Art without engineering is dreaming;
Engineering without art is calculating.

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Mini Macs, Escape Velocity, and the Crash

Hoo-boy, this is a crazy time. Whether on the cusp of TEOTWAWKI, the transition to an initial cap in the word depression, or just a bloody dust-up in the sleight-of-handoff of dictatorial powers, there is a sense of contextual discontinuity that makes it hard to maintain steady project focus. Of course, I’m perfectly capable of gallivanting off in multiple divergent paths even without a broken economy to blame, but there is an added air of urgency now.

I never thought I’d say this after observing the staggering amount of money that I rescued from stocks and put into nautical toys in 2007-8, but I now consider my boat (and even the electronics) as a great investment. At least that stuff loses value linearly, and can be used in the meantime. I’m almost glad my father is not around to see what happened to his treasured GE stock, which has plunged from a stable, boring $36 at the time of his death in 2005 to around $6 at this writing. He would not have understood my selling it, especially to buy electronic toys that are famously bad long-term investments… but if he could see today’s stock price he would be bewildered.

Of course, I had no idea it would plunge; I was just smugly making the move to contrarian investments after reading the horrible and misleading¬†Crash Proof. But even non-dollar-denominated international dividend-paying commodities have been halved in this paradoxical flight to treasuries, so I’m screwed anyway. What’s left of my “portfolio” is too painful to contemplate; like many people, I have a pile of unopened statements on my desk that I can’t even bring myself to file. (Later note: still, despite his clients getting destroyed, Peter Schiff published another book that was basically one big “I told you so.”)

The lesson here is that we should be investing in ourselves, our own tools and consumables, and of course anything that gets us out of debt. Nothing makes sense anymore except simple reality: solar panels, tanks of fuel, parts, voyaging stores, facilities, food production, water resources, and tools. Forget complex financial instruments and other things you can’t control.

Return on investment (ROI) does not have to be purely economic in these waning days of the empire when “dollar-value” is a vaporous term. I wince when I look at the money spent on a nautical toy that is sucking insurance/tax/moorage while immobilized at a distant dock… but when I take a longer view, I see that “payback” takes a broader form: increased self-sufficiency and flexibility in making choices. In practical terms, this might mean seeing the boat as alternative housing, being able to use it as a relocation vector during a move, or (in the paranoid worst-case) as a bug-out vehicle. Cost-benefit value is not necessarily numeric.

With all that in mind, I am continuing the exploration of alternative home-base facilities. The observation so far is that waterfront property (with on-site moorage, not just a pretty view) is almost unavailable and prohibitively expensive in any case, both in terms of acquisition cost and ongoing taxes that are about double compared to equivalent inland real estate. That trades off directly with the cost of moorage, so it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but the TANSTAAFL principle holds here just as it does everywhere.

On the other side of the equation, we’re also trying to get this place on the market… or at least see if the whole exchange is feasible. I just posted about the lab-for-sale over yonder at the long-dormant Microship blog, so I won’t go into detail here. But please do read Sky’s excellent posting on the same topic… she has a wonderful way of expressing the essence of something that I see from a more geeky and pragmatic perspective, and the combination makes for a deeper view than either alone.

A Nascent Emporium of Geek Goodies

All this talk about financial stuff is a reminder that nickel-generation has been on the back burner for too long. The Nomadic Research Labs online store is now alive and slowly getting populated with products, and it appears that an early focus will be on sensors and other “boat interface” goodies… dovetailing nicely with my Arduino development projects and the corresponding Boat Hacking book. So far, I’ve just been adding items that are already in stock here, holding off on actually purchasing products for resale, but now that I’ve clawed my way up to the knee of the store learning curve, I think it’s time.

I am excited about one recent addition, though. I have contemplated publishing a monograph on this subject for years: the collection of “trade secrets” that have made my adventures possible… the art of working with sponsors, media, and volunteers to get an insanely ambitious project off the ground and keep it moving on its own momentum. I actually started writing this when I was doing the Inside Microship book for O’Reilly, but it fell by the wayside when I got caught up in editorial musical chairs (my particular curse, it seems; that also happened 25 years ago with the Computing Across America book, and I’m still suffering for it).

Anyway, this 28-page PDF has a very specific audience: those who are attempting to “reach escape velocity” with a massive feat of engineering. It is not about hardware or software technical methods; it is about the meta-hack of developing enough support and buzz to get your project to take on a life of its own. Large corporations can do this with brute-force methods (unlimited money and people), but individuals face daunting hurdles when competing for mindshare and resources. Without the ability to leverage larger forces as a sort of “martial art,” it is exceedingly difficult for a lone geek to escape the gravity well.

There is an outline over at the Reaching Escape Velocity product info page.

Shipnet Progress

The Arduino node development is still moving forward, though it is competing for wetware-cycles with the redneck bow thruster, strut-channel solar array mounting, waterworks, facilities quest, e-commerce baby steps, and eBaying at the moon. I’ve started playing with the network side of things, which is where it gets fun (seeing sensors in a live web page), and the parts have arrived for the two key infrastructure nodes that handle audio/video crossbar switching and remote access via speech/DTMF.

I’m still not entirely sure what the hub will be; I’m very intrigued by the low-power Linux boxes from Aleutia, though my comfort zone is the Macintosh, especially now that the long-awaited “refresh” of the Mac Mini product line has finally arrived.

I’ll wait to see how the community responds since I’m comfortably developing in an iMac and there is no rush (other than macroeconomic factors, as noted above), but I’m heartened to see a 13-watt quoted steady-state power versus about 20 for the previous version… though not much else changed. The ship needs a decent dual-head nav system anyway (I pulled back from the NavNet3D precipice for a few reasons last year, and have grown fond of MacENC), so even with twice the heat of a small Linux box, this might make sense. Besides, it would put the Shipnet browser at the helm, integrate all my music and productivity apps, and be a much more gentle learning curve. Still, the Aleutia is a little gem, and very tempting. Maybe both; the Mac for user interface and the Aleutia as the always-on server that owns the 15 nodes…

I’ve started to find that I need a daily rhythm in all this; without observable forward progress, I feel vaporous, lost in context-switching overhead and wall-staring. Even design work doesn’t satisfy… I need hands-on activity, whether it involves sticking parts together or making something dance.

Time to go do just that!



  1. Jan Steinman on March 5, 2009 at 1:35 am

    Hi Steve! C’mon up to EcoReality!

    We’re just a few km from Burgoyne Bay, where there is a small community of free-floaters, paying no moorage fee.

    You can get to our place from Burgoyne Bay entirely via public land. (Although it does require a ~1,000 foot climb, and the more likely route is over a road.)

    Hope you and Sky can come up for a visit!

  2. Anonymous on March 10, 2009 at 2:31 pm


    I've gotten started with the Arduino boards. Loads of fun. I always wanted to learn to soldier and code but found coding somewhat pointless.

    (Step one: 'hello world'. Step two: write your own word processor – why, Word does what I want?)

    Anyway, I found something that may be a bit of use to you:

    And, if you're not already on it:;=all&author;=≻=1&sf;=all&sk;=t&sd;=d&sr;=topics&st;=0&ch;=300&t;=0&submit;=Search

    Be well,


  3. Anonymous on March 17, 2009 at 4:04 pm


    Apple’s new mac mini is now listed as 13 watts, I don’t know if there might an additional energy savings or if they merely figured out what you have already found out.


  4. Steve Roberts on March 17, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    HI Maren – yes, that is looking good. I think it will be the helm nav system and general server, though I am still looking closely at Aleutia for the always-on embedded server.


  5. Anonymous on March 18, 2009 at 7:26 am

    I love macs, we have three in our house. But I truly think the OLPC XO is the way to go. Ruggedized, low power, cheap and, with the integral screen it still only .8 amp at the brightest stetting while fully charged


  6. Steve Roberts on March 18, 2009 at 8:44 am

    This is worth exploring; thanks. I’ve just been reading the specs… quite interesting. I’ll have to see what people have done using it in a development environment; I have certain needs that MUST be easy (running the Arduino tools, hosting a web server, dealing with a lot of USB, supporting Ruby and MySQL or other BerkelyDB, etc).


  7. Kees on March 29, 2009 at 4:33 am


    I suggest that you use an even lower power Linux solution based on, for example, an ARM9 microcontroller. The latest Atmel ATSAM9G20 400 MHz ARM uses only 80mW at full blast. This means you can run the entire “linux server” at 1-2 Watts. I’m waiting for the Atmel ATSAM9G20 to become available in a hacker friendly version from as the current development board is not really meant for actual deployment.

    For the navigation computer I’m gonna go for the fit2pc ( using the Z530 Atom @ 1.6 GHz which is a lot quicker than the Aleutia whilst using the same power.