Preparing for My Final Voyage

In the April issue of the Nomadness Report, I ran this little feature… thought it might be fun to share it more widely here in the blog:


The Nomadness Emulation & Telepresence System
April 1, 2012

Finally, as this issue draws to a close, I want to tell you about the skunkworks project that is underway here at Nomadic Research Labs, shepherded by a hand-picked team of engineers.

We ran an extrapolation of my progress on nautical technomadic projects, including Microship. In 20 years, a staggering amount of human time and other resources have been poured into these endeavors.

Along the way, we formulated the Roberts Law of Fractal To-Do List Complexity, which postulates that each item on a list is itself the title of a new list. This proceeds recursively all the way down (like the famed turtles), providing endless opportunities for discovery along with the potential for negative progress as work is completed (exacerbated by product life cycles and the emergence of seductive new technologies).

Meanwhile, we must contend with the well-known adage that the average completion time of a homebuilt boat is 137 years. While the Microship project was back-burnered after only about 10% of that and Nomadness is already a perfectly serviceable boat, the layers of added geekery are restoring the developmental time-sinks that were eliminated by starting with something that was well-suited to voyaging before I started tinkering with it.

Lest these combined influences result in one of those never-ending projects that you can find in any marina, we’ve decided to leapfrog the current trajectory with a system designed to provide adventure opportunities well into my dotage.

The Nomadness Emulation and Telepresence System (NETS) eliminates the inconvenient issues of handling a heavy boat and powerful rig with an ever-weakening body — a problem that has led many intrepid voyagers to trade in their sailboats for trawlers. Unwilling to go quietly to the Dark Side, I have decided to replace myself with a suite of real-time telemetry tools coupled to an immersive simulation pod, providing a toolset for adventure synthesis.

The idea was sparked by a nameless wag who once quipped, “you can simulate sailing by standing in a cold shower and tearing up hundred-dollar bills.” On a hunch, we set up a double-blind test to see if this was indeed the case, and while there were numerous flaws in the illusion, we found that 42% of our experimental subjects reacted to the shower chamber with nearly identical levels of adrenaline and cardiac arousal (especially when they were required to use their own hundred-dollar bills, an experience that one participant compared to dropping by West Marine for a “simple plumbing problem” before financial issues forced him to quit the experiment).

Encouraged, we decided to extend the metaphor with more of a live boat experience, and pulled out all the stops. Hydraulic control systems drive a helm pod with six-axis motion simulation, including all three translation axes (fore-aft, lateral, and vertical) as well as roll, pitch, and yaw. Background vibration and cross-axis motion are minimized by dedicated closed-loop controllers with accelerometer feedback, faithfully reproducing the streaming input data with critical damping.

Our visual production team surrounded the helm pod with a large dome that is essentially a “hemisphere plus,” allowing us to present the illusion of wave patterns that go negative relative to the apparent horizon. A dedicated network of graphics processors provides gigapixel, flicker-free imagery at about 60 frames per second, depending on wearable Polhemus sensors to devote the bulk of this considerable processing power to the region bounded by the pilot’s current gaze vector and further optimized in the foveal region as detected by laser retro-reflection.

Since the real Nomadness is not yet complete, all initial testing of the NETS has involved simulated data… something that has been entertaining for all concerned. Roll-overs and knockdowns are as easy to generate as a lazy reach or a muggy day in the Doldrums; with environmental controls and saline nozzles, it’s just a matter of coordinating fluid-physics emulation with the corresponding reaction of the simulated ship. Sea-sickness was initially a problem, but after some fMRI data collection we were able to synchronize kinesthetic and visual data. Powerful broad-spectrum illumination induces melanin synthesis when needed, and of course we can hammer the helm with wind of sufficient velocity to complete the illusion of a gale.

Still, it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off when you know it’s just a simulation. Phase 2 involves a massive real-time data feed from Nomadness herself, including everything from a suite of high-def cameras to accelerometers and environmental sensors. The link is bidirectional, as the ship is unmanned to optimize the illusion of being there.

When complete, the pod’s wheel, instruments, lines, winches, and other affordances will transmit live command and control data to the ship, driving end effectors coupled to corresponding components (amplified by a feebleness constant to compensate for my aging). Even biological factors are taken into consideration; invoking the zippered man-hour extension facility to utilize the 4U2PN2 device (rail emulation if outside, head if below) is fraught with a level of peril matched to the current PSD plot of accelerometer data… since we realized that being too casual about such matters in the middle of a gale would shatter the entire illusion.

It remains to be seen how well remote socialization works, but we are preparing a series of tests involving anchorages, marinas, and raft-ups… with a crusty avatar engaging as needed with live sailors.

Once complete, the NETS pod will be installed in a Friday Harbor extended care facility, and I will move aboard to while away my sunset years in a voyage of discovery.



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Microship Available for Vancouver Island Adventure

Updated September 18, 2014:  I am leaving this post here just so I don’t break deep links from Out There, but this offer is no longer available. When I wrote this post, I was planning to pull together a group of boats to circumnavigate Vancouver Island, and would have loved to have the Microship come along as part of the adventure. 

Microship Available for Vancouver Island Circumnavigation

This geeky boatlet has been sitting in its lab for a decade now, with no on-water adventures since a Puget Sound loop in 2001. With about a decade of intensive effort on the project and incalculable cost, that’s bugging me more and more… and the latest twist is that I have just sold the building as part of my move toward full-time voyaging in a much larger boat.

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A Single System Perspective

In an early issue of the Nomadness Report, I found myself discussing the mental model necessary to take on something so insanely complex as a homebrew starship of sorts. Companies handle this sort of thing by creating a hierarchy of departments and design groups, but I’m working more or less alone on this tour de force of geekery… and that is frankly overwhelming. I have already lived through some of the risks of this: watching completed systems become obsolete while spending years building the physical substrate that should have come first (Microship), getting seduced by gizmology and letting it overwhelm issues of usability (BEHEMOTH), diving into design without a clear internal “elevator pitch” to keep things focused (Shacktopus), buying gadgets long before they are really needed and then watching them go stale on the shelf (Nomadness). If it weren’t for the existence proof of well-executed successful projects (Winnebiko, Winnebiko II, Bubba, & Polaris), I’d start to worry…
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The Original Technomad

This lovely piece by Karl Smerecnik served as a reminder to press on… back when I was stuck in a deadlock between a lab in the Camano Island woods and the lovely Nomadness moored 2 hours away. I’m grateful to the author for motivating me with my own adventures. Click image to go to the full article on the teknomadics site.



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Settling into the New Nomadness Lab

I suppose it is ironic for a paleo-technomad to look at something as mundane as moving and note that it’s personally epic.

But epic it is, after 13 years in a place that was created for the high-energy Microship project… fabulous facilities that were perfect at time but are now too far from my nautical substrate du jour, haunted by the swirling ghosts of relationships past, and cluttered with the echoes of yesteryear’s hackage.

I’ve known this for a while, held captive by spacious digs that make geek friends envious, complete with an award-winning house nestled against a sylvan backdrop that outshines many a State Park. A few times over the years I went on quests for moorage and lab facilities integrated with a home base, but nothing ever pushed all the right buttons until this one. Continue reading

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The move to La Conner is now about half-complete, with the Camano house empty and the lab still cluttered. New facilities are online and working well, and when the relocation is complete I’ll give you a proper walkthrough. Already I’m noticing that there are no more excuses… lab, shop, office, home base, and all the rest are now right at the head of the dock where Nomadness is berthed!

The Nomadness Report is going very well, with the first compilation (both eBook and print) coming when we pass the #12 milestone.

This post is just a quick update to provide a link to the boat’s webcam, though when I posted this it was a view across the Swinomish Channel.  I have since moved to Friday Harbor, and the camera is usually looking at the ferry terminal. Continue reading

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Nickel Generators

Winnebiko II circa 1988, photo by Dan Burden

Winnebiko II circa 1988, photo by Dan Burden

In 1983, I abandoned all pretense of responsibility and hit the road on a bicycle. This was deeply alarming to my parents, since I was now 30 and a suburban homeowner; even though I was barely scraping by as a freelance writer, at least it was amidst the trappings of normalcy. But when I sent them this article in Online Today announcing my upcoming “Computing Across America” adventure, my mother’s first response was…

“What’s the matter, Steve? You going to be a bum all your life?”

I often chuckled at that over the years, but of course she was right. From the perspective of the American Dream, I had gone terrifyingly astray. Continue reading

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Nomadness Report – Issue 2

The new PDF publication was off to a good start, and the second issue dove into fuel monitoring. On the opening page, I wrote…

nomrep-2-frontpageWelcome to the second issue of the Nomadness Report, and thanks for subscribing! In the few days that have passed since the first issue, I’ve had a chance to further clarify my thinking on what separates this from the blog and other publications.

Basically, this is higher value technical information than the blog. Although I do have long-term plans to publish a collection of design packages with associated kits, I know how daunting that sort of thing can be when I’m also living the project (or sailing… there’s a concept!). Rather than wait for a time when I can produce and market the books, I’ve decided to put that class of content right here while it’s fresh (though the design packages will eventually include schematics and software listings for those who want to dive in).

On the assumption that most of my subscribers have strong technical interest in various aspects of this project, I’ll make this my most substantial publication… the blog will continue to be the public face, focusing on overviews, tales of adventure, and the transition aboard. Meanwhile, this will carry hacks, design details, geek humor, and the whole twisted gonzo-engineering narrative.

Nomadness Report — Issue 2

by Steven K. Roberts
May 3, 2011

Historical Perspective

The idea of incorporating diverse devices into a single user interface actually goes back to my BEHEMOTH bicycle, circa 1990. After 16,000 miles on two previous versions, both architecturally inflexible, I wanted to build a system that could push all my geek buttons with a minimum of wheel-reinvention.

This meant that everything had to interoperate, no matter what company built it or what “standards” might be involved. I would acquire a widget, strip it of plastics and power supplies, find the hooks, and integrate it into a system so it could share serial, audio, or other data with its neighbors.

A key component here was the crossbar network, which grew more robust in the Microship project that followed. Using the Mitel 8816 crosspoint switch and some FORTH code, we built boards that could let anything talk to anything. Want a security event to trigger a call to the cops? Just turn on the speech board, connect its serial port to the bicycle control processor, route its audio to the cellular interface, transmit a string to the phone, and watch the fun!

That was 20 years ago and the bike is now in the Computer History Museum along with my first homebrew computer, but we still have exactly the same problem despite vastly better communications. In general, stand-alone devices are available for a huge range of applications, but do not come with associated software objects that can live in a browser. This is unfortunate, and is why I have to build Shacktopus.

I coined that name in 2005 with the intent of creating a sort of “abstracted” communication and data-collection laptop. But the project was aborted due to a death in the family, and besides, now we have smart phones and don’t really need to do it anymore.

Starship Enterprise on a Sailboat

BEHEMOTH fullsystemIt’s been a long time since I was that grinning fellow on the left there, but I have the same crazy desires. I want to blend all my passions into a technomadic lifestyle, and if I don’t pay attention to system integration, that will translate into a huge mess. Data collection from inside and outside the ship, monitoring plumbing and fuel flow, power management, coordinating communications, creating a context for piano playing and podcasting, integrating existing navigation tools, dealing with a dozen video channels, remote controlling almost everything from ashore or afar, networking with the technomadic flotilla, having a robust security system, continuing R&D projects, streaming telemetry to public servers, probing the environment… this is going to take more than a bunch of commercial boxes stashed wherever they fit!

Much of the discussion in this publication is going to be about how we bring this all into one cohesive system.

Brion Toss Gives the Rig a Once-Over

Brion Toss aboard NomadnessDuring the 2008 shakedown cruise, we welcomed a wizard aboard… Brion Toss, author of The Rigger’s Apprentice and other excellent references. He had lots of useful advice, and generally gave the rig his imprimatur… but for one detail. A link plate on the jib furler, with no toggle, was “looking very tired.” It was the wrong part anyway, with very little thread engagement to the turnbuckle. When asked when I should fix it, he said, “before you put the sails up again!” We did.

Meet Shacktopus

Basically, what this requires is a central always-on server that presents the boat’s “website” to a local wireless device or any authenticated browser out on the Net… while also providing back-door interfaces via voice I/O and packet radio. This machine maintains a database of points, steadily polling about 15 nodes scattered around the boat (those are the little purple diamonds on the title background image on this PDF).

The nodes are based, for the most part, on the open-source Arduino microprocessor… readily available and cheap, with a very friendly support culture. There are so many people hacking with these now that just about any flavor of I/O can be found off the shelf as “shields,” little daughter boards that piggyback onto the Arduinos themselves.

As this project develops, much of what I’ll be writing in these reports will be about the nodes… each associated with some broad swath of ship operations. In many cases, these do not do any local control, but simply gather system state to allow meaningful graphic displays. Example: 3 diesel tanks and 2 Racor filters makes for 18 possible relationships of source/return/filter. A live block diagram with bright or grayed-out lines will let me see at a glance what’s happening with fuel flow.

The Mega-drawing

There is a poster-sized drawing on the wall of my lab (6 sheets of paper), representing the whole ship system as currently conceived. Here are the regions, from upper-left to lower-right… click image for the full-size version:

Nomadness block diagram

Nomadness network diagram – click for full-size version

From left to right, top to bottom:

  1. Computers and networking, with the Linux board, Mac Mini, USB hierarchy, speech I/O, data-type-agnostic crossbar matrix, and so on.
  2. Communications, including ham radio, datacomm, APRS, and back door.
  3. Audio, with the piano and mixer as well as stereo and distribution tools.
  4. An orthogonal view of the boat showing the Arduino nodes, all of which talk USB (or XBee, if too far away) back to the system console.
  5. Navigation and ship operations, based on standard NMEA 2000 tools… with associated subgroups like autopilot and outside helm console. This separate network has a gateway to my own server so all the ship sensors are available.
  6. Power management, including Outback inverter-charger and solar controller with its own monitoring system… also streaming into the ship server.

I don’t yet know the total number of data points (both “real” and “derived”), but it’s over 250. Each of these is added regularly to a back-end database, with time stamps… making it possible to generate historical plots for any measurement or correlate anomalous events to assist in fault detection.

And speaking of fuel…

Fuel Monitoring with NMEA-2000

Meet Jeb

I’m sure I don’t have to work to convince you that having a way to monitor the fuel in your boat’s tanks is a Good Thing… suddenly running out can turn a fun day on the water into an unwelcome lee shore adventure. If you’re burning diesel, it’s important to avoid sucking air, as it will then be necessary to bleed the system.

Nomadness starboard fuel tankEven without considering emergencies, you probably want more than a gross approximation of the amount remaining in your tanks. This data is essential to develop a fuel curve for the vessel, allowing you to find the most efficient cruising speed and increase the accuracy of range predictions in varying conditions (though you’ll get better data by directly measuring consumption).

Before getting into our tank monitoring system, I have to share a little tale from the 1970s. I had a small business in Louisville, and paid a fellow to come around every couple of weeks and do the grown-up accounting stuff that mystified me. Tom had many other clients, one of which was a coal company in Eastern Kentucky.

He showed up one day, laughing, and told me of his recent visit to the hills. The owner had told him that he reckoned someone was stealing diesel fuel from the tank at the barge dock, since there had been some wild fluctuations in its reported level. He was hoping that Tom could figure out the numbers and help find the culprit.

Looking over the purchase and consumption records was making no sense, so Tom decided to begin at the beginning, as they say. He made his way down to the dock and found the attendant, a lanky fellow named Jeb. “Morning,” he said. “We’re having trouble figuring out how much diesel is being used… can you show me how you measure it?”

“Yessir, I sure can.” He picked up a long stick, printed with numbered tick marks. “You see this here stick? I just put ‘er all the way down in the tank, like this… and then when I pull ‘er back out, I look at where it’s wet, ya see? I write that number on the clipboard and take it up to the office.”

Tom peered at the stick. “Which end do you put in the tank first?”

“Shee-it, I dunno!”

We can do better.

Manual Methods

Actually, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a stick… my ex’s Cal 2-29 with one-lung Farymann diesel uses this method, and it works fine (she even named the stick “Jeb”). With careful record-keeping, attention to which end goes in first, and basic hygiene, this may be all that’s needed.

One step up from the stick is the venerable sight glass: a piece of clear tubing mounted vertically on the outside of the tank, plumbed into it at both ends. It doesn’t get much simpler than this, and if your tanks are conveniently located and you don’t care about remote monitoring, it’s a time-tested and perfectly acceptable method.

I’ve known people who take a third approach, and have managed to fine-tune it to remarkable accuracy. With careful observation and record-keeping, one can monitor the running time of an engine (especially if it’s kept at a constant cruise RPM) and apply a simple gallons-per-hour formula to determine how much has been used. This requires accurate knowledge of the engine’s fuel curve, along with an understanding of how that varies with hull/prop fouling and sea state.

You can implement a much more refined version of that with accurate flow monitoring using readily available instruments. This is analogous to battery monitoring technology… by recording the exact amount used and paying attention to consistent fill levels, you can always figure out how much you have left. But this can get out of synch with reality if you have multiple consumers, like a diesel heater and genset, or if you are switching among multiple tanks and not taking careful notes.

In the case of Nomadness, there are three tanks: one of about 90 gallons under the berth in the aft cabin, and two “wing tanks” of about 70 each that are hard to reach beneath galley and pilothouse furniture.

Out with the Old…

Old fuel gaugeThe boat came with a clunky system, with an analog gauge on the instrument panel. This was an old meter reminiscent of a 1957 Chevy, and was made worse by the tank-selection protocol: mash one of three heavy chrome buttons to connect the associated swing-arm tank sender to the meter, displaying the fuel level.

These old senders are evil — just wire-wound rheostats (33-240Ω) with a wiper attached to a float on a swing arm. They are famous for failing, as mine had, with the measurement being so random that I longed to get Jeb involved. That wasn’t possible, of course, due to the locations of the tanks.

Wema Sensors

Starboard Wema sensorAfter considerable research, I decided that the new sensors should be from Wema. Mine are the SSS/SSL series, which have the same resistance range as the old standard but operate, magically, with a floating collar that glides loosely up and down a 316 stainless column. I played Jeb a few times to get accurate measurement of my tank depths, then placed the order.

They’re quite beautiful, industrial-strength devices, and were not difficult to install. My wing tanks already had aluminum inspection ports, and drilling the center hole and bolt circle was a quick drill-press job. The aft tank already had the same industry-standard hole pattern, and merely involved some cleanup, re-tapping, removal of old form-a-gasket, and a couple of attempts to get it sealed (re-doing old stuff is always harder than new stuff!).

Maretron TLA-100 Interfaces

OK, so now we have the raw analog data source… how does it make it to a display?  The new marine networking standard is NMEA 2000 (or N2K in boatnerdspeak), which is built electrically atop CANbus. I had already installed a backbone for the autopilot and other nav goodness, so the obvious plan here was to get the Wema sensors on the bus.

TLA 100Maretron makes a wonderful (though not particularly cheap) line of NMEA 2000 devices, and their TLA100 is designed to convert any standard resistive sender to a stream of events that allow one to see fuel levels on any display aboard the ship. In the long run, Nomadness will have her N2K data bridged to an always-on server that will allow seeing it all in a browser environment, but at the moment I just have a single DSM250 from Maretron at the inside helm.

The TLA100 is configurable, of course; from the display, you can associate each one with a tank number, set capacity, specify gauge resistance, tweak the calibration, or even define a bunch of data points while filling to map the values onto an odd-shaped tank. I should do this, but am always too stressed while at the fuel dock…

Anyway, in the middle photo you can see one of my three TLA100s plugged into the bus behind the helm console.

Virtual Gauges

fuel-3tanksNow that fuel data is streaming onto the N2K backbone, what do we do with it? This depends quite a bit on the available display, and in some cases it might be just a numerical value… or a window in a multifunction chartplotter display at the helm.

In my case, the excellent Maretron DSM250 provided an opportunity to put all three tanks logically on one screen. The largest tank is aft (at the bottom); port and starboard wing tanks are slightly smaller (top).  At a glance, I can get a good sense of my fuel situation:

Would I do this again, in retrospect? Probably yes, given interoperability with other equipment including a display at the outside helm. But the Bluesea Vessel Systems Monitor (on Amazon here) is much cheaper and, while not graphically “modern” looking, can present an amazing amount of information (including three tanks). Ahhh, so many ways to spend boat bucks!

A Word on Complexity

I have often, not surprisingly, had to endure criticism from people who feel that I am over-complicating things. This goes all the way back to the bike epoch, when every few months in the midst of all the fan mail there would be a hostile letter with comments like: “you are bastardizing the simple, beautiful act of bicycling.”

These days, such criticism is more likely to come from sailing purists, for indeed there is a very well-known phenomenon on boats: complicated stuff breaks. Just ask any long-distance voyager about their refrigeration system.

I do find some of those comments ironic, though… with the exception of pure traditional wooden-boat sailing, almost everyone on the water these days is carrying a fairly substantial collection of high-tech tools: internet access, smart phones, radar, GPS chartplotters, sonar, weather sensors, satellite radio, TV, MP3 player, sine wave inverter/chargers, solar panels, and engine monitoring systems. When such folks look at my gizmological overlays and call them “too complicated,” I do have to chuckle a bit.

The whole point here is a reduction of complexity… at least from the perspective of day-to-day operation. If instead all this stuff adds to the confusion and creates more maintenance headaches, then I will have failed.

The real point of this project is to achieve the sort of smooth layering of technology that was well depicted (fictionally) in the Star Trek Next Generation series. Huge sensor arrays and complex systems were reduced to voice interaction and clear graphics, and the whole operation was paperless. The underlying complexity did not go away; it just didn’t nag the user with the need to be cognizant of every little detail. Like my fuel example earlier, something as trivial as a few magnetic reed switches on the tailpieces of rarely seen valves down in the engine room translates into a clear vision of what’s going on in real time.

The key point here is that I am not handing over control to a bunch of microprocessors… at least, not where anything critical is involved. I would never trust a network of computers enough to make it my only way to turn on the navigation lights, for example, but if I throw the toggle switch on the power console and a synthesized voice informs me that the stern light is not drawing current, then the machines are doing their job. If integration of water flow causes a counter in an Arduino to roll over 5000 gallons, prompting it to send a flag to a database-backed server that then includes a service advisory in my morning report, then I will have created a useful work-around for my own inadequacy regarding preventive maintenance.

The Importance of Passion

But there’s a less-pragmatic component to this, and to be honest, that’s what truly drives me. This is not just a toolset, but a way to fold all my technopassions into a single immersive lifestyle. Fellow geeks totally get this, but traditionalists look at all the projects and go, “whoaaaa, dude, are you nuts?”

As I wrote in my Gonzo Engineering essay, “our motives are usually as guileless as passion itself:  chasing daydreams, building tools, realizing obsessions, shattering limits, publishing, earning grins of appreciation from the cognoscenti and accolades from neophytes.” In other words, it’s fun.

There’s nothing radical about combining one’s interests with travel; mine just happen to be übergeeky. The sailor who paints the scenery while anchored in a beautiful cove is pushing exactly the same set of buttons.


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Nomadness Report – Issue 1

Nomadness Report - Issue 1This is the first in a series of 22 “magazine-style” pieces about the Nomadness boat project that I published between April 2011 and January 2013. These went into much more detail than blog posts, and were available by subscription. As is my custom, I began with an ambitious weekly publishing schedule, then monthly, then… whenever I felt guilty. 

After this ran its course, I did about ten emailed newsletters for existing subscribers, compiled the whole collection into an eBook, and returned to casual blogging. I am incorporating all of them into this archive, blended with the blogs and other posts, to create a consistent timeline of the project. 

Nomadness Report – Issue 1

by Steven K. Roberts
April 24, 2011

An Impractical Commute

The Nomadness project has been hobbled for over 3 years by an absurd lack of workspace convenience. This may sound a little like whining, coming from a guy with a 3000 square-foot building in the woods, but when said woods are on an island with no moorage, we have a problem.

I bought the boat in October 2007 and managed to make reasonable progress on the initial, most-urgent items… both at the dock and underway during a 621-mile shakedown cruise in 2008. But then I was ready to turn my attention to the big project, and secured moorage in Oak Harbor with the intent of getting to work. It was close to home as the crow flies, but when the crow had to drive a diesel pickup truck 2 hours each way between boat and lab, progress slowed dramatically. “Damn, I forgot the bifurcated widgetframus! Oh well, next week…”

Things continued in this vein for another year, the to-do list growing. expensive gizmology depreciating in boxes, a sense of futility creeping in. Was I being realistic? As another winter settled over Puget Sound, the boat mostly just sat.

I began to realize that the only way out of this would be to find a way to bring living/working space into mutual proximity with boat parking. How hard could that be in Puget Sound? But a  few months of house-hunting proved it to be VERY hard, and again very little sailing (or boat work) got done.

It became clear that I needed to decouple myself from the Microship lab in the forest, and that led to the Polaris project that began in the Spring of 2009

Conjuring a Mobile Lab

polaris-outsideThere’s a thorough four-part series in Make:Online about this rolling workspace, as well as a few posts in the Nomadness blog… so I won’t go into detail here. But basically, this 24-foot Wells-Cargo trailer is a distillation of the big lab into a very tight and efficient portable workspace that I can tow behind my truck… and this is a hugely liberating toolset for decoupling project from lifestyle.

Polaris Mobile LabBy early 2010, the problem changed: if I could find a place to live aboard with Polaris parked nearby, I could get on with the project. I tried relocating to Olympia, but the marina was intolerable and the logistics never added up (though I did manage a substantial haulout and bottom-job while there). On the cusp of looming relationship change, I moved Nomadness north to Everett… about as inconvenient as Oak Harbor, but twice the cost and less congenial. OK, this is getting ridiculous. What to do? Go broke with all the expenses and then sell the boat, dreams unfulfilled?  No.

Enter La Conner

When Everett started waffling on the promised space for the mobile lab, I went on an urgent quest… and a Craigslist post yielded the answer. A dock on the Swinomish Channel, a retail/office space, and inside parking for the mobile lab… all in a friendly town with considerable boat traffic and a deluge of visitors drawn by tulips, art, and the upcoming Paddle to Swinomish at the reservation across the Channel at the end of July.

limedocksignBut the best part? Mobile lab, public staging area, and boat… all are within about 2 city blocks. Messy work happens in Polaris, systems get integrated and brought online in the “gallery,” then everything all gets installed into the boat when ready.

Geek Performance Art?

It’s a little bizarre, but I have a long history of this sort of thing (though usually in a more tech-culture setting like Silicon Valley). It will be an interesting experiment to see how I can handle project immersion behind a glass storefront between a winery and scone shop. “Look, honey! The traveling circuits is in town!”

Nomadness in La Conner

Nomadness Lifestyle Updates

Water Heater

When I bought the boat, it came with a Bosch demand propane water heater with standing pilot… something that is illegal according to ABYC standards and definitely not insurable. Besides, it had been installed badly and didn’t draft well; taking a shower resulted in combustion products (CO and water vapor) all over the cabin. I pulled it out and sold it on eBay to a fellow in Reno (fine for land use).

When dealing with the Plumber-from-Hell on the 2008 holding tank installation, I bought an Isotemp Slim Square 4.2 gallon unit, which (like so many other things during the facilities ordeal) sat idle for over 2 years. I finally installed it last week, in a little cabinet behind the wall of the shower compartment.

isotemp-smallThe unit is interesting in that it has a 115 volt AC heating element in addition to a heat exchanger that’s intended to be inserted in the boat’s engine cooling loop. The former scales well to Nomadness, but the latter scares me… a failure there would be catastrophic. So my plan is to build a solar collector atop the dodger (once it’s redone in stainless), and run a tiny gear pump to push the working fluid down into the boat and through this coil. I haven’t seen anyone try this, but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work.

Installation involved the usual fixturing, as well as more-than-the-usual confusion with plumbing fittings. The manufacturer uses BSP (British) threads on the mixing valve, and NPT (US) threads on the rest… at least, I think so. Their documentation is annoyingly vague, and since the fittings appear to interoperate but won’t hold pressure if mixed, it’s not easy to figure out. But after much head-banging, it seems to work… and I’ve now had 2 delightful hot showers aboard (about $350 each, if I recall the purchase price correctly). Now I can proceed to amortize this investment, and be less frustrated by the biological components of staying aboard for 3-4 days at a time!


This is one of those things that doesn’t sound like a big deal… but remember my comments about the tourists? Nomadness feels like a fishbowl in any marina, given all the pilothouse windows, but I feel even more naked when the general public is walking around and taking pictures of the pretty sailboats from shore.

front-curtainYears ago, my fabrics-guru friend Karen made curtains for the three steeply angled forward windows. A rich blue Jacquard fabric faces inside, and UV-resistant Solarplex faces out. Because of the sag problem that would normally require complex tracks or annoying Velcro, we used high-power N52 neodymium magnets — one at each attachment point bonded to the window frame with adhesive foam tape, the other sewn into the curtain.

This has worked well, so now the four side windows have received similar treatment. Kirsten has done a beautiful job sewing them, with the magnets tightly hand-stitched just inside the outer seam of the fabric sandwich. Now I don’t have to “suck it in” when galumphing through the cabin at night…

Adjustable Bed

All this “lifestyle stuff” sounds boring compared to a distributed network of Arduino-based nodes talking to an always-on Linux server, but a boat is a complete life-support system. Keeping bodies working is just as important as the gizmology.

This is going to be no ordinary berth. I have some nasty back problems and sleep is painful if I’m stuck on even the cushiest of flat beds. At the home base, I use a pair of remote-control S-Cape adjustable beds from Leggett & Platt, with latex mattresses (that’s a lot o’ bunk!). But what to do on the boat?

This is a work in progress, but basically I reverse-engineered the home bed to find the hinge points, factored in mattress thickness, and cut plywood panels shaped to fit the VEE berth in the forward cabin. (I’ve moved from the king-size oppressive cave at the stern to the bright but compact PENFA suite… so named because the Pointy End’s Not Far Away.)

Anyway, these are articulated with polyolefin hinges from McMaster-Carr, much cheaper than stainless (about $3.50) and fine for the application. Since there’s no room for fancy motors, I considered hydraulics but settled on something more in the sailing context: standard blocks and cleats. I’ll have two control lines on the bulkhead, one for the top half o’ me, and the other for the knee segment.

A Froli sleep system might be added below the existing mattresses, but that can be decided later. My only concern is the cat, Isabelle, who may decide the magic cave is a perfect place to sleep… then be crushed in the middle of the night when I decide to roll over.

Extra Cabin Seating

companionway-seatThe conversion of the saloon to a lab is eliminating the traditional dinette, so adding places to perch was a priority. I drilled blind holes in the companionway rails, and mounted a pair of stainless spring latches on a piece of plywood. With a little upholstery work (using a pneumatic stapler and left-over fabrics), I ended up with a convenient step-seat that can be quickly attached at any of four locations… from kid-level to catbird. Those latches are the key, and the price is right since they’re not called “marine spring latches”!

Coming Up

Infrastructure Projects

There are quite a few ship systems that are about to receive serious attention:

  • A new AC and DC power console, including a bottom-hinged panel to replace the one that currently makes service painful. This includes about 50 circuit breakers, power monitoring displays, generator controls, and the user interface for the Outback inverter/charger and solar charge controller.
  • Waterworks, which will pretty well fill the forward wall of the aft head compartment and bring all fresh-water processing into one region. This includes a Katadyn 40E desalinator, ultraviolet & carbon filter system, and all the valves for routing among shore water, port and starboard tanks, and distribution. This gets a node, which uses a flowmeter and valve-position sensors to track usage, tank levels, filter media life, TDS, and so on.
  • Sewage upgrades, including elimination of the crufty old Lectrasan that came with the boat and additional repairs to the problems introduced by the Plumber from Hell (a botched Spinweld, sheet-metal screws instead of bolts bulging the access panel in poly holding tank, and hose leaks).
  • Solar array integrated with the arch, including support for enclosed cockpit fabric.
  • Redneck Bow Thruster, which is essential. Cap Sante Marine quoted me $13K for installation of a Lewmar tunnel thruster, but I think I can meet its performance with a more flexible system for about $3K. The boat needs something, as there is about 11 feet between the 3-blade Max-Prop at the trailing edge of the modified fin keel and the leading edge of the skeg-hung rudder. No prop-walk translates into tricky close-in maneuvering, and I don’t want docking to involve insurance companies.

Console System

Of course, the part of this that most pushes my geek buttons is the lab… which will occupy an 8-foot segment of the boat just forward of the raised-salon pilothouse. A desk will fill the original dinette region, with a wrap-around sloping console of four panels. These are loosely grouped into computer systems, communications, audio-visual production, and lab.

Folding table wings at the ends will allow this to be a pretty immersive environment wrapped around a swivel chair, and a hinged panel on the desktop will open to reveal a full-size digital piano (my existing Roland RD-700SX). The console includes a mixer and tools for podcasting and annotating videos.

Until the La Conner situation materialized, I figured I would do all this in place, with the components assembled piecemeal in the mobile lab.  But this would have been physically awkward, rendering life aboard intolerable for months.

The immediate project this week, then, is to build a laminated 4×8 work table in the public space, which will serve as a development facility for at least the next year. I’ll build the console systems here, then carry the whole mess aboard when it’s time to cable it up.

Stay tuned!


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New Places, Products, Publications, Partners, & Pussycats

It’s astounding how much can change between one blog post and the next. The more time passes, the more I find myself in that catch-up mode that tempts me to blast through a huge range of subjects, addressing none of them well. Topics like relationship change, for example, can keep a blogger procrastinating for months.

The nutshell summary, at least in the domain that is the primary subject of this blog, is that the brief Everett epoch is over; Nomadness is now in La Conner, with moorage on the channel and two rental spaces a short walk away. One, where I’m writing this, is a cute little retail storefront, passed daily by the rising tide of tourists drawn by tulip season. The other is a sort of garage, stealthy tucked away and perfect for the Polaris mobile lab.

I have not looked back toward Everett for a moment. The physical marina facilities were excellent and expensive, but getting anything done (like parking the trailer or receiving mail) was nearly impossible, and the rather rough town was a long way off… even getting a bite to eat was a project. I put some brainstorm energy into starting a cruiser support operation to reduce the well-known annoyances, but that would have been a crazy wrong turn in life. Better to move on… and here’s the new home of my little ship:

moored in La Conner on the Swinomish ChannelIt’s quite wonderful. There’s a sense of congeniality about the whole town, my dock neighbors are friendly, and the physical facilities are all I need to get on with the project. So, onward!

Nickel Generators and a New Publishing Model

One of the factors that has reduced my blogging output is easy access to microblogging on Facebook, and although that does keep me in touch with lots of people I care about, it’s pretty much a black hole where archives are concerned. A blog is eternally Googlable, with time spent on the well-turned phrase paying off for years. Facebook posts trigger entertaining real-time chat and are quickly forgotten. It has its place, but is starting to annoy me.

I’ve been thinking about all this, as well as the precarious state of my finances (thanks to Peter Schiff’s organization, which talked me out of buying AAPL a few years ago since it would crash the moment Steve gets sick again). For a while after shutting down the old family home, I enjoyed the illusion of passive income and being “set,” but that turned out to be a fantasy. So, just like in the old BEHEMOTH and Microship days, I need to leverage my projects into something that provides break-even cash flow.

There are both fun and hard ways to do this. The hard ways include consulting and tech writing, leveraging my tools and learning curves, and I am in fact doing a little of this. It also includes book-writing (huge time investment but emotionally rewarding), magazine freelancing (iffy but fun), and developing products spawned by my projects (complex to start, but lucrative if done well and kept simple).

The most recent of these is a line of Expedition Medical Chests that my partner and I are producing. She’s a nurse, and with her experience patching up bodies and my years of adventure, we think we’ve found a sweet spot with ER-grade supplies, gasketed Lexan packaging, and a self-published book keyed to the contents. We’ll see… initial feedback is very positive.

Expedition Medical Chest

That’s all fun stuff, but really, my home territory is expressed very simply: build machines that scratch the persistent itch of technopassion, sharing the process publicly. I never outgrew Science Fairs…

When I took off from Ohio in 1983 on the Winnebiko, I became the proto-blogger… posting tales of adventure on CompuServe, uploaded from my Radio Shack Model 100 via payphones. As the bike evolved though various upgrade projects into the Winnebiko II and then BEHEMOTH, this ongoing narrative veered into gizmology, and soon that became the core publishing activity. The Bikelab Notes and the 8-year series of Microship Status Reports ended up with thousands of subscribers… and benefited me hugely in terms of general PR, sponsor relations, media coverage, and even a primitive “Dear Lazyweb” crowdsourced research department. I don’t think I ever asked a question without getting at least some well-meaning advice (and usually the answers I needed).

It also built a community around the projects, making them part of a shared geek culture. Still, 20 years later, I occasionally get email from someone that begins, “I used to subscribe to your Bikelab Reports…” and then goes on to ask what’s up, share a thought upon stumbling across my current projects, or just say hello.

Speaking of BEHEMOTH, it has been in the Computer History Museum for many years and is now in their permanent Revolution exhibit. Those of you who remember the bike from yesteryear might get a kick out of this:

the bike as part of the Revolution exhibit

So thinking about all this, and recognizing the central role that ongoing narrative has played in my technomadics, I’ve decided to dust off the old publishing model and cast it in a new role as part of the Nomadness project.

This blog will not go away; in fact, it will improve by becoming a succession of articles about specific topics. Since it is eternally Googlable, it does its job best if posts are focused on one subject at a time… not rambling narratives about thinking about whether or not to plan a new way to manage a project that might be a better alternative to the current design… and oh, by the way, I put up some curtains. The blog should be clear and useful to people in the future who want solutions, not updates on the intermediate states of an ancient project.

A larger version of this same concept is the set of planned Boat Hacking monographs… hardcopy design packages with, in some cases, associated kits. But those don’t exist yet, so let’s not talk about them.

All that is good stuff, but it leaves out the personal narrative that made the Microship Status Reports so much fun. Those, being subscription-based, are the perfect vehicle for a nickel generator.

So here’s the announcement: I have just begun producing weekly newsletters about the Nomadness project, with lots of personal geeky rambling fun (here’s Issue #1 as a free sample, a 1.36 meg PDF). I’ve pondered the best way to deliver these, since the old method of plain-text email with links to pictures was messy and prone to link rot. To keep it client-agnostic and allow inline images, I’ll do them as PDF documents, which will be emailed to subscribers. For those who really prefer paper, they will be compiled into quarterly digests printed by MagCloud.

There is a Subscribe button over there on the right, and PayPal takes care of renewal (which can be declined or canceled, of course). Subscriptions to the weekly updates are $20/year, which is 38¢ a week. If the idea of automatic renewal makes you nervous, then you can order a single year for $20 with the Buy Now button instead.

Also, if you don’t want to use PayPal, no problem… I have a wonderful widget called Square that plugs into my Droid X and lets me take plastic via cell phone. Ain’t technology wonderful? We can do that by phone, or take an old-fashioned check by mail.

I’m looking forward to getting back to the fun, nearly real-time writing!

Life Changes

It seems odd, for someone who has lived a life of geek exhibitionism, to be all shy and private when it comes to matters of the heart. Readers of Computing Across America might be snickering, but that was more a retrospective… not real-time. Yes, changes have occurred, and Sky now owns and lives aboard Dervish, with which she will sail the Salish Sea this summer. Differences of direction from two strong-willed characters moved us to the two-boat solution, then beyond.

I’m now aboard Nomadness most of the time, with renewed project focus after the angst of Big Change… something that gets harder as we age. My new partner has taken over the house, and I return weekly to spend quality time, work on our Medical Chest business venture, recover from back pain episodes, shed tonnage, putter with chickens and kittens, play the piano, and get geared up for my next assault on the boat project. Kirsten is a wonderful friend and dorkelgånger… and I’m also relieved that I didn’t have to rent my house to strangers while still depending on the facilities there.

Oh, did I mention kittens? My dearly beloved Java disappeared around Thanksgiving, after being with me for 13 years. I’m assuming it was predation, but for months was haunted by not knowing, calling her every time I walked from house to lab, checking her usual hangouts inside and out for evidence of recent activity.

After a respectful interval we agreed that feline company is essential, so finally adopted a goofy pair and named them after two sailors on the 1994 BOC Challenge (round-the-world single-handed sailing race): Isabelle Autissier and The Ghost of Harry Mitchell. Izzy accompanies me to the boat where she never leaves my side; Harry has bonded with Kirsten; when together they switch modes and become bestest of kitty pals with our role relegated to support staff. Typical cats, in other words.

The cats of Nomadic Research LabsSo those are the headlines, as they say. The boat projects are coming back to life with the reluctant return of warmth to the Pacific Northwest; already I’ve installed the new water heater, Fusion stereo with embedded iPod, removable padded step seat, and one of the final four pilothouse curtains. Next up is an adjustable bed in the forward cabin (back problems), new power system panel, and then the lab desk that will carry all the geeky bits.

If you want weekly ongoing updates, please consider the new subscription newsletter… future blog posts will be more focused on single projects as they are completed.

Cheers from Nomadness,

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