Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Prometheus Had the Right Idea

If you want to burn something, sucker a god into giving you fire. Actually trying to make it yourself is more difficult than it looks.
Let's start from the beginning. As part of The Artist's Way 12-week course to enlightenment and creative nirvana, I committed to a media diet. No reading, no Internet, no podcasts for one week. I'm an addict. The computer is my life. I was four days into the diet and starving to death so I planned an excursion to the park for the afternoon. We piled into the car with Grandma Sue, towels, and sundry bits and bobs, heading out to Lincoln Park for three hours of no-reading torture.

Really, what the heck is there to do at a park if you are not going to read?

The kids hit the play pool, and I plunked down on a towel to start my incarceration in the land of non-reader hell. Grandma Sue graciously shared her Soduko and we embarked on a solve-it-first challenge. I whipped through it before she was halfway through. It was an easy one and to be frank, she's been doing all the hard and medium hards from the paper for so long that I think she was overthinking it. Okay, 2 hours and 50 minutes left to go. Now what?

Dealt with a semi-hysterical child who lost a pet tag down the drain. "It was my last tie to Philly," sob sob sob. Whatever. The cat is gone. Life is hard. Then you die. Never mind. Forget I said that. Lots of sympathy and back patting later, we moved the family to the playground to warm up. Grandma Sue was by now a little chilled. Californians are like that when they visit Seattle. Very thin blood.

"Look at me!" "No look at me!" The point is there is nothing else to look at. There is a reason reading a book is more interesting than watching your child cross the monkey bars for the fifteenth time. A book has content. There is a plot. There is a purpose. There is sex. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no sex on the playground at Lincoln Park, and at this point I've only managed to destroy 1 hour and 20 minutes.

"Let's go to the beach" before your mother goes stark raving mad, okay children? Don't argue. Just get your butts down to the beach before I rend my clothes and start enacting the tablet smashing scene from The Ten Commandments.

The beach is great. Lots of things to look at. Lots of things to ... read!! Omigod, relief comes in the form of a very brief fall from grace as I indulge in a thorough examination of the park policies, regulations, map, hours, and pricing for the Colman Pool. Twice. Almost three times but my daughter helpfully caught me in my guilty pleasure and snapped the flier out of my hands in a fit of bombastic self-righteousness.

Word to the wise: Never tell your children the specifics of any self-improvement plan.

For at least a half hour, I diverted myself with dragging large chunks of wood into place to form an annex to the children's fort. I figured they needed a room for the in-laws. Dinner was dried sea weed and half eaten crab shells so it only seemed fair to make the visit from the relatives a bit more comfortable. Crushed my middle finger and scraped off the inside of both arms, but it looked pretty solid and comfortable if I do say myself.

About that time I figured what the house really needed was a good fire. Being the intrepid homeschool teacher, it was a brilliant idea to put play and school together and demonstrate how cave men created fire from nothing. Very smug -- after all we've had roughly 30,000 years of evolution to grow bigger brains and longer fingers, not to mention iPods and the electric mixer -- I gathered materials to hand.
  1. Long smooth stick
  2. Old, dry flat wood base
  3. Lightweight, dry material good for feeding a baby fire
  4. Little sticks to get it going
  5. Big sticks to make it really blaze
Perfect! I set to work with enthusiasm. The girls gathered around to watch the fireworks. We spun, we blew gently, we spun some more. The tip of the wood got hotter and hotter, my face got redder and redder, we produced a lovely incipient smell of warm wood and a pile of highly combustible sawdust.

But wait! My watch alarm went off to signal the end of our excursion and time to go grocery shopping! My three hours are over!!! Woot! Escape. Es Cop Ey!!! "Let's go kids. It's illegal to start a fire on a public beach anyway. Just remembered. Time to go."

They weren't disappointed. Watching me spin a stick for however long I went at it was apparently not nearly as exciting as dashing through the woods back to frozen Grandma Sue at the top of the hill. I worry a bit about the platform... it was starting to get a little warm there toward the end. Really. Another four or five hours of spinning and we might even have started something.

Friday, July 20, 2007

TechTip: Wicked Wiki of the West

Short Story
Cruisers have several reasons to want to collect a large volume of notes on a topic, for example lessons learned about the boat or an archive of places visited. An easy way to gather this information in once place is a personal TiddlyWiki. Wiki content is searchable, interactive, and you can share it online with fellow boaters.

Long Version
It is axiomatic that boat and boat component manufacturers do not hire competent technical writers. This is not an opinion; I'm a professional technical writer, and I assure you this is Fact (tm). At best, the content of manuals is illterate, incomplete, and barely applicable to the device on your boat. At worst, it looks as though it was xeroxed on a 40 year old Canon in a remote corner of Uzbeckistan. If you are anything like the crew of Don Quixote, you frequently find yourself supplementing – or well nigh replacing – the content of these manuals with your own notes and instructions on use, maintenance and repair of every part and component of your vessel.

Collecting this information in any paper format is daunting. Moreover, the marine environment is not friendly to paper over the long haul. On your computer, your choices historically have been limited to spreadsheets, text files, and your own personally rolled database. Now, however, thanks to the great goodness of the open source movement, we have available to us a free utility called TiddlyWiki.

You have probably heard of the granddaddy wiki of all: Wikipedia. If you haven't, just budget a few hours for Internet browsing and click that link. Wikis are interlocking, searchable, web pages which are essentially infinitly extendable and editable. Created by Jeremy Ruston, TiddlyWiki is one of several micro wikis out in the wild today designed for use in a smaller, more controlled world like your laptop.

To use a personal wiki, you need a web browser (e.g. Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer) and a copy of the TiddlyWiki template. Once you get the template saved to your computer, you won't need to be connected to the Internet to use it. So just load up the template in your browser, select File > Save Page As, and drop your new wiki on your hard drive. That's it. You are now free to start writing your technical manual for s/v . TiddlyWiki is a surprisingly powerful little tool. It includes a search engine, the ability to tag pages with the user name, and several options for backup. Each page you create is called a tiddler. A tiddler has a title, tags, and any text you choose to add. TiddlyWiki includes some limited formatting such as bold, italic, heading, and bullet. Tiddlers are automagically linked by any camel case phrased word. So you might, for example, have BoatMaintenence page with a list of items such as HaulOut, AnnualEngineWork, and WinterPrep.You can copy text from other sources such as PDFs or web pages into your wiki. You can also add links to web sites on the Internet. If you are connected to the Internet and you click one of these links from your TiddlyWiki, it will open up the page for you. This is a great way to build a tag list of sites for manufacturers of your boat's components, for example. And while you can't paste in pictures, you can paste in links to pictures which live either on the Internet or on your laptop and then click those links when you need to see the images.

A final bonus feature: if you want to share your wiki with friends, family and fellow boaters, you can copy it to a web site and let folks know where it is. This takes some knowledge of how and where to post stuff on the Internet, which I'll take up as a tech tip another day.

TiddlyWiki is pretty self-explanatory so I encourage you to just dive in. However, when you are ready to explore ninja wikiness, the help system is reasonably good and the online community of TiddlyWiki gurus is very friendly and helpful.*

* Note to GTDers: I use a variation of TiddlyWiki known as GTDTiddlyWiki which is why you see the Project, Contexts, and Actions in the screenshots. It makes a nice compliment to iGTD or OmniFocus but I wouldn't recommend it as a primary application.

Lightly Toasted Tech Tips

This week sees the introduction of a new kind of Toast Floats article, the Tech Tip from Toast. Most of my articles are purely for fun and meant to tickle the funny bone. Some are philosophical, musings on the applied application of the phrase "mid-life crisis," while a few attempt to provide tips on something I know almost nothing about -- boat maintenance.

This series, however, is about something I live, love and breathe: Technology. Specifically, I plan to publish articles about software, gadgets, and web services that I think would be useful to boating families. Most boating families just do not have the time or interest to do the research to find the cool gadget. Yeah, they read the marine magazines, but those are written by sailors. And frankly, I don't know many sailors who can spell Flickr, let alone knowledgeably contrast the merits of Twitter versus Jaiku.

I'll publish this every two weeks or when something really cool drops into my lap, whichever comes first. All articles in the series will have a 'techtip' tag so you can filter them out if you have no interest.

Your comments, ideas, and suggestions for this series are most welcome. If you're reading this, you're already 99% more savvy than the ultimate target audience. I readily admit that the real point is to get this series going so I can pitch it to a sailing magazine somewhere. So help me find the cool gadgets, gizmos, web sites, and software for the average boating, homeschooling family.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

When You Live in a Kite

This weekend I came to the sad realization that there are more ways to break a boat than there are days to live on one. Don't get me wrong. I love our boat, but... I say that about my children, too. I love my children, but... I'm stuck with the children, of course, but you'd think I could find a way to get out of this relationship with our boat. However, it appears that we are stuck with her as well.

This time what fell apart was the ignition switch for the starboard engine. It literally dissolved in my hands as I went to turn the motor on preparatory to dropping anchor in Port Madison. We had just dropped the sails, Dr C and Jaime were tying everything down, Aeron and Mera were straightening the salon in case guests came over from the Seattle Yacht Club, and my responsibility was to motor us smoothly and gracefully into place. Except with the ignition switch in five pieces in my lap, I was left with only the port engine, a ten-knot breeze on the bow, and a bad feeling about this.

Have I mentioned that Don Quixote is big? She sits on the water instead of in it? Have I mentioned that her windage is roughly the same as a hot air balloon?

With Dr C standing blithely on the bow pointing to his preferred anchor location in full view of the yacht club dining room, there was nothing to do but to power forward. Literally. Momentum was at least on my side and the port engine did her job and pushed us roughly into place. Within a few yards of the desired location, however, a slight gust caught her and she started to turn to starboard. Dr C glared back at me with his “where the hell are you going” look. He should patent that. Grimacing, I threw the rudder over and tried to juice her back into place.

No can do. She was now happily turning to starboard and there ain't nuthin’ you can do about it. With the rudder hard to port, we could turn slowly. In any other position, we could turn more rapidly. So we did a graceful circle around our anchor spot like a cat examining a lap before settling down for a nap.

But the anchorage was tight. We really needed a way to cover those precious twenty yards to the perfect spot so we wouldn't rudely swing into our neighbors during the night. Dr C was now at the helm having given up on my ability to steer us into our desired location. Of course, he was spinning us around not 100 yards off the SYC dock, and we must have looked a lot like a dog chasing its tail. Anything like graceful had disappeared from our lexicon. At this point, I just wanted to stop moving before we all got dizzy.

And then I had it. It. One of those flashes of brilliance or madness that so characterize my hero Jack Sparrow. Stop moving. Just stop upwind of where we want to be with the beam to the breeze and let nature do her thing. I shoved the captain out of my seat and told him in my sternest mommy voice to get his ass back on the bow to handle the anchor. On the next revolution, I eased back on the port engine and let her come to a stop. With the inevitability of taxes, Don Quixote took that breeze like the kite she is and started sliding sideways into her anchorage. It was slow. It was agonizing. But it worked.

Now if I'd only thought of that before gathering a crowd of wine drinking yacht club members, it would have been perfect.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tell It Like It Is

Originally uploaded by rolling2hills
Do you remember the uproar when Mattel produced a Barbie that whined in a gratingly chipper voice, “Math is hard!”? I remember. I remember virtuously supporting the NOW call to action, boycotting the errant toy company, and prohibiting Barbie shoes in the house. Okay, truth be told the Barbie shoe prohibition technically predated the Barbie Math fiasco. Those high heeled shoes with their strong affinity for the bottom of bare feet should be classified as one of America’s most powerful cultural weapons.

The thing is… in retrospect this particular social tempest not only did not deserve a teacup, it also missed a key point. Math is hard. So is biochemistry, astrophysics, and getting the top off a bottle of Advil. Somehow Barbie stating the obvious was offensive because a woman admitted it – a pretty woman with small feet and big breasts.

In much the same way, there is a strong social pressure among those of us preparing to cut the lines to avoid admitting to Regular People how difficult it is to leave. It is easier to perpetuate the myth that the cruising adventure is a lark, a whim – expensive navel gazing combined with extended camping trip and lots of rum.

It is also probably easier for the shore-bound to watch us go if they believe that cruisers are not like Regular People. Regular People would find the whole process of selling everything, saying goodbye to everyone, and leaving all that is well known and understood daunting to the point of intestinal clenching terror.

But here’s your Barbie moment straight from Toast: Leaving is hard.

In for a penny, in for a pound, let me further state that: Leaving is harder for women.

There you have it. I’ve said it. I’ve obviously lost my mind, my feminist credentials, and my captain’s license. I brace myself for the pending boycott from the Seven Seas Sailing crowd. Shoot me. Drum me out of the women’s seminars at Strictly Sail. The real shame is I don't have big breasts. Nor do I have small feet, more's the pity.

But stating the obvious, gut churning truth does not make it any less true, because the bottom line is that wannabe cruisers are regular people with a bug up their ass. Whatever our current motivation, most of us start out with careers, real estate, and white-picket-fence goals. By far the majority of cruisers do not self-identify as heroic, brave, or adventurous. We send our kids to school, we go to the Church of Home Depot on Sundays, and we carefully deposit a small amount into our 401(k) each month. Our starting point is so banal, it is unimaginable that in a mere few years we’ll be thousands of miles away hauling in a tuna off an azure coast to the dulcet strains of our children’s urgent screams of encouragement.

And why is it harder for women? I've heard a variety of theories. The one that resonates most strongly for me is the lack of a bathtub on a boat. However, perhaps you identify with the hypothesis that for men there is more support for reaching for the “exotic adventure.” Or maybe you're in the “woman are nesters, men are not” camp. Some of you might find compelling the claim that “women have stronger social ties and rely on them more deeply than men.” Or maybe you've been surrounded by folks who support the theory that children are proof of fragility. Obviously, if you are a mother, you can't be strong, self reliant, and highly capable.

Whatever your personal pet theory, there is broad consensus among the female sailing community that the whole letting go thing is much harder for women. Mind you, there is not unanimity! You can't put five sailors of any gender in a dinghy and get them to agree on the time of day, let alone something as fundamental as this. However, I've got the anecdotes to support my theory. And if you doubt me, go take a poke at the startling volume of cruising literature devoted to the dragged aboard spouse.

But women are not fragile. Women make great sailors. Women are spectacularly adept at making a life of value and passion and interest even under the worst conditions and in the mankiest of boats. And if women were afraid to do hard things, the species would have long since withered away.

Wow, this is starting to sound like a motivational video. So I’ll conclude with a a gratingly chipper shout into a virtual mike as I bounce at the front of the class, “Leaving is HARD! Feel the burn, ladies!! No pain, no main!!!”

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Every Nook and Cranny

Until Dr C had a mid-life crisis, I hadn't cleaned a toilet since 1985. It was Berkeley and I was a sophomore. Thanks to rent control, I found a three-bedroom apartment near the campus with a total monthly rent less than my latte budget and two resident room mates: a lesbian fashion model and a Turkish gigolo. As they both considered themselves far too beautiful to actually do dishes, I instituted a cleaning tariff. If they wanted me to take over the domestic chores, by dogs they would be pay me to do so. In turn, I would hire people for that.

This is actually a surprisingly satisfactory solution to room mates. When Dr C, my once and future husband, moved in, I saw no reason not to continue the practice. Jaime's arrival cemented my conviction that life was not worth living without Merry Maids. And so it goes.

As part of our cost-cutting measures when I quit my job in 2005, we cut out all the expenses that made a two-income, upwardly yuppifying household possible: day care, private school, lawn service, housekeeper, manicurist. Come to think of it, we cut out hair dresser, vet, and doctor as well substituting them respectively with a large pair of sheers, a dead cat (old age and it was truly tragic), and the Canadian prescription drug industry.

This left me with a large, old bungalow, three children, and a male. They are disgusting. This entire conversation should be predicated with the phrase, “I love them but...” because they are just filthy creatures. I swear those girls can merely walk through a room to convert if from a neat, Lemon Pledge picture of Betty Crocker magnificence into a scene out of Martha Stewart's worst nightmares. And my husband? Let's just start with aim -- and the inability of men to do so -- and move on from there without further detail.

So for nearly a year, I've been looking forward to moving aboard the boat for the most simple and practical of reasons: less to clean. Our entire boat could fit into the family room of our old house. It has to be quicker, easier to clean. The application of basic mathematics compels this conclusion.

Unfortunately, that's not the way it happened. Essentially, the problems fall into three categories: things that grow, places you can't reach, and things that grow in places you can't reach.

Things that Grow – I now realize that every living creature is secretly a dreamer sailor, and they all want to live on my boat. Children, friends, family, seagulls, harbor seals, bacteria, algae, snails, rats, gecko lizards. If they can figure out a way to get aboard, they'll settle in for the duration and make a home out of it. My boat has yet to meet a cold climate mold spore it doesn't seek to bond with... more or less permanently. The problem with all this vigorous life is that it gets crowded, and most of these guests don't smell too yummy. Thus far, I've been reasonably successful in my attempts to kill them all with a combination of Simple Green, elbow grease, and country music.

Places You Can't Reach – The family room had four corners. I could largely clean the entire room with a fluffy duster, a bottle of orange oil, and a vacuum cleaner. When I was feeling particularly Spring Cleany, I would take a Q-tip and wipe that little tiny space in the corner that was otherwise unreachable. I think this happened once in recorded history. Mostly I put furniture in front of the corners.

Don Quixote, on the other hand, wouldn't know a straight angle if she met one strolling through Deception Pass on a fine Saturday morning with a sign on his forehead. This may be a by-product of her fundamental Frenchness. The French are apparently, as a cultural rule, averse to right angles. The result, however, is a boat with more corners than a game of Blockus. Which gets to my final burden...

Things That Grow in Places You Can't Reach -- Every living thing on our boat that is smaller than a toy poodle prefers to live in a place I can't reach. In fact, for such a capacious vessel, I am routinely astonished by how many places are completely and utterly unreachable. My husband complains about the space under the starboard head and shower which is inexplicably blocked by a solid, plastic formed floor. My personal bitch is with the keels. They may only be three feet down but they are too narrow to get your hand into for a good, algae and stinky gunk removing scrub. I also hate all those corners – those thousands of corners – each of which is filled with the oddest combination of dead skin cells, sand, bits of hair, and trail mix, bonded into a matrix by human hair and distilled spit. Worse, I can't hide them. A dozen of them push themselves to your attention as you move around the companionway alone. Cleaning requires a jumbo box of Q-tips, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and the patience of Job.

So forgive me, my friends whose boats I visited and silently sneered at, lifting my supercilious nose at your grime and grit. Please forgive me. And close your eyes as you make your way up the stairs.