disengage.ca a quest for the technomadic lifestyle

4Dec/121

Catching Up, Part 4: Return to La Paz

Ok! Part four of updates, and then hopefully I can return to a more regular style of blog posts. I know I keep saying that. *sigh*. Without further ado:

gorgeous weather in La Paz

gorgeous weather in La Paz

The summer brought some intense weather shifts, including some of the first rain we'd seen since our arrival in La Paz in February - I guess I should have been tipped off by the cactuses and tumbleweeds, but the amount of precipitation here still took me by surprise. Once the season shifted into high summer however, the heat of the day combined with the extremely warm water (sometimes it would be 38º outside and the water would be 23º, warmer than most swimming pools!) made for some crazy meteorological events. We were treated with regular lightning storms and sudden shifts in wind speed and direction, not to mention a couple of hurricanes that narrowly missed us.

In this photo, a storm cell is crossing nearby to the south. At the time this photo was taken, the wind was blowing briskly towards the cell, but about five minutes afterwards the wind abruptly died and then within two minutes was blowing probably 40kn in the opposite direction! We were caught unprepared, and several items blew off the deck and I had to dash out in the RIB to retrieve them.

 

*sigh*. pay attention to polarity, Drew.

*sigh*. pay attention to polarity, Drew.

 While I was in Canada, I ordered a low-power Fit-PC3 computer to build into the walls of the TIE Fighter. The Fit-PC3 is a 12v-native computer very light on power consumption - set up with an internal SSD drive, it draws only  6w (1/2 an amp) at idle. I paired it with a two-terabyte external drive that automatically spins itself down when not in use, and am quite happy with the results.

Unforutnately, when I went to install the machine I didn't pay close enough attention to the polarity of the power supply, and hooked the power connection up backwards. Immediately there was a flash and a pop and suddenly the air was filled with the acrid smell of burning electronics.

electronics repair on the new inboard computer

electronics repair on the new inboard computer

Fortunately I'm no stranger to electronics repair, and with a bit of research and an email to the manufacturers of the Fit-PC3, I learned that the component that had exploded was a simple ferrite bead, meant solely to keep stray radio-frequency energy out of the computer. This bead is just a failsafe, sort of like a fuse, and I could just 'jump' over the section with a bit of wire for the time being. An hour or so with the soldering iron, and the computer lives.

...of course, that computer also now lives in a cupboard with a strong radio. I still need to track down a replacement ferrite, as I've seen three crashes so far when I've keyed up the mic on the ham radio on certain frequencies.

 

a swarm of bees overtakes the TIE Fighter!

a swarm of bees overtakes the TIE Fighter!

One morning as we left the boat in the RIB to go for coffee, we realized we'd forgotten something at the main boat so we turned around. When we arrived at the TIE Fighter, we found the boat swarming with bees! We estimated around 10,000 honeybees in the air around the boat.

Not knowing what to do, we went for coffee and solicited opinions from a few other cruisers, who brought to light one very important point that we somehow hadn't thought of... if the bees were to get inside the boat, they might not want to leave! We had to return to the boat immediately to close up the doors and windows, hoping that they hadn't already moved in.

 

the bees, landed

the bees, landed

When we arrived back at the boat, the bees had landed... but outside. The internet tells us that this means the queen bee is somewhere in the middle of the literal pile of bees on the boat. We figure they were stacked six or seven deep in this photo! Fortunately, they decided that the boat wouldn't make a great spot for a new hive, and within an hour or two of this photo they'd all moved on.

 

Miya's dirty knees from painting the decks

Miya's dirty knees from painting the decks

While I went back to my day job schedule, Miya undertook the massive task of painting the TIE Fighter's decks with anti-skid paint. We had collected a large pail full of white sand from a nearby beach, and then sifted and washed it, allowing it to dry overnight in the boatyard on a clean sheet of plywood. In the end though we decided that we'd get a better-looking result from "marmolina"; fine crushed white marble available at the local fereterias for about $0.50/kg.

 

the lights of 16 de Septiembre

the lights of 16 de Septiembre

The celebration of 16 de Septiembre (Mexico's Independance Day) came along, and rather than hole up in our little box on the ocean, Miya and I decided to brave the crowds and go see the fireworks display. The display lacked a certain... safety standard? that we had grown accustomed to in North America - the main celebration was in a town square flanked on three sides with two-story buildings, and the fireworks were launched from the roofs of those buildings, exploding directly over the square!

 

more generator maintenance, this time cleaning the carburetor

more generator maintenance, this time cleaning the carburetor

Our Honda EU2000i generator has given us incredibly reliable service for the past four years or so, but apparently one should not leave it for a Mexican summer with a third of a tank of gasoline... when I went to start it up for the first time in many months, it would not start. I quickly realized what the problem must be, and using this very well-written step-by-step howto, I tore the generator apart and cleaned the carburetor. Just like that, the little Honda purred back to life.

 

Miya swimming with a school of something (sardines? herring?)

Miya swimming with a school of something (sardines? herring?)

The heat of the summer was intense and constant, and often we had to spend the hottest portions of the day in the water just to maintain our sanity! The underside of the TIE Fighter made for a convenient gathering space, and using a series of ropes and floating toys and platforms we created a place of refuge from the afternoon sun.

In this photo Miya is swimming with one of the schools of fish that regularly gathered under the boat. Actually, if I go looking I bet I have a video that might show the situation a little better:

Crazy how you can see them avoiding the anchor line! We'd like to identify the species of fish, and then see about catching some for grilling or pickling.

avoiding the heat under the TIE Fighter's wing

avoiding the heat under the TIE Fighter's wing

Miya found an inflatable toy at one of the swap meets; three inflatable bladders joined at the center by a square of mesh, forming a floating recliner. This, paired with a Canadian Tire 'Party Platform' that we picked up on clearance just before leaving Canada in September 2011, formed the seating portion of the underwing. You can also see my Traynor TVM-10 cordless rechargeable guitar amplifier in the nets above, hooked up to an iPhone and playing appropriately chilled house music down into the watery tunnel.

flips off the TIE Fighter

flips off the TIE Fighter

Of course, with freshly-added antiskid on the topsides, the boat herself - having a good meter of freeboard - made an excellent water toy. Miya had only really learned to swim in the last year or so, but managed to learn to dive in one day!

 

 

She was so impressed with her diving that she decided to try her first-ever backflip off the boat also... to a little less success.

 

Mal serenading us on his banjo

Mal serenading us on his banjo

One of my absolute favourite parts about the cruising lifestyle is the willingness of the participants to pick up new musical instruments and throw themselves into learning. Our friend and neighbor Malcolm, an Australian vagabond living on 'Wind Pirate', picked up a banjo in a trade with another boater and within days was plucking away.

 

driving the long, lonely highway from La Paz to San Diego

driving the long, lonely highway from La Paz to San Diego

When we heard about the Wasteland Weekend festival in California, the idea immediately spoke to both of us - a four-day party in the desert, sort of  like Burning Man but more Mad Max themed, if that even sounds possible. With our Wilderness First Responder first aid certifications, we figured if they were interested in having us on as volunteer medics we'd kill a few birds with one stone; go on a road trip, pick up some much-needed supplies from the states, get some practical medical experience and go to a rad party! We rented a car and prepared to head out... but of course, what with it being hurricane season, a tropical storm had formed south of the peninsula and was threatening La Paz. We couldn't leave the boat unattended until we were sure that it wouldn't turn into a hurricane.

Fortunately, the system weakened, but not before dumping rain on southern Baja - and if you haven't seen what a major rainstorm does to a desert, it's a crazy thing indeed!

In this video, we have been stopped by a washout - the road in front of us has been replaced by a river of brown water flowing at a pretty fast clip. We watched as a compact car was swept a few feet sideways - but in the true spirit of "drive 'er like a rental", we decided to take the risk and we crossed. If you watch closely you can see water come up over the hood of the car at one point!

 

Wasteland Weekend 2012

Wasteland Weekend 2012

We arrived late to Wasteland Weekend but wasted no time whatsoever getting into the groove of things. Having come internationally we had no weapons to defend ourselves from the mutant / zombie uprising, and so we decided that we were clearly 'wasteland aristocracy' and as such had no reason to carry large weaponry of our own.

 

meeting the Party Hard Corps, fellow wasteland nobility

meeting the Party Hard Corps, fellow wasteland nobility

With this thought in mind it wasn't long before we ran into some kindred spirits, fellow patricians of the aftermath, with whom we shared libations and cheer. The Party Hard Corps crew are a fascinating group of partiers, gamers and drinkers from the midwest, who like us traveled to the desert for a few days of debauchery.

 

winning the archery competition

winning the archery competition

There were many (semi-)organized events, including robot battles and jugger matches, but the one event I was most looking forward to taking part in was the archery competition. The rules were fairly simple - scoring was based on points awarded for your five arrows to a mannequin about thirty paces down a range. I was relieved to find they had bows available for loan, as I hadn't owned my own bow in many years.

There were three divisions, for different sorts of bows: recurve, compound and crossbow. I can say proudly that out of about forty or so competitors, not only did I win the recurve division, but I also had the highest score over all three divisions - 28 out of a possible 30. The prize was a little disappointing however; a large black t-shirt. Not my size and I refuse to wear cotton t-shirts. In retrospect I should have taken the shirt and re-gifted it to one of the Party Hard Corps guys or something.

In case you're wondering, we did stop at an archery supply store in San Diego on the way back to Mexico, purchasing two bows so that we can practice on the beaches. At some point in our travels we met a guy who swore by iguana meat; as we get further south we're thinking maybe that might be a good source of free protein...

 

professional medical attention at Wasteland Weekend 2012

professional medical attention at Wasteland Weekend 2012

Our medical shift was Saturday night from 10pm until 4am - arguably the worst possible shift if your goal is solely to party, but we got enough of that in during the previous night and the Saturday afternoon, and as both the new jacks on the scene and late to the party to boot, we were happy to help out and glad to feel useful. We were surprised at how few emergencies there were, to be honest - the partygoers seemed to self-regulate very well, and aside from a few scalds from fire-show screwups and a few cuts and scrapes, we weren't actually very busy! There was always something going on, but we never felt overwhelmed.

 

Miya at the San Diego Zoo, riding an eagle.

Miya at the San Diego Zoo, riding an eagle.

After Wasteland Weekend, we had a couple of days to spend in San Diego - we slotted one of those days to provisioning and shopping, but the second day was spent touring the San Diego Zoo. This was something Miya had wanted to do ever since we left Vancouver but somehow we hadn't found the time during the two months we spent in San Diego back in December 2011. Many photos were taken, but surely if you'd like to see a photo of a giraffe you can find one on Google Image Search. 😉

 

Scott from s/v Sojourn displaying a feat of flexibility

Scott from s/v Sojourn displaying a feat of flexibility

After a long but uneventful drive back down the Baja Peninsula, we settled back into our routine by immediately having people over for another party. In this photo, Scott is demonstrating his ability to do a full split!

In the foreground of the photo, next to our friend Mike, is one of Miya's margueritas, made in the "proper Baja style". For a perfect Baja cruiser marguerita, combine:

  • one part decent tequila (100% agave only, José Cuervo is NOT acceptable!)
  • one part triple sec
  • one part freshly-squeezed lime juice

That's it; serve with ice cubes if you have them. Do not blend. Do not rim with salt. Do not use lime bar mix or Fresca. Do not add simple syrup. Mix and enjoy!

 

catching fish and shrimp in the party platform

catching fish and shrimp in the party platform

Whoops - we left the party platform deployed under the boat while we were in the states! When we pulled it up, the side-pockets were full of life. If you click on this photo, you can clearly see the large fish at the top, and several big, transparent, shrimp-like invertebrates swimming around in the captive pool.

 

the new addition to the family!

the new addition to the family!

There's a really sad story here - but before it was sad, it was a very happy story. We adopted a scraggly little Mexican street kitten and added her to our boat-gypsy family. I'll tell the story of little 'Alice' in another blog post.

 

zombie walk La Paz 2012

zombie walk La Paz 2012

It turns out that the 'Zombie Walk' phenomenon is wider-spread than we'd previously thought, and La Paz actually played host to an entire horror-themed film festival entitled 'Morbido La Paz'. There are few things that Miya and I like better than an excuse to get dressed up and silly, so we put together the best zombie costumes we could with our limited boat resources and shambled out into the town.

Best part: wandering around for at least an hour looking for the meet-up point for the zombie walk, soliciting help from the other boaters over the VHF radio and getting drastically contrasting reports of where to find the rest of the undead. Fortunately when we finally did find the other zombies, we found to our surprise that instead of the expected dozen or so fellow walkers/biters, we found a huge herd of probably two hundred! We moaned and shuffled our way through the night in search of cerebros...

 

Alice assisting with the refrigerator build project

Alice assisting with the refrigerator build project

One of the things we brought back to La Paz from San Diego was a long-coveted item - an icebox conversion kit which would turn our little built-in icebox into a proper refrigerator, complete with freezer! The kit cost an arm and a leg, and came as a box of parts and a series of cryptic instructions, including a bunch of crazy tool requirements. I had to track down someone in the boating community who would be willing to loan me an industrial vacuum pump and a set of refrigerator manifold gauges. As it turned out, none of the tools were far away and even though the build took much longer than expected, our friend Bill on s/v Wandering Puffin was a huge help in getting the system up and running.

Now, for the first time since moving aboard in 2009, we have the ability to store food for longer than a couple of days at a time! What a huge step forward... though admittedly so far my favourite use of the fridge is making ice cubes. Sill though - just because nothing in our world can ever be completely normal - the fact that our fridge is a top-loading icebox means that we're forced to use an expensive vertical ice cube tray.

going-away party at the Libertatia apartment

going-away party at the Libertatia apartment

One of the sad facts of cruising life is the realization that no matter how much you like your new friends, everyone is traveling, and sooner or later we all have to pull up the anchor and move on. This photo is of some of our friends from the summer; Malcolm and Lowell left on s/v Libertatia for California, arriving recently in San Francisco, and Mike and Nia left La Paz for Mazatlan in their boat s/v Azul, making it across the Sea of Cortez without incident... and without an engine!

Well, I think that pretty much brings us back up to current. More updates to come soon!

5Mar/1210

Delicious Ham

"TIE Fighter, TIE Fighter, Estrallita."

"Estrallita, TIE Fighter, go two-one, over?"

I have to say, one of the things I've been enjoying most about La Paz is the active community of sailors monitoring and communicating on their VHF radios. Most of the boats have their radios on listening to channel 22 full time, and there is a popular radio net every morning, giving updates on weather, tides, lost and found, boat arrivals and departures, local news, swaps and trades and more. Seeing how effectively it creates a bond among the sailors in the harbour, I think if I were back in Vancouver I would try to encourage a local False Creek radio net.

the navigation table on TIE Fighter

the navigation-slash-comms table on TIE Fighter

The great thing about VHF is that the hardware is cheap and easy to use - the downside is that the functional range of the VHF signal is somewhat low. The signal can go a lot further, from land-based transmitters or larger installations, but for a ship at sea you get about ten kilometres and that's it.

That's where higher-power radios come in; on the TIE Fighter I've recently (finally!) finished a long, expensive ham radio install. Since then I've linked the radio with my laptop, and have been able to use it to send and receive emails from sea and update our current position with the WinLink.org tracking site. Through the emails I've also been able to have weather reports and even up-to-the-minute satellite images sent to me, giving us a view of what's happening over the horizon and letting us know what to expect during those stressful nights at sea when the winds just won't stop building.

It's not like data over ham radio is a new concept, though admittedly the number of active hams has been somewhat in decline for the past twenty years and the interest in packet radio doubly so. Ham radio in general has been picking up a little lately, probably in part due to more and more people taking interest in emergency preparedness and doomsday scenarios - nobody really seems to have a land-line telephone anymore, and if there's a big earthquake or natural disaster of some type, history shows us that the cellphone networks cannot be relied upon. Still, the concept of linking ham radio with the internet has fallen somewhat, due to cheap, fast and ubiquitous internet access. I have not been able as of yet to get a straight TCP/IP connection to the internet over the radio; I've only been able to send and receive messages.

my grandfather, 'Marconi' Moe Smith

my grandfather, 'Marconi' Moe Smith

For what it's worth, ham radio is apparently in my blood! Two of my uncles are active hams, and my grandfather on my mother's side was the Chief Engineer of CBC Radio for many years. "Marconi" Moe Smith was responsible for the design and construction of the huge Radio Canada International 500,000-watt curtain array antenna, broadcasting CBC radio international - to most of the planet - from Sackville, New Brunswick.

It took me thirty years to finally take the plunge and get my ham license, but when I took a certification class with the Bluewater Cruising Association I found myself slapping my forehead in disbelief at the parallels. I have been a certified pocket-protector computer nerd since a very young age, dabbled in homebrew electronics and spent countless hours in front of a bank of analogue synthesizers, all of which contributed to me receiving an honours grade on my ham radio exam.

For the ham radio install, I chose an Icom IC-7000 radio - I considered the Icom IC-706, but I figured if I'm only going to buy the one radio, I should buy one with ample room to grow and features geared towards using the radio specifically for data. In retrospect I'm not sure I gained much going with the newer model, but I'm not dissatisfied with my decision. For a tuner, I was recommended the SGC-230 Smartuner over the matched Icom AT-180, because the SGC-230 can be used with any radio, not just the Icom, and I figured that might come in handy someday if I upgrade (or otherwise destroy) my IC-7000. On other recommendations, I also added a marine voltage booster and a tuner interface device to make the radio and tuner work together even smoother.

attaching the new backstay, insulator visible against my foot

attaching the new backstay, insulator visible against my foot

For the antenna itself, I had a secondary, non-structural backstay constructed by Ed at Sailing Supply in San Diego. The 3/16" stainless backstay is somewhat overkill, given that it will never see any serious loads, but at least it's nice to know that it's there in case my main backstay ever breaks, and I don't have to worry about my main backstay losing strength from being cut to add the insulators.

Lastly, I had to add a radio-frequency ground - this is similar to an electrical ground, but for radio-frequency energy. Normally on a sailboat you would connect the RF ground to a series of copper straps that are eventually bound to the huge chunk of metal in the keel, but with TIE Fighter not having a keel I had a bit of a problem on my hands. I would have to add a lot of copper strapping, creating a counterpoise of a few hundred square feet - and with the price of copper currently through the roof, I wasn't looking forward to dropping hundreds of dollars on copper alone.

I had a recommendation of a new kind of counterpoise, a "KISS-SSB" - apparently a thick rubber hose with over 600 feet of carefully-sized wires inside. It was about a hundred bucks, so I figured I would gamble and give it a shot before forking over for the copper ground. It worked, though I'm not entirely satisfied with the results... I think the real goal of the KISS-SSB is to provide a counterpoise very specific to the small number of frequencies used for Marine-SSB, not the enormous spectrum available to ham radio. I've been experiencing a lot of RF feedback in the signal and in the other electronics on the TIE Fighter - everything I read says that this is because my antenna tuner is not properly grounded.

RF grounding for marine radio, as it turns out, is a huge can of worms with many fiercely-defended opinions. I've got a few lines out to experts, and I think the next step will be to try replacing the KISS ground with a thick copper wire going to the bolts holding my propellor-shaft strut to the bottom of the boat - it's one of the very few metal items that make contact with seawater. If the information in this PDF is accurate, I should be able to get away with it - otherwise, I might have to drop the money for copper strapping.

the vmware desktop running various ham radio software

the vmware desktop running various ham radio software

Once all of the parts were installed (including a new VHF radio, a Standard Horizon Matrix AIS+ hurriedly purchased in Sausalito when our previous VHF quietly died the day we were leaving for San Diego) in a newly stained, varnished wood panel, we left offshore for two weeks, giving me a lot of time to spend bent awkwardly over the nav table fiddling with the radio dials. Within a couple of days I had figured out enough to get into Winlink and start sending and receiving emails, which made the trip down feel immensely less isolated. I don't think I've welcomed email from friends and family as much as I did on that trip since my first internet emails almost twenty years ago.

The grand overall cost of the radio equipment and installation was somewhere around $3,000. I was careful to select components that are modular enough that I could migrate the system to another boat or to a land-based station in the future, and I feel like I've succeeded in making the setup somewhat "future-proof". Admittedly I could have spent a third of that on a satellite phone and had $2000 leftover to spend on a data plan, but I don't feel like a satellite phone would give me the same sense of being a part of a global community as the ham radio has.

Arguably our most important guiding tenet on this boating adventure is to actively strive to be as self-sustained as possible. It would be difficult to call ourselves self-sustained while paying a monthly phone bill to a satellite service! Now that the ham radio is installed, the bills have been paid and the licenses acquired, we're free to use it for the rest of our lives without any further fees - communicating from virtually anywhere in the world, using power that we generated from the wind and the sun. That's a good feeling.

28Oct/114

San Francisco


the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset

the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset

Now that we've been in sunny San Francisco for over two weeks, I guess I should blog the fact that we've arrived here safely. 🙂

The offshore sailing portion from Coos Bay to San Francisco Bay was mostly uneventful - the weather turned gloomy and damp and the winds shifted to a meandering northerly 10kn, and days at a time were spent drifting along at 3kn. For our new US friends, that's three nautical miles, or a whopping 3.4 miles per hour, and for the Canadians (and the rest of the world) it's a speedy 5.5km/h. Not exactly the kind of speeds that win you any races, but obviously enough we did arrive in SF safe and sound. The single most surprising thing learned during the five-day sail? Minke whales have terrible breath! We had one surface several times within about ten meters of TIE Fighter.

We anchored in the lovely Aquatic Park for the first few days while we got our footing, then motored over to Treasure Island when it became apparent that the Aquatic Park anchorage would be the best place to stay while taking our first aid course and we didn't want to wear out our welcome too early.

a robot wheelchair at the Noisebridge hack space

a robot wheelchair at the Noisebridge hack space

That first weekend I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days attending Hackmeet 2011, a gathering of technologists, cryptophiles and social activists at a hack space called Noisebridge near Mission and 16th Street. I got to meet a few folks with whom I'd only communicated online before, and met a few others in the process. I've been describing the event to non-geeks as "...a meet-up of the IT staff for the Occupy Wall Street movement". There were talks about everything from email cryptography to anti-forensics to effective tools for using the internet for social activism, with a particularly memorable presentation about open-source hardware for sex research taking the flow of the conference off into left field for a few minutes. The Noisebridge staff seemed a little bit nervous at the sheer number of people in their space - I'd put it at around 150 at peak - but they stayed calm and everyone was very well-behaved.

Noisebridge itself was inspiring - I really wish something like it had existed when I was a teen. The space was a large upstairs warehouse space in a busy ethnic neighbourhood, with the main area populated with row after row of shelving units jammed with members' personal projects - everything from stencil art to clothing [de]construction to lasers and makerbots and arcane old computer hardware. Honestly, just from the idea of a "hackspace" I would have expected more computer gear, but it was surprisingly free from the clutter of old broken computers that seems to fill every hacker's bedroom. I particularly liked this wheelchair robot - note the "NOT THREE LAWS COMPLIANT" warning posted on the front.

demolished nose - or at least makeup indicating such

demolished nose - or at least makeup indicating such

Once the Wilderness First Responder first-aid course started, life got quickly more complicated. The class was held in the Precidio, which was a real treat aesthetically but a bit of a pain to get to every day, with two busses and about a kilometre walk between us and the class. That is, at least until we met Jon and Mark, two classmates who were conveniently staying at a hotel just two blocks from where we were anchored! Jon gave us a ride to and from the class every day, making things a lot easier - not to mention cheaper, those bus fares add up after a while.

One really nice thing was that the bulk of the classroom work for the course was held in a yoga studio in the back of Planet Granite, a gorgeous rock-climbing gym and fitness facility. We were given breaks of ten to twenty minutes every few hours, and about half the class started bringing their climbing shoes every day and spending the breaks on the very extensive bouldering walls. The first day with my shoes I tried too hard to keep up with the children's climbing class and could barely lift my arms for three days after - but with concerted effort over a few days I found myself regaining my former levels of bouldering "skill", climbing most of the V2-rated routes, and finally mastering a couple of V3's. Like any climbing gym, all I could do was watch in awe as lean, skinny pros made their way up V10's and V12's.

Miya "puking" while strapped to a spine board

Miya "puking" while strapped to a spine board

The class itself was very hands-on, and we spent about two-thirds of the time in classroom lectures and the rest in 'scenarios', responding to simulated emergencies. Many of these situations involved makeup to make them seem more realistic, which made us feel more confident that we wouldn't panic if faced with similar injuries in real life. Everyone took turns being the rescuers and the rescue-ees, and we all got very comfortable diagnosing and triaging major traumas, documenting vitals and establishing trends, and preparing patients for evacuations whether or not advanced medical help would be available.

Still, the days were long. Miya and I got up each day at 6am to be ready for the 8am class start, and by the time we got home at 7pm we didn't have much energy left for... well, for anything really. Most nights found us asleep before 10pm! This was the first time I'd been in a full-time class since college, and my body had a really hard time adjusting to the change. The fact that the course only gave us one day off during the whole ten days was difficult; we all agreed that one day just wasn't enough time to completely rejuvenate.

The course culminated in a night-time scenario where we were presented with a multi-casualty incident; a plane crash in a heavily-wooded area. We organized ourselves into an incident response unit, performed a search-and-rescue sweep and found and treated all of the victims - all of which were strangers to us, and in full theatrical makeup, with bones and blood and intestines (technically condoms filled with oatmeal, but surprisingly realistic) everywhere. The hardships of such a rescue were magnified when later on it was discovered that the woods were infested with poison oak. I apparently got away unscathed, but many of our classmates - Miya included - had a rough time of it. We spent the next class day washing all of the rescue gear down with Tecnu.

the SF skyline from the top of Hyde Street

the SF skyline from the top of Hyde Street

The class is now finished, and slowly we're recovering and returning to normalcy. The boat is anchored at Treasure Island once again and we have a 21-day extended anchoring permit to stay here, though we have yet to decide whether or not we'll still be in the city in 21 days, or whether we'll be headed off to Monterrey, Big Sur, San Diego and beyond. For now I intend to spend much of my time working on contract work and experiencing all that San Franciso has to offer - so far it seems very similar to Vancouver, with the notable exception of my not having had to wear socks for the past week.

What up, San Fran? Send me your activities! I want to go out and do things!

26Jul/112

RIP Schaltwerk

On Friday July 8th 2011, I said goodbye to a dear friend, one who stood by my side for far longer than was expected of her. Her passing was with some sadness, but her memory will live on.

delivering the eulogy

delivering the eulogy

Schaltwerk.riotnrrd.com began her life in a Magitronic assembly house on September 25th, 1994. She was a very fast machine for her day; although Pentium processors had begun to arrive in the local computer stores they were still thousands of dollars, and as a 486DX2-80 boasting a 40MHz bus she gave machines twice her price a solid run for their money. I worked at the time at the larger of the two local computer stores, and as such I was able to source a single 16M RAM SIMM for far below the retail price. I (or rather my father) paid $800 for the RAM alone!

Schaltwerk spent the next few months running OS/2 Warp, supporting an active Telegard BBS and many, many hours of Doom, Doom 2 and Heretic deathmatches over 14.4k modem - and later over a local ARCNet network, cabled through my parents house with chained 25' phone extension cords from the dollar store. When I left for college in January of 1995, she came along as my primary college computer, the task for which my father had intended her. At college she continued to support the BBS, running Renegade and then Iniquity software, but the BBS was often suspended to allow me to spend long nights mastering Autodesk 3D Studio and Photoshop. At some point I also discovered Linux, and when a friend began handing me surplus computer hardware from his work, I was able to add several more hard drives and increase her RAM to a whopping 40 megabytes. I would give a lot for photos of my workstations at this time, but as far as I know none exist.

the login screen for iNiQUiTY BBS

the SysOp screen for iNiQUiTY BBS

As college came to a fruitless end - a diploma, but zero job prospects - I took a job as a graphic designer for a college web project. Schaltwerk was the main graphics workstation, putting in months of midnight-until-dawn marathon Photoshop sessions. I was also working hard on my own Linux interface design projects, working closely with the Enlightenment window manager team.

In about March of 1997 I moved back to Sussex and took a government-funded web design position. I was offered a Pentium workstation of my own, but after struggling with drivers and software installs and an unstable machine, I moved Schaltwerk into the office to be my primary workstation. This didn't last too long, as I couldn't deal with the lack of computer at home! Schaltwerk, nestled in her basement lair in my parents' house, had sprouted two more monitors - a monochrome display addressed with a second video card and a Wyse 60 dumb terminal attached to the serial port now accompanied the main SVGA monitor. One mouse, two keyboards and three displays - pretty fancy stuff for 1997!

a screenshot of an Enlightenment theme designed on Schaltwerk

the first Enlightenment theme designed on Schaltwerk

In 1998, my friend Darren, my baby sister Jen and I packed all of our worldly possessions into Darren's car and drove across the country from New Brunswick to Calgary, Alberta. We only had about $800 between us, but with one minor speedbump we managed to get settled and employed and much to our parents' collective surprise, we made a go of it. After we all landed jobs at a major ISP, Schaltwerk became a networking powerhouse, having half a class-C subnet (128 addresses) of real internet IPs delegated to her for several months! Of course, at the time I really didn't know what to do with that kind of resource, so I occupied myself learning Linux networking and DNS, and Schaltwerk got her first live, static-IP instances of BIND, Sendmail and Apache. Thankfully by this time I had gotten over the debilitating CircleMUD addiction I picked up in college!

In early 1999, my new girlfriend and I moved into a new house with our friends Ivan and Andy, who were running what was at the time the most technologically advanced Shoutcast station in the world, BeNOW. I became their network administrator, and together we whipped eleven machines and hundreds of gigabytes of storage (a big deal at the time) into shape. Schaltwerk took over as the router and firewall, also handling DNS and mail services for the BeNOW and riotnrrd domains, as well as primary and secondary DNS for dozens of other domains.

Jonnay's desk, Schaltwerk's home for years

Jonnay's desk, Schaltwerk's home for years

In late 1999, I had a job offer in Vancouver, so we packed our things and moved into a geek house in East Van. Schaltwerk stayed in Calgary and went to live with my friends Jonnay and Shell, where she spent the next few years humming away under Jonnay's desk. During this time, she remained on a static IP address, becoming the primary DNS service for scores of domains, handling primary and backup mail services for dozens of others - but most importantly, she became the webserver for a number of domains. The most popular by far of any of the websites hosted on Schaltwerk was eastvan.bc.ca - a Slashcode site boasting 'News For Crackheads - Nothing That Matters' which quickly gained notoriety as a gathering place for Vancouver's dot-com underbelly. Most of the people I call close friends can trace their roots in our friend group back to eastvan.bc.ca. During this time, Schaltwerk also hosted the Black Hole Club email list, gathering a sizeable portion of Vancouver's electronic music production scene together online.

In 2001, we moved to Costa Rica, leaving Schaltwerk with Jonnay and Shell - to her credit, Schaltwerk worked almost completely without interference from her hosts, only requiring several reboots and a hard drive replacement over the four or five years that she spent in their home office. In 2003 we moved back to Vancouver, moving into a house on 10th Avenue.  Schaltwerk became part of a cluster of media and internet servers driving the geek house, which we dubbed 'Pod6', a reference the Adult Swim cartoon 'Sealab 2021'.  For a while Schaltwerk ran the website, but soon the site outgrew the humble 486 and we built an upgraded machine, relegating Schaltwerk to just email and DNS.

the Pod6 network

the Pod6 network operations center, Schaltwerk top left

In 2005 we purchased our first home and Schaltwerk took her new position - alongside a server from Jonnay and Shell, in reciprocation for their years of hosting - in a basement closet.  Too slow now to support much in the way of modern web services but still providing email and DNS services for dozens of domains, Schaltwerk also provided SSH shell endpoint access, allowing my friends and I to casually tunnel through even the fiercest of corporate firewalls.

In 2007 I began the long process of migrating all of the services off of Schaltwerk and onto a third-party host, Dreamhost. Many domain owners had to be notified, many small webpages had to be migrated and dozens of cryptic user scripts had to be decoded and disabled or ported. By 2008 almost all of this work was complete, and Schaltwerk remained online but rarely used until April of 2009, when I moved out of my basement and aboard the S/V TIE Fighter. I could not bring myself to just throw away a machine with such a history of faithful service, and so I brought her aboard, intending to find a way to celebrate her life.

goodbye, Schaltwerk.

goodbye, Schaltwerk. you will be remembered.

Schaltwerk gave me fifteen solid years of faithful work, far more than can be reasonably expected of a PC.  Her only fault was her lack of processing horsepower, and while I will admit that I entertained fantasies of one day putting her back in service as a terminal somewhere, life on a sailboat is not kind to electronics, and a slow death in a storage locker just wouldn't suit her. With a few respectful words about her life and service I sent her to her final resting place in the ocean, about a kilometer off the Sunshine Coast.

I have to admit it took a few minutes for the lump in my throat to pass.

18May/112

Bicycles

A confession: I am a bike nerd. I have never actually owned a car, and at the rate things are going there's a distinct possibility that I never will.

As a bit of backstory, I grew up in New Brunswick where having a car meant freedom but also slavery, or at least indentured servitude. Insurance rates for young male drivers were insanely high, only dropping to reasonable rates after age twenty-five.  If you wanted your own car you had to either have very generous parents, a (non-existant) high-paying job, or you had to spend all of your free time working at whatever minimum-wage job you could land. Since my folks were big on teaching me the value of a dollar (thanks, by the way), I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn't own my own car until after age twenty-five, and drove my mother's Mercury Tracer hatchback around whenever she'd let me.

my first adult bike, a sketchy hand-me-down

my first adult bike, a sketchy hand-me-down commuter

Just before I actually turned twenty-five, I moved to Calgary, Alberta. Calgary is very much a car-centric city... unless you live and work in the downtown core, which is where I along with nearly all my friends lived and worked. Combined with a great public transit system, there wasn't really any need to own a car. That 'downtown' mindset prevailed through a move to Vancouver, which also has a great public transit system. Still, walking and transit are restrictive, and in about 2005, inspired by the fitness and social agility of a few friends, I decided to become a "bike person".

Once you've pushed past the first six months of getting into half-decent shape, and you've realized that suddenly any point in the city is reachable by self-propulsion (often faster than by any other method of transport), then - then comes the realization that bicycles are simple machines, and with a bit of maintenance or upgrading they can be strong, reliable friends. Very much like Robert M. Persig's famous message, there is much joy in keeping the machines tight and tuned, and I fell headlong into the world of bike-nerddom.

my first 'real' bike, built by Mighty Riders

my first 'real' bike, built by Mighty Riders

My first adult bike was an ancient, beat-up mountain bike given to me by a friend years prior, that I had lugged around from apartment to apartment but never really ridden. Once I made up my mind to get off the couch, I rode that bike to and from work for about a year.  I slowly upgraded from fat knobby tires to 'slicks' to 'skinny slicks', learning as I went that my initial idea of the "perfect Vancouver commuter bike" was quite far off from reality. Sooner or later, foot retention became an obvious choice, and fenders became beautiful to me.

Then one rainy day I slammed into the back of a BMW - at the time I was sure it was the driver's fault, but upon later reflection I'm not so sure it wasn't all me. I rode off (mostly) unharmed, but later I found that the impact had cracked the age-brittle aluminum frame of my commuter bike, and it was no longer safe to ride. I knew by this time that a bike would continue to be a big part of my life, so in early 2006 I bit the bullet and had Ed and his wizards at Mighty Riders build me the "perfect Vancouver commuter bike".  It was a steel Surly Cross-Check frame, built up with a Shimano Nexus-8 internally-geared rear hub and a disc brake on the front wheel.  Nearly weatherproof!

my first track bike, the Creamcycle

my first track bike build, the Creamcycle

However, within a year or so of riding the new bike, I was bitten by the track bike bug. I went out to the Burnaby Velodrome with Trent and rode a few times on the steeply-banked wooden track, but concluded that while track racing wasn't really for me, riding "fixed gear", with no gears and no coasting, definitely was. It can be difficult to explain the zen state of riding a fixed gear bicycle - it feels a lot more like running than riding a bike, since you use your legs to both accelerate as well as modulate your speed. If you want to go slower, use your leg muscles to force the bike to pedal slower. The feeling of riding a perfectly-tuned fixed gear bicycle is incredible, as though this simple, elegant, rattle-free machine were more an extension of your body rather than an accessory; more a katana than a shotgun.

So, I built up a track bike from parts purchased on eBay at a steep discount - a KHS Aero Track frame, Sugino cranks, and a wheelset built up around Phil Woods track hubs - and rode it hard for the next few years. I have to say that I really enjoyed the act of building a bike up with my own hands, knowing that it would carry me reliably from home to work and anywhere in between. I named the bike 'Creamcycle', shelved my black bike for rainy days, and put several thousand kilometers on her as my main method of transportation.

the rad playa cruiser, before and after

'rad playa cruiser' before/after shots - click for big!

As the summer of 2008 drew nearer, the Burning Man Festival approached.  A bike is a necessity in the Black Rock Desert, but not a good bike as the desert environment kills bikes in very short order.  I set out to find an appropriate bike to modify for the task; I searched for a long while, but was unable to find anything that was even remotely up to the job. Eventually I widened my search to include bikes that would require a complete rebuild, and at a Main Street junk store I found the black mountain bike in the photo on the right, for which I paid a whopping $25.

I tore the bike down to the bare frame, sanded and painted it, then reassembled the bike with spare parts and supplemental bits, buying old, used parts as much as possible. I spent many hours in Our Community Bikes learning the ins and outs of rebuilding a bike, but even with the hours of shop time the grand total in costs for the bike ran me somewhere in the vicinity of $150, with the most expensive component being the new basket at approximately $35.

The design of the rad playa cruiser was carefully considered - wider 'beach cruiser' tires to handle the sometimes-soft surface of the Black Rock Desert, cruiser handlebars and flat pedals to enable riding in all forms of dress and/or states of sobriety, lock washers on all bolts to prevent bits shaking loose, and extra-thick grease on all the (repacked) bearings. In my opinion however the most important feature - and incidentally the most inexplicably absent from the vast majority of playa bikes - are the BMX-style stunt pegs on the back axel.  With the stunt pegs, I can 'double' someone on the bike if needed. How useful is that?!  "Heading to the temple?  What a coincidence, me too!  Hop on, baby!"

'ghost', a vancouver bike through and through

'ghost', a vancouver city bike through and through

On a roll at this point, the next bike I built was a singlespeed road bike for a close friend who was still riding her hand-me-down mountain bike, similar to my original commuter. We picked out an appropriately-sized bike together at a bizarre private bike junkyard-slash-workshop on Main Street, getting a better price on the frame by sitting on the shop floor and stripping off all the components and leaving them with the previous owner for resale. Then, using mostly parts from my closet and a decent track wheelset found on Craigslist I built up "Ghost", a sexy little number well-suited to both the the streets of Vancouver and the rider for whom it was built.

Life on a boat is very hard on a bike.  The constant exposure to salty ocean air accelerates corrosion, and even though the TIE Fighter has a great deal of storage, fitting a full-size bicycle into the storage lockers in the amas wasn't always easy or even possible. For at least a year after moving aboard I had my black "perfect bike" stored in an ama and the Creamcycle up on deck for near-daily use, but slowly the weather began to take its toll and I watched as she began to lose her luster, with the deep scratches from regular (ab)use turning from silver to the darker orange of rust.

goodbye, creamcycle. you were a good bike.

goodbye, creamcycle. you were a good bike.

I put the Creamcycle away in an ama and began using the black bike, but within a month of making the switch back to a geared bike I made a fatal mistake and left my bike - well locked, mind you - at a bike rack that I should not have. At some point in the night, a thief made off with the rear wheel and handlebars of my beautiful bike - incidentally the most expensive components. I researched replacement parts for a while but sadly concluded that I don't need two bikes, and that the best answer would be to sell the remaining carcass of the black bike to some bike nerd friends who would build her back up and put her to good use.

Finally, earlier this year I heard about Montague Bikes, a company in the States that makes folding bicycles with fullsize wheels! I had looked into folding bikes several times, but after trying a few I came to the conclusion that the small wheels on the average folding bike are better suited to short trips to the store, and not so much as a primary means of transportation around a city. With fullsize wheels, however, a folding bike could definitely solve the problem of storage (and, by association, weather-resistancy), while continuing to be a solid means of transport.

The Montague Boston turned out to be the be-all and end-all answer to my problems. Priced at around $800 after taxes and shipping, I could strip all the components off of the Creamcycle and build up a new bike around the Boston's folding fixed-gear frame, then build up the Creamcycle with the Boston's components and sell the resulting bike on Craigslist, minimizing my total expenditures. Almost all of the Creamcycle's components fit onto the Boston frame without hassle!

the new ride, 'harlequin'

the new ride, 'harlequin' - click for bigger

The result, show here in all her glory, is the best bicycle I can come up with given my style of cycling and difficult storage and transportation needs. The new bike, named 'Harlequin', folds in half to make the row to and from shore easier, and when folded she stows away quite handily into a wing locker on the TIE Fighter. The first few weeks with her were a little trying, as I slowly worked out the kinks in fit and sizing, tightening the bits that creaked and rattled and replacing any components showing signs of rust with similar components of stainless steel, but I think she's finally out of the woods and settling into the final configuration that she'll keep for the next few years.

So far, I'm very pleased with the new build. 'Harlequin' is a fixed gear, with a gear ratio of 49/17, giving me 75.4 gear inches, or 32.6km/h at 90RPM. To date I have not met a hill in Vancouver that I cannot climb - though I know better than to brag the same about the North Vancouver hills!

Longer term, we'll have to see what happens. I doubt I'll be on nicely paved city streets and bike paths much in the next few years, so perhaps the racing wheelset and fixed gearing will end up being a mistake. Still, so long as I've got a beautiful bike I know I'll find any excuse to ride around town... especially with the summer approaching so fast!