Houseboats, Containers, Guns and Garbage: the 2011 Ribbonfarm Field Trip

The first annual ribbonfarm field trip to Sausalito and Muir Woods Rodeo Beach is now done. As of July 17th, I can safely report that at least a dozen or so real people read the blog. It’s not all hyper-intelligent bots planted on the Internet by aliens just to mess with me. We started the day-long field trip on the Sausalito docks, where houseboat owner, long-time reader, sponsor and tour host Sam Penrose talked about the ideas in the book How Buildings Learn, and how they applied to what we were about to see.

Here’s a summary of the book, a Video series based on it and the Sausalito portion of the series (episode 2, starts at 9:20). Sam also flagged ribbonfarm-esque themes for the tour, such as the idea of legibility and outsider/outlaw lifestyles.

So what did we see as we trooped around behind Sam and his wife Sue? A bunch of really fascinating houseboats that totally disturb your idea of what “normal” life is or should be (how about living in a home that’s built on a converted World War II landing craft? Or one that’s clearly the product of a seriously tripping 60s imagination?) What did we hear? A bunch of associated narratives, micro and grand.

On the micro-narrative front, we heard stories about delinquent mortgagees trying to float their homes away (at 0.5 mile an hour), old neighbors suddenly vanishing and being replaced by new ones, and outlaw houseboats randomly appearing to blot out your view of the bay.  On the grand-narrative front, we learned about the story of creeping gentrification that turned a true outlaw, non-conformist community into a faux-non-conformist community (Sam freely admits that he is a member of the latter, though working for ILM is still an outlaw job in my book).

But there is still a deep strain of badass outlaw DNA in the local community, as this sign suggests. This is not your average techie enclave. We followed Sam’s wise suggestion and avoided going down this particular pier.

We talked of several things, but one remark that stuck in my mind (I forget who made it) was that as land-lubbers, we often forget that things like sewage and the concept of “neighbor” are not necessarily as fixed as we like to think.

Sam ended the tour on an appropriately ribbonfarmesque colllapsonomics theme: the community is just one earthquake away from going from rich, living story to sepia-tinted memory. So is the rest of the Bay Area of course (named after Michael Bay, in case you didn’t know that bit of trivia), but the houseboat community seems particularly fragile.

After the tour, we picked up box lunches and trooped over to Rodeo Beach. After a picnic lunch, we began a hike up a gentle hill next to the beach.

About halfway up the hill, we stopped at an old World War II era coastal defense gun battery cave (is there a technical term for these things?). Apparently Alistair McLean is way more popular amongst Indians than other people. Two of the three of us in the group immediately thought of the Guns of Navarone.

Then it was time for a group picture.

Reading left to right, we have: Alexander, Bess, Tieming, Sudarshan, Laura, Petra, Nick, Kartik, Pete, Greg, Allen, Sam, Joy, Geoff, Edwin, Sebastian, me and Alex Yim. Despite a bunch of last minute cancellations due to traffic snarls (access to the Golden Gate bridge was partly blocked that day) and other snafus (and presumably, a few alien-bot readers), I thought it was a pretty good turnout for quite a long event in an area famously full of too-busy people.

Thanks to the presence of a few non-reader +1 guest types (Bess, Petra, Tieming, Geoff) the conversation was thankfully rescued from the threat of getting mired in geeky ribbonfarmesque themes.

That said, it did make my day to see a container ship floating gently by. Container shipping, for those who came in late, is a sort of motif for this blog.

From the Guns of Navarone we continued up the hill to the Marine Mammal rescue center, which rescues and rehabilitates injured sea lions. Since wild thoughts are a big theme for me, it felt good to spend a silent, meditative moment with the sea lions.

Speaking of how buildings learn, the center used to be part of a missile silo command center or something. Weapons and war are not yet a big theme for me, but they are going to be. Look out for a post about nuclear weapons and the geopolitics of detente on the Tempo blog soon (I visited the Minuteman Missile National Historical Site in South Dakota earlier on this road trip specifically to research a piece, and have a lot of ideas brewing).

Garbage and collapse are also key ribbonfarm themes, and we encountered both: the courtyard of the center is full of sculptures made from plastic ocean junk.

Here is a close-up.

“Choked by plastic” is increasing in probability for me, as a thread in my personal favorite collapse narrative.

After the junk and sea lions, we had one final treat in store. Allen Knutson, Cornell mathematician and former record-breaking juggler, gave us an impromptu mini lecture/demonstration of the mathematics of juggling. You can watch a video of him explaining the ideas here, but I forgot to take an actual picture. So instead, here is a different picture: Allen deep in thought contemplating how to juggle an E8 group symmetry pattern.

Okay, he was probably checking his phone for email.

And finally, a thank you to Alex Yim, who was field-testing his new camera, which is why you get all these quality pictures, instead of just a few lousy ones from my iPhone. You can see the complete slideshow here.

A final shout-out to a non-present friend and reader, Jeremy Epstein, from whom I stole the brilliant idea of doing a field trip rather than a dull meetup. More bloggers should do things like this.

Thanks everybody for coming, and I hope to do something like this every year. Perhaps more frequently.  I wish I could do things like this in more places, but unfortunately, not many places have a sufficiently high concentration of readers (and reader-couches I can surf on). So I mostly end up meeting 1-2 people at a time in random (sometimes very random) places. When I get a chance to hang out with a whole bunch of readers at once, it is extremely disorienting in a very rewarding way. I can see no discernible pattern in who reads my stuff (besides the readership being predominantly, but not exclusively, male). This makes me wonder: am I a completely random person?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Allen Knutson says

    Nope, I have a dumbphone.

  2. Obviously, appreciate the shout out, but even more, love how you are living Reed’s Law (#2 of the 10 ways to build a community…. in the book whose title you hate—

    Looks like a great day.

  3. For the boats/collapse combo, reading DmitryOrlov’s piece on sailboat living is instructive…

  4. Steve Bengtson says

    ….I think the next meet up should be at a test match in Brisbane where we can further develop the cricket narrative theory’s….(I’m in St Louis at the moment on business and am tiring of these US sports management analogies ‘we have to do the blocking and tackling”..I’m trying to counter with, we have to ‘go on the front foot’)

    FYI the ribbonfarm rabbit warren was discovered by the piece on org design and karaoke

    • I’d definitely like to come out to Australia, but I don’t know that there are too many readers there. Hopefully one day, if the blog keeps growing steadily.

      I think getting the US using cricket metaphors is a lost cause.

  5. Great post and really nice pictures. I’d like to add that the World War II defense looks like a James Bond villains lair!

  6. Sven-Erik Nielsen says

    A bit late to the party, but I believe that the correct terminology for the gun cave is a “casemate” or “casement”. Keep up the thrilling work!