Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Volitan: Bad Design, Wharram: Good Design

This Volitan boat is featured prominently on a number of "Green Design" blogs, as well as June's Pacific Yachting magazine. I saw it at the checkstand while buying lines at West Marine. Google "Volitan boat", you'll find it.

This is literally the dumbest boat design I've ever seen. Where do I start.

First., we already have an existing technology for eco-friendly boat propulsion. They’re called “sails”. Hey genius, you're 5,000 years behind the news...

The site touts the twin 225 horsepower electric engines. At approximately 746 watts per 1 horsepower, that's 335,700 watts. Judging by the picture, the wings are about 92 feet tip to tip by about 10 feet wide. That's 920 square feet of solar panels, or about 86 square meters. Because of the X-wing design, only one of the wingtops will ever be facing the sun. (And the solar panels on the bottom of the wing never will be, what's that about?) At a charge rate of 150 watts per square meter per hour times 43 square meters, and assuming climate and weather allows 10 hours of direct sunlight per day, you'd need to soak up over 5 days of blazing sunshine to motor for one hour at full throttle. Well, maybe that tiny wind generator at the top of the mast will help. Or maybe you can throttle WAY back and just kinda bob around...

Notice the entire boat is enclosed:

Less usable deck space than a Colombian Narcosub:

This starship/greenhouse design makes it impossible to actually interact with the ocean. Now in order to "sail" (I cringe at the thought of using that term to describe motoring VERY slowly while powered by tiny windmill) you'll no doubt need a bunch of sensors to let you know wind direction and force, sea state, etc. Since the "sails" are solid (and not foil shaped -- how's that gonna work?!?!?!) they offer no visual or auditory feedback that you're luffing or stalled. More sensors I guess? The systems are all electronic and hydraulic. And new and custom and untested and non-redundant. This is the type of thinking that Michael Pollan describes as splitting a holistic, elegant solution into multiple, discrete problems.

The sheer dimensions are ludicrous: a 100' boat with a 92' beam -- good times docking this beast! The building materials are pure Unobtainium and the scale guarantees that only billionaires will be shopping for this marvel of sustainability.

Shift your eyes away from the big picture down to the details: Where are the deck cleats to tie this montrosity to a dock? Where's the anchor windlass? Missing are the myriad and sundry details that allow you to live, work, and play on a boat. Has this guy ever even been on a boat? The propellers are at the very bottom of the x-wing keels. Hmm, do you think over hundreds of years, naval architects might have found propellers mounted just under the surface, directly behind the keel/skeg to be a little less, um, exposed? Can you imagine trying to navigate kelp or crab pots or coral reefs with fragile ducted fans on underwater stalks as your primary propulsion?

The kicker is that Volitan won the International Design Award for the best transportation vehicle of 2007!!! This abortion is the symbol of everything that is wrong with "sustainable design" : the belief that giant, expensive, overengineered gadgets are the solution to the world's problems. It's clearly dreamed up by an industrial designer with a deep, abiding hatred of everything boat-like about boats...

Sigh... OK... done ranting. For a link to a guy who HAS advanced the art of sustainable boat buidling, check out James Wharram (the guy often credited with the catamaran revival of the 50s and 60s.) Lately he's been doing great work designing boats to revive sail-powered trade routes in the Pacific.

His designs are an elegant blend of high tech, low tech, tribal tech. When you look at his boats: the lines, the simplicity, the ruggedness and yet performance, they're clearly drawn by the hand of a man who's been to sea.

One of the things I've learned my involvement with open source software as well as boats: the best human tools come from thousands of incremental improvements made by generations of average working people working and living with the product, not from ego-driven idiot-savants incented by the marketplace to create mystifying objects of passive aggressive novelty, rather than simple, honest artifacts of enduring utility.

Incidentally, I believe Macha, descended as she is from hardworking channel cutter and sailing lifeboat lineage, is an another example of evolutionary rather than revolutionary design. The builder and previous owner Jay definitely added some cool innovations, but the basic design is pretty darned traditional. In sailing her, and living aboard her, even still when I'm faced with a new situation or a new maintenance/repair task I'll frequently notice some new detail replete with robust elegance, and think "Oh... that's why it work's like that..."

A well designed tool or vehicle should feel like that to own. It fills you with confidence that generations of intelligent people have stood in your shoes, experienced the pickle you're now in, and tried their best to design and build for it... Good, traditional, evolutionary yacht design is a subtle, nonverbal communication from a lineage of seafaring forefathers, quietly whispering reassurance when the sailing gets rough. "Don't worry, this boat can take these conditions." In contrast, when I look at a boat design like the Volitan, (or a Hunter, or a MacGregor 26X), I feel like I know more about boats that their designers. And that frankly scares the hell out of me, because I certainly don't know much!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Top 10 Reasons I'm Having a Kid Even Though the World is Going to Shit

This is a repost from an another forum, in response to a dear friend who called BS on me. I was taking the position that overpopulation is a central, but often unspoken issue in the context of sustainability, economic justice, limits to growth, etc. And she replied, "Wait a minute, how can you say that when you're having a baby any week now?!?!"

Disclaimer: I say "I" and not "WE" in the post above cuz this is how I feel about it. Let's see if Sarah has a follow up post...

(As a quick aside, we've nicknamed our soon-to-be baby "Tree Frog" because we know her primarily by her kicks and jumps, and because her legs and butt seem about as long and boney as picture above)

So here, dear friends, are the Top 10 Reasons I'm Having a Kid Even Though the World is Going to Shit:

10 - Because I want to. I'm an American damn it! It's my God-given right to do what I want whenever I want. You're not the boss of me and I don't have to tell you why. If I ever feel twinges of guilt in the middle of the night for the way I live, I can always fall back on my fancy education or hire a shrink or a life coach to help me muster rationalizations to justify my actions. Just joking. (An alternate #10 for a lot of folks might be "because the condom broke" or "because I live in a Red State where we learned that storks bring babies", but Sarah and I were actually trying.)

9 - Because I'm curious and in love. When all is said an done I want to have a kid because I have a deep longing to see what a tiny human being comprised of half me and half the love of my life will be like. I literally can't wait to meet her, take care of her, teach her, learn from her, love her.

8 - Because my parents did. And their parents did. And their parent did... It's a tautology to point out that all of us were born to people who consciously or otherwise ended up as parents -- but still, it's pretty cool. Each of our matrilinear mitochondrial DNA stretches back in an unbroken lineage that started with the first single celled mother of all life. I'm not saying that the purpose of human life should be procreation, and I'm DEFINITELY not saying that the only purpose of procreation should be creating life. (that wouldn't be fun) But, I'm saying that we're wired such that the instinct to procreate and therefore create new life as a frequent side effect is incredibly deep and primal. Capitalize the "L" in Life and it approaches religion for me... If this all sounds like heteronormative biological essentialism run amok, let me say that recent evolutionary studies in "community selection" seem to confirm that it literally does take a village to raise a child. There are many ways to serve nascent Life; parenthood is just one... The world needs aunts and uncles and teachers and mentors and role models. And yes, we'll be calling on all of you loved ones to fill those roles...

7 - Because kids don't know any better. I was just listening to a public radio show with people telling their childhood stories about growing up in the Depression. The common theme was that it was a fun time to be a kid: lots of family/neighborhood togetherness, simple games & activities, etc. Kids that grow up during crises or wars always seem to find way to enjoy life and have fun. When I was in middle school, I was on a school trip to the parliament buildings in Quebec City when an ex-soldier burst into the room next door with a machine gun and started killing people. In retrospect, it seems pretty scary. But at the time, we were in the next room, so heard shots but didn't see any blood spatter or dead bodies, didn't really believe the guy would kill us, and it all just seemed like a cool adventure. I remember hiding under a table and really wishing I was hiding under the same table as this girl I had a crush on. I was listening to a neuropsychologist on the radio the other day who categorized stresses as either Positive, Tolerable, or Toxic. The first category are normal emotional growing pains. The second category are major life traumas, but which can be overcome with good family and community support. The third category are deep traumas like abuse, neglect, etc. What stuck me was that the researcher used hurricane Katrina as an example of a "Tolerable Trauma." I was heartened, because I think most of the problems our children's generation will face will similarly fall within a tolerable range. Our kids will adapt to the unfolding post-peak-oil & climate change world and will have challenges, triumphs, loves, losses, depressions and exhaltations just like any other generation.

6 - Because it will be a wild ride. Why deny the next generation ringside seats to the greatest show on Earth: the collapse of postmodern global capitalist civilization? The next few decades will be fascinating!

5 - Because limits to growth are soft not hard limits. The population of humans this gorgeous little planet can support is not a number, but a spectrum of numbers. On one side of the scale, a pristine Earth ecosystem with a "leave no trace" standard of nomadic human civilization would probably allow a human population in the high hundreds-of-thousands to low-single-digit millions. A sustainable Earth ecosystem with decentralized agrarian societies based on permaculture principles could probably support a human population in the hundreds of millions. If everyone lived the way North Americans currently do, the earth could probably support about one billion people. With two-thirds of the Earth's population living on two buck sa day with a lifestyle resembling a scene from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, we've proven we can support high single digit billions. If we choose to transform our planet into "Factory Farm Earth (tm)", exploiting every photon of sunlight, every drop of water, every speck of ore, eliminating in the process every "competing" species, we can probably support many tens of billions of people. Note that we're currently on trajectory for the final and most extreme scenario. Good times.

4 - Because human timescales are different than geological, civilizational, or even historical timescales. The problem I see with dismissing peak-oil or climate-change believers as "doomers" or "neo-millenialists" is: it's like the proverbial wheezing, hard-drinking, 400-pound, 4-pack-a-day-smoker, bacon-double-cheeseburger eating, stunt-motorcycle riding, chainsaw juggling, shark wrestling, russian-roulette playing guy who says to his doctor's repeated warnings, "Well, this lifestyle hasn't killed me YET, so I don't think it ever will..." When religious leaders tell me the End is Nigh, I blow them off. When scientists tell me so, I listen. The heuristic "this is the way things are; therefore this is the way things will always be" is one of humanity's most odious varieties of stupid. As many people point out, people have been having these end-times debates for a long time... but only a long time in human terms. Climate change is happening in a geological blink of an eye. But in human history, uncertainty of plus-or-minus a generation or two means that my kids' might be relatively unaffected by the unravelling future, and MAY not be part of the generation to be left without a chair when the music stops. Maybe even their kids?

3 - Because kids make us think differently about our lives and our place in the world. You really can't argue with Whitney Houston that "children are the future." Without some sense of responsibility for the legacy of coming generations of human and non-human life, I believe people on average would be LESS eco-correct, MORE hedonistic and self-indulgant. I mean, why turn down the thermostat, carry around goofy looking water bottles, carpool, etc. etc. if my life, right now, is all that matters?

2 - Because maybe our kids can fix it. I've been watching the bailout and the futility of trying to sustain the unsustainable, and at this point I'm not even sure what "fix it" means any more. Perhaps "heal it" is a better phrase, since mechanistic rather than organic thinking seems complicit in this epic mess. Maybe we've passed the point of no return, but maybe we haven't. If anyone can do it, our kids can.

1 - Because I'm an optimist. No, really. Look, I think a lot of people (and frankly a lot of people especially in the sustainability movement) don't understand the difference between thinking and feeling. I THINK (in simplistic terms) that the world is going to hell in a handbasket (for all the usual reason: peak oil, climate change, economic meltdown, yada yada yada.) But I FEEL challenged, curious, engaged, and even cheerful about the coming changes. I don't feel postive for any particular REASON (because then it would be thinking, not feeling...) but because the basic orientation of my personality is optimistic (underneath the crustiness.) To recap: what my rational thought leads me to believe will happen (or not happen) in the future is not, I repeat, not what determines my place on the optimist-pessimist spectrum. The attitudes, feelings, and most importantly ACTIONS with which I meet the future ARE. I'm often accused of being a pessimist, but like Jay (a sailing peak-oiler friend of ours who's now homesteading in Hawaii) says "Pessimists don't plant trees." I think that goes double for raising little humans...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Volvo Ocean Race Game

This online video game is currently destroying my life: Volvo Ocean Race Game

It's a deceptively simplistic flash game. All you do is point your boat and pick your sail. But, the addictive part is that it happens in real time, with 300,000 real time competitors and real time wind downloaded from real life GRIB files. All this encourages sleep deprivation (which I keep telling Sarah is good practice for the baby.)

For a sweet, brief, moment at the start of Leg 7, I was tied for #1 (with about 10,000 French teenagers I'm sure)

The exigencies of my job, relationship, social life, and need for sleep conspired to distract me from the game. I went aground, and have fallen back to #30,113. Still, I'm finding it's a great way for us cubicle-bound sailors to experiment with VMG and route strategy.