Marine Computing Part One

I’ve been fairly silent around these parts for the past while, mainly because I’ve been focussing on preparing myself and my boat for an imminent long sailing adventure. For those who are interested, my sailing blog has all the skinny on that.

However, I’ve been doing a lot of work on board to get the computer stuff all up and running. I’m still maybe only halfway there, but it occurred to me that it might be time to lay out the basics so far.

We moved on board with an iBook G4 and a PPC Mac Mini with an LCD monitor. We got a contraption called, unoriginally, a TV Box which allows the monitor to act as a tv monitor for using with our Wii. It’s quite an excellent set up, actually. The screen is crisp, and with the tv box connected to external speakers, the sound is great, too. We could hook up the cable to the tv box also, and we do have a tv antenna that terminates in a cable, but we’ve never bothered so far.

The Mini and monitor is not an acceptable set up for when we’re underway, though, and we also have another issue which persuaded us to invest in another laptop. We have a Pactor modem, which allows us to send and receive packet data over high frequency radio. This is useful for using email when we are at sea, which is a boon for communication as well as a great way to get reliable weather data. The trouble is that there is no non-Windows port of the mail software which works with the Pactor. Therefore, I wanted an Intel Mac laptop for running Windows or Darwine to use SailMail.

As a result, we picked up a 15″ MacBook Pro as part of the new plan. We chose the Pro because it has the ExpressCard slot, and we are thinking about using a cellular data card for internet when we are on the US coast. We haven’t yet gotten AirMail set up on it, or even tested the set up, but that’s on the list.

We’re using GPSNavX as our charting software, and it’s been fantastic. A very reasonable cost to do pretty much everything the well known Windows programs do, and without having to run Windows. It makes me very happy, and we saved a few BOAT units (bring out another thousand) by not getting a dedicated chartplotter.

Finally, when it was first announced, we participated in the Give 1 Get 1 promotion by the One Laptop Per Child organization, and got ourselves an XO laptop. I’ve been breaking it pretty mercilessly since I got it trying to see what it can do, and particularly to install a non-pdf ebook reader. I have a bunch of titles in plucker format, which I really like, and want to be able to read on the XO. The screen is a great size and the tablet and low power features seem to be ideal for ebook reading on the high seas. So I’ve spent a few days trying to install FBReader, with success coming only after completely screwing up the machine and having to reflash the OS. I did get the program installed by following the instructions and using the file found here. Now I’m starting to load a bunch of ebooks to an SD card and try it out.

More to come as the project progresses.

[Cross-posted to the sailing blog]


As everyone probably knows, Amazon made a big stink recently with the launch of its ebook reader the Kindle (and the associated ebook store). I’m on a mailing list for authors who distribute on, and the Kindle set that normally very quiet mailing list on fire. Everyone seemed to have a very strong opinion.

Now, I haven’t seen a Kindle, so I can’t comment on the use of the thing, though I know others who can. But I can talk about ebook readers in general from my own particular perspective.

I think it’s a pretty good guess the I am the target audience for this device. I love to read, and even though I’m quite fond of dead tree books, my lifestyle requires that I limit my physical media. I’ve been reading books primarily onscreen for a few years now, starting with pdf file on my laptop and most recently using Plucker on my old Palm Tungsten C.

I recently was looking into purchasing ebooks from the eReader store, and even though there are several titles I desperately want to read, I stopped short. It’s not the cost – they are reasonably priced compared to a paperback (particularly since I live in Canada, and book pricing here is insane). The problem is the DRM.

I’m convinced that my Palm device is dying, and I’ll probably have to replace it with something. I don’t know what I’m replacing it with, but whatever it is, I want the books I already have to be able to be used with the new device. DRM means that I’m locked to a particular device or reader, and I’m not willing to buy multiple copies of a book just to be able to read it wherever I want.

And that’s the main problem with the Kindle and Amazon’s ebook store (and other products like it). In a world where even the iTunes Music Store realizes that people don’t want their media locked to a product or device, ebooks that are crippled this way are just uninteresting to me. I’ll go to the library for books that I can’t get electronically, and stick to independents authors and public domain works that I can get in the formats I want. And that, my friends, is why the Kindle and ebook DRM sucks for authors. Because those are lost sales.

Oh yeah, and $400 for an ebook reader? You’ve got to be kidding.

Space Money Invented

I checked Snopes in case this is a hoax, and they don’t have anything about this yet, but apparently currency dealer Travelex has developed cash money designed to be used in space.

From the Travelex site:

The QUID has been designed to withstand the stresses of space travel and the extreme environment found in orbit around the Earth. It has also been created so that it can be purchased on earth in any one of the 176 currencies used around the globe.

Professor George Fraser from the University of Leicester commented: “None of the existing payment systems we use on earth – like cash, credit or debit cards – could be used in space for a variety of different reasons. Anything with sharp edges, like coins, would be a risk to astronauts while the chips and magnetic strips used in our cards on Earth would be damaged beyond repair by cosmic radiation. What’s more, because of the distances involved, it is more than 230,000 miles from the Earth to the moon, chip and pin technology is also out of the question.”

Banality of social networks is a feature, not a bug

I came across a great metaphor for relationships awhile ago – bricks and mortar. Bricks are the “big things” – the events of life that you share with friends. Mortar is the little, everyday stuff, that the people you are closest to just know about, often whether they want to or not.

As Scheherazade wrote in her original blog post that caught my eye, bricks get all the attention. When we think about communication, we think about the bricks. But mortar is what makes it all stick together, and without it there’s no solid foundation.

As I mentioned in what is now clearly the last Tech Watch podcast, I’ve been investigating online communities this year. At first, I was all about the bricks, here, too. I was posting in forums, making new friends and even trying to be a better email correspondent. Email, blogs, podcasts, forums – these are the online versions of going for coffee.

Meanwhile, I’d occasionally ignore a request to join facebook or Twitter, wondering what was the point? If you want to know what I’m doing just ask me or read my blog. It’s not hard to find me online, after all. But eventually I succumbed to facebook and now I’m flirting with Twitter. And yes, the updates can be overwhelming, and yes it’s almost always banal. But this is the mortar of relationships.

It’s true that I don’t need to know (or honestly, really care) if you’re pulling the weeds or late for work or getting a haircut today. But knowing that mundane boring stuff adds real context to the actual conversations we have, context that makes existing relationships richer and new relationships stronger.

I’ve come to realize that the banality of social networks is a feature, not a bug. It is the ability to tap into the mundane that is the reason why these kinds of social networks are so popular, and so annoying. We crave the mortar of relationships, even as we find it maddening. It’s addictive and repulsive. And surprisingly useful.

Prison Industrial Complex

For a number of years I’ve been interested in prison systems, particularly the current counter-productive nature of the US system. So, I was really interested to hear this week’s Tech Nation on IT Conversations, which is a discussion with Sasha Abamsky about the state of prisons in the US, the history of the penal system and some of the things going on today that curdle my blood.

Whether you know anything about the state of the penal system or not, this is important information. The more you learn about the prison industry, the more you understand some of the surprising causes of the increased prison population.

Give this show a listen here.

Such a Wiinie

WiiI somehow magically got a Wii for my birthday, and have been meaning to post about it. Lots has been said about it, but there are two main points I think are worth mentioning.

  1. It’s the first game system I’ve ever used that really is good enough out of the box.

    I’d really like to get a hold of another set of controls for 2 player boxing, and Wii Play looks pretty decent, but I’ve been using the thing almost daily for over a month, and it’s still fun. We rented a shoot-em-up game for an evening, which was okay, but I still have no compelling desire to get a new game. This, of course, isn’t great news for the game companies, but as a consumer I’m thrilled with the replay ability of the included Wii Sports.

  2. It’s incredible to watch someone who’s new to games play with this thing.

    A friend of mine isn’t much of a gamer, but she is an amateur softball player. She came over and I handed her the control and turned on the baseball game. She asked me how to play and I said “just play baseball.” She was confused for a while, and eventually swung the bat. You’d think I’d just stuck her in a time machine or something, she was so amazed at the technology.

    Those of us who follow tech advances think that waving a controller around to play a game is almost old hat by now, but watching someone play a video game that way for the first time is totally eye opening.

  3. All in all, the Wii has totally exceeded my expectations and it’s still as fun as it was the day I got it. Now that’s return on investment.