Cat Scratching Posts for Boats

Isabelle under the covers aboard NomadnessI can’t imagine living aboard without a cat, and Isabelle moved with me to Datawake after three years aboard Nomadness. She’s a constant joy, but there are still feline realities that have to be considered: dining, elimination, and scratching. All are challenging on a boat, given space constraints and the need to handle dynamic conditions. Telling a cat not to scratch furniture is unfair; it is something they need to do (and the torture of declawing is not an option). All you have to do is provide an appealing alternative. I’ve looked around a few times to see if any commercial scratching posts would be appropriate, and the answer is generally no — the little corrugated cardboard things generate debris and don’t play nice with humidity, and stand-alone posts gobble floor space.

The solution is pretty simple, though it varies with the boat. The magic stuff is this Sisal Rope (Amazon link) which I highly recommend after trying two locally acquired rolls that had a heavy petroleum smell. 100 feet of the 3/8″ diameter stuff is about thirteen bucks, and is plenty for the job.

Scratching post on Amazon 44On my sailboat, I had a 4×4-inch mast partner in the salon that made the job easy… no added structure to build! All I had to do was fixture one end of the line with a cable clamp, wrap all 100 feet around the post, similarly clamp the other end, and tidy it up with a bit of heat-shrink.  It took a few days to convince Izzy that this was the place to sharpen her claws, but once she got the idea, she lost all interest in the fabric of my pilothouse helm seat. This didn’t add any overhead to the limited space aboard, and after three years there was no sign of any degradation… although some condensation drip from the aluminum-framed window eventually caused discoloration.

Nomadness salon with scratching post

Moving to Datawake, a 50-foot Delta powerboat, created a new problem. There is a lot more floor space, of course, though it is still precious… and there are no convenient pre-existing posts that could simply be wrapped. So the new version is attached to the wall at the end of my work desk:

scratching post installed

Making this was simple. I started with a 26-inch scrap of 2×4 lumber, zipped around one end with a router bit just because I was too lazy to do a proper sanding and finishing job, then attached one end of a new roll of sisal rope to the edge of the board down near the floor. This was a 3/8″ cable clamp screwed to the wood.

Screw to begin the wrapI then did three long wraps around the skinny dimension, which would not only cover the top end but give the overall shape a warmer curve. At that point I could begin wrapping all the way down the post, so I used a stray stainless wood screw to keep the rope under control during that 90° turn. All that is necessary from that point is to keep the wrapping tight, and I found gloves helpful due to the rough texture of the rope.

After about ten minutes of this, not without having to keep it all clamped between my knees while dealing with a couple of rope tangles, I reached the bottom end. Termination is another 3/8″ cable clamp, and as you can see I really didn’t put much any effort into making it beautiful… this whole project, including mounting, only took about an hour:

sisal scratching post termination

At this point, all that remained was bolting it to the wall. In my case, that was simplified by having access to both sides of the 3/4″ plywood, so I elected to attach it from the rear using 1/4″ stainless lag screws. The only mildly tricky bit was positioning the holes and making a little gap between turns so the drill bit would not damage the rope, but that was pretty easy. Two bolts, an inch or so from each end, are plenty.

Scratching post mounted

Had I not had the luxury of bolting it from the back, I would have used a 3/4″ end mill to spot face around a 1/4″ clearance hole, allowing enough room for a 7/16″ socket while preventing any lumps under the rope. Deck screws would also work… but if you do that, please drill clearance holes first so they will tighten the scratching post against the wall. Also, washers, while ugly, will reduce any tendency to split the 2×4 with the clamping pressure of a tapered flat head.

And that’s it! It always seems to take a few days to convince a kitty that the awesome new high-tech scratching post is a better claw-sharpener than the nearest chair, but sisal is the magic stuff and (lacking a proper tree) is pretty close to what their little toes like to feel during this essential maintenance process. I suppose I should go dab some proper water-based polyurethane finish onto that ugly exposed bit of wood… meanwhile, the photo below is Izzy pole dancing! She likes this post.

Izzy pole dancing

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Images of Nomadness

As I look fondly back on my 7 years with the Amazon 44 named Nomadness, many images come to mind… dreamlike moments aboard a beautiful boat in a stunning setting. She is now entering a new phase with her new owner, and has plans to head down the Pacific Coast later this year.

I want to share a few of my favorite photos of this epoch… most of these are from my 2008 cruise with Sky, before getting immersed in geekery and spending way too much time at the dock.

Nomadness in Profile

That profile… view from the Dinghy (2008)

Nomadness in Eagle Harbor

Moored in Eagle Harbor (Bainbridge Island), looking across to Seattle

Foggy morning in Port Hadlock

Foggy morning in Port Hadlock

Port Hadlock sunset

Port Hadlock sunset

Framing the Rainbow

Framing the Rainbow off the north end of Camano Island

Nomadness and Bainbridge Ferry

Nomadness and Bainbridge Ferry (2008)

Mount Baker and the Boom

Mount Baker

Java walking on air

Java on Air

Nomadness docked in the Clarke Belt

Photo from masthead by Wojtek Wacowski, with a little help from NASA and my editing tools.

Up the Nomadness mast

Gazing up while sailing near Sidney, BC

The 2008 track of Nomadness

The 2008 track of Nomadness… 621 miles with Sky

Nomadness in Montague Harbor

Nomadness in Montague Harbor (photo by Sky Myers)


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Microship Electronics Photo Essay

microship-overall-furlermodAs I settle into Datawake, wrapping myself in a console of rackmount blinkies, I often reminisce about the obsessive Microship project that occupied me for almost a decade (1993-2002). This amphibian pedal-solar-sail micro-trimaran is still in my life, and the plan is to launch it from the upper deck of my new mothership for local exploration.

But with all the photos online of this geeky little sprite (including the 2013 launch), there is a huge part of her history that has been lost in the murk of archived mailing list posts and a creaky old album of low-resolution images from the mid-90s. With this post I want to fix that… so I just dusted off the mountain of Microship electronics in my lab and took a few photos.

Microship NetworkThe goal of this system was to provide a rich toolset with a graphic front end and an always-on controller. To avoid having to re-invent dozens of wheels, my general design strategy was to take every object (usually a commercial product, unless none existed to accomplish a task), and reduce it to standard interfaces — audio, video, serial and power — then tie it into a huge crossbar switching network.

The beauty of this is that anything could be connected to anything with a single line of FORTH code, making it trivial to conjure applications that I might not have imagined at design time. It also made it easy to add new devices, like a piece of ham radio gear, without having to tear up existing wiring. Obviously, some of this is getting a bit dated now, with cheap and low-power devices like the Raspberry Pi and general improvements in standardized interconnects (like USB), but we still have the same basic problem when building huge systems… lots of things that were never meant to talk to each other, creating redundancy and complexity.

Microship video turret Newton control toolThe Microship user interface, in its final form, was a mix of wireless Newtons and a web browser in the console Macintosh. One of the most fun contraptions was the video turret, which could point a hacked camcorder or low-light B&W camera at any angle, or scan between a pair of angles. Zoom could be controlled, and a servo-operated “lens cap” protected the CCD from being parked pointing at the sun. Here is what it looked like from the operator perspective… and with the video crossbar, feeds from the cameras could then be piped to a recorder, transmitter, display, frame-grabber, or whatever. Implementation details were wrapped in code that could be easily modified down the road without an epic hacking layover.

The machines shown here were built in my three Microship labs, with lots of help from volunteers, students, and industry sponsors:

  • UCSD Electrical & Control Engineering Dept, San Diego, CA (1993-1995)
  • Microship lab sponsored by Apple Computer in Santa Clara, CA (1996-1997)
  • 3000 square-foot lab in the woods on Camano Island, WA (1998-2002)

Without going into much technical detail, here’s a look at the Microship hardware that is gathering dust on the shelf in my lab. All photos can be clicked for huge versions…

Grand Central Station

The crosspoint switching systems for audio and video make up this first assembly, each controlled by a 68HC11 running FORTH. The blue board on the right handles 16 video inputs and 8 outputs, with up to 8 simultaneous connections (via the RCA panel on the left). The 2-board stack in the middle takes care of all the audio routing, with up to 8 connections at once among 32 inputs and 32 outputs.

Microship Audio and Video Crossbars

In the Microship system, the AUXBAR and VIXBAR boards were at the center of the analog cabling nexus:

AUXBAR and VIXBAR connectors

Those audio circuit boards were designed by Steve Sergeant in my Bikelab at Sun Microsystems for the BEHEMOTH bicycle project back in 1990, and provided a very clean line-level signal path. They scaled well to the much larger Microship system.

Auxbar schematic

In the days before USB, serial data communication was pretty much all we had without spending a ton of power on proper networking… and every old-timer remembers endless fiddling with RS-232 connectors, gender changers, DB9 and DB25 adapters, unsoldering and swapping pins 2 and 3, and generally cursing at the damn things.

When I found myself with dozens of serial devices that had to be involved in both hierarchical and peer-to-peer connections, I decided to solve the problem… and that is what led to the SEXBAR, or serial crossbar. Anything plugged into this will talk to anything else, assuming the same baud rate, and the FORTH code accomplishes that by first connecting pins 2 and 3 of each involved device to a window comparator, seeing who’s transmitting and who’s receiving, then creating a virtual straight cable or virtual null-modem cable as needed:

Microship Serial Crossbar

And here is the painful point-to-point wiring at the bottom of that assembly:

SEXBAR wiring

So that stuff takes care of all the signal routing… what actually ran the show?

Microship Control System

I won’t go into detail in this photo essay, but if you want to know what is actually going on in this system, I wrote a fairly detailed piece in the June 1998 issue of Dr. Dobbs Journal. Of course, we didn’t have many pixels in our digital cameras back then, so the photos here are much better.

The controller is a folding assembly with an insulation displacement kluge board on top of a substrate that has a New Micros FORTH 68HCII on one side and lots of I/O on the other… with all the interfaces brought out to wonderful Phoenix contact blocks:

Microship Control System

Here’s the bottom, with the FORTH board:

Microship Control FORTH board

(The battery holder was to keep the static RAM contents backed up.) Machined rails were used to carry the boards and allow easy opening for hackage….

Microship control folding assembly

And I mentioned those contact blocks… like the connector arrays of the crossbar networks, this made it very easy to get at port bits, serial ports, random signals, or even the bus:

Microship control system connectors

In fact, this was so convenient that the kluge board didn’t get nearly as much random added hardware as I had anticipated. The little cluster of chips at left drives a matrix LED assembly and allows it to be used as a virtual front panel of sorts, mapping random I/O bits to positions on the display:

Microship control kluge board

(The DB-25 connectors link this to the crossbars and other nearby hardware.)

By the way, you can actually watch some of this work! An excellent video by Stan Bunger aired on KRON New Media News in April, 1998… and there are some great shots of this system as well as a thoughtful overview of the entire project.

Video Turret

At the beginning of this piece, I showed a fuzzy magazine image of the turret control screen from my Newton… here is what it was controlling…

Microship video turret

The platform carried the innards of a Sony camcorder, and its servo-controlled retractable “lens cap.” There is also a laser, allowing a steerable pointer, because, well, laser….

Microship video turret servo

This was in a sealed and gasketed acrylic cylinder with mil-spec connectors to the shipnet, and was controlled by another FORTH board:

Microship video turret FORTH

And this interfaced with the mechanical system, which included a gear motor, shaft-position encoder, and geared-down cam to detect crashes and end-states…

Microship video turret mechanics

The code for this lived in 8K of memory, and that included a cooperative time-slice multitasker by Bill Muench that really simplified operation of this very stateful machine.


One of the design goals of the Microship project was full access to all on-board services and communication links regardless of whether I was aboard, off in a restaurant, camping ashore with boat on a mooring, or (to a limited extent) far away. Lacking the kind of ubiquitous networking we take for granted today, this translated into a manpack that was essentially a miniature of the crossbars and other on-board resources… with ham-radio and wireless data tools to stitch it into the mothership. Naturally, this used another of those convenient New Micros FORTH boards:

Microship manpack controller

Like the kluge board on the main control system, this took advantage of the Robinson-Nugent QuickConnect wiring system (much lower profile than wirewrap, but the same #30 Kynar):

Microship manpack wiring

Power Management

Finally, we had a huge system devoted entirely to power… beginning with 480 watts of folding solar panels filling the spaces between the hulls. At the time there were no commercial peak power trackers, so my friend Tim Nolan designed and built this beautiful machine… with four PIC microprocessors each handling two 60-watt modules and optimizing their power transfer into the batteries by manipulating the pulse width to reflect the product of voltage and current:

Microship Power Management

The assembly at lower left (two identical boards, stacked) take care of the solar array, then the commercial board to the right of that drives the Minn-Kota electric motor. One of the fun features of this, managed by the system at upper left, is that once all charging and system loads were satisfied, any left-over “free” power could be piped to the thruster. This would track conditions of insolation and local power demands, generally contributing a boost on a sunny day whether sailing or pedaling. There was also an “oh shit” mode that could be invoked when on a collision course with a freighter, dumping all available solar and battery power into the thruster. At such moments, the future status of the battery is not interesting.

That unit also drove an 8-line LCD that displayed real-time detailed information about the power system, with all the battery and load monitoring measured by those shunts in the upper right.


All that electronics is a bit long-in-the-tooth now, and one of the lessons from that whole project is that when building a boat, don’t build the geeky bits until the fiberglass is done! A few years of my life are represented in those photos above, but no regrets… the journey is the adventure. The next phase of the Microship’s life will be relatively low-tech: she will be crane-launched from Datawake for local jaunts, carrying little more geekery than cell phone, chart plotter, marine VHF, and LED navlights.

Microship in the San Juan Islands

Cheers from the San Juan Islands!
— Steven K. Roberts


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Building a Heavy-Duty Piano Drawer

A key requirement for my floating lab/studio was to have a digital piano aboard, but limited space dictates a deployment system that lets it stow away when not in use. I designed the console around this, and built a piano drawer that can handle a quarter-ton:

Piano Drawer on Datawake

It was important that it not interfere with other uses of the desk… electronics lab, writing, ham shack, video production, and software development. This dictated maximum knee clearance to keep the workspace comfortable, and when retracted, it effectively disappears. Extended, the piano dominates the space, and the computer keyboard is also on a pull-out drawer so they can be used at the same time.

Any project like this is highly implementation-specific; this article includes the details of my own solution, but it was designed with very tight tolerances to make maximum use of available space. If you clone this for a different keyboard, you’ll probably want to tweak the dimensions. My digital piano in the photo above is a Kawai MP7, which weighs 46 pounds (21 kg) and is a bit bulky at 53 ¼” W x 13 ⅓” D x 6 ¾” H (1352 x 339 x 171 mm). I do love this thing, but it sure looked huge when I hauled it aboard and stared at it!


I am fond of heavy-duty, industrial-scale hardware, so my first decision involved the drawer slides. Given the dimensions of keyboard and desk, I went with a high-capacity side-mount full-extension locking slide from McMaster-Carr, good for 500 pounds (Accuride 9301). These were not cheap at $129/pair (early 2016), but I wanted something I could count on. The outer frame (against my hand in the photo) is 3 inches wide, and that yellow lever at the right end is the lock release:

Locking 500-pound drawer slide

While placing that order, I picked up four feet of 1.5 x 1.5 aluminum angle with ¼” thickness, which was another $36. This was to become the bracketry that hangs the vertical walls from the desktop, and would be my primary defense against annoying side-to-side wobble… while supporting the fastener loads of a body hitting the extended drawer at full extension (my rule on any boat is that everything must be able to handle dynamic body weight).

Drawer channel and slideFor the shelf, I chose fir stair tread 1″ thick (5/4″ in lumber industry parlance), a foot deep with a bullnose front edge. This was annoying at $13/foot for a flawed piece on this island, but it was important that it be able to take screws into the ends. Even at that, I worried about the weak link in the whole system being end grain fastening, so I dug up some heavy 1″ aluminum channel to encapsulate this high-load region, then attached it with ¼-20 flathead screws before driving ¼” lag screws into the ends.

side panel measuringThe drawer slides are supported by vertical walls of ¾” plywood, 22″ long and 8½” tall, attached to the side walls by stainless carriage bolts. The overall design of this is simple, though my obsession with tight tolerances made for some tricky details. I spent an inordinate amount of time measuring the piano, which is always fun on a curvy thing with bits sticking out here and there… as bad as a boat! The worst offender is the group of knobs around the display, which are the tallest part of the machine. I had to be sure that these would not get broken the first time I closed the drawer, so lacking a long dependable straight-edge aboard, I used a laser level to establish a reference. The resulting data let me shorten the original side walls by a half inch.

Laser Kawai MP7 Measuring

With the wood parts cut, the next task was to use that heavy angle I mentioned earlier… this is what makes the connection from the walls to the underside of the desk. In both cases, fastener dimensions were critical to allow the piano to fit as tightly as possible, since I was constrained by the existing stainless posts (and their end fittings) that I had used to build the desk structure. I prepped two 22″ chunks of angle with countersunk ¼” holes for the walls, and 3/8″ holes for lag screws up into the 1½” desktop.

piano hanger bracket

For all of this metalwork, having the little milling machine aboard was invaluable. It turned out to be useful for a wood job as well… I needed to provide uniform wells to receive the four feet of the piano, both to gain another bit of space and to keep it from sliding around. I happened to have a 1″ roughing end mill aboard, but the first challenge was measurement… how could I get under there and mark accurately around the feet (not trusting measurement or the placement of scuff marks)?  Easy! Just nip the end off an old pencil, grab it with hemostats, and reach in through the gap between piano and shelf:

Marking piano feet

A little procedural aside here… as all this was being fabricated aboard the boat, there were a few moments of awkward maneuvering due to limited space. For one who is used to bumbling around a cavernous building to work on multiple projects at once, trying to remember where I left tools and getting lost in context-switching overhead, this isn’t all bad… the constraints of a boat enforce focus and efficiency. well-drillingStill, there are times when the walls are simply too close, or when work tables are too small for whatever is undergoing surgery. Milling ¼” recesses to receive the feet presented one such challenge, but I had the perfect tool aboard… my Vanguard Alta Pro camera tripod. This thing is solid enough to lean on, so I made a quick platform of scrap wood and used it as an adjustable fixture to support the other end of the shelf:

Fixturing with a camera tripod

With those, done, it started to get fun. Here is one end of the unit, ready for installation:

Piano drawer end complete

So now I had this heavy contraption taking up the middle of the lab space, with the piano occupying the easy chair. Even the cat was getting irritated at the disruption of normal life and the blockage of doorways, so it was time to hang the monster!

Mounting to the Desk

Fixturing for installationThere is a messy part of every project, and this was it… with too much crawling around painfully, grunting and cursing, measuring, squaring, and fine-tuning. To hold it in place I stacked Stanley organizers under both ends with bits of wood and books, then went through a few iterations of marking.

Milwaukee right-angle driveBy the way, another favorite tool came in handy here… the Milwaukee Right-Angle Drive. This thing is a life-saver in tight quarters, and saw lots of action during the desk installation when I had to drill holes in place for rail fittings (always while contorted in a hopelessly awkward position). Here, I’m using a little baby chuck to drill a pilot hole after first locating it with a transfer punch to make sure it is centered.

Piano drawer handleThe user interface was an important issue to consider, so I added a folding stainless handle at the right end, right next to the thumb-release for the lock that keeps the drawer open or closed. This involved making a quick jig to ensure a straight hole through the 1″ shelf (an easy mistake to make) and then countersinking for #10-32 flatheads.

I’ll spare you the grisly details of implementation-specific issues unique to this boat, but before long I had it in place, secured with huge 3/8″ lag bolts up into the desktop and, remarkably, still parallel to the front edge of the desk. Here it is stowed, still needing a clear-coat with water-based polyurethane to look like a proper nautical piano. (Before heading into heavy seas, part of the “pre-flight checklist” is to further constrain the piano in place with padding so it can’t get loose from its shelf.)

Piano drawer closed

(In case you’re wondering about the blinky contraption photo-bombing so many of these images, that’s the Shacktopus Power Beast I built last year about this time. It landed a gig on the boat, handling 12-volt roles in the console.)

So now we can step back and see this whole thing in context. There’s a lot more about the boat herself in a recent post (Meet Datawake), but here is the current state of the lab/studio space. I’ve just added HDPE top panels for the console cabinets, and the monitors are currently just sitting on the IsoAcoustic stands… about to be fixtured in place with Southco rubber draw latches lest they become expensive wrecking balls someday.

Datawake console with piano deployed

I have only two complaints… the key tops are a bit low at 27½ inches and my knees touch the support shelf when I’m playing. I can’t do anything about the height (the 32″ desktop is 1½ ” thick), but I think I’m going to cut a little knee relief under the center of the piano and then try to match that bullnose edge with the router even though nobody will ever see it besides Isabelle the cat. Also, I can’t use the music stand that came with the Kawai since it mounts on the back of the piano, so have restored the Manhasset 5301 to its original configuration since my modification for the PX-5S three years ago… and it is a loose item that has to be stowed.

Those details aside, it’s wonderful… the thing is rock-solid, and I’m already back to reaching over to play whenever the mood strikes! I’ve been on a Satie kick for a while… here’s my take on the Gnossienne #4 in 2010 (on my Roland RD-700SX, with a corresponding article about studi0-desk packaging):

Cheers from Datawake,

Steven K. Roberts
Nomadic Research Labs

Piano Drawer Bill of Materials
(assuming Kawai MP7 and 1.5” thick desktop)


1” fir stair tread, 52.5” long (shelf)
2) 22” x 8.5” plywood, 3/4” thick (side walls)


2) 1” channel, 12” long for end encapsulation
2) 1.5 x 1.5 angle, 1/4” thick, 22” long (McMaster 8982K32)


Pair of 22” high-capacity side-mount locking slides (McMaster 6603A47)

Hardware (stainless):

8) 3/8” x 1.5″ lag bolts (brackets to desk)
8) 1/4” Flat head machine screws, washers, & nuts (brackets – walls)
8) 1/4” carriage bolts, 1” long, washers, & nuts (slides – walls)
8) 1/4” lag screws, 1.5” long (slides – shelf)
6) #10 flat-head machine screws 1.5” with nylock nuts (channels to shelf)
1) grab handle with suitable hardware


Water-based polyurethane or other suitable finish coat

piano drawer overall low

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Lightwaves from Datawake

One of the most wonderful things about living aboard is the endless variety of light… the ripples, reflections, colors, sparkles, and subtle hues that change day to day, moment to moment. This post is a small collection of luminous moments captured above, below, around, and inside Datawake.

Lightwaves from Datawake

My neighbor’s reflection, flipped, just after a small boat motored by around sunset in the Port of Friday Harbor… April 8, 2016

A full-arc double rainbow on May 8 was a photographic treat... here's the view off my stern.

A full-arc double rainbow on May 8 was a photographic treat… here’s the view off my stern.

The rainbow framing my bow pulpit...

The rainbow framing my bow pulpit…

I always enjoy looking up from the bed in my cabin after it rains.

I always enjoy looking up from the bed in my cabin after it rains.

And sometimes, those rain baubles do magic with sunlight.

And sometimes, those rain baubles do magic with sunlight.

Walking the docks as a cold front moves through at sunset.

Walking the docks as a cold front moves through at sunset.

And, of course, Datawake and her reflection

Datawake and her inversion

Always the reflections...

Always the reflections…

The view off the stern changes by the hour...

The view off the stern changes by the hour…

Looking out over the neighborhood

Looking out over the neighborhood

And let's not forget internal lighwaves... an Infrared security flood shows up dramatically on the cell phone camera.

And let’s not forget internal lighwaves… an Infrared security flood shows up dramatically on the cell phone camera.

What's a starship without lasers?

What’s a starship without lasers? Felling shaggy, but coherent…

Raindrop refraction at 42 degrees, at the edge of Alexander's Dark Band

Raindrop refraction at 42 degrees, at the edge of Alexander’s Dark Band

Yet another rainbow - June 23, 2016

Yet another rainbow – June 23, 2016


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Meet Datawake

Hello from the new floating lab! For nearly a year I was immersed in the sale of Nomadness (steel Amazon 44 sailboat) and the acquisition of Datawake — simultaneous exhausting projects involving boatyards, surveys, fractal to-do lists, complex logistics, and two wonderful guys who made boat buying and selling uncharacteristically pleasant (without brokers, and still friends after it’s all over!). Now I am again deep into nautical geekery, and have been living aboard since the first of February.


Before I start writing in detail about individual projects, I should set the stage with an introduction to the ship. Datawake is a 50-foot Delta power boat that was designed by Lynn Senour (who later designed the Nordic Tugs) and built by Delta in 1974, after which Vic Franck finished it as a yacht… here are photos of the boat from that era.  Delta Marine still exists and now conjures luxury mega-yachts, but this is from their early years of building high-speed charter boats for harsh Gulf of Alaska conditions.

This is a semi-planing hull, and the cruising sweet spot at 2150 RPM with pyros at 900°F is around 17 knots… although she can hit 24 at wide-open throttle if you want to empty the 700 gallon diesel tanks as quickly as possible. The engines are a pair of Cummins VT-903 turbos, and at the efficient part of the power curve she burns about a gallon per mile. In displacement mode, she’s not bad at all, with a hull form that moves easily at “trolling speeds,” though I’m told to avoid the 12-15 knot range. Maneuvering is easy with the Micro-Commander Datawake during surveysystem controlling the twins, and there are hydraulic stern thrusters just in case. I’ll have lots to say about all this in future posts; the word repower has come up frequently, and I dream of an electric hybrid system that will let me slip quietly out of a marina without the noise and smoke of cold vintage diesels… but that is way too much to think about now.

Apelco Sounder ad - 1965The previous owners took excellent care of the boat, and it shows. She has some decidedly vintage systems like a 32-volt house bank and an ancient Webasto furnace that sounds like a jet engine, but everything is solid. Even the old nav instruments work beautifully, like a classic Apelco spinning-arm sounder from the sixties. (This 1965 ad, published when I was in 8th grade, proudly describes it as being “all-transistor.”)

Now, a half-century later, I am sitting on an old boat packed with technology including 20 terabytes of storage, 3D printer, software defined radio, and wicked-fast computer with 27-inch monitor… but under all this blinky goodness is a solid nautical substrate that can take a lot more abuse than I ever expect to throw at it. That’s what tipped the scales (literally, at 25 tons) versus newer boats within the range of my Nomadness-sale budget. Hull layup is fiberglass woven roving about an inch thick, the stringers carry 7,000 pounds of engines, and house fabrication is glass over ply. There is a 15-kilowatt Onan generator under an afterdeck spacious enough for a small hot tub, and the upper deck (with flybridge) carries a crane-kristi-croppedcrane-launched Achilles RIB (rigid inflatable) tender with 15 HP Honda… though the plan is to park that on the swim step with Weaver davits and fly the Microship instead. Almost precisely two years ago, I posted: The plan is to … integrate a capable electronics lab using the existing 19″ rack gear I’ve been developing for Nomadness, stuff a piano somewhere, and live aboard full time with Microship perched on the roof amidst a thicket of antennas like a geeky caricature of a megayacht with a helipad. 

It took a while to find the right substrate, but that is now happening. Let’s take a quick stroll around the boat to set the stage, starting at the most important spot… the food lab. (I’ve been calling it this for a while, then discovered an absolutely wonderful book by that name… it easily made the cut for precious bookshelf space aboard, and I learn something every time I open it.)

Datawake food lab

In addition to built-in basics like a classic Frigidaire stove and domestic-scale fridge (along with a useless trash compactor and a top-loading dishwasher), the galley carries my lovely Breville espresso machine and an Instant Pot pressure cooker. The scale of the space is just right, and I’ve been limiting the tools to those that I use and love… there is no room for the usual cruft that accumulates in cabinets and drawers. It’s only been 2 months so there is yet a bit of new toy syndrome, but so far I’m managing to keep the space tidy, even cleaning dishes and countertops after every use. (Ex-girlfriends reading this are exclaiming, “who the hell are you, and what have you done with Steve?”)

elephant mug PMR 1950By the way,Izzy on Duckwatch those shades are cordless “top-down bottom-up” units from — and they are wonderful, pulling up conventionally or down from the top to provide a view of the world without exposing the details of blinking equipment racks to dock walkers. Isabelle can enjoy her morning duckwatch, and I don’t have to be shy whilst galumphing around in a bathrobe with my latte.

That galley photo above was taken from the middle of the lab region looking forward… now let’s take a few steps in that direction and then turn around:

Datawake console night WIP

This is not yet complete, but is getting there; I still have to build the “roof” of the console, which will carry studio monitors, video screen, and random small devices that would be a pain to panel-mount. That’s Isaballast in the blue recliner… her job is to eat as much as possible and then nap there to compensate for the weight of all these machines that I’ve been dragging aboard.

Future posts will go into lots of detail about what’s inside that 60U of rackspace, how the desk was built and integrated with the ship, the lab instrument suite, ergonomics, network architecture, and lots of other topics… but first we need a high-level overview. I am designing this to be the control console of my life’s toolset, and that requires accommodating six major categories:

Computer Workstation – Datawake MBPProbably the spot where I’ll spend most of my time, this occupies the wing of the desk, bounded at the right by a little teak-edged demi-wall that isolates it somewhat from the passage to the afterdeck and encapsulates a thigh-bruising corner. Because I’m tired of cursing every chair I’ve ever owned, I finally broke down and invested in an Aeron C with Engineered Now H4 Headrest (presumably the last chair of my life), and the keyboard/trackpad are on a 3M pull-out tray with lots of tweakability. The Mac’s Thunderbolt display is flanked by a pair of Fluance speakers driven by a Fusion marine stereo… and the various peripherals are located nearby (laser and label printers along with ScanSnap atop the file cabinet to port; flatbed scanner with VueScan atop the toolbox to starboard; 11×17 printer for schematics up in the pilothouse).

Lab/Tinkering – Datawake Zone of TinkeringThat same spot does double duty as the Zone of Hackage; this is the desktop with magnetic fixturing that was fabricated for Nomadness, and I’m working on a set of tools to take advantage of this. When in this mode, solder and hot-air rework stations come out from hiding under the desk, and the monitor is pushed back to make room for messy stuff. This is augmented by the tool cabinet and test equipment in the adjacent racks selected after obsessive research (triple-output power supply, oscilloscope, multimeter, and waveform generator), turning that inside corner into a very compact and capable “makerspace” for the circuit-board projects ahead.

Ham Shack – 7300-20m-closeThe blank panel in the middle of the console is about to start seeing some milling action… this will house all the communications gear that has been on the shelf for too long along with the new Icom 7300. The operating position provides microphones, CW key, RF routing, and control panels… along with three SDR (software defined radio) environments and digital modes including PACTOR. Lots of station updates in this October 2016 post.

Piano and Recording Studio – Datawake Audio RackDirectly under the long section of the desk will be a 52-inch drawer for the Kawai MP7 digital piano… which is why the studio monitors and audio tools are centered on that region. I’ll put the pedals and looper board on a little slide-out unit, and the sub is back in the corner under the tool cabinet. The throne for this zone is a Soundseat that provides more freedom of movement than the Aeron. Major update here.

Video Production – CBS Morning News StillThe console provides a backdrop and production toolset for my upcoming YouTube series… with the rack on the far left mostly devoted to video switching and monitoring for the dozen or so cameras around the boat. This integrates with Final Cut Pro on the Mac; I’m a total newbie at that, but there’s a huge backlog of material as well as the ongoing geek narrative aboard Datawake. Stay tuned, as they say in the idiom.

Ship Development Tools – NAS-steve-mitchell-E7DFinally, there is all that other stuff… things that need packaging, power, connectivity, serviceability, and some kind of user interface. These are distributed throughout the console and the space below, and include a smart UPS for the network, Shacktopus for communications and backup power, a gigabit switch that handles all the network devices around the boat, WAN tools, a Synology 16TB NAS running multiple apps like backups and local web services, video switcher and related hardware, firewalled Intel NUC for all the things that want Windows software, panel-mounted iPad for admin interfaces and sheet music, small Raymarine E7D multifunction display to reflect nav tools, a dedicated server with offsite mirroring for all the security camera feeds, radio interfaces, the data collection engine, and dozens of other bits of gizmology of various scales. This is the glue that holds all the rest together, and will make this console feel like the hub of my life. The photo shows some early development before moving the console hardware aboard; that’s Steve Mitchell chasing a DHCP oddity in an earlier version of the Pepwave firmware.

OK, we’ve been ogling blinkies long enough! Let’s continue the tour of the boat. Between the passage up to the pilothouse and the pantry to starboard, there is a door that leads down to the engine room…

Datawake Mill - Cecil 3
That’s a lovely little benchtop mill from Little Machine Shop, which uses the same R8 collets as my old Bridgeport. This is my third mill, and I’m keeping the name that I first gave my old Rockwell back at the Bikelab… Cecil (Cecil be da Mill). I am indebted to Bryan Hoyer of Northwest Digital Radio for making this possible, and look forward to fabricating some parts for him… this machine is really sweet, and just the right size for a boat. I cut that riser base from part of the old laminated Nomadness desktop, and will be adding wall-mount holders for tooling and other accessories. The machine will also get a digital readout (DRO) to simplify use.

(An interesting little relic is on the wall in the upper left corner; that was made for me in the ’80s by Daniel Kottke, Apple’s first employee, back when I had the Bikelab at Sun Microsystems. It uses a PIC to cycle through some geometric patterns, then scrolls NOMADIC RESEARCH LABS.)

lulz-pi-boxThe little dark area to the right of the machine bench is about to get my pancake air compressor with retractable hose reel; I tried putting parts inventory there, but it’s a pain (a cabinet of Stanley organizers will be upstairs along the galley counter, and bigger items are finding homes in various corners). Turning around, we see the other magic fabrication tool on the boat… a LulzBot Mini 3D printer. This thing is a marvel, and in this photo it is just presenting a Raspberry Pi box that I downloaded from Thingiverse.

Like most 3D-printing newbies I quickly tired of tying up my computer during print runs, so I hung a Pi on the side, installed OctoPrint, fumbled through the initial learning curve, then just started thinking of it as an appliance. It’s now a relatively short path from idea -> drawing -> STL model -> gcode -> custom plastic part… and there is a huge range of available filaments that allow fine-tuning the material according to the requirements of the job.

OK, enough with shiny electronic things… let’s poke our heads into what some trawler pilots call the “Holy Place.” This wide-angle photo is by Steve Mitchell:

datawake engines wide

These beasts are frankly somewhat terrifying to me… they were built in the early ’70s, and one of the jokes on the Boat Diesel forum is that any mechanic who knows them well is too old to clamber around in an engine room. That may be a bit hyperbolic, but carries a grain of truth… along with the rarity of parts (although a variant of this was in the Bradley Fighting Vehicle). The counter-argument, which is also valid, is that they are built so solidly that with reasonable care they will just keep going, and going, and going… probably longer than I will.

racor-rubber-glovesOf josh-engine-analysiscourse, they are sleeved, with means that coolant additives are essential… and getting any work done on them is expensive. There was some drama during purchase that taught me a lot about boatyards, as well as the value of collecting historical oil sample data… a tale for another post. The resultant of all this, as I noted earlier, is that once I recover from the shock of acquisition and initial system-building, I will be taking a very close look at electric hybrid repower. For now, that part of the ship remains a mystery.

Backing slowly out, careful not to bang our heads, we see the Webasto diesel furnace and cable drop from the pilothouse. Not shown in the photo, just out of frame below the air duct, is the huge battery bank and a big modified sinewave inverter (yah, I ran an FFT on it… not pretty).


Popping back up the steps to the lab, then turning forward to take a few more, we find ourselves up in the pilothouse. Directly above the furnace, we see an open space with a sprawling desktop for charts, along with those vintage-but-solid nav instruments I mentioned at the beginning. Here was the view during the delivery voyage from haulout in Anacortes to her new slip in Friday Harbor:

Datawake Delivery Voyage

(You might have noticed, if you clicked to embiggen, that pyro #4 has an intermittent connection.) The circuit-breaker and metering panels are just out of frame to right, the area behind me when standing at the helm has become a library and workspace for large document projects, and I’m adding a small deployable pilothouse table to allow dinner-for-two (with a view!) without violating the cardinal rule about beverages and slurpy things next to electronics and pianos.

Datawake pilothouse library

As to the cabins forward, I’ll post photos of those another time… they’re way too messy now. Heading toward the bow takes us to five additional spaces:

  • Sleep lab to port, with a flat platform bed that desperately needs to be replaced by an adjustable substrate to give my back some relief, though I’m not looking forward to the inevitable woodwork. This has private head and shower compartment, and the arrangement of cabinetry around the bed allows iPad, video, stereo remote head, speakers, health tools, and other devices.
  • Forward guest cabin, with two berths and an en suite head/shower… a space with nice views port and starboard, along with an overhead hatch and some very tempting drawers that would sure solve my inventory-stowage problems.
  • Laundry room to starboard, with a dryer hose that is easy enough to access that I’m designing an actively vented cat box with carbon filter, inline fan, and selectable damper… along with a cat door from the passageway. She currently has her facilities in the guest shower, which makes the space somewhat less inviting and requires a shuffle when visitors stay over.
  • Huge hold below the hallway, with freshwater tanks and lots of stowage.
  • Waste-processing hold below the forward cabin, which needs surgery ASAP to replace the tiny holding tank associated with the ancient and anti-social SanX system that is not in use. Damn boats. It always comes down to sewage projects, doesn’t it?

There’s a lot more to see… but I think this is enough of an introduction to the new ship after my long blog-silence! Now that we have established context and have a solid server, I look forward to frequently posting details about all the projects. There is no shortage of material… or pixels.

Cheers from Datawake,

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Streamlining the Server

Just as our lives accumulate cruft over the decades, so do our servers. The Nomadic Research Labs Internet presence began back in 1990 while I had the Bikelab at Sun Microsystems, then it hopped to Telebit, spent some time at Qualcomm, followed me to UCSD, and lived at a succession of hosting companies… picking up new tools as technology evolved.

Directories were created for random files, blogging platforms, curated collections, online stores, custom code, long-forgotten experiments, redirects, domains for friends, content-management systems, forums, photo albums, databases, backups, FTP’d directories from cameras, and a vast tangle of static content. Whole swaths were forgotten, yet still getting hits. Parked domains and abandoned pages pointed to and fro, file permissions were inconsistent, ancient links threw 404 errors or worse, and it’s a miracle that the whole hydra-headed cpanel-faced monster was not compromised. Or maybe it was.

This is where things have been for a while, overwhelming to contemplate, impossible to maintain. My last backup of the home directory was a tarball of over 3.5 GB, far larger than the actual relevant content on the site. Where should I even begin?

My friend Steve Mitchell aboard Datawake during the epic server migration

My friend Steve Mitchell aboard Datawake during the epic server migration

Well, the best place to begin was with the help of an expert; that’s Steve Mitchell in the photo above, who flew up from Seattle last week and spent four days aboard. In the intersection of geekery and sailing, he’s a star, and his SailBits site is a well-written collection of projects and reviews. His day job is at F5 Networks… but I prefer to think of him as a wizard in the domains of marine networking, boat-based gizmology, and security.

This was not merely an exercise in electronic de-cluttering; I’ve also been craving a sense of solidity in what will become a major part of my legacy. My online presence has been analogous to my messy 1500 square-foot shop space, filled with stuff that will be cherry-picked for value and then carted en masse to recycling on some level once I cease to exist. The parallel web-server outcome upon my demise would be the slow expiration of accounts, loss of domain names to squatters, and eventual disappearance of all that I have worked so hard to curate. This is where our modern electronic age diverges sharply from the publishing models of yesteryear; books are relatively non-volatile, and musty copies of my 1981 textbook on industrial control system design will likely outlive my more recent and relevant work.

Steve has taken on the responsibility of ensuring an orderly transition where bits are concerned, so of course he wants the web services to be robust and familiar… not just a tidying-up of baggage that carries echoes of ancient scripts and paleo-HTML. I’m happy to report that after our marathon, we’ve moved the site to managed hosting at WP Engine, transferred all 18 domains to Google, relocated email, added security, folded the Nomadness blog into this one, deployed management tools, made a local NAS instance of the static-content server to simplify migration of old stuff, and documented it all so we won’t forget the details.

For the most part, none of this really matters to site visitors (though it is noticeably faster and is getting a lot more Googly traffic); I only mention it here since it is a substantial change… my cobwebsites and isolated collections have disappeared. The most popular articles will find their way into pages over the next few days, and serial archives like the Microship Status Reports will gradually become blog entries, dated correctly in the timeline as I have been doing with media coverage and other historical documents. And as to new material…

Hello from Datawake!

I’m writing now from the lab/studio in my new boat, a beautiful 1974 Delta 50 of Vic Franck design. I took delivery at the beginning of February, moved to a slip at the port, and have been making progress at a rather shocking pace after over a year of planning and researching while immersed in the simultaneous complex projects of selling Nomadness and buying Datawake.

I’m exhausted and energized, aware of the finite time remaining, and thrilled by the opportunity to build all my favorite toys into a floating platform. Here’s a teaser photo; this is the console desk where there used to be a salon couch:

Datawake lab/studio console

Datawake console work-in-progress. Blank region in the middle is for ham radio gear, and the piano will pull out from under the desk. The top will be a shelf that carries studio monitors and small electronics, and the wing barely visible at the end doubles as lab and computer workstation.

The next post will be an overview of the boat, and the one following will focus on the console (including desk fabrication, which was itself a bit of a beast).

— Steve


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Transition to the Dark Side

skr-lab-selfie-2015This post marks a major transition in my life. Not only am I making the move from sail to power, largely due to my back and other age-related realities, but I am also broadening the scope of this archive. Until now, I have thought of this as a museum of media coverage and historical documents, but the boundaries between that and current work are fleeting. I have many collections of adventure tales, project narratives, and system documentation… some in their own domains, some in long-idle folders, others couched as blogs or archives that went only to subscribers and are now languishing on ancient backup drives.

As I begin this new project, starting another isolated series makes no sense. So all new material will land here as I continue importing from my other repositories, pinning things to their actual dates in the timeline. Ultimately, it will be one long thread of gizmological delights, interspersed with passionate interludes and other distractions.

In that spirit, I’d like to introduce the next epoch…

From Nomadness to Datawake

by Steven K. Roberts
January 6, 2016

sailboat-trawler-motorhome-brightIt began vaguely. I would joke about epoxying my dock lines, then realize that it wasn’t funny. For a year or more, in the gaps between mini-epochs like the Microship Swan Song of 2013 or Nomadness projects like the new power console, I would go for daily walks… noodling over what next, getting used to the idea of selling the boat.

That’s not an easy thing to do while living aboard, surrounded by geek clutter, and my initial investigations were depressing: brokers I didn’t like, tire-kickers, potential buyers who would fly/sail/drive up for a visit but then say no. Twice I got very close… but there was a lot of deferred maintenance that had to be done, and I wasn’t doing it. All this became exhausting as the years passed… and I just about snapped one evening when a couple from Edmonds called to tell me they were in the harbor, had seen my Nomadness for-sale page, and oh gosh they sure would like a tour of my lovely boat. I dropped everything, did a whirlwind clean-up, welcomed them aboard, gave them a demo… then heard them say, “well, our budget is only about $35K, but hey, thanks… this has really been interesting! Honey, it’s almost 8, our table should be ready.” I had just been their pre-dinner entertainment. Sure would be a shame if you fell in.


My 2014 sketch for a geeked-out Ranger console

More time. As projects ground to a halt, I threw myself into fantasies of what next, staying amused for a while with the idea of a Ranger 27 geeked to the max although not live-aboard, requiring support facilities and a trailer. This idea morphed into the exquisite little Boojum tuglet, but same problem… I needed a home on the water, not an extravaganza of geek expressionism that would lay idle while I continued dreaming of open-ended full-time wandering. Meanwhile, I hobbled occasionally with a cane, had a medical scare (OK now), moved ashore with a dear friend, set up a little piano/writing studio, and immediately missed the stability of a marine power system. This led to another of my gizmological contraptions — a machine named Shacktopus.

The objective was simple enough. Quoting from my post on the Nomadness blog about this project:  So, I have all this nifty technology for independence and communications, including an insanely dense pack of gizmology that I haul around on my bad back… yet I am ultimately dependent on the power grid. If that fails, I have about two days worth of charged Lithium Ion batteries for personal electronics, but if I want more, then I have to trundle down to the boat and plug in. I miss owning a floating utility company.

Shacktopus Power CartOK, so I needed a portable power system for my toys. I trundled off to Amazon to see what gadget I could buy, but nothing even came close. What I really wanted was the hub of my electrical life, satisfying all AC and DC needs along with battery management… and since it would be the one thing in my personal space that is always on, it might as well also be a development system for data collection.

Shacktopus ended up being built into a collapsible hand truck from January-March of 2015 (with a little break to recover from surgery). The system includes a deep-cycle battery charged by power line or solar panels, instant change-over in a blackout, high and low voltage disconnect, a sine-wave inverter as an alternative to the AC line, voltage-current-frequency monitoring, independently switched outlets, DC and battery monitoring, clear indication of all system states, 12-volt distribution, multiple USB charging ports, a smart charger for small batteries, and an LED work light.

Shacktopus block diagramAlthough that might seem excessive, it has been a useful tool… not just as a central fixture in the day-to-day power domain, but essential life support during outages. I think of it as a bridge between my previous boat and the next, and that’s where the story takes an unexpected turn. I had based the DC circuitry of the system on a product family from West Mountain Radio, well-known in the amateur radio community for modules that make it easy to construct an uninterruptible power supply or 12-volt system for home stations and repeaters. After I wrote a little article about the Shacktopus Power Beast, the company asked if they could feature it in their quarterly newsletter. “Sure, just link to my site…”

A month or so later, while immersed in a succession of boat projects, I got a call from an interesting geek on the East Coast. He had read the article, chased the link, recognized me from the biking days, then looked further and found the Nomadness for-sale page. That was the boat he wanted, and before long we had the essence of a deal.

Nomadness Beauty Dockside
I’d like to say it was a quick turn-key transaction, but there was the matter of that deferred maintenance I mentioned above. This translated into months of work, extensive boatyard jobs, new standing and running rigging, dodger replacement, catching up with documentation projects, completion of unfinished systems, and much more. It was exhausting, and is not over yet… even though the deal is closed, I still have a to-do list. But she is absolutely beautiful. Through the winter of 2015-16, I am her caretaker, slowly wrapping up the last of the jobs to get her ready for some proper adventure.

Nomadness beauty interior
The new owner will be arriving in the Spring to outfit the boat for a voyage, and will head down the Pacific Coast and through the Panama Canal to her new home port. This will be exciting to watch…

The Epoch of Datawake

So, what’s next? I have learned over the years not to publish details of deals that have not yet happened, so specifics will have to wait for a future post (soon). But suffice it to say that I have been spending lots of time aboard what I hope will be my future ship, assuming we can resolve some significant issues that were revealed by survey and engine analysis.

Never one to avoid jumping the gun when blinky things are involved, however, I have already started building the lab console system that will go in the salon of this (or some other) boat, a roughly 12×12-foot space bounded aft by the stern platform and forward by galley and passage up to pilothouse. For months, I had been planning to use this as piano studio and computer room, with a rack of communications gear at the helm and the test equipment suite in the forward cabin along with a 3D printer and CNC router… but I’ve grown fond of the idea of having a place for guests to sleep. I know, crazy talk.

I also like the thought of putting all my gizmology into one console: five 12U (21 inches tall) equipment racks mounted on an 8-foot desktop affixed to an electric drafting table base to allow standing-workstation mode, with room below for Shacktopus, file cabinets, and a subwoofer. A 6-foot wing desktop carries tool cabinet, 27″ iMac on swing-arm, and circuit board workstation… and a hop over to port reveals a small desk with pull-out Kawai MP7 piano and a couple of KRK Rokit 6 monitors on stainless stanchions. Central to the “salon” is a tool cabinet to keep clutter under control, and the rest is a proper galley with domestic-scale appliances.

lulzbot-pizero-boxI mentioned 3D printing… down in the machine shop (the anteroom to the engine room) will be a desktop mill as well as the LulzBot Mini. I’ve had this for a few weeks and am loving the ability to conjure objects (22 as of this writing). I quickly tired of having my laptop tied up during print runs, so used a stray Raspberry Pi to run OctoPi, which has made life with the machine easy. I’m barely outta the gate as far as the learning curve is concerned… still using HIPS filament and pebble-dock-2discovering its shortcomings, with reels of PLA and ABS filament in stock that will be loaded as I begin to care more about material characteristics. The LulzBot is astounding, with automatic bed-leveling and a PEI build surface that makes retrieving finished parts easy. This photo (made from a file downloaded from Thingiverse, not my own design) is a charging stand for my Pebble Time Steel watch… it is so civilized to print parts when you need them! What a perfect boat tool.

Speaking of tools aboard, the whole mission here is to integrate my life into a ship that’s big enough to provide adequate lab/shop/writing space, yet small enough to actually manage. I ran into a problem on the sailboat, with my back objecting strongly to anything involving a 60-foot rig; it’s my hope that by going to the Dark Side (with twin engines) I’ll be more likely to get off the dock. A kilowatt of solar panels for a Lithium-Ion house bank should take some of the sting out of this shift to an orthogonal nautical culture.

So, about that workspace… I want to while away the hours of dotage at anchor by playing the piano, building gizmological toys, writing books, messing around with radios, making boat parts, spending quality time with friends, poking around with the ROV, and otherwise getting back to the creative fun of tinkering. A key chunk of this is electronic, of course, so about a third of the console space is devoted to lab equipment:

These are about to be rack-mounted, and will be augmented by some additional power-related stuff in addition to connectors that allow hacking live ship systems. These live next to a workstation that takes care of soldering, hot-air rework, microscope, magnetic fixturing, fume extraction, and so on. The units in the photo, from left-to-right, are:

  • Rigol DM3058E Digital multimeter with 5½ digits and USB
  • Siglent SDG805 arbitrary waveform generator (5MHz)
  • Rigol DS2072A 70 MHz oscilloscope with bus decoding
  • Rigol DP832 power supply (triple-output, 195 watt)

This suite was the result of months of research, and I’m looking forward to putting it to use. Once rack-mounted, the various rear-panel connectors will be brought out to the front… and there will be a nearby rack drawer for probes and the Fluke hand-held instruments.

rack-cabinets-insideFinally, since we’re in a left-to-right mood, I should step back a few feet (which is all we have!) and mention the overall layout. All the goodies are going into CFR-12-16 rack cabinets from Middle Atlantic. I love these, and bought the first three a few years ago for Nomadness… they have the lowest overhead of any 19-inch rack enclosure, and are built solidly. Five just fit on the 8-foot desktop, and in a future post I’ll describe the system for cable management and keeping them locked in place. I have them sitting on plastic runners that keep them from gradually chewing through the desktop as they are dragged in and out over the years. The enclosures are assigned Greek letters since they are arbitrary assemblies:

  • α (alpha) – Video switching and monitors, Datawake server, security
  • β (beta) – Audio, mixers, EQ, amp, stereo, recording, Thunderbolt, and related
  • γ (gamma) – Communications, ham station, SDR, scanner, digital comms
  • δ (delta) – Internet alcove, big-iron servers, NAS, lab power supply, etc.
  • ε (epsilon) – Electronics lab, oscilloscope, arbitrary waveforms, multimeter

Coming Soon

izzy-glassesI’ll write a lot more about this lab topic in future posts; even if the mechanical issues we have discovered turn out to be insurmountable, I’ve put enough design effort into this that it will migrate unchanged to whatever ends up being the new nautical substrate. As I mentioned in the introduction, this post is a pivotal one for me… the microship site is changing as of this date to an ongoing narrative backed up by the collection of historical documents. At the moment, in January of 2016, I am living with Isabelle (at right) in my friend’s cabin near Friday Harbor, ready to move ASAP into the new boat.

When that happens, I’ll complete the migration of office/shipping/archiving space into the Polaris mobile lab trailer… and that will allow decoupling from the huge rental space that has been necessary to accommodate the considerable tonnage left over from the Microship lab and my old family home.

Oh, did somebody mention the Microship? One last little teaser about the new boat: a primary specification is that she must be able to launch the little trimaran via crane from the upper deck! This brings us full-circle, and is why this website is the place for our new project narrative. Yarrh…



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Gonzo Engineering Slide Show at Google

Setting up for my talk at Google on May 18, 2015I took the Amtrak Coast Starlight to Silicon Valley in May of 2015, a trip that included a week-long visit with a group at Google, a pilgrimage to the Computer History Museum to see BEHEMOTH, and an afternoon at the Maker Faire. The surreal week in the Googleplex began with my first speaking gig in many years, with a slide show that pulls together all my technomadic projects (with speculation about what next). There are 37 slides in the collection; it starts automatically and defaults to 12 seconds each. You’ll need to pause it using the controls at the lower left if you want to watch the Winnebiko video in #7. (You can take it full-screen in some browsers. Ironically, it doesn’t work at all in Google Chrome Canary.)

I’m working on a new book about the whole bicycle adventure (all three “trimesters”), and there is of course a corresponding Facebook page…

High Tech Nomad page on Facebook

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Playing with Phone Transparency

I just love “transparent mode” on my Samsung Galaxy S6.


It works close-up as well, since it is not dependent on focal plane…


And you can tweak it to give different effects.


Ahh, technology.

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