Tuesday, August 28, 2007

It's crowded at the pinnacle of stupid

Kari Smith auctioned off tattoo space on her forehead for $10,000, reportedly to provide a better life for her son. Thanks, mom.

If you think this is funny, you might like the movie "Idiocracy". It's a comedy about a future dystopia in which society has been ridiculously dumbed-down by generations of bad tv, advertising, junk food, and only stupid people breeding. Here's the intro.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Happy Hour

Diffuse light and heat filled the atmosphere. August haze obscured the horizon. A 16-knot Southeasterly stirred the silty Chesapeake. Bay Tree Beach, isolated row of homes at a marsh margin, was as close as I could come to this humid breath from the Atlantic. I rigged my windsurf on a damp lawn aside a hurricane-prone house. (I'd befriended the owners the previous summer, and now they let me launch from their private beach.) Eager to escape the mosquitoes and flies in the lee of the house, I carried my equipment into the water, and with a sigh, sank up to my neck.

All I felt was wet. Everything else was neutral; the color, the temperature of the air and water, even my own mood. It was five fifteen on a Friday; happy hour, and I was alone, losing my senses in liquid. The reverie lasted a few moments, then, dutiful to my wind obsession, I lifted the sail and was pulled onto my board.

I windsurfed for a long time, carving in and amongst the soft swells, and now and then trailing a lazy hand in the tepid blood of the bay.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Don't ask me, I'll ask myself

There are times in life when you get asked the same questions over and over again. The questioners are usually well-meaning, but by sheer force of repetition, their questions can become mildly annoying. Here are the questions most commonly asked of people at different ages, along with typical answers:

To a little kid:
Q- How old are you?
A- Free and a haf

To a medium kid:
Q- What grade are you in?
A- Fourth, again.

To a teenager:
Q- What are your college plans?
A- Dude, I’m in the 7th grade, I don’t freakin’ know.

To a college student:
Q- What’s your major?
A- Uh, I'm still undecided.

To a graduate student:
Q- What are you studying?
A- You wouldn’t understand it- I don’t.

To an adult:
Q- How’s work?
A- I’ve been overwhelmingly busy and my coworker Mr. ______ is a dimwit.

To a parent:
Q- How are the kids?
A- They're all successful, attractive, well-behaved, athletic artist geniuses... on the inside.

To a retiree:
Q- How was your cruise?
A- Good, except for the Ebola.

To an old person:
Q- How’s your health?
A- Just kill me now.

Seriously, though, there are some questions that I am asked ALL all the time. I’ll try to answer some of them for real in this blog.

Career / Life questions

Q- What are you studying at VIMS?
A- I study eelgrass, which is a plant that lives under the ocean. Eelgrass needs unpolluted water to live, and it also depends on animals like shrimp and snails to keep its blades clean. I’m trying to learn more about animal interactions with seagrass so we can use that knowledge to help save it. There are lots of good reasons to save the eelgrass, like the fact that it helps clean the water, provides good habitat for fish, and protects shorelines from erosion.

Q- When do you graduate?
A- I hope to become Dr. James in May 2008.

Q- Then what are you going to do?
A- I’m not sure, but I’m applying for “post-docs”, which are low-level research positions at universities or other scientific institutions. After that I’ll try to climb the career ladder and get an interesting academic or government job related to marine biology and ecology.

Q- What’s it like living in Gloucester Point?
A- There aren't a lot of distractions.

Q- Where do you eventually want to live?
A- The West Coast would be nice, but the East Coast South of DC is ok.

Windsurfing Questions

Q- Have you been windsurfing lately?
A- Yeah.

Q- How fast can you go on that thing?
A- My fastest recorded speed was 31 mph. The world record is 54 mph.

Q- Can you do a flip?
A- No, just regular jumps. I’m still trying to get up the nerve to try a flip.

Q- Have you ever tried kiteboarding?
A- No, I have not. But it looks like like lots of fun.

Random Date Questions

Q- What kind of music do you like?
A- Mainly rock, reggae, and techno. I have some latent bohemian tendencies, but lack the motivation and cash to be a real hipster music connoisseur. My most recent album purchase was The Shins’ “Wincing the Night Away”.

Q- What do you look for in a woman?
A- I’m not going to go there.

If you have any questions I neglected to ask myself here, you can ask me in the comments section.

Monday, August 20, 2007

It’s lonely at the pinnacle of cool

“Formula” is a class of windsurf racing with giant sails, short, wide boards, and long fins. A formula windsurfer can get hydroplaning in lighter winds and sail around a course faster than any other type of windsurfer. Riding formula is an intense feeling of power and speed, and racing formula is like being in a jet plane dogfight.

Yet, only a tiny minority of windsurfers race in the formula class. If formula is so cool, why isn’t it more popular? Here’s my theory:

1. Too hard / too scary.
The biggest sails for recreational windsurfing are about the same size as the SMALLEST sails for formula windsurfing. But to keep up around the formula course, you need to rig big. The wide boards make it possible to handle an oversized sail, but it’s still a difficult and scary task, especially when you’re barreling downwind at breakneck speed. After a 20 minute formula race you’re exhausted, more than likely humiliated, and, if you’re Alan Bernau, the pain makes you ornery (see below).

2. Too expensive. All the gear for formula windsurfing is made to be ultra light and strong, which means it’s super pricey. The carbon boom alone can cost over $700, and because you’re pushing the equipment to the limit, you’re likely to break stuff and need lots of spares and replacements. Also, there’s a rapid arms-race with the gear, so to stay competitive you need to shell out for the latest and greatest stuff every year. What allowed me to dabble in formula for a few years was the glut of second and third hand equipment. In the picture below I’m riding Soheil Zahedi’s old Starboard F158 board, hanging on to John Quinn’s old 12.0 Gaastra Nitro III rig, and getting lift underwater from Alan Bernau’s old Curtis FR17 fin. I actually won a heat that day- the highlight of my brief formula career.

3. Too dependent on conditions. Though formula gear can get planing relatively early, it still requires at least 8 knots of wind to work properly. I’ve been to some events where the formula sailors waited around for days and never got to sail, while the traditional “longboard” windsurfers had lots of good races in light wind. Also, the long (70 cm) upright fins of formula boards are no good in shallow water, or water with seaweed or debris that can get snagged. And because the boards and sails are so big and lightly built, they are difficult and dangerous to launch where there are breaking waves (see Ron Kern pondering the shorebreak at Buckroe Beach in Hampton, VA).

Despite these disadvantages, there are a several formula fleets in the US. The best one is in San Francisco, where strong, consistent winds, high population density, and a culture of windsurfing and yacht racing create the perfect environment for hard-core formula racing. This year the US Windsurfing Nationals were held in San Francisco, where young racer Seth Besse took first place. I was rooting for Steve Bodner (2nd) and Andreas Macke (9th) because they both have cool blogs.

Maybe someday when I’m more upwardly mobile and I have a van, trailer, and / or a garage I will get back into formula windsurfing. Until then I’m pretty satisfied with the more low-key longboard racing.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Jesus Camp

I really dig documentaries. Last night I saw a great one called "Jesus Camp". It's a look inside an evangelical church camp and the lives of the families whose kids attend the camp. The film is done in an even-handed way that doesn't make the evangelicals look like bad people or anything. Nevertheless, it raises a serious alarm for folks like me who support a separation of church and state and a scientific view of the natural world.

Here's the trailer-

Jesus Camp is on video so you can probably rent it anywhere.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Playing “Outside”

I recently read a cool blog about the virtues of outdoors exploration and play for kids. It was inspired by Richard Louv’s, “Last child in the woods”, which I’m fixing to read.

Yep, I sure enjoyed the outdoors part of my childhood. I get nostalgic thinking about walking in the woods, fishing at the beach, or biking around the hidden parts of the nearby Evergreen State College campus. This picture is the famous Evergreen Clock Tower.

Last Saturday I felt like a kid again, doing a different kind of “outside” play. It was at a special place called Factory Point, perhaps the most wonderful, exciting, awesome place to windsurf in all of Southeastern Virginia. What makes it wonderful? Well, I can answer that best with a bulleted list.

1. Natural beauty. Factory Point is at the mouth of a minor estuary called Back River, which opens into the main stem of Chesapeake Bay. There are a couple of small marinas in the area, but other than that it’s as “wild” as you can get in Hampton Roads. The only sign of the namesake factory is a line of rotted pilings north of the river mouth. After the factory was abandoned the military used that land for target practice, leaving it full of unexploded ordinance. That’s a good thing because nothing less than the threat of explosive dismemberment could keep developers away from such excellent waterfront.

2. Wildlife. The mouth of Back River is partially closed by a sandspit and island, which shelter an extensive, shallow eelgrass bed, one of the healthiest in the Bay. The little island is a seabird rookery, with a nice colony of skimmers and oystercatchers. Recreational boaters like to park along the island to sunbathe and carouse, but apparently that doesn’t stop the birds from making more birds.

3. Diversity of conditions. The sand spit makes for relatively smooth water on the inside, while the open bay on the outside has sizeable waves when it’s breezy. If the tide is high enough, you can cut across the spit to get “outside;” otherwise you have to go around the island and out the river channel Directly in the lee of the low island the water is ultra smooth- perfect conditions for speed runs.

4. Cool people. Whenever it’s windy, there are a lot of windsurfers at Factory Point. Just like a good joke, windsurfing is most fun when it’s shared.

On Saturday lots of my local buddies were out, including fellow instructors Bruce Powers and Joachim Pfieffer, and technical wizard Todd Ferrante. I was chasing Todd around in the channel area when he pulled up to the shore of the island. I followed him there and stopped to chat. He said, “Want to go OUTSIDE?” I was like, “YEAH!” So we headed out and zipped around in the breaking waves zone, trying for the biggest jumps we could do, and politely exaggerating how high we estimated the other person to have jumped. We encountered a big, old yacht foundering just offshore of the island, and learned from some people on the beach that it had broken down there that morning. As we watched, it cracked apart in the breaking waves, spilling out all sorts of weird stuff. Todd was super excited about the “shipwreck” and convinced me to help raid it. We picked through the debris washing up but didn’t find anything particularly amazing. The best find was a floating refridgerator that had unopened water bottles in the freezer section, because we were thirsty. On the way back to the launch at Bell Isle Marina, we went for some super duper speed runs in the flat water. YES!
Anyway, if I hadn’t had the outdoors upbringing I did, I probably would have spent Saturday playing videogames like this guy.

Friday, August 10, 2007


In spring of 2006 I was a teacher’s assistant for freshman biology at William and Mary.

It was fun, but commuting from VIMS to the W&M main campus sucked time out of my schedule. I was having to work later at VIMS and become more opportunistic with my windsurfing sessions. Fortunately I found a launch on the James River near the Jamestown Ferry (somehow I felt I belonged there :P) where I could grab a quickie on the way home from TA’ing. I was cruising along there one spring afternoon when, “WHAM!” I hit something underwater and the board immediately skidded out sideways. I knew I had lost the fin. Retracing my steps in the muddy chest-deep water I found the culprit- a barely-submerged piling. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the fin- it was gone forever. Sailing back to shore was nearly impossible, because the board kept sliding around uncontrollably.

The whole point of that story was to illustrate why you need a fin; you need it to be able to go in a straight line. When the wind blows in your sail it wants to push the board sideways, but resistance from the fin balances out the sideways force so the board goes forward instead. Aside from that basic function, the fin also helps with planing, sailing upwind, and carving into a turn. With big sails you need a big fin to keep from side-slipping, and with small sails you need a small fin to go fast and stay in control. In addition to fin size, there are a lot of nuances of fin shape that also affect performance. I’m going to talk about some of them in the context of the fin “quivers” I have for each of my three boards.

Fins for the big “Kona”:

The Kona came with the white and blue fin on the right. It’s tall and relatively straight for power and efficiency, but it’s a little curved at the tip to help with turns. I really like it, but you can’t use it when there is eelgrass drifting in the water. The eelgrass gets wrapped around the fin and disrupts the water flow, making you skid out. That’s why you need a slanted “weed fin” like the one on the left, which lets the eelgrass slide off the tip. A weed fin is less efficient for its size than a regular fin, but it’s like... uhh... a totally mellow ride, dude.

Fins for the medium “Skate”:

The fins for my mid-sized shortboard are basically the same as the fins for the Kona, but scaled down a bit in size. I have two non-weed fins because I got one for free from UNC professor John Bruno when he switched from windsurfing to Kiteboarding.

Fins for the small “Banana Board”:

All these fins are much smaller than the ones for the Kona and the Skate, because they are meant to be used with small sails in high winds. The one on the left is a weed fin, with a little extra curviness, which is supposed to make it turn nicely in waves. The one in the middle is a basic wave fin that is made for sharp turns, and the one on the right is a combo of a go-fast fin and a sharp-turn fin.

If you're a windsurfer wondering what kind of board, sail or fin would be best for you, check out this automatic windsurfing equipment calculator.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Chester and Me

This morning I wrote my name and phone number on a blue sheet from my notepad and set out to do something I had been procrastinating for two years. I was going to introduce myself to my elderly neighbor.

When I went over I saw a note on the old man’s door, “Go to back”. So I walked around his tidy yard and let myself in through the back fence, careful not to let his tiny dog escape. The door on the man’s back porch opened directly into a den, which I figured was the epicenter of his convalesence within the home. I knocked on the window and through the curtain I saw my neighbor's skinny silhouette rise from a recliner. He opened the door and our conversation started something like this:

“Hi, I’m James, your neighbor. I just thought I’d come and introduce myself.”

“Eh, ok, well, come on in and sit down.”

The old man said his name was Chester and that he was originally from Pennsylvania, but had lived in the house since 1962. His wife had passed away some time before, but he had a couple of kids who lived in the area and helped him take care of his yard and stuff. I told Chester a bit about myself, and we talked about VIMS and all the new buildings going up there. Chester was a really nice guy who seemed quite sharp guy despite his advanced age.

Before you start thinking I’m nice or something, let me tell you about my ulterior motive for visiting Chester. I was sore about his son having poisoned the vegetation along both sides of the fence between us. The copious quantities of poison applied took out my beloved lilies, irises, and bird-of-paradise flowers along with the weeds I’d let run wild. I guess Chester’s son assumed that since I wasn’t grooming the yard I wouldn’t care what he did with it. So I really can’t blame him. More than anything I was just kicking MYSELF for not opening up lines of neighborly communication early enough to prevent the ecological disaster. I’m willing to weed all day long, if it will prevent an ugly omni-poisoning.

Anyway, I did tell Chester that I would be happy to weed along my side of the fence if it would prevent his son from spraying there. He may or may not have caught that this was a key motivation for the visit. When I left I gave Chester the sheet with my name and phone number and told him to call me if there was ever an emergency or something he needed help with. Hopefully this morning’s neighborly exchange will the first of many, and will increase the harmony of our side-by-side existence.

Epilogue: After I left Chester’s house I pulled out and raked up all the dead plants from the edge of my yard, and disposed of them in my other neighbors’ waste pile. It was hot and miserable but things look better now.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


This is the second post in the “Boredology” series. It attempts to explain and justify my having 7 sails for windsurfing instead of just one. Regarding boards, I wrote that you only “need” one, but that it’s nice to have more. Likewise, a one-sail quiver is doable, but a range of sail sizes for different wind conditions will give higher performance. That’s because the optimal wind range of a sail, in which it provides enough power to get you “planing” but not so much as to be unmanageable, spans only about 5 mph. You could have one sail that was great from 15-20 mph, but it would be flaccid in 10 mph, and overpowering in 25 mph. That, in a nutshell, is why people like me have so many sails; to cover all the wind speeds you’re likely to encounter. My biggest sail, 9.8 meters squared, will get me planing in about 11 mph of wind. And my smallest sail (I just bought a 3.5 at a swap meet today) should let me sail in control in winds up to around 35 mph. (BTW, if you want to know what size sail YOU should use in a certain wind strength, check out my automatic windsurfing equipment calculator for different winds and body weights.)

Anyway, I made this cool chart of my sail sizes and the number of days I have used each between January and August this year.
Obviously my small sails (5.2 and down) haven’t gotten used very much, and probably aren’t practical in any normal sense. But not having sails for those rare, super-windy days would feel like fishing with no bait. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to use the new-to-me 3.5 before the year is out. If not, I can always let beginners use it for learning, which is what I normally do to keep my small sails from getting lonely.
That’s about all I have to say on sailology. I could go into more detail about the different kinds of sails and their special features, but I think I’ll save that for another day and end with a photo of the 9.8 and me at the W.E.T. Spring Regatta at Yorktown this year. The wind was really light and the current was really strong, so we all needed our biggest sails just to be able to make it back to the beach.