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

Steven K. Roberts, N4RVE

Microship settles into UCSD

The Nomadness Notes #24

by Steven K. Roberts — San Diego, CA
November 24, 1993

(Nomadness trivia: Hey, issue #24 is actually Chapter #127 if you count the Computing Across America and Miles With Maggie series. Sounds like I’ve been busier that way… actually averages one a month since I started in ’83!)

In This Issue:

  • Skankin’ Pickle
  • Southern California Snapshots
  • Microship Design Update
  • Microship Internal Network
  • Help, Archives, And Miscellany

“You know how to simulate sailing? Stand in a cold shower and tear up $100 bills.”
— unattributed

Skankin’ Pickle

A university is probably not what you would normally label a cultural phenomenon — unless you had never spent any time living at one. Since I managed to sidestep that part of the traditional career development path, this academic interlude as a “visiting scholar” at UCSD is a wondrous and bizarre twist in an already strange life… dropping at age 41 <cringe> into a maelstrom of 18,241 students.

Tonight, I found my way over to Price Center, seeking an iced mocha to cool and stimulate after a vigorous bike ride on Black’s Beach and an exponentially MORE vigorous ride up the killer hill that is the only pedalable return to the land of textiles and traffic. Hey, it was a perfect October day in Southern California, with blazing sunshine, sparkling surf, and fresh ocean breezes. You think I’m going to stay entombed in an office full of clutter when I can work all night?

So I emerged from the beach, hot and sweaty, and hit the espresso joint for relief. One thing led to another, and soon it had segued to beer and pizza with a group of students, followed by a Skankin’ Pickle concert.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m a child of the 60’s, used to getting down to a variety of musical styles including classic rock, baroque concertos, smokin’ jazz, blues, big band, and even the impressionistic breath-like outpourings of what is sometimes labeled “yuppie muzak.” But I comfortably slipped into real enjoyment of this — apparently a deviant blend of Ska, punk, and some things so far from my native idioms that I’m at a loss to name them.

The music: hard-driving intensity with more melodic components than I expected — fast and sweaty. Humorous and pointed lyrics, some evocative; others crude. Stage presence sweaty, violent, and funny. Total devotion to the work at hand: music that seemed a blend of rugby, punk, fistfighting, and aggressive horns. But the total gestalt, if you will, was not the band but the event…

The audience formed three tiers. At the front, mashed against the stage, the dedicated devotees savored the crush and periodically lofted one of their own — bodies floated atop a forest of hands waving like the flagellae of a primitive sea creature, then tumbled feet first into the seething mass.

Level two was the mosh pit. This was a ballroom dancer’s worst nightmare: full-contact violent anarchy. There were no couples here, nor the solo gyrations of stoned twirlers lost in the sound. This was a vortex of sprinting, shoving, slamming, punching, tripping, shouting humans — mostly male — driven counterclockwise by The Coriolis Force from Hell. Somehow from the student population, so innocent and studious on the whole, there coalesced a motley contingent of tattooed, skinheaded, body-pierced punks… and they crashed and fought in blissful enjoyment. I was on the edge of this fray and occasionally fended off a sweating testosterone-soaked projectile flung out-of-control by a succession of random collisions. The crowd provided a natural counteracting force, tossing people bodily back into the pit to ricochet a few times and resume their frenetic celebration of decibel-driven dizziness. Bruises were many, and the two words never uttered were “excuse me.” Occasionally a girl would be plucked from the surrounding crowd and hurled wide-eyed and excited through the vortex, only to be deposited on the sidelines a moment later — breathless and happy to be alive.

Level three was the rather traditional concert crowd, bouncing happily to the beat and trying to talk. And hell, I enjoyed it so much I even bought a Skankin’ Pickle T-shirt…

Southern California Snapshots

Yes, life in Southern California is amusing. Being here subjects me to a whole suite of emotions and sensations, ranging from gaping appreciation of certain kinds of beauty to horror at certain kinds of attitudes. In the latter category, we have the most blatant disregard for the value of water I’ve seen anywhere west of the Rockies in years… both here and in Ellay. It comes from far away at great expense, but there’s no community-wide awareness of it as a scarce resource. Neighbors and former housemates take half-hour showers; people pre-flush in public restrooms; institutions saturate lawns, sidewalks, and roads with automated sprinklers (even during the rare rains).

I chanced past an apartment complex last month on my bike, and stopped in shock at the sight of a massive flow down a storm drain. Thinking something amiss, I went in to tell the manager a pipe had burst in their sprinkler system. “There’s nothing wrong, and it’s not really YOUR problem is it?” she countered aggressively.

“Well, indirectly,” I replied. We’ll all pay for waste eventually. You could cut back on sprinkling time, or the flow–”

“Look, we’ve done a study, and this is the best method. We have to maintain a good curbside appearance. Now if you don’t MIND…”

I avoided escalating a pointless argument with the observation that throwing away thousands of gallons of drinking water is hardly what I’d call “good curbside appearance,” for the argument would have been meaningless to her. Water is cheap and comes out of the tap. What’s my problem? I rode to the lab and reported them to the water-waste hotline. 😉

Oh yeah, housemates. This is a new phase of life for me — In the past 20 years, I moved from solo apartments to solo home ownership, through brief spurts of cohabitation into “professional house guest” mode while traveling, back to more cohabitation, and onward to solo life in a corporate lab. Now I live at a University, and my “summer sublet” was a new experience: 5 of us renters and one semi-permanent freeloader, none particularly neat, sharing a small house with one bathroom. Noise, clutter, and smells were constant. I pedaled home after midnight to sleep in the former garage — swathed in the cloying odors of garbage and rotten wood while drifting off to the growl of the old freezer, the hiss of running water, the skunk-driven rattle of the gate bolted to the wall beside my head, the intermittent roar of buses, the acoustic CPR of automotive rap machines, the chatter of housemates, late-night kitchen clinking, and the yowling caterwaul of laundry instruments ported through time from the Spanish Inquisition. I would awaken at 8 to the infernal leaf blower next door, wait to squeeze a 3.5-minute shower in between a couple of 20-minute ones, and leave as quickly as possible.

Fortunately, that’s over and I’m now sharing a quiet apartment with a funny, juggling medical student named Barney — only a short bike-ride from the lab. Much better…

Ah yes, the University. It’s rush season, you know — all the fraternities and sororities are promoting themselves, and freshmen walk around in what one might call “rush limbo.” Personally, I’d join Pi Kappa Chino, but then, I’m a caffeine junkie…

More strangeness. An annual playful competition just before starting school was the “un-Olympics,” in which the 5 colleges here competed in the traditional company-picnic sports and games. This year, in the spirit of political correctness, they decided that competition does not foster cooperation and replaced it with something corny that flopped. Besides, the pie-eating contest was insensitive to people with eating disorders, and the egg toss was an inappropriate waste of food when so many people in the world are hungry. <sigh>

But the Microship (remember the Microship? This song’s about the Microship…) is developing along interesting lines — and the issue that has been occupying my finite energy reserves is the development of the student team. I have defined a massive array of sub-projects ranging from the trivial to the seriously daunting, and am pleased to see student volunteers emerging to take them on. Lest I become a full-time manager (already I spend more time on documents and administration than on real engineering), I have set up a triumvirate of engineering managers, one each from mechanical, electrical, and computer science departments.

The project list is an emailable document, and there is nothing in the Microship charter that says all volunteers have to be students… so if you seriously want to get involved, let me know and I’ll send you the details! (It’s a bit much for distribution to the whole Nomadness mailing list, which is now on the order of 1,600 people not including exploders and reposts.)

Microship Design Update

If you have been on this mailing list since the bikelab days, you might recall that it was once a weekly report on some detailed technical topic. I do have a local list for daily updates to project participants and invited guests, but that would be excessive detail for global distribution. But these Nomadness Notes will become more frequent and will tend toward project description: UCSD lifestyle issues are no longer novel and you would tire of weekly summaries about the microculture of Black’s Beach, mosh pit dynamics, and the delights of strolling around campus on a sunny afternoon. So let’s talk about the boat!

I vaguely recall that the last real system description I posted here was dated 6/7/93, and reflected what is now an obsolete vision of the craft. For an updated system overview, please ftp to, navigate to /nomad, and get the file called Microship.gen.

For the past four months I’ve been inhaling, so to speak — laying the complex groundwork required to support a complex project. (Here we go again.) At the moment, I have about 40 student volunteers, and the University is providing course credit for participation in many of the more interesting engineering projects. There are many… the Project Catalog details 46 of them, not to mention a growing list of miscellaneous tasks. I’m starting to appreciate the complexities of being a good manager…

First of all, the Microship is not really a kayak anymore — nor a trio of kayaks formed into a trimaran. I’ve been calling her a “kayacht” lately — with a 30-foot center hull 4′ wide at the waterline, 18′ overall beam, and 1.5-ton estimated weight, the term “kayak” is no longer accurate. We’re keeping one critical component, though: the outriggers are detachable pedal- and paddle-powered double kayaks based on Current Designs “Libra” hulls. (The reason for this approach is that these amas are going to be extensively customized with special deck fixtures, oddly-placed bulkheads, wiring, thruster mounts, high-strength couplings to crossarms, submersible cockpits, raised cowlings for pedaling clearance, and deeper-than-normal flotation compartments. Trying to spec all this for a distant builder is absurd… but so is developing kayak hulls from scratch when it has already been done well. Hence, commercial hulls but custom decks.)

with Robb Walker (on left) at Nelson Marek Yacht Design

The center hull is being designed by Nelson/Marek, the San Diego yacht design firm that created the Stars & Stripes catamaran as well as a number of custom yachts and racers. We’re having fun with this, pulling out all the stops, ignoring issues of manufacturability and addressing brutal trade-offs that are normally immutable. It’s not fully defined yet, but we’re dealing with a number of odd concepts that may make this the BEHEMOTH of multihulls: kick-up adjustable-depth leeboards for CLR-tuning, floodable ballast chamber to control effective dihedral, free-standing schooner rig, engineering department forward of the cockpit with rackmount pressurized enclosures and fold-down work table, folding solar arrays on polypropylene honeycomb substrates, thruster and pedal drive on each detachable kayak/ama, pop-up crew module for lounging, complete navionics station, and deployable landing gear to turn the collapsed system into a trailer (to be towed by a gas-burner, not a bicycle!).

None of this exists yet, but we’ve been working on design concepts (with an actual-size cardboard/lumber mockup of the cockpit segment dominating my lab), gathering composite materials information, working on frame stress analysis, and learning boatbuilding techniques. No doubt there are surprises in store, but that’s part of the appeal… think how boring it would be to just go out and buy a yacht! <wistful sigh>

Incidentally, as we study multihull design an interesting parallel is becoming apparent: multihulls are to monohulls as recumbent bicycles are to diamond frames. They’re faster, more interesting, annoying to old-timers, and cover a wide quality range from exquisite to garbage (the latter helping to confirm the negative comments of traditionalists). They both attract wizards and nutcases, leading to odd alliances against Old Methods; they’ve both been banned from traditional sanctioned races after blowing everyone else off the course. And they are both so undefined that designs have not converged upon a few established standards, but instead show up in ever more radical configurations as designers are drawn inevitably to the challenge of pushing the envelope. In short, both are where the action is.

Microship Internal Network

The internal network architecture is getting interesting as well (On the water, I’ll finally be doing a lot of pier-to-pier networking…). Now that computers are cheaper than wire and connectors, we will use a multidrop protocol (Easy-A from New Micros, a modified 4-wire RS-422) to link a dozen or so FORTH 68HC11 processors into a cohesive system that will be hosted by a slightly more robust board at the hub. This whole network requires so little power that it can stay on most of the time, and the hub’s low-level user interface is a simple 2-line LCD and keypad.

Atop that, however, will be a very robust PC (386 or 486 — we’re trying to decide) based on Ampro’s PC/104 standard. This machine is very I/O rich and physically robust, and in the current plan will support an active-matrix color LCD at the helm. The net effect here is a single integrated environment for all shipboard electronics, data collection, power control, navigation (via NMEA 0183 interface to the nav sensors), charting, software development, control network graphic user interface, and so on.

Independent of all this, but on the same ethernet, is the Macintosh (also with active-matrix color), augmented by a second Mac in the copilot’s console and the manpack PowerBook linked via RF AppleTalk from Digital Ocean. This will be the work environment for writing, email, video production, database, and all those things that I use my PowerBook for right now. The advantage of this architecture is elimination of the need to context switch one machine between the two continuous heavy-duty requirements for “office/workspace” and “comm/nav and control.” Both the Mac and the PC will share a single waterproof keyboard and pointing device on a fold-out panel (more on that soon; we’re currently comparing InterLink’s waterproof DuraPoint with a custom controller made from one of their XYZ touch sensors).

Of course, the Internet connection is critical, and we have put a Tadpole SPARCbook on the Net here at UCSD with the intent of using it as a central file server on the Microship and repository for all the unix networking tools. This project is just getting started and I’m not sure of the eventual configuration… I’ll tell you more as it develops. We will be careful to avoid redundancy and make sure that each system adds synergistically to the others while ensuring that we can host virtually any interesting application including video processing!

Back at the microcontroller end, some of the BEHEMOTH technology will carry over directly. The audio crossbar system, for example, was well-proven on the bike although the software was never finished to the point that it became turnkey. A student team here is now working on that, taking two of the boards (allowing 32 inputs, 32 outputs, and up to 8 simultaneous audio “events”) and controlling them with a dedicated FORTH board on the multidrop network. Unlike the bike, however, the boat will not use a crosspoint for serial datacomm — any device that needs to talk to others will own a drop-point processor that couples it to the network, yielding more of a client-server architecture. Likewise, general power switching and data collection will be handled by minimal processors that in many cases will not even need application software: they’ll just sit in their interpreter loops awaiting commands from the host.

Stay tuned for further information. As with the bikelab series I wrote while at Sun Microsystems, I will begin producing more focused reports as this complex project takes shape. At the moment, work is progressing on so many fronts that almost everything is still vaporous. I was embarrassed a few times by publishing BEHEMOTH details so early that the subsequent reality was either incomplete or vastly different; I’ll try not to do that here!

Help, Archives, And Miscellany

A few quick notes on matters various. First, as always, I’m welcoming help at any level — industry involvement has always been an essential component of these projects, and that is the case now more than ever. We can always use voices of experience to augment the focused energy of student volunteers, and particularly welcome engineers from industry who are willing to brainstorm, give a presentation, or consult with project groups. If you have something to offer and like working with students (even remotely), please let me know and I’ll try to include you in any way possible. Everyone on the project is on the Net, so communication is easy.

Second, I want to try something new. While most of the major components are generously provided by corporate sponsors (in exchange for exposure, harsh environment engineering data, beta testing, or just plain fun), there are lots of expenses associated with boat construction that call for cash. I basically generate that with occasional speaking engagements and freelance writing, hardly enough to fully fund the development and operation of this project. We are establishing a special account for individual or corporate donations, and will fashion some kind of plaque or display on the finished Microship to credit those who helped it along. We’ll also send a Microship T-shirt to all who contribute over some reasonable minimum (no, it’s not done yet — I’m awaiting a particularly fine piece of CAD artwork to place the order). If you’d like to help with this adventure, please let me know — and there is a mechanism already in place if you prefer the tax advantage of contributing directly to the University (you can earmark the funds for the Microship).

Finally, the archives of these reports have moved from the ftp site at Telebit to the one here at UCSD. Just ftp to and look in /nomad — you’ll find the series of stories from my travels with Maggie, the bikelab reports, four GIFs of BEHEMOTH, an overview of the Microship, and some older archives of the technomads alias. I’m gradually bringing it all up to date…

Cheers from San Diego, and thanks for your continuing interest in nomadness!

Steve Roberts