Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Firebox ToastMaster

The Firebox ToastMaster
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Recently, I've been exchanging a few messages to Leo Laporte and Dick DeBartolo. I admire them both and very much enjoy their many contributions to tech culture and news, and I recommended their podcast to all my fellow travelers as a good source of entertainment and the occasionally useful bit of gadgetry. Moreover, the best thing about Internet celebrities is that they answer their mail like real people.

So a few weeks ago, as they were chatting about toasters which would toast bread with designs, they asked their audience if any one knew of such a thing. While I don't have anything like that, I was given a toaster which also serves as a network router, firewall, and wifi hotspot. It was a going away gift from my colleagues at WatchGuard Technologies.

In DGW 557, Dick and Leo chat about it and Leo mentions some pictures I'd sent him. I wish I could take credit for this thing, but there is no question the Firebox ToastMaster was the by-product of some very clever engineering brains. I love geeks. I always felt this toaster said that geeks loved me. BION, I actually teared up when they gave it to me.

So thank you to Steve and Lucas and all their helpers for the creativity and the sheer orthogonal thinking that produced one of the greatest gifts I've ever received. And thanks Leo for letting me publicly show off their special, strange genius.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Math and the Homeschooler

Today, a fellow cruiser and I discussed math programs for your boat schooled child. I should write a very long post on this subject, really I should. For now, however, I feel honor bound to post at least some of my thoughts -- unedited and unexpurgated. Brace yourself for a bit of profanity and some defensiveness. Selecting curriculum as a homeschooler appears to inevitably involve defensiveness.

Short Form: Two really important bits you must remember when you select workbooks and curriculum for your homeschooled child:

(1) Home schooling is NOT school at home. What works for schools will not necessarily work for homeschoolers. Conversely, a program that sucks in the schools will succeed admirably in the homeschool environment.

(2) Do not invest yourself emotionally in any program before your child gives you the approval. No program, book, worksheet, drill or web site you select will survive it's first encounter with the enemy - your children. Prepare yourself in advance for cycling through a variety of materials until you find something that makes her eyes light up and his face break into a wide grin.

Now, somewhat edited excerpts from my rather windy letter to my fellow cruising educator:

I will go this far with down the Unschooling parade with math: If Math is not fun, it sucks. In fact, if math is not fun it blows monkey chunks out of an ape's ass who is sick with a peculiar disease which renders everything so smelly you can't sit 10 miles down wind of it without a gas mask, a stick of incense, and a necklace of garlic.

Saxon is not fun. If there is a polar opposite to fun anywhere in this world, it is Saxon. In fact, under "fun" in the dictionary of life, "Saxon" is listed as an antonym.

Singapore is boring. Really really REALLY boring. You do the same thing over and over and over and over and over again with mangos and papayas until your eyes bleed and your brain flows out your butt. Do you have even the slightest comprehension what it means to present multiplication to a 3rd grader 1,076 times in a single year? I can not think of a single thing I would present to my 3rd grader 1000 times... not even the concept of elbows off the table merits that kind of focused attention.

* * *

In defense of Everyday Mathematics, many teachers HATE it. I've spoken with Seattle teachers who are using it. I can understand why they hate it; You can not teach a class of 30 using this program. The reason why 3rd graders do not see multiplication 1,076 times is that they are working on geometry, algebra, graphs, charts, factoring, temperature, clocks and dogz only knows what else. Every day you get a wee bit of something and a wee bit of something else. In other words, every day, the child does 10 different types of problems spread all over the mathematical landscape. It is an extremely rare lesson that makes a child do the same type of problem more than 2 or 3 times. No repetition makes Johny a happy student and Ms. Smith absolutely miserable teacher because the kids in the class are all over everywhere. There is no Lesson. There is no Assignment. There is no Quiz. There is no Test.

However, if you need/want a workbook and some structure, I think Everyday Mathematics might have been designed with homeschoolers in mind. It makes some basic assumptions about kids:
* They have the attention span of houseflies and will not want to do the same type of problem over and over and over again
* Math is not hard
* Math should be about something useful and familiar
* Repetition THROUGH TIME... i.e. doing the same type of problem scattered randomly throughout an entire year... in fact over the course of 6 years ... builds knowledge better than doing the same problem many times and then not revisiting the topic until next year
* Teachers have time to remind kids who haven't seen a problem in 2 months how they managed to solve those problems in the past
* 1st graders are just as capable of learning algebra and geometry and graphs as 6th graders
* There is no Right Age to learn certain mathematical strategies
* Calculators are not the enemy

BTW, I've seen the millions of links to folks excoriating Everyday Mathematics. All I can say is the homeschool families I know using it, including my own, are having a great time with happy math learners, excellent test results, and kids who can tell time, calculate prices and discounts, and figure out how much carpet we need to buy to cover the floor in the apartment.

* * *

I will also offer my general rule of thumb for all textbooks and curriculum: The more the program is detested by either: (1) the teachers' unions and/or (2) the religious fundamentalists, the more probable our family will find the material useful, educational, and entertaining. The former because teaching 30 is not teaching 3; they truly need different materials. The later because I'm pretty firm on the whole "world is older than 6000 years" thing which makes for a pretty binary approach re: science and history texts.

* * *

When you select curriculum, picture yourself at anchor off a warm shore with a light breeze, a glass of fruit juice and soft music on the stereo attempting to keep your child from jumping into the water until the lesson is done. Then pick which one is the least likely to require physical restraints.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Doing More With Less - Bathing

The boat teaches many lessons in conservation. This is the third in a series of posts about how we boaters do more with considerably less. The tips are valid for land based life as well, though, so hopefully folks can use some of these ideas.

* * *

Gratuitous Daffodil Shot
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I'm an American, not some Eurobabe sexpot with long dark hair in all the right places and a godz given right to avoid soap. We Americans fear the smell of sweat. We are terrified of oily skin, lanky hair, and well stewed underarm odor. Our poop don't stink, our breaths are treated with a myriad of pastes, gums, and curiously strong candies, and we have a pathological* need to wash our hands with antibacterial soaps.

Well, I used to be a squeaky clean American. That was then. This is now. Now, I stink.

So do my children.

We don't want to talk about my husband.

You can blame it on the lack of water and soap. That's a good place to start, actually. It provides at least the beginnings of a reason, if not a fine excuse for poor hygiene. But the truth, as is so frequently the case, fails to reflect well on reality. And the reality is that I'm lazy.

With my family and my boat, there are so very many battles I can wage. We can argue about learning stuff, fixing holes in the boat, putting things away, and whether or not Nora Roberts is appropriate reading material for a 9 year old. We have been known to come to blows over where to put stinky shoes and whether or not to wear even wear them. There are screaming fits about mud and sand, dead animals, and the endlessly overflowing boxes of hardware sitting in the cockpit.

So when you get right down to it, I'm too exhausted – too mentally beaten to maternal pulp – to force my husband and children to clean their bodies on a regular basis. As long as the really intimate parts cannot be distinguished from the background smells of diesel, BeanPod candles, and last night's dinner, I figure I'm ahead.

Yet, there is a reason why boaters tend to be a scruffier lot than landlubbers. The reason is quarters. I mentioned this months ago in The Quarter Quandary, but in case you did not understand my profound frustration at the time, let me repeat myself. It costs money to get clean. It costs a lot of money.

In the Northwest, you arrive at a marina with a shower only to find that your $40/night docking fee does not include hot running water unless you dump in two quarters every two minutes. You also learn quickly that the first round... sometimes even the second round... comes out of the tap at approximately the temperature of an orange flavored beverage dropped from a soda machine. Just as the tiniest hint of warmth enters the stream of water, the damn thing shuts off.

This is your cue to soap up. Frantically. Presumably to reduce the growth of mold, fungus, and homeless people, the showers are extraordinarily well ventilated. Read, the shower stalls are wide open at the base, inevitably there are windows at about head level which haven't closed since World War II, and some clever state maintenance project manager has installed an industrial strength fan which automatically turns on with the lights. Every erg of warmth on your skin disappears instantly, leaving you to create soap foam on a ridge line of goose bumps. Male anatomy disappears in protest of the conditions, and little girls start screaming when you attempt to detoxify their hair with shampoo (which admittedly has roughly the texture and temperature of a slushy).

Back On the Water
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Once soaped at great cost to ear drums and health, you add quarters to the machine. However, you can hear the marina or state park supervisor's wicked laugh as the water blasts out at the original, slightly frozen gradient. You are starting over, people. The only way to keep the warmth coming is to keep feeding the damn thing quarters until you've taken out a second mortgage on your boat. Worse, your children are now slippery as eels and pissed off to boot. They are agile, evil little animals with viciously piercing voices and malevolent looks. It requires a towel snapping cattle prod, a firm grasp of advanced middle school vocabulary, and arms of steel to get them under the glacial stream before the two minutes are up.

And for what? Odds are that they'll be covered in sand, shore mud, and indescribable organic smutz within an hour.

So I am taking a stand in defense of the environment here and foregoing bathing for the next five months until we get to Mexico. It's just not worth it.

* True statement. You need to stop washing with that sh*. All you're doing is ensuring the breeding of super bacterial bugs that nothing can kill.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

More Little Details

Don Quixote Logo
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Today, the graphics folks snuck into the marina and slapped a decal on our boat. Actually, two decals, a home port, and the boat name. To be fair, we paid someone to do this. We were originally going to do it ourselves, but as we near departure day, the "time versus money" trade off becomes daily more acute. The thought of taking possession of the graphics in a rolled up tube and sticking them in a locker somewhere -- only to pull them out 3 years later when we move off the boat -- was not to be considered.

Our boat is now officially "branded." While a quick Google search on the term branding yields a wealth of fascinating definitions, my personal favorite is from MediaLit: "The process by which a commodity in the marketplace is known primarily for the image it projects rather than any actual quality." Quixotically, that strikes me as particularly appropriate. The image Dr C insisted on and the girls seconded with enthusiastic acclaim is one of historic value and known cultural value. This image is projected in complete disregard for the filthy, fun loving, and ridiculously crude family it now represents.

Quixotic, however, is another word with which I am acquainting myself. To be quixotic is to be "not sensible about practical matters, idealistic and unrealistic." At just three weeks remaining before our departure from familiar stomping grounds, it is hard to believe that we did not name this boat ourselves. Dame Fate delivered s/v Don Quixote into our hands, apparently having a good sense of humor and a pretty good ability to predict the future.

Finally, we look at her transoms on which we proudly name her s/v Don Quixote (a truth!) while simultaneously advertising our home port as Vancouver, BC (a lie!). Why? Because rogue waves, alligators, and pirates terrify my family considerably less than being recognized by complete strangers as Americans from a distance of up to half a mile. We strongly considered using the home port Tranquility Base, Luna, but unfortunately it didn't fit. It turns out, you can literally put anything on your boat as a home port. There appear to be no rules. As long as we continue to carry our US Coast Guard documentation, numbers, registration, etc. and our WA 2008 property tax sticker, we're legal even if we put Ratchet, Kalimdor. That too is probably too long, by the way so don't get excited.

However, the most seriously paradoxical aspect of all this new and shiny logoish goodness is that the area where the decal was applied is the only clean white spot on the entire boat. I look at good ole DQ and Sancho up there and all my inner child sees is a 3 foot sign scripted in Comic Sans screaming, "WASH ME!"

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

And Another One Hits the Net

Home Page of Our Boat Site
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Because it isn't enough that we have my blog, Toast Floats the web site, Toast Works the other web site, and a berzillion other things for me to track, DrC and the girls insisted they have their own boat site.

I'm going to go all technical writer on you and define this. A boat site is a small, family web site devoted to the cruising adventures of a single boat and crew. There are many outstanding boat sites and many truly horrid ones. What distinguishes a good one is a combination of appealing and readable layout, interesting content, and up to date posts which go beyond, "We stopped in Punta Big Fish and got a pastry. Then we went swimming." From the crew's perspective, it also must be very easy to update the content or forget it. There are too many more interesting things to do out there then spend a lot of effort prepping, copying and posting.

Does the s/v Don Quixote site meet these criteria? Hard to say. At this point, it's just a destination with content virtually identical to what is already available on toastfloats.com for those who've checked that out. The girls and DrC, however, swear up and down that they plan to blog regularly, take lots of pictures, and fill their links with all kinds of interesting stuff. Here's to the Conger Clan providing hours of excellent browsing pleasure.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Technical Details

A brief program note: I'm getting towards the bottom of my to do list, believe it or not, and fixing the non-important stuff such as web site and email addresses. Today, I finally shifted the default address of this blog from toastfloats.blogspot.com to:


This makes sense to those who are familiar with http://toastfloats.com and wondered why I had not done so in the past. Wondered being the polite word among network geeks to describe the basic, "Huh? She's being an idiot or what?" comments I received.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Keet's March of Dimes Fundraising Effort

Some people inspire above and beyond the call of duty. My superstar artist, long time best friend Keet is the light at the end of my particularly human, dark, and ugly tunnel. She does things that just brighten my entire world.

Her latest combination of art + good will is a fund raising effort for the March of Dimes. Grab an amazingly cute t-shirt or totebag and the profits will go entirely to March of Dimes.

Now if I can just get her to add my logo to her list of really cool bits of her art available on the shop...

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Last Call

This week we traveled to California to visit my parents. I’ve been making this semiannual trip to the Golden State for nearly 10 years. My father lives in Squaw Valley so winters draw us to days in the snow and on the ski slopes, summers see us on long walks in the hills and swimming at High Camp. Sacramento, where my mother lives, has river rafting, more swimming, millions of shopping errands with Grandma, and fantastic food. The girls live for these trips. So here we are on our last trip to California.

I confess that each trip to California I enjoy less than the previous. Oh the countryside is lovely and the stay with family wonderful, but the driving itself is the one activity which drives home to me the accrual of years. I can feel the age slide down my bones and pool in my joints during the endless miles down I-5.

At the risk of digressing, I’d like to point out to those Easterners reading this blog that the West Coast is very large. This is often a surprise to people raised on the Eastern Seaboard... it certainly was to the folks with whom I rode across the country. I think the problem originated from the idiot who named Ohio the “Mid West”. Somehow, it conveys the idea that driving out to visit MMORPG friends in Columbus is driving halfway across the country. However, if you’d just pull out the goddamn map and fold it in half, you would see that Ohio is a really good chunk to the right of the middle of the country. Once you grasp the basic principle that two thirds of the country is to the left of the mid West, you begin to get an inkling of how far it is from Seattle to Sacramento.

Self Portrait in Jersey Shore
Self Portrait on the Jersey Shore
Originally uploaded by ktoast
So I may not be all that sorry to kiss goodbye to the 28 hour round trip, but it brings home to me how many things recently seem to be a “last.” Last week was probably the last time I spent an evening partying with friends from my computer geek bad ass tech writer days. Before that was probably our last dinner at Noey’s house. Next week is definitely our last week at the Homeschool Resource Center, the last opportunity I’ll have to visit with two of my downtown clients in person, and the last time I’ll have to shlep Mom down to the airport to fly out of Seattle.

The girls are scheduling their last play dates and sleep overs, DrC is booking his last days doing LASIK, and I’m making up the last shopping list for Costco. Before the end of the month, we'll visit the dentist for the last time, get our hairs cut (all of them), and swing by the pediatrician for a last looksee and updated shots. I’m tempted to make a last run to Ikea, Target, and Joanne’s fabrics before DrC sells the car in two weeks. We’ll be busy, that’s for certain.

Self Portrait This Morning
Originally uploaded by ktoast
I keep trying to remind myself that we are not going on vacation. It’s not true that I’ll never step into a West Marine again; I just won’t be stepping into this one. And all wannabe cruisers hear the stories of boats gathering in big towns, renting a van, and making a pilgrimage to the local Costco in Acapulco. Everything we are giving up will be replaced.

Yet sometimes it seems like there is too much to let go of. We have already sold so much, stored or thrown away the rest. We’ve walked away from jobs, a beautiful house, all sorts of things things things. We don’t go to our YMCA or our favorite brew pub or the coffee shop I used to love, and we’ve had to change banks, grocery store, and library to ones closer to the boat. Now it's time to let go even of these cobbled together alternatives, and it really really hurts. I lie awake at night, and I’m not happy. This isn’t fun. This isn’t funny.

It’s exhausting. My mom told me I looked like hell when I arrived in Sacramento: tired, stressed out, and fat. We’re not particularly good with the little white lies in our family. She also said in the exasperated tone I think only mothers are capable of, “I’m looking forward to seeing you when you step off that damn boat in San Francisco this fall. You’re going to finally look rested.” We’ve come a long way when my hide-bound, land-based, neat freak of a bookkeeping mother imagines a week long ocean passage as a relief from the pressures of preparing for the cruising life.

In less than a month, we leave our homeport. We may not be ready, but we sure as hell are going to be done getting ready. The cruising life is not a vacation -- DrC and I know it will be as much work as our current lives if not more. But the biggest relief in those early weeks may be that instead of spending so much time on the last call, we’ll finally start doing things for the first time.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

It's All Covered

A Lesson to Us All
A Lesson to Us All
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
We owned a house, two cars, a boat, and a medical practice. To participate in the modern U.S. economy as owners and responsible parties for these assets, we had approximately two dozen separate insurance policies. DrC spent the last month attempting to disentangle the mess, replacing it with insurance appropriate for a family of cruising sailors. The entire process produced a sense of befuddled frustration similar to that induced by a shot of whiskey, three beers, and a two-by-four to the back of the head combined in quick succession.

Itemized separately, it felt like death by a thousand cuts. Malpractice, of course, was the single largest expense. I need say little to the average American regarding the absurdity of our legal system and the horror it is wrecking our medical system. While not as bad as Obstetrics, the insurance burden placed on your average eye doctor is considerably more per year than many of his patients earn in the same period of time.

But after malpractice, we had employment insurance, unemployment insurance, and a life insurance policy in case DrC became dead and hence unemployed. We also had property insurance for property, business insurance for business, and disability insurance in case someone dropped into the office with a machete and cut off one of the doctor's hands.

For the household, we of course had auto insurance, home owner's insurance, mortgage insurance, more property insurance, and medical insurance. Then we bought the boat and were required to get boat insurance, more mortgage insurance, and more life insurance in case DrC died again. Then there was additional life insurance in case I died, and a bit of liability insurance in case one of our tenants died while frying up a few veggies on the stove upstairs. At one point, it seemed quite reasonable to conclude that the kids would conspire to off their parents as our demise and the immediate liquidation of all these policies would yield about the same as an X Prize without the trouble of inventing a super green car or a moon rover.

Getting rid of all these policies is astonishingly difficult to do. When we signed up for all this crap, all we had to do was prove we had a pulse and a bank account. Sometimes we didn't even have to prove the part about the heart beat. Telling them to turn off the accounts, however, inevitably required a notarized receipt written in a combination of blood and fairy dust to prove we no longer (a) wanted the insurance or (b) had the item that was originally being insured. Since in many cases, the insurance was on DrC himself, it's been difficult to prove we don't have him.

Moreover, whoever originally signed up is the one who has to turn off the spigot. Despite the frighteningly pushy community property laws in Washington state, it is impossible for DrC to close an account I opened or for me to turn off something he opened. Credit card companies, by the way, are even worse than insurance companies. At one point I found myself telling a very nice but incredibly stubborn sales representative that I was never going to allow my husband to open another credit card account again ever so their insistence that they had to speak to him before they shut the account was moot. My volume I fear went up at the part where I told her that her company would never see a g* d* thin dime from my checking account so the entire lot of them could go to hell. And oh by the way send the statements care of /dev/null.

I'd like to say we are free of all this insurance nonsense, but we can not escape entirely. Marinas and Mexico require boat insurance. This is insanely expensive and covers absolutely nothing. Our boat in Canada and Mexico, for example, will run us roughly $3800 next year. What it doesn't cover is a list so much longer than what it does that it took me a good deal of effort to define a scenario in which they would actually ever pay out. It appears valid only if we manage somehow to sink the boat within 10 miles of shore on a calm day with two healthy, sober adults, no other boat within sight, and no wildlife larger than plankton. On the other hand, the policy is oddly enough designed that if we get advance, written permission from Lloyd's, we are covered in the event a terrorist decides to self-immolate on the deck.

One really fine piece of news is that travelers’ insurance is so many light years more reasonable than medical insurance in the United States that I can only fall prey to Michael Moore's assertion that we have the worst “bang for the buck” medical system in the world. As long as you do not get medical or dental care in the U.S., a fairly decent catastrophic plan for a family of 5 runs only $200/month. That's roughly half what we're paying now. And the travelers’ policy has odd but useful little side-bennies: lost luggage allowance, bodies shipped home, and hotel stays if our plane is delayed. Interestingly, travelers’ insurance does pay for property lost to a terrorist attack as long as the attack does not involve nuclear devices. So we need to avoid that.

I'm also thinking that getting advance, written permission to be attacked by a terrorist might be a little challenging. These companies never answer the phone.