also recently encountered the ‘deep, hot biosphere’ hypothesis by Thomas Gold, which contends that the conventional story of fossil fuels coming from organic matter slowly crushed over long periods of time is nonsense. Instead, there is a vast subterranean biosphere comprising microbes which are somehow or another manufacturing oil as a byproduct of their metabolism.

…which sounds completely ridiculous, right? But in reviews of the book I’ve consistently come across statements like “well, if it were anybody else making this claim we’d just laugh. But coming from a scientist like Thomas Gold…?”


Clearly there is a real danger here of crossing over into pseudoscience. So maybe I could do episodes of the demarcation problem with Massimo Pigliucci and “On Bullshit” with Harry Frankfurt, combined with giving ample room to skeptics who want to poke holes in the supporting arguments.

And I would try to avoid this crossing by only speaking to real, serious intellectuals. I have no interest in Deepak Chopra, for example, but I might talk to Daryl Bem.

In addition to bicamerality and the deep hot biosphere, some other interesting ideas include:

  • Homotopy theory in mathematics;
  • Paraconsistent logic (w/ my brilliant logician friend Erik Istre);
  • Superintelligent AI: fact or fiction?;
  • the Tau v.s. Pi debate;
  • Bayesianism v.s. Frequentism;
  • the Inca Quipu as an actual, functional language;
  • Morphic Resonance with Rupert Sheldrake;
  • Was English a pidgin language?

For fun maybe I could do an episode on fan theories in Star Wars, GoT, and similar franchises.

Is that something you nerds would be interested in?

Pebble Form Ideologies

(Epistemic Status: Riffing on an interesting thought in a Facebook comments thread, mostly just speculation without any citations to actual research)

My friend Jeffrey Biles — who is an indefatigable fountainhead of interesting stuff to think about — recently posited that the modern world’s aversion to traditional religion has exerted a selection pressure on meme vectors which has led to the proliferation of religions masquerading as science, philosophy, and the like. For any given worldview — even ostensibly scientific ones like racial realism or climate change — we can all think of someone whose fervor for or against it can only be described in religious terms.

Doubtless there is something to this, but personally I’m inclined to think it’s attributable to the fact that there are religion-shaped grooves worn deep in mammalian brains, probably piggybacking on ingroup-biasing and kin-selection circuitry.

No matter how heroic an attempt is made to get people to accept an ideology on the basis of carefully-reasoned arguments and facts, over time a significant fraction of adherents end up treating it as a litmus test separating the fools from those who ‘get it’. As an ideology matures it becomes a psychological gravity well around which very powerful positive and negative emotions accrete, amplifying the religious valence it has in the hearts and minds of True Believers.

Eventually you end up with something that’s clearly substituted ‘God’ for social justice, the free market, the proletariat revolution, etc.

An important corollary of this idea is that the truth of a worldview is often orthogonal to the justifications supplied by its adherents. I’m an atheist, for example, but I don’t think I’ve ever met another atheist who has a firm grasp on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). Widely believed to be among the most compelling arguments for theism, it goes like this:

  1. Everything which *began* to exist has a cause;
  2. the universe began to exist;
  3. therefore, the universe has a cause;

(After this point further arguments are marshalled to try and prove that a personal creator God is the most parsimonious causal mechanism)

Despite being clearly articulated in innumerable places, atheists like Michael Shermer are still saying “but if everything has a cause then what caused God?”

If you understand the KCA then the theistic reply is straightforward: “The universe began to exist, so it has a cause, but God is outside time and thus had no beginning.” The standard atheist line, in other words, is a complete non-sequitur. Atheistic rebuttals to other religious arguments don’t fare much better, which means a majority of atheists don’t have particularly good reasons for being atheists.

This has little bearing on whether or not atheism is true, of course. But it does suggest that atheism is growing because many perceive it to be what the sensible, cool people believe, not because they’ve spent multiple evenings grappling with William Lane Craig’s Time and Eternity.

Perhaps then we should keep this in mind as we go about building and spreading ideas. Let us define the ‘pebble form’ of a worldview as being like the small, smooth stone which is left after a boulder spends eons submerged in a river — it’s whatever remains once time and compression have worn away its edges and nuances. Let us further define a “Maximally Durable Worldview” as one with certain desirable properties:

  1. the central epistemic mechanisms has the slowest decay into faith-based acceptance;
  2. the worldview is the least damaging once it becomes a pebble form (i.e. doesn’t have strong injunctions to slaughter non-believers);
  3.  …?

There’s probably an interesting connection between:

  1. how quickly a worldview spreads;
  2. how quickly it collapses into a pebble form;
  3. the kinds of pebble forms likely to result from a given memeplex rotating through a given population;

Perhaps there are people doing research on these topics? If so I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Leviathan 2.0

(note: as of today [4/5/16] this essay is incomplete. I’m publishing it early so that I can get feedback in advance of my talk. I plan to flesh out many of these sections, possibly add a discussion of space colonies if I can hunt down any reasonably proposals, and write a conclusion.)

I’m preparing to give a talk to the Transhumanism Club of the University of Colorado in Boulder. Entitled “Leviathan 2.0”, it’s a quick treatment of some interesting attempts being made to bring much needed freshness into governance and statecraft.

I discuss a number of different vehicles for achieving this goal, all of which are in varying stages of planning and completeness. Because some of my information is out of date I have tried to indicate how recent my facts are and provide plenty of links for anyone wanting to explore further.


For the purposes of this essay the terms “State”, “government”, and “sovereign” can be used more or less interchangeably. Nailing down what one means by these terms, however, is a somewhat more complicated matter.

To the early theoretical architects of communism the State was a centralizing mechanism meant to combat ‘anarchy in the means of production’ and ensure a more equitable distribution of goods and services in a society. The intellectual precursors to the Fascist movement of 19th and 20th century Europe trafficked in the concept of an “organic state” which viewed the individuals comprising a society as analogous to the limbs and tissues of a greater animal, without which they couldn’t survive. And then of course you have the sociologist Max Weber’s concise view of a government as a monopoly on force over a geographic area.

As we will be exploring one system that completely does away with the link between geography and government we’ll need a definition that is less restrictive. For us, a state is a recognized authority that claims for itself rights which it may or may not give to its citizens.

Charter Cities

Popularized by economist Paul Romer, charter cities are meant to be a kind of “special economic zone” (SEZ), but scaled up to at least 1,000 square kilometers, or about the size of a small city. Proponents argue that this is something of a sweet spot; it’s big enough to facilitate meaningful economic, social, and political change while still being small enough to be practicable.

A charter city would be established inside of an already-existing state, on undeveloped lands, and with a formal charter in place that specifies in advance what kinds of rules citizens will be expected to abide by.

But this charter’s rules can be quite different from the rules of the host state, and therein lies the magic. By creating a mechanism for entrepreneurs and interested parties to found new states, charter cities could do a lot to encourage experimentation with different kinds of institutions and policies. Various sovereigns would then have to compete with each other for a ‘customer base’ of citizens willing to live in, work in, and be taxed in their country. Few would contend that the world’s public sectors are hotbeds of innovation, and having to work to maintain willing customers like standard businesses do would incentivize these public sectors to respond better to what people want.

A favored example of a successful SEZ is Hong Kong. Beginning around 1950 its more attractive economic policy made it a popular target for people and firms willing to relocate from mainland China. Over the course of the past sixty years what began as a hot spot for button and trinket manufacturers became a world-renowned financial hub which scores well across a plethora of economic metrics like GDP, life expectancy, and wages.

Nor is it the only such example. Deng Xiaoping established a special economic zone around the Chinese city of Shenzen in 1980, and like Hong Kong it transformed into an economic powerhouse focused on logistics, manufacturing, and financial services.

The important thing about both of these examples is that they were designated places where citizens abided by a set of rules different from those enforced in the host country. For this reason charter cities, and the SEZS upon which they are based, amplify a dynamic that has long been in play: the world’s poor are not ignorant to the fact that there are better alternatives elsewhere, and many of those able to move somewhere else, do. Charter cities would simply speed up the proliferation of choices.

This is especially true for smaller countries. I live in Colorado, and moving to a charter city in Maine would still be a major undertaking because America is geographically large. But in a fairly small country a charter city would likely be in reach of anyone, regardless of where it was located in the country.

All of this will be increasingly relevant to the world our grandchildren will live in, which is projected to have as many as 7 billion people living in urban centers by centuries end. How confident should we be that today’s governments will adequately meet the challenge of building the infrastructure required to support this influx? Must we accept that the sun will rise on the first day of the year 2100 over billions and billions of people accreting in slums around cities that simply cannot accommodate them?

Perhaps not. Charter cities could be a way of beginning to address this problem. So could their cousins, private cities.

Private Cities

A private city is distinguished from a charter city by the fact that it simply has no public sector. A private entity like Google owns the city outright, and either performs all the traditional functions that a state performs or lets other private firms handle it.

But like a charter city, with its intact public sector, a private city would have to compete to keep a tax base and would thus have incentive to respond to the demands of its citizens efficiently and effectively.

To elaborate further on this theoretical justification, private cities offer a way of “internalizing externalities“. Economists define externalities as being consequences, either positive or negative, which affect otherwise uninvolved third parties. If I produce great computers I can capture a huge amount of the value I create in the form of profits because anyone who wants one of my computer’s has to pay me for it. But if I spend a billion dollars on an air purifier capable of cleaning up the smog over LA, how am I suppose to get that value back? It’s not as though I can make people rent air from me.

For this reason ‘public goods‘ like clean air tend to be underproduced by private firms and produced inefficiently by the public sector. Both private cities and charter cities offer a potential means of efficiently producing greater quantities of such goods because they create an opportunity for firms to make a profit providing them.

But beyond this private cities might also help sole the even harder problem of incentivizing institutional change. In order to be competitive a private city will need to secure as much autonomy as possible from the government of its host country. With greater freedom comes a greater ability to experiment with novel institutions and forms of governance, allowing private cities to more quickly discover the configuration its citizens consider optimal.

While promising in the abstract, so far private cities have failed to rise to their potential. Lavasa, for example, is an Indian city being planned by Lavasa Corp, a private company. As of 2014, however, it looks as though its regulatory system will do little to encourage new businesses to set up shop there, which will likely prove disadvantageous in the long run.

Another private city in the works is nestled in Lagos, Nigeria. Eko Atlantic would have traditionally public sector services like security and energy provided by South Energyx Nigeria Ltd., the company building the city on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean. But like Lavasa, it appears as though Eko Atlantic won’t make the process of starting a business more streamlined than it is in the rest of Nigeria. The developers of both Lavasa and Eko Atlantic fail to understand what made Hong Kong such a success story.

This is less the case for “the world’s first publicly traded city“, located in Saudi Arabia. Its CEO Fahd Al-Rasheed makes it clear that the King Abdullah Economic City is meant to increase economic diversity by building a huge manufacturing and industrial center in the ‘Red Sea Region’ between Africa and The Middle East. The KAEC, as well as the other ‘economic cities’ being planned in Saudi Arabia will be built with regulatory structures meant to foster investment and competition.


Both charter cities and private cities are promising ways of playing with the rules of social organization, but neither attempt to utilize the vast territorial resource which blankets almost 3/4s of the Earth’s surface: the oceans.

In terms of their theoretical justifications and end goals seasteads aren’t any different from private cities or charter cities, but unlike the latter, seasteads have more historical precedent. Cruise ships, house boats, and oil rigs demonstrate the feasibility of maintaining small populations on a semi-permanent basis in relative safety and comfort.

Patri Friedman, The leading proponent of seasteads, favors an incremental approach to testing the seastead concept. Rather than trying to get a few thousand people to relocate to the open ocean, start by tackling the engineering and legal problems of building a tiny floating village in calmer coastal waters. With this proof of concept in hand, it should be possible to attract more participants and investors. Larger seasteads will be able to specialize in providing services like water purification and aquatic research, to say nothing of the potentials for medical and traditional tourism.

As of April 2014 The Seasteading Institute has a design in place and is in talks with an undisclosed host nation to build in their waters.

When contemplating seasteads a number of potential dangers suggest themselves: piracy; tsunamis and rogue waves; high winds; the corrosive properties of salt water; and also piracy. While some of the members of this list are indeed formidable barriers, seasteading advocates maintain that the biggest obstacle to overcome is actually the labyrinthine state of maritime law, together with the possibility of a powerful sovereign like The United States intervening if it doesn’t like what the occupants of a seastead are doing.

Piracy, as it turns out, is a little like airplane crashes. When it happens gets a lot of media coverage, but the reality is that attempts to hijack cargoes and crew are usually unsuccessful, and piracy in general simply isn’t that big of a problem.


By exploring the concept of a polystate we move from the merely theoretical to the wildly speculative; even Zack Wienersmith, the author of the book from which the concept’s name is taken, calls it “political science fiction”.

The distinguishing feature of a Polystate is that it completely severs the connection between geography and sovereignty, hence why my definition of a State contains no mention of geographic areas.

Properly grappling with this idea requires making the following distinctions: let a ‘geostate’ be a traditional government bound to a certain span of territory, an ‘anthrostate’ be a state with a distributed citizenry and no geographic ties, and a polystate be the tapestry of interwoven anthrostates.

To make this clearer, imagine that each country in Western Europe consists of some land with its state floating above it like a Zeppelin tethered to the Earth. If these countries decide to become part of a polystate their borders cease to be meaningful and the floating states smear out to cover all of Europe simultaneously.

People located in former Germany can subscribe to the German government if they choose, or to the French, Italian, or British governments. People located in the former Portugal or the former Great Britain have these same options as well. This means that neighbors living feet apart might be governed by different states with competing — and possibly conflicting — sets of rules.

Mimicking Wienersmith’s own example, let’s assume this new polystate has the following macro-rules: 1) no anthrostate may become a geostate, 2) each individual selects their government on their birthday, 3) if an anthrostate violates rule 1) it’s sovereign status is revoked and its citizens give a full day to choose a new state.

By now your head must surely be swimming with objections and questions. I will only relay a handful of Wienersmith’s answers; anything more substantive wouldn’t be worth writing, as Wienersmith’s own book is short, well-written, and available in an inexpensive Kindle format.

What happens when a member of one anthrostate commits a crime against a member of another anthrostate? This sometimes happens with geostates, as in cases where citizens of one country commit crimes while abroad.

There are a handful of potential solutions. Anthrostates could work together to have compatible legal systems in order to streamline interstate judiciary proceedings, or they could defer to an agreed upon third party arbiter.

But this probably wouldn’t work in cases of radical incompatibility, such as if a dictatorship overlapped with an extremely liberal democracy. For the sake of argument let’s stipulate that the dictator has decreed that his citizens will face no retribution for attacking citizens of the liberal democracy, and he will defend them in court if need be.

Here, there may simply be no alternative to anthrostates going to war, which seems to be essentially the same dynamic at play between modern geostates. But war in a polystate would be a very different affair, in part because it is never clear who holds what territory and who belongs to what faction.

Wienersmith speculates that anthrostates might make war by fight in a predetermined area, by fighting on a house-by-house basis while taking care not to harm non-combatants, by fighting on a house-by-house basis while taking no care not to harm non-combatants, or by first evacuating non-combatants and then fighting in a conventional style.

What if one anthrostate consists of nudists and another of staunch Catholics? It’s possible in such a scenario that technology will provide solutions. The futuristic version of Google Glass, distributed to all citizens in the Catholic anthrostate, could be used to pixelate the unmentionables of any disrobed nudists.

To his credit Wienersmith admits that a lot of these replies are very speculative and hand-wavy. He knows he isn’t an economist, and his goal with the book is to explore an interesting take on the problem of governance, not to win any arguments.

Still, there are a few reasons why I don’t think polystates would be meta-stable. The first is simply that any sufficiently powerful geostate could decide that a disunified polystate is ripe for invasion and takeover. Even leaving this possibility aside Adam Gurri notes that even a slight preference for being around like-minded people could result in enough geographic clustering for anthrostates to wind down into geostates. And while traditional geostates don’t seem to have developed a good solution to the problem of externalities, I can’t see any reason polystates would fare better.




No Vast Conspiracies

Hanlon’s Razor is a well-known aphorism that goes something like “never assume bad intentions when assuming stupidity is enough”. In a recent Facebook post Eliezer Yudkowsky, true to form, expanded the definition thusly:

“Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to an enormous complicated System full of conflicting incentives getting stuck in a weird equilibrium. When that weird equilibrium is crushing people in its gears, don’t attribute that harm to a conspiracy of evil powerful people who planned it all and profit from it. There is no master plan behind the US medical system, it’s just an enormous complicated thing that got stuck. Even if there’s a billionaire or politician benefiting from the current setup, they didn’t cunningly plan for the US medical system to be dysfunctional, and they couldn’t make anything be different by choosing otherwise. Conspiracies of evil people plan how to profit from the System’s current stuck state. They don’t decide where it gets stuck”

Another way of grokking Yudkowsky’s modified version is to ask yourself how cohesive a group of people would have to be, and how intelligent it’s members would have to be, in order to be capable of orchestrating the sorts of conspiracies that keep so many otherwise sane individuals up at night.

If your closest friends and family were secretly given a trillion dollars and told to plan and execute a Vast Conspiracy of your choosing, how high would you judge the odds of success to be? How long do you think it’d be before your group began to fight internally, or before someone slipped up and let the secret out, or you ran into unforeseen and unforeseeable complications?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure plenty of people try to be evil masterminds, and maybe they even succeed in a limited way.

But the idea that a black-robed cabal (or a boardroom equivalent) is maneuvering the world into this exact configuration with surgical precision for some sinister end is just ridiculous.

Just to be safe, though, I want any Illuminati who happen to be reading this to know that they can pull off their masks and reveal their true identities, because I will vote for them so hard.

If someone is that much smarter than me, that much more organized than me, and that much more competent than me, then perhaps they should be in charge.

What this implies, for both actual policymakers and those pondering the best ways of changing the world, is that whatever broken System you want to fix likely doesn’t have a brain you can discover and destroy. More than likely the solution will involve something like changing Schelling points, large-scale cultural shifts, technological breakthroughs, etc.

Which…isn’t exactly great news, I know. But at least you won’t be wasting your energy aiming at the wrong targets.