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. The complete audio chain is just to the left, and that includes an 8-channel mixer for mono sources, combining them into a pan that in turn is one of 8 stereo channels.

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.

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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The Shacktopus Power Beast

These are the voyages of the hand truck, Shacktopus. Her continuing mission… to seek out new loads and strange environments… to boldly blink where no one has blinked before.

Datawake Powercart SunsetOn a voyaging sailboat, stable power goes with the territory: a huge battery bank charged by isolated shore cable and solar panels, diesel genset with a ton of fuel, fine-grained switching, sine wave inverter, clear displays, circuit protection, and reliable design. I have grown used to staring at this console and having an accurate sense of my system’s current condition.

I didn’t think about this while moving off of Nomadness so she would show well; I just loaded my room in town with computers and electronics — digital piano, mixer, rack amp, video and comm gear, and even a 12-volt power supply for nautical goodies like the stereo. But when I brought home my ham rig to bounce a few APRS packets off the ISS, something started to bother me.

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 realized that I miss owning a floating utility company, and recalled weeks without electricity in Santa Cruz after the epic 1989 quake… depending on the bike’s solar power system to run the essentials.

How hard could it be to replicate that in a convenient portable package? I poked around Amazon for a while, assuming that I would just dangle a cheap charger off a deep-cycle battery, shove it under the desk, and clip gadgets to it during power failures. But I realized that unless I wanted to spend big bucks for a serious marine-scale system like the one on Nomadness, I’d be stuck with something disappointing. The Amazon reviews of cheapie chargers spoke volumes, and I wanted more capabilities anyway.

Datawake Power Cart Solar Test
From there, well, you know how geek obsession works. I kept refining the specs and began to think of it as the hub of my electrical life: easy mobility, fast charging from the wall, folding solar array with controller, sine wave inverter, AC and DC panels, USB charge ports, AA battery dock, and local displays.  Since it would be the one thing in my personal space that is always on, it is a perfect substrate for data collection, a camera, and a server to graphically display history on a browser and push events to my watch.

I didn’t find a suitable gadget to buy, or I would have done so and moved on… I am busy enough with the book and other projects. But now that it’s done, I find it to be a highly useful power tool, and I’m writing an eBook of plans for folks who want to build one.

Chargér d’affaires

shacktopus SKR sketch Like most of my projects, this avoids wheel-reinvention except where necessary. It’s a dense packaging and integration job involving carefully researched products, augmented by a few unusual features and overlaid with computational goodness (like BEHEMOTH).

What started as a way to keep a battery charged took on some related features. Here are the essentials that resulted from a few weeks of refinement:

  • AGM Group 24 battery (79 amp-hours)
  • 30-amp, 4-state charging from the AC power line
  • 10-amp charging from solar panels (PWM controller with display)
  • Instant change-over on power fail for reliable UPS service
  • Low and high voltage disconnect to protect sensitive loads
  • 400-watt sine wave inverter
  • Switching between line and inverter for AC distribution
  • AC monitoring (voltage, current, and frequency display)
  • 6 independently switched AC outlets (and one always on)
  • high-side DC & battery monitoring with display (volts, amps, amp-hours)
  • LED indication of all states including blown fuses and high voltage present
  • Main battery breaker (40A)
  • 12-volt distribution with individual fuses (9 free circuits)
  • Utility 12-volt outlets (one cigarette style and 3 spade terminal pairs)
  • USB outlet powered by DC source
  • USB multi-outlet charger powered by selected AC source
  • AA/AAA charger for Eneloop batteries
  • Data logging on DC system
  • Server for data collection (power, security, camera, and environmental)
  • Network connectivity, NFC-triggering of phone app, local control outputs
  • LED work light
  • Utility pack for cables, fuses, and other accessories
  • Collapsible hand-truck substrate (would upgrade to this if doing it again)

Shacktopus starboard quarterThat last item was a key feature for my application, as it fits under my lab/office desk… but the system scales such that one could use a heavy-duty welded industrial cart and carry two Group 27 batteries (220 amp-hours versus my 79). The current mechanical design is adequate for my needs, but I wouldn’t want to galumph with it down bumpy roads! More robust folding carts are available.

The white panels are HDPE, an easy-to-machine material that I usually acquire in the form of King Starboard (as in the boat’s power console project). For this job, I just picked up a couple of cutting boards from Amazon — not as smooth and uniform as the good marine stuff, but convenient.

powercart harness close-upAs you can see in the photos, I based the DC circuitry 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 reliable 12-volt system for home stations and repeaters. I’ll go into the various design trade-offs in a more detailed post about the project, but their approach to RFI minimization is effective (with high-side monitoring and clean change-over between line and battery, since the PWRgate charge controller is wrapped around a big Schottky diode-OR architecture). They make good use of Anderson Powerpole connectors, which integrate well into a wiring harness and are a ham radio standard. All the ones in the photos are rated at 45 amps, and I used a proper crimper to get uniform terminations.

Powercart AC DMM and USBThe solar array I used for this is the Renogy 100-watt “suitcase” model, which folds down to about 20×28 inches and comes in a nice protective case with a strong handle.

To minimize stray power electronics and cables cluttering my life, the machine includes three independent USB charging sources totaling 8 outputs, AC metering, a “cigarette lighter” 12-volt outlet, spade terminals on the battery, a utility board with barrier strips, a cable for charging the network slice of my backpack, and a charger for AA and AAA batteries.

I am now turning my attention to the smart overlay. The intent here is to take advantage of a stable power environment to support a core set of data collection tools. In the planned Nomadness implementation, this involved hundreds of data points reflecting the status of every subsystem from bow to stern… all time-stamped and collected into a database server with various clients including browsers, security and watch code, maintenance schedulers, remote telemetry tuned to available bandwidth, and so on.

Raspberry Pi B+

Raspberry Pi B+

But in the casual environment of a hand truck parked in my workspace, it is a much simpler problem… though still based on the same tools. The micro will slurp data out of the metering systems, log temperatures with DS18B20 sensors (ambient, battery, charger heat sink, and electronics enclosure), keep an eye on the room with the Raspberry Pi camera and a PIR motion sensor, monitor environmental parameters (humidity, pressure, light, gases, radiation), and provide for easy connection of other application-specific devices via slaved Arduinos or simple sensors. The Pi on the cart has WiFi, Bluetooth, and HDMI, so it feels like another computer; a little NFC tag can tell my phone to connect and turn itself into a convenient console, and before it’s all done I expect to push notifications to my Pebble Time watch.

Pi-Plates DAQC

Pi-Plates DAQC for I/O expansion

This should yield a set of tools that scale well to the next boat… or whatever I end up doing in this looming post-Nomadness epoch. It’s a development system that doubles as a portable power station covered in blinkies. Is that a good approximation of geek nirvana, or what?

I have been enjoying this project… probably because it is finite in scope, unlike my usual open-ended concepts that evolve more quickly than my ability to keep up with fabrication and coding. More fun ahead!

Shactopus Power Beast Block Diagram


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Datawake and Nautical Gizmology

Phew. I was in irons for a while, taking over a year to complete a tack, passions luffing as I eased my bow through the eye of the wind. I wondered if the sails were ever going to fill again, and held my breath as she hung there… weathercocking with indecision, a confusion of wavelets slapping my aging hull. Hell, I thought, maybe I should fire up the iron genny and trundle off to another waypoint… or just swallow the anchor and quietly curl up somewhere to putter into my dotage.

But no! All my recurring gizmological fantasies, given enough over-analysis, can be mapped onto floating substrates. Those underwent wild fluctuations during this past year of relentless back pain, from industrial-scale Microship-deploying motherships to geeked-out trawlers… with multiple variants scatter-plotted across that spectrum.

Meanwhile, 2014 was a perfect northwest sailing season of watching boats scoot by, living aboard with furry Isabelle and contemplating unfinished projects… dock lines growing crusty enough to inspire jokes about potting them in epoxy. Hobbling on my battle cane, I would launch myself on daily walks to decide how to complete that life tack, schlepping my trusty lab notebook and geeky pencil with an eye toward finding a spot for inspired noodling. More often than not, strolls through the Port would land me on a friend’s Ranger 27 tug… where my notes and sketches evolved over a few weeks into something that began to look alarmingly possible, and even fun:

Planned Ranger 27 console sketch
Maybe that’s it… a trailerable tuglet retrofitted with solar/electric hybridization, stuffed to the gunwales with blinkies and bristling with antennas like a Soviet fishing trawler… yet small enough to gambol down the Interstate and embark on the Clueless and Lark expedition (or, more likely, the Great Loop). This became an obsession, and I spent much of the summer designing and researching, getting on the water in OPBs, devouring the friendly Tugnuts forums, visiting the Ranger factory in Kent, attending a rendezvous in Roche Harbor with Rebecca, then wrapping up that weekend with a jaunt back to Friday Harbor around the west side of the island (eternally grateful to my friend Paul for trusting us with the Maggie E, as he monitored our track from afar via AIS).

In the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Rebecca aboard the Maggie E.

There is still that other enchanting extreme (a mothership large enough to contain the lab, albeit unaffordable unless built of ancient machinery… doubtless even less likely to get off the dock once the novelty wears off). A wee tuglet is impractical for entirely different reasons, yet I’m intrigued by the idea of something shiny, easy to manage short-handed, and fun to use… gobbling a fraction of what it costs to keep a boat in the water year-round. Fabricating the console, adjustable bed, and auxiliary solar/electric propulsion system could all happen in my rented shop space with adjacent office, along with a congenial room in town for writing, music, and life-support. This is quite a change from living aboard, and sounds idyllic but for one prerequisite detail…

Nomadness Skipperquest

Before I can do more than fantasize about new nautical toys, I must reclaim space and budget from old ones… I cannot afford, nor do I have the space for, an armada.

Nomadness for sale in Friday HarborThe elephant in the room is the lovely Nomadness, bobbing hopefully at her dock in Friday Harbor and sporting a URL banner jokingly dubbed the TrySale. I am doing all I can to avoid brokers (for a host of reasons; don’t get me started…), and have had a few inevitable showings to people looking for entertainment while visiting Friday Harbor, as well as a dozen or so interesting email inquiries from the page of details.

Of course, it would be most delightful if the next owner has an expedition in mind, and I can sweeten the pot with some integrated geekery. I have already done a lot of the design work on data collection tools specific to Nomadness, and sending my beloved boat out on a remote expedition while she streams system, environmental, and biological data to a database-backed web server here… mmm, well now, that sounds like some good fun. My interest in embedded sensors and telemetry has been rekindled by this notion, leading to Yet Another Learning Curve.

Datawake and Raspberry Pi

Five years have passed since my last serious design efforts in this domain. At the time, my assumption was that there would be an always-on Technologic TS-7800 embedded ARM board fronting a power-cycled Mac Mini (the “big iron”) for archiving, graphic UI, and development. These would sync frequently and share a USB hierarchy of about 15 Arduino nodes scattered around the boat, each devoted to a local region, and there would also be a variety of streams from existing data-centric systems such as NMEA2000 and the Outback power system.

Nomadness block diagram, late 2009
That design was very sensible in the context of obsessive technomadic excess, but the past half-decade has brought a few developments that simplify the data-collection challenge. Most notably, it’s gotten cheap… and for a few nickels we can scatter horsepower and gigabytes of storage wherever needed. It has become a bit redundant to hand-off responsibility between a power-efficient embedded system and a robust chunk of big iron; with tools like the Raspberry Pi ($35) and BeagleBone Black ($55), we can let one board with 64GB of flash take care of the hub and user interface environment, then deploy a few on the ship’s LAN to support sensors and protocol translation. The community around these things is huge, translating into lots of add-on interface boards (I just got one of these), and so many solutions have been published that one can conjure an entire telemetry system with a C-note and a few hours of spirited Googlage. Like the Arduino community, this class of computing has become very accessible.

Rasberry Pi flickering to lifeOf course, this is all abstract until I actually use it for something, so rather than wait to see if Nomadness will sail the seven seas streaming a wake of data, I bought a machine to install in my backpack. In this photo, I have just installed Rasbian from the NOOBS included on the microSD card that came with the Raspberry Pi starter kit (with another $25 adding a 5-megapixel camera tucked into the same little black box that talks HDMI to the monitor and WiFi to the Net). It was insanely easy to get to this point, and I’m now finding my way around the Python IDE, Wolfram Language, and GPIO interfaces to sensors. Getting from here to stuffing time-stamped measurements into an SQLite database is not particularly daunting, and the final hop involves transmitting a subset of that via various communication pipes to a web server that includes a few graphing tools to make it purty.

Backpack comm server sliceAlong the way I’ve gotten interested in making a homebrew NAS to replace the confusing HooToo gadget attached to the 2-terabyte hard disk that lives in a Grid-It slice of my 5.11 Rush 24 backpack, just under the Verizon Jetpack between battery bank and 5-port USB charger. Ah, the times we live in! I’m hobbling around town with enough file space to carry 2.5 million novels, 40 gigabytes/month of connectivity that averages over 25 megabits/second, about 30 amp-hours of Lithium-Ion batteries, scanner, software-defined radio, dual-band ham rig with packet capability for tracking and datacomm, two serious computers (one called a “phone” because it comes with a voice communication program I rarely use), wicked LED flashlight, thermal camera, weather datalogger, a few favorite tools, crypto and memory dongles, a sling, basic first aid supplies, Makers Notebook, and gizmos various. Oh, and a water bottle. No wonder my back hurts!

Skipperquest the Second

OK, back to boats, and the surplus thereof. Before I can seriously contemplate rolling a trailerable tug into a lab already piled high with artifacts, I need to open about 250 square feet of floor space… the Microship parking spot.

Microship crane-launch in 2013 (photo by Kristi Thomason)This boatlet was the product of an obsessive decade (1993-2003), then she sat for another decade before joining me in local waters for a swan song in 2013. That summer was so delightful that many of my subsequent noodlings about the post-Nomadness epoch involved motherships that could crane-launch the micro-trimaran from an upper deck to take exploration breaks from laboring in my mad-scientist lair below. Scaled Technomadics, I called it, dreaming of rumbling into an interesting cove and dropping anchor, spinning down the big diesels, then hopping into the amphibian sprite to poke around under pedal, solar, and sail power.

Race to Alaska logoRealistically, of course, that is unlikely to happen, so I’ve been keeping my eye open for a suitable young madman who would be well-matched to this machine. Lo ‘n behold, an event is coming up that would be just perfect… the Race to Alaska, a 750-mile jaunt from Port Townsend to Ketchikan that launches June 4, 2015… with a $10,000 winner-take-all pot! And, it turns out, there’s a fellow here on the island who has fallen in love with the Microship and is keen to do exactly that.

NIcolas Wainwright (left) and Mark Coulter rebuilding the Microship Spinfin pedal drive unitHe has already moved the boat to a neighboring shop space and (with the help of Mark Coulter, visiting via his trimaran from Salt Spring Island) rebuilt the Spinfin pedal drive unit that was damaged by a boat-intruder at the Port in 2013. It is now spinning more freely than ever, and is ready to hit the water; the only other big job is some repair to leaky steering hydraulics that led to my marginally effective on-water bridle kluge. I’m looking forward to seeing the Microship afloat by February, with Nick grinning at the helm as he imagines future technomadic adventures.

NOTE from June, 2016: that did not happen. 

If all goes well, he will acquire the boat, do the race under human and sail power, then attach the solar array to return from Ketchikan and begin a more sanely paced exploration of the Salish Sea and points beyond. This would be a fitting legacy for the project, which was intended to be a geeky platform for prowling coastal and inland waterways. We will have to figure out “branding,” since the Microship name has been my primary project moniker since about 1993… although it was a bit disturbing to discover recently while Yachtworld-surfing that someone gave that name to a Defever 49′ trawler.

Anyway, all that dovetails nicely with the system we are designing to provide a “virtual console” for these ships. We could eventually end up with three floating data sources (plus the gratuitous test system in my backpack), streaming hundreds of telemetry channels to a server that can display simulated instruments, historical graphs, and animated cartoon ships reflecting on-board inertial reference systems (the kind of thing that used to require expensive military-grade gyros). Ain’t technology wonderful?

In Other News…

Now that there is a semblance of an actual plan, life is starting to seem fun again. I’m getting back to the High Tech Nomad book project (with a corresponding Facebook page if you’d like to join us), and resuming additions to the technomadic archives. And now that I have a more spacious place to hang out when not puttering in the lab or working on tonnage reduction, I’ve resumed tickling the ivories.

On-Stage WS8700 worstationA new Kawai MP7 is drool-inducing, but I’m going to keep my GAS in check and stick with the delightfully capable PX-5S (25 pounds, and svelte enough to tuck into a future tuglet, should that materialize). The community around this rig is huge, and I have parked it on an adjustable steel workstation to optimize ergonomics and give me a place to hang monitors, computer, stereo, mixer, looper, ham gear, recording tools, microphone, and all the other audio stuff that has been languishing for too long on the shelf.

With that, it’s back to geekery! I look forward to posting, hopefully soon, with good news about the Skipperquests… and with luck, I’ll be adding a live data feed from the Datawake-development system.

Cheers from the San Juan Islands!


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Phantosmia and SSRI Discontinuation Syndrome

Primum Non NocereIn 2014, I was delighted to find a lecture program (MOOC) on Coursera presented by Dr. Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago: Understanding the Brain: Neurobiology of Everyday Life. This was fascinating and well-presented, and it rekindled my lifelong fascination with neural science… prompting me to dive into Kandel, Blumenfeld, and other texts.

At the conclusion of the 12-week class, students were required to produce a final project for peer review… and this was mine. Note that this is not “real science,” but is my own theorizing based only on a lay understanding of the subject and a systems-engineering approach to attempting an analysis. In other words, please don’t make pharmacological decisions based on this.


Phantosmia and SSRI Discontinuation Syndrome
A frustrating change of perception

by Steven K. Roberts
July 20, 2014


The broad and enticing overview of neurobiology offered by this course has helped illuminate a variety of brain-related phenomena… and when offered the chance to explore a specific problem as the final project I was immediately drawn to something that has been affecting a dear friend for more than 5 years.

After being diagnosed with depression, she switched from 15 years of Prozac to the SNRI drug known as Effexor, and took it for a few months before finding the side effects so unpleasant that she decided to quit. This is a famously difficult drug to escape, and online forums are filled with nightmarish anecdotes… nicely summarized by this comment from a Reddit thread:

“Get on Effexor to treat your mood disorder.
Stay on it because you’re terrified of what happens
when you miss a couple days in a row.”

and this from a forum:

“Effexor. Never feel like yourself again, ever.

My friend approached the problem with care, sticking to a schedule of tapering over four weeks, then at last took her final fraction of the prescribed dose. A nightmare immediately ensued, with intense anxiety, pain, and the classic “flu-like symptoms,” but she persevered and managed to keep her dosage level at zero. (It should be noted that some people take as much as 2 years to taper off this drug, so that may have been dangerously rapid.)

Her acute discontinuation symptoms subsided after a few days… with one exception. Her sense of smell was broken.

She did not suffer anosmia, which is a complete lack of olfactory sensation (associated with a wide variety of causes including severe infection, tumor, epilepsy, or certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s — see a full list), but is instead a selective reduction in the sense (sometimes called partial anosmia or hyposmia). In addition, she began to experience a disturbing phenomenon known as phantosmia, or the sensation of strong smells that don’t exist… usually smoke or “burning electrical cucumber.” At the same time, a prized fragrant rose smelled like cardboard.

Olfactory hallucinations most often follow a reduction in acuity, in a mechanism analogous to automatic gain control (AGC):  increasing the brain’s efforts to make sense of missing input can result in assigning meaning where none exists.

A Discontinuation Connection?

There is no shortage of literature about SSRI/SNRI discontinuation syndromes, a phenomenon admitted with considerable reluctance by the industry.  Effexor (venlaxafine) is a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor with a short half-life, and the central nervous system adapts its neuroreceptors to changes in neurotransmitter levels (a compensation that likely explains the slow onset of effects when patients first begin taking this class of drugs). When the drug is withdrawn, there are temporary deficiencies of synaptic serotonin and norepinephrine, as well as a hypoactive state of receptors that can persist for weeks. Along with secondary effects on other neurotransmitters, this explains the acute full-system discomfort (and serious risk) of the discontinuation syndrome.
But why a long-term perceptual effect on the olfactory system?

Researching this, I began to find an unexpected connection… Effexor is often used to treat phantosmia. It is suspected that there is a link between mild depression and the detection of non-existent odors, a theory that has gained additional traction from the improvement of phantosmia after repeated transcranial stimulation used to treat depression. If this is indeed the case, we may be seeing a rebound effect similar to what happens when you stop taking a medication, with the original problem returning in stronger form. (When repeated, this is known as the kindling effect, where each withdrawal leads to an increasingly severe return of symptoms.)

So there is one possibility, though unlikely. Our patient had no issues with her olfactory system prior to this event — on the contrary, she considered herself to have a more acute sense of smell than those around her. This makes her case particularly frustrating. There are no concomitant symptoms that would suggest a lesion of the glossopharyngeal nerve (CN IX), so we need to look deeper.

Phantosmia and Olfactory Neurobiology

Interestingly, the specific smells reported by patients with phantosmia have some broad similarities. Burning smells are common, as are those of decay and offal. Very few people report hallucinating roses or wine.

Perhaps this can be explained by the brain’s data-reduction architecture. Just as we have structures in the visual cortex that extract features and tag them with properties (instead of passing a huge sea of pixels upstream to higher cognitive functions), our olfactory systems aggregate axonal inputs from randomly distributed receptor cells onto structures called glomeruli.

I've been reading my own tech manuals... this 7-pound monster has excellent detail on the olfactory system.

I’ve been reading my own tech manuals… this 7-pound monster has excellent detail on the olfactory system.

These create a way-station of sorts, with all the olfactory receptor neurons that express an odorant converging on a glomerulus, which then expresses the resultant to the olfactory cortex. This means that a given real-world smell results in a “constellation” of glomeruli activation potentials, collectively expressing the components of the odor without overwhelming the system with raw data. This is pattern recognition, similar to the way we receive a spectral analysis from the basilar membrane in the ear, containing readily detectable relationships (such as three formants with specific amplitude and frequency ratios defining a certain vowel regardless of the fundamental pitch of the utterance).

It may be that certain survival-critical odors have been hard-wired into this system, maximizing the brain’s ability to detect a threat before stepping into a dangerous situation, eating something deadly, or otherwise becoming a factor in natural selection. The tendency of those with phantosmia to report this class of odors well out of proportion to the palette of others in the environment may be a side-effect of our system architecture (just as visual hallucinations often involve faces, animals, and insects).

GABA and Olfactory Attention

But why would our patient be experiencing this in the first place? What is the connection, if any, between the SNRI discontinuation and a mix of phantosmia and partial anosmia?

The conclusion of this paper is a provocative link that may be our culprit.

There has been research linking phantosmia with a depressed level of the inhibitory GABA in the CNS. In addition, there have been unrelated research projects linking SSRI/SNRI discontinuation with disinhibition of the excitatory glutamatergic system. Discussion of this can get lost in double-negatives, but in essence, from the perspective of many parts of the brain, GABA is a brake and glutamine is an accelerator (a grotesque simplification, but instructive).

In one test, patients with phantosmia were seen to have reduced CNS GABA levels in the cingulate, right and left insula, and left amygdala. This is particularly interesting, as a retrograde projection from the anterior cingulate cortex to the anterior olfactory nucleus appears to have a role in attention to olfaction… which reinforces our “automatic gain control” theory.

Dr. Mason is an excellent lecturer, and her writing is equally engaging.

Dr. Mason is an excellent lecturer, and her writing is equally engaging.

People often think of the antidepressant withdrawal syndrome as just being a matter of getting neurotransmitters back in balance, but it is more complex than that. The drugs damage an autonomic system, downregulating receptors (reducing their number), and thus removing some of the tools used to maintain homeostasis.  Discontinuation of the drug introduces CNS instability that manifests itself throughout the system… hence the extremely wide range of reported effects that include intense “brain zaps” and my own long-term crosstalk between lateral eye movement and somatosensory perception in the hands caused by a whiff of Remeron many years ago (6 half-doses, prescribed off-label for sleep). There is an enduring mythology that it is just simple imbalance, but instead we are dealing with a dynamic self-correcting system… and there is ample evidence that this class of drugs causes actual damage from which recovery can be excruciatingly slow.

It would be interesting to do a test with GABAergic drugs (or receptor agonists) and attempt to recreate a phantosmia episode… that may confirm part of our theory, though not necessarily point to a useful solution.

The hopeful note in our patient’s case is that she reports a gradual improvement as the years pass. I believe she is being analytical about this and not just expressing adaptation to a static condition.

Afterword: the Neurobiology of Everyday Life

Coursera neurobio 2014I’d like to credit Dr. Peggy Mason and the Coursera team for presenting this excellent overview of the nervous system, which provided the context and language for my renewed interest in this subject (including acquisition of textbooks for recreational study that has persisted for over a year since). It is a field daunting in scope, and casual online research can quickly become overwhelming; without the background of the course, I would not have attempted to discover correlations between antidepressant discontinuation and a disorder of the olfactory system.


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