Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Adirondack Guide Boat - too much technology?

Plans of the Adirondack guide boat from the Mystic Seaport Museum which sells them for $75.

Lines of the Adirondack Guide Boat from the Mystic Seaport Museum
Description of the Adirondack Guide Boat  from the Mystic Seaport Museum site:

Guideboats are bottom-board boats with natural knees used as frames: the dory-building technique taken to the extreme. Builders developed a smooth-skin lap strake construction method now known as the guideboat lap. The small boats-like the 13' Parsons boat at 57 pounds and the 13' 6" Blanchard boat at 53 pounds-were best suited to be carried in to fish small ponds, for which they were called "raiders." The 16' guideboats are considered the best compromise between speed and carrying capacity, work­ing well solo or carrying a guide and sport with their load of camping gear. The 16' GHOST weighs just 64 pounds, while the 15' 7" Cole boat weighs 59.   The plans drawn by Dave Dillion do not require lofting; full dimensions are provided for each frame. Hallie Bond's Boats and Boating in the Adirondacks provides more historical information.  Today, guideboats are successfully built as frameless strip-planked boats and as semi-strip-planked boats with glued joints over laminated frames.  From 87 Boat Designs by Ben Fuller.  Boat is owned by the Adirondack Museum(64.170.1), Blue Mountain Lake, New York.  Plans drawn in 1984.

So the other day, a friend of mine called me to see if I wanted to see his new/old guideboat that he had bought on craigslist for about $1k.  The boat was an original built about 100 years ago.  The boat was still mostly intact.  There was one hole in it that had been patched and most of the planking was still sound except for a few places where the planks had opened up.
Ribs/frames were in two halves with their bottoms overlapping and nailed together as well as screwed to the floor plank.  Each rib was sawn from natural crooks, that is wood whose grain roughly followed the curve of the rib. A number of ribs near the center of the boat had the same shape. Toward the ends of the boat, the ribs gradually became narrower. Builders appear not to have had lines for these boats. Instead, each builder had templates for their ribs. None of those seem to have survived. The lines shown in the drawings above were taken off boats that have made it into museums.
The planking edges were beveled and lapped with the laps clinch nailed to each other.
As I understand the process, the ribs were first attached to the bottom plank and then the planks were screwed to the ribs.
The guide boats had a relatively short life span. Apparently, they were designed specifically for the guide trade in which the guide needed a boat big enough for two people but light enough to carry between lakes lacking road access.  As soon as roads were built to the lakes and resorts built on their shores, the need for the guides went away and with them their boats.
Finally, I would like to share some unease I had with this boat when I was first exposed to it.  My unease stemmed from the fact that this boat required an industrial economy to build.  Not only did you need a professional boat builder with a band saw but you also needed thin planks and lots of small screws and nails, none of which you could readily scrounge from your immediate environment. The guide boat clearly did not meet the post-apocalyptic stamp of approval, that is, it would be impractical or even impossible in a world that lacked a sophisticated industrial economy to supply all its component parts and tools to manufacture them.

The Post-Apocalyptic Boat Building Stamp of Approval

One of the insights I recently had was that any boat that was built outside of an industrial society in the past could also be built in a post-industrial society of the future, with some reservations.  The reservations are primarily about building materials available in the past may not necessarily be available in the future.
Since I build skin on frame boats in the manner that was developed in the Arctic before it came in contact with industrial civilization, I am also partial to any kind of technology that could be sustained in a pre- as well as post-industrial society.  Actually, I must correct myself.  I do not build kayaks using pre-industrial technologies.  I mostly build replicas of pre-industrial kayaks with the help of industrial tools and supplies.  Every once in a while I go primitive and use mostly scrounged materials to build a kayak just to prove to myself that it can be done.
In any case, what gets the post-apocalyptic stamp of approval is any technology that could have been built using pre-industrial methods and materials which supposedly would also work in a post-apocalyptic or post-industrial society.  Of course we are not in a post-apocalyptic situation here in the developed nations, so we can only speculate what is possible, but if we look at any so-called third world or "developing" nations we can see that people there have to improvise and get ingenious with what they can lay their hands on, all of which gets the post apocalyptic stamp of approval.

Kayak and umiak of St Michaels. Note steam boats in the background and local residents with European clothes.  Obviously, these people had access to industrial technology and materials but at the time, still made their own boats of pre-industrial heritage with the help of industrial tools and materials.  Nevertheless, if they were still around building boats in the manner shown in the photo, they would get the post-apocalyptic boat building stamp of approval. 

Post-apocalyptic Boat Building

Why build skin boats?  I've been asking myself that ever since I started building skin boats.  I've come up with a bunch of practical reasons such as low price but that's not really why I built them. First and foremost I liked the looks of skin boats.  But right up there with good looks was also a yearning for self-reliance.  I wanted to be able to build a boat that at least in principle I could build entirely from scavenged materials with simple tools that if need be I could make myself.
For the sake of convenience, I use electrical tools to cut the wood and synthetic fiber cloth as a skin and petroleum based paint to seal the skin so I don't really build an entirely off the grid boat.  But I like to imagine that I could build a boat strictly from found materials in the manner that people of the Arctic once did.  In a way, the Arctic before the arrival of the Europeans was very much like what a post-apocalyptic (PA) world would be like.  No stores, no factories, no electricity.  Everything you wanted you had to scrounge or barter for.
But a PA world would not look exactly like the pre-industrial Arctic.  A PA world would have a lot of stuff from the industrial world still laying around like scrap metal, wire, plywood, tar and even ready to use hand-tools.  A PA world would not be a stone age world necessarily.  It would be a world that had very little new stuff in it. If you wanted new stuff, like a new kayak for instance, you or one of your friends would have to make it themselves.
Could I build a boat entirely from scrounged materials in a PA world?  Probably.  More than likely, if I wanted a boat with some cargo capacity, I would probably scavenge plywood, and make it out of that.  I don't know what would be available in the way of sealers to keep the boat from leaking, but I could probably find something.
If I wanted to build a skin on frame kayak, that would be fairly easy.  Plenty of construction lumber installed in buildings. I am assuming that I could get some hand saws.  The hardest thing to find would be a suitable skin.  I imagine myself scrounging tarps or awnings and sewing those together, again, assuming I could get a hold of some needles or maybe even make them from bone.  If the tarps were plastic, they wouldn't need a sealer.  If the tarps were not plastic, I would have to figure out a way to make them waterproof.
Hunting sea mammals for skins would be more or less out of the question.  That would require more skill than I have.  Even if I could manage to kill a sea lion hauled out on a beach by stealth, I would need four skins to cover a kayak.  Getting four skins would be way too ambitious.
But how exactly did people of the Arctic build their kayaks in a pre-industrial world?  We have some ideas but Europeans have been going to the Arctic since the 17th century and most of the kayaks now in museums were built with at least some access to steel tools and also possible to milled lumber.
The pictures below show what kayak building looked like in the transitionary period when people in the Arctic still built kayaks, but had industrially sourced tools and materials available to them. The kayak type being built here is Eastern Arctic, that is Canadian Arctic.  These kayaks were long flat and stable and if you killed a seal, you transported the carcass on the wide back deck of the kayak.

Here's a guy in his open air workshop, no special jigs or benches or other sort of stuff you would expect to find in a boat shop. But he does seem to have a handsaw that he is using to trim something in the cockpit area of his kayak.
This guy is sitting in his workshop.  He's using some rocks to level out the deck of his kayak.  He's got the rib blanks stuck into their mortises, all ready for bending and trimming. Or maybe he is going to do three-part ribs with hard corners.  Also not the canvas tent in the background. 
Here two people are working at putting  a skin on the finished kayak frame.  The skin is canvas, not seal hide so one or two people can do the job.  Putting on seal hide usually was a task for many women since the hides had to be kept wet and pieced together which required way more sewing than was practical for one woman to do by herself although it was probably done solo sometimes by necessity. Also not the wood plank in the foreground, evidence of milled lumber brought into this location, probably by ship. Also note the long wide and flat back deck suitable for transporting  the spoils of the hunt.

So what can we say about boat building in an imaginary PA world? Probably possible as long as nobody has any set ideas about what is allowed in the ways of tools and materials.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The broken technology icon

Here it is, a little icon, a crossed wrench and screwdriver that means something, I don't know what exactly.  I think it might mean that by clicking it, I can mess with the technology enclosed in the box that it's in the lower right hand corner of.
But I think of it as the broken technology icon.  And for some reason, it reminds me of the hammer and sickle icon that the Soviets used on their flag.  In their case, it meant that their state was one of industrial workers and farmers.  In this case, the wrench and screwdriver supposedly stand for tools you use to take apart machinery and potentially put it back together again.  OK, enough already with the semiotics.

Clean up after yourself google

There is a widespread belief that technology creates energy.  It enables the delivery of energy but it does not produce it.  You can't use technology to create energy.  Energy exists of its own accord.  Technology helps with the delivery.  That's all. Obviously there is a lot of technology involved in the delivery of energy, and the two, energy and technology are so closely intermeshed that it seems hard to tell which came first, an instance of the chicken or egg first question.
Broken widgets.  I think they used to have different pictures in them.  Now they all say let's fight hunger together.  They should say instead, If you break it, you should fix it.  But that's my point.  Technology needs a constant input of energy to keep working.  In this case, I think I will just get rid of the broken widgets, once I get enough spare energy to do it.  Clean up after yourself Google.  That's what I would say if Google was my kids.
Anyway, I don't care about this argument.  The only reason I brought it up is that some of the google widgets I put on the sidebar of this blog have stopped working.  Google informed me that they would by way of an email.  And sure enough, they have stopped working.  But now, I have to expend energy to fix the technology.  so that's my point.  Technology eats up energy.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Leaf Blowers and Entropy

The other day, the gardeners were in our neighbor's back yard and blowing away at the leaves.  As they usually do, they try to corral the leaves in one corner of the yard where they can then scoop them up and haul them off somewhere.  Unfortunately, when they blow them up against the fence that separates them from our yard, a good deal of the leaves and other debris ends up in our yard.  So yes, I am one of those people that thinks that leaf blowers are a bad idea.
But that is not my main point here.  My point is to talk about a definition of entropy that sees it as a degree of disorder.  In this view, entropy is created when the world becomes more disordered.  The gardener with the leaf blower lowers the entropy in his client's back yard but increases the overall entropy of the neighborhood by expending energy to create more order in a specific place at the cost of the larger environment.
This is how living organisms operate as well.  They hold entropy at bay internally by increasing overall entropy in their environment.  And it is only by holding entropy at bay by sucking energy out of their environment that living organisms can stay alive.
Still, it would be good if gardeners could work out a better way to remove leaves than by leafblowing and still put food on their table.

California Drought and Flood


This is yet another California drought post, this one featuring a book by two women who know what they are talking about, that is, the climate of California since the last ice age.
The idea behind studying the earth's past climate is that we might be able to see patterns that could help us predict climate in the future.  Unfortunately, climate is capricious and the best that climate studies can do is to give us a smorgasbord of options.  Our options for California are periods of benign climate interspersed with droughts and floods.  California has been in a benign, wetter than usual period for about 150 years.  That period may now be ending.  The entire culture and economy of present day California has been built on top of the expectation that the past 150 years are what's normal for the climate of California.  Sure there isn't enough water in southern California to support large scale agriculture and cities, but with dams and aqueducts, water has been brought from elsewhere to make life in southern California possible.  Northern California fares a little better than the south but cities in Central California, like those that rim San Francisco bay have to import their water from out of the area.
The truth of the situation is that California does not have enough water to support a population of 39 million people indefinitely.  It has enough water if the climate is sufficiently wet.  But it isn't always.  There have been droughts that have lasted for 500 years, from AD 900 to AD 1400 for instance, much longer than California has existed as a state. The present culture of California could not exist in such a climate. Indian cultures have existed in all these varying climates but they were never as dense as the present population.  They were also not as settled and had a better sense of climate variability than the people who built the present day California.
For example, the Central Valley of California where some large part of the produce sold in the US is grown floods periodically.  The Indians tended not to build permanent settlements there.  They moved there when floods were not imminent and moved to higher ground when storms were likely.  The current culture on the other hand has built cities and farms in this flood plain that gets flooded in excess of ten feet every hundred years or so. The last great flood happened in 1862.  A flood of this magnitude happening today would destroy a good deal of housing and farms and also displace 6 million people.  It would also very likely drown much of the infrastructure that brings water to Los Angeles, San Francisco and other coastal cities.
So perhaps drought is not even the worst threat to California.  Drought is a threat to agriculture in California but then agriculture in California was never a good idea unless one is comfortable with the idea that it might only be a temporary arrangement.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Across Atlantic Ice or people came to America by boat

In their book Across Atlantic Ice, the authors posit the theory that people of the Clovis culture came to America along the edge of the ice sheet that went from the northern coast of Spain to the northern Atlantic coast of America.  The idea is that they traveled by boat, skinboat supposedly along the ice edge and ate sea mammals that they killed along the way.
You can read the book if you are interested in the details.  The main reason the authors posited their theory of migration by sea was that the mainstream theory which had people walking to America lacked any evidence to back it up.  Had the Clovis people walked to America, there should be some trace of their presence in the form of spear points found in Alaska or Siberia, but there wasn't.  Instead, the authors claim that the Clovis trail of artifacts leads back to the coast of Spain.
Critics of this theory say that there is no evidence of the boats that the Clovis people supposedly used to make their crossing.  Of course there wouldn't be after all this time because the organic materials that made up the boats would long have disappeared.
But the main thing that interests me about this dispute is the inability of modern people to imagine the ability of earlier humans to build boats.  It is also something that the authors accuse their critics of. In any case, there are other migrations that were made thousands of years ago, like the migration to Australia that left no evidence of boats although they could not have been made in any other way given that even at lowest sea levels there was water between their starting point and their destination.
Michael Collins, the author of the foreword to the book calls this inability to imagine that ancient people were as imaginative as contemporary humans paleoracism. I don't know that I would call that shortage of imagination racism, but it springs out of the same place that racism does, out of the inability to give others full credit for human abilities.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Tumarayulit - Kayaks able to repair themselves



In Paitarkiutenka, My Legacy to You, Frank Andrews tells of kayaks able to repair themselves. On page 311 he says, "And some kayaks were endowed with supernatural attributes in the past.  At present, kayaks no longer have these qualities."
Apparently, some builders were able to build these kinds of kayaks. Andrews reports that it is said that the kayaks got this protection from destruction from the predecessors of the builders.
He tells of one instance where a builder's young son was angry at his father and attacked his father's kayak with an ax but was not able to hurt it even though it was only covered in painted canvas.

Friday, June 5, 2015

How Long Will It Last?

I bought a Nikon SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera in 1970 and used it continuously and extensively for about 30 years without a problem.  Around 2000, or whenever it was that digital cameras became commonplace, I bought a digital camera which lasted for a few years until the power circuitry died.  After that, I got a waterproof digital camera, a relatively simple one that still takes pictures but something happened to the lens so that when I zoom in on something, the image gets progressively more out of focus from left to right.  But it still takes pictures.  I have heard a fellow kayaker say that he gets a new waterproof camera every two years or so.  Somewhere in there, my wife got a Lumix digital camera.  That acquired dust spots on the sensor so that every picture has dark splotches in it.  I got a Lumix as well, a later model that also got dust spots.  I paid sixty five dollars to a camera repair shop to get rid of the dust.  He did, and a year later, the dust was back.
Panasonic Lumix camera with dust on the sensor producing spots on the image. 

Though I may sound like I'm complaining, I mostly am trying to understand this phenomenon. Apparently electronics have roughly a two year life span or are manufactured to produce satisfactory results for no more than two years.  One might accuse manufacturers of planned obsolescence but that accusation is probably not justified.  The obsolescence of electronic should probably be blamed on the fact that electronic capability has been increasing at such a rate that people want new electronics every two years and they want it cheaply.  As a consequence, manufacturers will not make something that lasts longer than two years because they perceive that after two years nobody will want it any more anyway, so why bother.
Regardless of whether the manufacturers are scoundrels or not, they are de facto producing shoddy goods which for me as a consumer puts me in a position where I tend to want the cheapest possible camera since I know that it will only last for two years.  Manufacturers are in effect pushing lower and lower end product quality on society by putting tool users in a position where they will go for the lowest quality tool that will do the job and in turn produce the lowest quality possible end product with the lowest quality tool.

Why I stay away from High Tech

The title is maybe just a little extreme.  I don't stay away from high tech entirely.  I have a telephone and a computer and I drive a car.  But when it comes to me creating my own technology, like kayaks, tents and paddles, I prefer low tech.
My main reason for preferring low tech is that it has a short supply chain.  That is, tools and materials needed to produce low tech goods are generally available in the immediate environment and do not require complex layered technologies to support them.
I generally prefer hand tools to power tools because they are not dependent on electricity or batteries.



When I make things for other people, like paddles for instance, I use power tools because they cut down the amount of time it takes to make them so that I can price them competitively.
On the other hand, when I make paddles for myself and have no urgency about completing them, I can use salvaged wood and do the carving with an ax and a draw knife, no sanding needed.
I have a sufficient supply of hand tools to last me the rest of my life, but should I need some new tool, I know enough blacksmiths to have them make it for me.
I sharpen my own planes and chisels and can make new bodies and handles for them as needed.
Saws are a little more difficult to maintain.  I do not have the tools to keep them sharp.  Perhaps I should.
So what is it that makes me want a short supply chain?  It is pessimism about the stability of supply chains I guess.  High tech goods follow fashion and don't have a very long life span.  As soon as you learn how to use a new high tech tool or material, it is replaced by a newer version and you have to learn all over, wasting time and assuring a consistently low grade product.  But never mind.  The high tech tool or product does not have to last.  It will be superseded by a new version making the thing you made obsolete before it breaks down.  No one should care that the thing you made them will only last three years as long as you bring out a new version every two years.
But I like things to work reliably for as long as possible and high tech is short lived.  Nor is high tech gear expected to work right.  I remember a tech rep doing something to a mass spectrometer in a lab that I was working on in school.  The professor whose spectrometer it was grumbled about reliability and the tech retorted,  "What do you expect?  We're pushing the state of the art here."
I guess I would prefer something to work at the cost of not pushing the state of the art.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Unangax^ (Aleut) Kayak Terms, Part 0


A few decades back, Knut Bergsland, wrote an article called Aleut Kayak Terms which was published in Contributions to Kayak Studies in 1992. The article contains a wealth of information but in a format that is difficult to extract information from.  The article has a few illustrations that tie Unangax^ names directly to kayak parts and parts of hunting implements, but for the most part, illustrations are lacking and we have to wade through Bergsland's difficult syntax to figure out what's what.
Sample page of  Bergsland's prose.  Click on image for readable size illustration.

So for some time, I have been wanting to draw some pictures of the things that Bergsland was supplying names for so that someone wanting to know what the Unangan called their kayak parts and activities related to kayaking would have an illustrated guide, myself being the primary audience.
As it turned out, the project was always in progress and never made much headway, primarily because I didn't  give it the time it needed and because I didn't think there was enough of an audience besides myself to justify the effort.  After all,  the information was there in Bergsland's article, even if difficult to extract.
Sample of kayak drawings I made to anchor Unangax^ kayak terms to. What would be helpful would be English names for the kayak parts and the transliterations that Bergsland gave where the Unangax^ names were descriptive, for instance, deckbeam for kicking your feet against.  

But the other day I was for some reason inspired again to work on this project and thought that if I approached it piecemeal and posted my illustrations with Unangax^ names attached as I completed them, they would be available even if I never finished the thing as a whole.
Some Background
Unangam Tunuu, the Aleut language, had several dialects so that there might be different names for the same kayak part depending on the dialect.  Also, names varied over time and from village to village even within the same dialect.  Bergsland records these variations to the extent that they made it into print.
Bergsland distinguishes between several dialects, which he calls Eastern Aleut (EA), Atkan Aleut (AA) and Attuan Aleut (AU).  Within the article itself, he uses only the abbreviations.  Where Unangax^ kayak terms are similar to Yupik, Bergsland also lists them, primarily as he explains that this indicates antiquity, given that Eskimo an Aleut languages diverged quite some time ago.
Stay tuned.  More of this sort of stuff may be forthcoming.