Wednesday, November 30, 2005

I suppose it goes without saying...

Sunday, November 27, 2005

While we were eating dinner...

George decided that bringing home the troops might be a good idea, and so announced the Pentagon: they're working on it and hope to have a time-line soon - oy vey, did I hear that right?

Michael Brown, failed head of FEMA, is starting a disaster preparedness consulting firm. The L.A. Times put it right in calling his firm a "disaster planning firm." I'm sure only people planning to create a disaster will want to hire him.

California's entire Republican congressional delegation voted, lock-step, for cutting health, food stamp, child-support collection programs. On the other side of the compassion coin, at least FEMA delayed for a little while the casting out from their temporary housing the homeless victims of Katrina.

Isn't it interesting what sorts of things can happen when we're conveniently occupied with a long holiday weekend?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Building Pup...

A few weeks ago, I launched Pup, a little custom-built wooden tender for Dog Days, my Islander Bahama 28 sailboat. Once chocks are built, Pup will nest comfortably on Dog Days’ foredeck. Next step will be a cover and a tie-down system. Now that it’s done, I confess that I find myself wondering whatever possessed me in the first place to have it built. I don’t row and have never really thought about having a little rowboat, but somehow it just had to be.

It all began, I think, as way to live out a finally recognized childhood dream. In tender years, I know Water Rat’s admonition to Mole came to me in a bedtime story: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolute nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” And from another collection of childhood stories by Thorton W. Burgess, I recall a similar message about the joys of messing about along the muddy banks of Paddy the Beaver’s pond fed by a system of wandering streams. But I was a landlubber for too many years, and rowing a little boat was the last thing on my mind, so busy was I with things ashore.

After I found my way into sailing, I went on to buy boats and discovered the pleasure of motoring about in an inflatable dinghy. And as I wandered the docks at various marinas, whenever I saw a little wooden tender – a Fatty Knees or a Trinka – I found myself remembering the words of Jehosophat in Robert Gordon Anderson’s Half-Past Seven tale, the Jolly Roger: “wouldn’t that be fine!”

This all struck me one day last spring, while talking with my friend John Tuma, sailor and, as I discovered in our conversation, small boat builder. As we stood on the docks beside Green Onions, his Alerion Express 28, just across from Dog Days, an idea hatched. Why not have John build a tender for Dog Days, one I could use at mooring or anchor, a fine little wooden one.

One of John's custom built rowboats.

We talked about it, and a concept began to emerge. It would have to be small, perhaps six feet long by three-and-a-half feet wide. It had to be lightweight, maybe forty pounds, so I could easily put it on and off the foredeck of Dog Days. And that meant, if it was to be wooden, which was the whole point in my mind, it would have to be plank, not lap construction.

John’s eyes lit up. “Just happens,” he said, “that I’m finishing another project and am looking for something new.” With that, we embarked on trying to find a design that would fit my needs as well as serve him as a prototype of a lightweight, small boat tender.

At home I looked over brochures on various tenders, and John emailed me photos of a tender he’d recently built as well as other ideas. I loved the idea of a boat that could sail as well, and I liked the traditional look of lap construction, but both these characteristics meant the tender would easily top eighty pounds. Moreover, the length of the typical tender inevitably was around eight feet, and this seemed (although probably was not) just a bit too big to nest easily on the foredeck of my twenty-eight foot Islander. Weight and length came to govern our search.

Via the Internet I finally found an example of what I was looking. The Barrow Boat Company, located in the U.K., offers a variety of completed or kit-built rowing and sailing dinghies. Among them was their original little six-foot dinghy, which seemed to be just the sort of thing I was looking for. I sent the reference to John, and he agreed that this style would probably work well, so he set out to design our tender based on the general idea of the six-foot Barrow Boat.

While Pup was under construction, Latitude 38 published a photo a similar nesting dinghy, Taxi Dancer, built by Warwick Tompkins in 2004.

From Lectronic Latitude, August 8, 2004.

Pup was constructed in John’s shop, a one-stall garage in the city parks and recreation yard storage building at Lake Elizabeth in Fremont, California. There, John finalized the plans for our tender, drawing it full size on a 4x8 piece of plywood. From this pattern he constructed the closely spaced molds on which he would apply the planking of western red cedar strips.

The cedar strips were edge glued and then glued and doweled to the plywood transoms. Because the boat has so much shape, staples would not hold the cedar strips to the molds. John therefore screwed the strips to molds, removing them after the glue set. Dowels were used to fill the screw holes.

Once the hull planking was completed, the hull and transoms were sheathed on the outside with a layer of four-ounce fiberglass set in epoxy. The interior of the hull also was sheathed with four-ounce glass, but the interior of the transoms was not as a way to save weight. Prior to final painting and varnishing, all wood surfaces were sealed with two coats of epoxy.

A tiny keel is added, and the bottom painted with epoxy thickened with cabosil (amorphous fumed silica) and graphite powder, a mixture formulated by John. The clear fir rails are been glued in place.

Off the framing, the tender is supported by a temporary brace. Clear fir rails have been added, and the interior hull has been glassed.

Initially, we thought we would paint the inside, but the cedar strip planking looked so nice, we agreed to varnish it instead.

The aft bulkhead was constructed of Finnish Birch, Okoume, and Luaun. Foam was mixed and filled the bulkhead to meet U.S. Coast Guard floatation requirements.

Two coats of epoxy were applied to the seats prior to painting.

John prepares a high quality rope bumper, which will be glued to the rail, with hand holds on each end of the boat.

Painted and varnished, everything is done except for the rope rail and attaching hardware.

Off the bench, the tender Pup, is finished, with double-rope-handholds at the bow and bronze oarlocks in place.

The stern has a single-rope-handhold.

As only appropriate, John Tuma is the first to take Pup for a spin at the marina.

John demonstrates the proper way to enter and exit Pup at the dock. Notice the nice floor board which John added to the interior. It added a little weight, but makes enormous difference when using the boat.

After John took the first spin in Pup, I got my chance, and quickly discovered I needed to do a lot of practicing to improve my rowing skills.

My partner, Deborah, clearly has rowed more often than me, and she loved her spin in Pup.

Pup is just what John and I hoped she’d be: a pretty and surprisingly stable little tender. Deborah and I are going to have lots of fun with her over the years, and I'm really looking forward to exploring anchorages all across San Francisco Bay.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

It's all about us...

Count on my friend Mark to feed me good articles and make cogent comments about the issues they raise. As he pointed out to me yesterday,

"We can't have a discussion of values bounded by the kind of rules that define Texan Congressional districts. There's more to the moral fiber of America than a black and white call over abortion and gay marriage. Whether the president has skated over the high crimes and misdemeanor line far enough to be actionable will ultimately become a political game, that will make the Tom Delay show seem quaint, but the patriotism of each voter demands a hard look at what is being done in our name. Poverty, pollution, individual rights, unbridled debt, and the big daddy of immorality, state sponsored torture. We'd bomb the crap out of a banana republic who did such [thing to] any of our citizens."

The article he referenced is a piece in Slate, about American "torture policies." We both particularly like John McCain's comment: "It's not about who they are, it's about who we are."

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Energy: to regulate or not to regulate...

Since I wrote the only definitive history of energy in California, Energy and the Making of Modern California, several people have asked me to comment on Proposition 80, which seeks to re-regulate California electric power companies.

The energy crisis in 2001 was a crisis of greed more than one of energy supply. To be sure, power marketers and power generators behaved just the way capitalists are expected to behave: they took care of their investors by exacting the best price they possibly could get for their product. Like manufacturers who advertise shoddy products as "meeting or exceeding government standards," price-gouging energy suppliers observed that they were simply "working within the law." And why were they allowed to do this? Because energy was deregulated.

But market ideology is not desirable in every conceivable circumstance, and in the case of electric power it is fraught with dangers for society's greater good. Lynn White's insight that technology merely opens doors, it does not require that one walk through them, can and should be applied as well to doors opened by economic advantages and political opportunities. California's experience with energy "restructuring," is probably not one to emulate, and few other states have moved ahead with deregulation since the California debacle. But can we turn the clock back? Well, we have already to some degree, and I suspect it's best left to the legislature and energy policy makers rather than to voters who really will never get beyond sound-bites in making a decision.

So, vote "no" on Prop. 80, is my view.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

On special elections - democracy's evil twin...

Jules Tygiel, a fellow historian, professor at San Francisco State University, and author of Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism, writes a top notch op-ed in the L.A. Times. I couldn't agree more with him!

IF GOV. ARNOLD Schwarzenegger really wants to "blow up the boxes" in Sacramento, he should sponsor one two-line initiative:

"There shall be no further initiatives.

"All previous initiatives may be modified by a majority vote of the Legislature."

When asked after the Constitutional Convention in 1787 what kind of government the new American nation had adopted, Benjamin Franklin famously replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." In a republic, there is no monarch. More important, representatives elected by the people enact laws on their behalf.

Throughout the first century of the United States, Americans ardently embraced this idea. When Texans broke away from Mexico in 1836 and formed an independent entity, the rebels dubbed it the Lone Star Republic. The motley frontiersmen who sought to emulate the feat in California 10 years later called their short-lived creation the Bear Flag Republic.

Frustrated by the railroads' and corporations' control of legislative bodies and political parties, agrarian reformers proposed a variation on the republican form of government in the late 19th century direct democracy. When elected officials ignored the will of the people, they contended, the people should be able to propose their own laws, reject or revise existing ones and remove public officials. The initiative, referendum and recall would be the instruments of the popular will.

The agrarians failed to achieve their goals, but the Progressives picked up their cause in the early 20th century. Under their leadership, many states and localities, particularly in the West, enacted direct-democracy legislation. At the behest of Progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson, the Legislature added the initiative, referendum and recall to the California Constitution in 1911.

As a rule, liberals, who feared corporate privilege and professed faith in the ability of the masses to govern, championed direct democracy. Conservatives, who advocated laissez-faire economics and feared the tyranny of the majority, opposed it. Johnson's father, Grove, derided supporters of direct democracy. "The voice of the people is not the voice of God, for the voice of the people sent Jesus to the cross," he admonished.

Californians ignored his warnings and adopted a draconian version of the initiative. The Legislature could not amend an initiative passed by voters. Short of a court declaring it unconstitutional, a flawed initiative could only be corrected by another ballot measure. Nonetheless, most Progressives viewed the initiative not as a general tool of governance but rather as an emergency solution. Initiatives were only to remedy the Legislature's gross failures.

California voters generally acted according to this view. From 1912 to 1978, they passed 46 initiatives, about two every three years. Proposition 13 changed this pattern.

The 1978 proposition slashed property tax rates and limited increases on the assessment at the time of sale. It also transformed the state's political landscape in two other critical ways. Since 1933, California law had required a two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature to approve a budget. Proposition 13 applied the supermajority threshold to all tax increases. Thus a small, unified opposition party could paralyze the budget process and block efforts to raise revenues.

The success of Proposition 13 marked the beginning of a new trend. The initiative was no longer viewed as a means to correct the Legislature. Rather, it became an instrument to govern. Between 1982 and 1988, voters passed 22 measures. In the 1990s, they passed 24 more. In the 20 years since Proposition 13, Californians passed more initiatives than in the preceding 6 1/2 decades.

Many of these measures further limited the Legislature's ability to govern. Proposition 4, approved in 1979, imposed limits on the growth of state spending. Proposition 98, passed in 1988, mandated that 40% of the state's general fund be spent on public schools and community colleges.

These and similar measures restrict state legislators' flexibility and curb their ability to reach budget compromises. As a result, direct democracy has turned the annual budget process into an annual budget crisis.

The initiative remains popular among all segments of the California electorate. Liberals are still wedded to the dream of popular sovereignty, and once-skeptical conservatives embrace it as a way to remove many issues from the jurisdiction of elected officials.

In truth, the initiative has, in effect, strangled the republic and made California less governable. The Nov. 8 special election will, by definition, exacerbate, not cure, what ails California.

If we want to reclaim the republican model established by our founding fathers, we must have one final ballot measure: one that terminates the initiative. That would truly be a special election.