Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Daily Practice: Frustration

When we become frustrated, we are practicing frustration, and our frustration becomes quicker and stronger next time.

When we calm our frustration, we are practicing calm, and calming ourselves becomes quicker and stronger next time.

I wrote a long post today, then took a break. When I came back, all but the first two sentances were lost. I felt an initial stab of frustration. This immediate reaction is beyond my control. I reacted to this reaction by immediately taking a long deep breath.

What, neuro-chemically, is a long, deep breath doing for the body? I have no idea. It clears the lungs, causing the CO2 concentration sense to clear, providing a measure of discomfort relief for a tiny discomfort we usually forget even exists. It oxygenates the bloodstream, which obviously affects the brain pretty quickly since it usually only takes five or six really deep breaths to get the first sense of hyperventilation. It stretches the chest cavity, and stretching also clears a discomfort. There is also almost certainly a level of placebo acting as well from the cultural belief in the calming power of a deep breath, but I suspect that this is acting on top of actual breath calming mechanisms.

Are these the only reasons deep breathing is calming? I don't know. I don't even know if these are primary reasons. But I have consistently experienced the calming power of deep breathing, and have incorporated it into a de-stressing pattern. Having practiced a deep breath when I feel a sudden stress, it has become almost second nature to reach for this first step in the de-stressing toolkit as soon as I feel the first hit of, in this case, frustration. I know chainsmokers who will reach into their pocket for a cigarette with the same habitual readiness.

Next, I relax my muscles. This is the shorter version of something I used to do when I would start meditating. I would start at my toes and clench the muscles as hard as I can for a second, then completely relax the muscle. Then I would move up to the feet, then up the legs, and so on, clenching and releasing one section of muscles at a time. When just starting out, it is valuable to try and find muscles you normally don't think about, try and flex every single one separately. Having finished, try to clench every single muscle in your body. Hold it while you mentally inventory all your muscles, finding and clenching any you have forgotten about. When you feel like you have them all, release it all at once. Having released, do a mental inventory to see if any muscles are still tight and release them as well.

This is a worthwhile exercise on its own, especially as part of a stretching or meditative hour. So much stress accumulates just from tiny discomforts like a tight muscle or the CO2 sense in your lungs, and releasing that tension brings a level of calm and reduces stress. But once you have taken that inventory of your muscles a few times, you can reliably relax all your muscles at once without the buildup. I don't mean you should go from standing to collapsing on the floor, that would be silly, but when you develop an awareness of just how tense your muscles are, then you can relax everything not needed for maintaining posture, and you can feel just how much effort it takes without you even knowing just to stay standing on two feet.

Returning to the thread here, I experienced a sudden external shock that raised my stress and arousal levels. With a deep breath and muscle relaxing, I have returned to equillibrium. This is all that is needed for a minor, non-physical shock.

Having re-centered myself, I can now move forward. What, specifically, is the problem? How clearly and precisely can I articulate it? Here, the problem is easy to articulate, the writing I have done appears to be lost. Did identifying the problem cause me any stress? In this case, no, but sometimes simply trying to identify the problem or stating the problem directly causes additional stress. This is not productive. If I allow myself to get upset during this phase, then I am less likely to solve the problem and more likely to spiral into negative emotional states. In this case, identifying the problem is fairly simple, my text has vanished.

Now a common next step after identifying the problem is to determine what has caused the problem. However, I tend to find that this can be counterproductive at times. It can lead to blame or recrimination. It is easy to answer the question "What caused this?" with "That stupid fucking whoever/whatever!" Identifying a cause in this way gets us no closer to solving the problem and creates new stress.

For this reason, I find it more productive to not ask how a thing occurred and instead ask how I can fix it. Sometimes in the process of fixing a thing it will become necessary to figure out how it broke, but delaying the question until then means it won't get asked as often, and when it does I will be focused on how is a narrow, mechanistic sense instead of a broader who can I blame sense.

Then I begin the process of fixing it. If it can be fixed, the problem is solved and any negative emotions were simply wasted. If I can't fix it, then I say "Such is life" and move on with life, having completely abandoned the unobtainable thing. Of course, giving up on unobtainable things is a challenge in its own right, but it will be a challenge for another post.

For now I will be mindful of my reactions and maintain calm as best I can.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Politics Addiction

Hello, I am entirely alive, and I am a politics addict. I got clean after a debilitating addiction thanks to shipping and simply being away from the world for extended periods, but slowly, slowly the shadow has been creeping back into my life. But as Brady and Gray over at Hello Internet say, what's important is not to always try to be perfect and then get upset when you fail to achieve that perfection, but to get back on the wagon every time you fall off. This is me climbing back on the wagon.

The first step in a twelve step program is to admit you have a problem. The next step is to admit I am powerless over the problem and that only an omnipotent and benevolent God can save me from addiction. Needless to say, no matter how inclusive and ecumenical you want to formulate that, it isn't a viable option for someone with Nihilist in the tagline of their blog.

If I can't call upon a magic sky fairy to do the heavy lifting for me, then I need to develop in myself the motivation to stop. I think I can do this in the same way that I motivate myself to abstain from alcohol, by convincing myself that it is a pernicious thing wholly without merit. With alcohol this is easy, at least for me, since it tastes bad, makes me feel sick, has been seen in others to lead to decisions that are later regretted, and costs a lot of money. With politics and mainstream news in general, this doesn't quite work. After all, news is essentially free on the internet and provides something that feels good, not necessarily pleasure, but a mix of stimuli that flatter the reader and encourage him that staying up to date is part of being a loyal tribesman.

Problem: News consumes too much time. I remember the good old days, when I blogged regularly and held a desk job and spent easily 2-4 hours a day doing nothing but reading news. I would look at my life from time to time and wonder why I could never get anything done. If nothing else, recovering this time for higher value activities is tremendously valuable. When I was only occasionally newsing it wasn't so bad, but yesterday I spent the entire time after work plugged to the phone. I failed to do my daily studying and did not really enjoy myself as much as I would have doing something else, I think.

Problem: Politics is fleeting. This urgency is part of the seduction of it all, if you miss a post, you probably won't ever see that piece of writing again. I have missed entire cabinet members during the twisty drama of the Trump administration. Why were they appointed? Why were they fired? And then, when you come back to it, it takes a few days to catch up to the thread of everything, and still you have a missed a whole season in an environment without re-runs. It can feel embarassing to not know what is going on, and it feels incredibly empowering to be the first on top of a story while everyone else is just catching up.

As an interlude, I just went to go get dinner, and upon returning promptly closed this tab and opened an internet news site, then proceeded to get halfway through an article on Climate Girl before realizing what I was doing. It really is an addiction, I really need to stop.

Problem: None of it matters. Nearly all of the news is gossip about people and events that don't affect me. A select few things going on right now could potentially affect me, like the Saudi attack, brexit, or immigration reform. Even brexit is a bit of a strech here, since it would mostly affect my ability to purchase warhammer products, if it even does that. But regardless, what matters is not the day to day drama that fills the 24 hour news cycle, the point scoring, the accusations, the duelling narratives, the poll numbers, the think pieces, the twitter gotchas, the whatabouts, the analogies to past villains, the prevaricating, the screeching, the tribal cheerleading, the partisan fact-checking, the memes, or even the satire which already can appear in my news feed faster than I can read about the underlying event. No, of all the current events, the only questions I have are: Will I be called out to crew a ship during my off time? Will I be able to purchase warhammer models without shortages or price increases? And will the K-1 visa process be changing. These are simple questions with simple answers that don't require obsessing over the minutia of how our benevolent overlords arrived at said answers.

And there is another sense in which none of it matters. There is nothing productive I can do with this extra knowledge. No, that is an overstatement, and a violation of epistemic humility. Rather I should say that the main avenues of "doing something" are largely closed to your average news reader, including myself. Notionally, the ultimate value of the news is to allow you to make an informed decision in an election or to otherwise move the needle on civic policies. Except that the ability of someone not devoting their life to the political industry to make any difference nationally is essentially zero. I believe I wrote a post about why your vote doesn't count way back in the deep archives of this blog, and I reprise that as a rant semi-regularly to random people at work. Since then (2012, shit that was a long time ago), we have seen the social media revolution come into full swing, and it can feel like things are different. If a high school boy in a red hat can get on CNN for smirking at an Indian, If a rich Swedish girl can yacht to the UN, if literally anyone can climb on twitter and claim a #metoo, then surely we are in an age when anyone can make a difference. But what did any of those people actually do that affects my life directly? Nothing. They just add to the gossip. They feed the churn. The swirling news vortex claims more and more attention and so requires more and more nonsense to obsess over until we get to the point that holy shit there is just too much news. The gossip has drowned out the results. The noise has overtaken the signal.

My vote doesn't matter. My voice, even if it somehow reaches an audience, will only ever get passed around by people who already agree. And violence is not desireable, though I need to discuss exactly why in a dedicated post some later date.

It has become like watching sports, but with a crucial difference. Imagine two radio stations, one in Chicago and one in Green Bay, each announcing the Bears v Packers game. Except now imagine that both announcers are simply making the entire game up. A game is happening, to be sure, but the accounts in each city are only very loosely based on what is actually happening, to the point that each side believes they came out of the game victorious. I then come down from Wisconsin to visit a friend in Chicago and I say "Hey, that was pretty amazing when Aaron Rogers threw a 95 yard touchdown pass" and my friend says "No, the packers didn't score once, they were completely shut out." In my confusion I can go visit the websites of both hometown newspapers, and both subreddits, only to find that each has a completely different account of the game. And if, like super bowl 1 or most political issues, there is only a small amount of actual video evidence, then there may simply be no way for me after the fact to establish what actually happened and what is actually true.

If you don't think it be like that, look at this Trump/Biden/Ukraine mess from multiple sources. The conservative internet and liberal internet have two versions of the story so fundamentally different it is like they are reporting two seperate football games. The few brave redditors that cross into enemy lines are shouted down for distracting from the real issues or for shilling. As someone not privy to the intimate financial details of the Trump and Biden household finances nor the records of the Ukrainian Prime Minister, I can either trust "my side" to be correct, trust "the other side" to be correct, or piss on the whole mess and wait until someone tells me if Trump gets impeached.

Because that is the other side of a news blackout. The things I actually need to know, that would actually affect my life, will be communicated to me in other channels. The union already texted me that 28 ships have been activated for the Persian Gulf. I can ask around at the Warhammer shop if anyone expects brexit disruptions. Major regulatory reforms will be reflected in changes to any paperwork I have to fill out. And if I encouter something new, I can just ask about it and probably get a decent summary from whoever I am interacting with.

In short, I am done with news. It is all coming off my phone. Even the highly clever Babylon Bee, since that is just a gateway drug. I will keep reddit, though unsubscribed from any current events, which may also be a mistake. I will also keep up with Warhammer news, because while many of the same criticisms apply to that, how else am I going to know when to get hyped about new plastic army men in space?

If I fall off the wagon, I will just have to get back on again. I am 2 hours sober from my news addiction.

Monday, September 23, 2019

In which I fail to live up to ideals

This afternoon I finished the project I was working on and had nothing else on my to-do list. So I went down to the shop and saw the 1st engineer and asked him if he had anything for me to do. He snapped that I could go do something productive. And so I walked back out of the shop and proceeded to get butthurt like a big whiny bitch and accomplished very little the rest of the day.

Much could be said about the 1st's management style and grumpyness. Indeed, much was said to the 3rd who was cleaning generator heads and idly pretending to care.

But none of that is relevant. I am not in control of the 1st engineer's mood. I am in control of my own mood, and today I surrendered that control to external circumstances, and failed to retake that control when I noticed myself becoming negative.

This is a failure, and a failure with consequenses, because every time I grow upset at the world around me I am practicing being upset at the world around me, and in the future being upset will come quicker and more strongly for having been exercised.

What should I have done? I should have monitored my mental state more closely, by maintaining mindfulness at all times. This is something I have fallen out of the habit of doing.

Upon noticing the deviance of my mental state, I should have practiced re-centering myself. Most likely I would in this circumstance have de-legitimized the offending statement, by telling myself that it in no way affects me, it doesn't say anything about me, and it is wholly unrelated to myself. It should be like when I walk by strangers on the street holding a conversation, my mind doesn't even process what is being said because it isn't related to me at all. Similarly, the 1st being grouchy speaks to the internal state of the 1st engineer, something I have little interest in and no responsibility or control over. It says nothing at all about me, and thus should be discarded from my thoughts.

Having discarded the pollutant, I should re-center myself. I could remind myself of how fortunate my life is and tune my mindfulness to the beauty and joy of the world.

These are the typical steps of maintaining positivity. First, be aware of a declining mood. Second, identify and resolve the source of the declining mood. Third, take active steps to re-center. The activities needed can vary according to situation, but this is something I have done in the past, but failed to do today.

Hopefully, by writing this I will be kept mindful of the need to do better.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Why Positivity?

Goodness, yesterday's post was an incoherent ramble with a surplus of words and a shortage of worth. Today's, I think, will be similar. I should stop writing while distracted and sleepy, but I reckon I wouldn't manage to write at all if I did that.

Anyway, once we have decided that morality is false and life is meaningless, we are left with four options. First is suicide, which is always an option, but always by default the last option. Obviously, you would never pick suicide first, since death will come in its own time whether you select it or not, but hastening your death is always an option, if usually a poor one.

Second is to simply ignore the meaninglessness and proceed through life wholly without philosophy. As discussed yesterday, there seem to be a reasonable number of people fully capable of doing this. Still, it is avoiding the problem, not solving it, so we won't be pursuing it as a viable option.

Third is to become very upset and unhappy at this situation. If life is meaningless, why do anything? Why get out of bed, why take care of our bodies? Why prolong this life at all when it would make no difference cosmically if we just jump back to option 1? And lest it seem like I am being too dismissive, it really can be upsetting to feel like Wile E. Coyote three steps past the cliff and just looking down for the first time. We can regret that our philosophy consists of rejecting established modes of thought who have adherants that live peaceful, happy lives while our own lives are a struggle made even harder by the lack of support a comforting illusion can provide. Many people are used to believing that it is necessary to have a reason to be happy, and without that the natural state of life is sadness. Even if it doesn't drive us to rage or tears, melancholy, emptiness, and alienation can develop as we come to grips with meaninglessness.

If we don't kill ourselves and we don't become sad, our only other option is to be happy. Maybe we can be happy in spite of our philosophy, but that sounds a lot like the option 2 of running away. We can, at least in theory, find happiness within a nihilistic framework. And I would posit that this is the only correct option to choose. After all, options 1 and 2 are simply escapes, not valid options at all, and option 3 is clearly inferior in every way to option 4. Why would you ever be unhappy when you could instead be happy? I am unaware of any system of value in which that would be prefered, ceterus paribus.

This is where some people become angry with me. Yes, they will concede, they would prefer happiness over unhappiness, but it isn't simply a choice to be made. One's emotional state, in their estimation, is dependant on outside factors and not wholly within our control. The outside factor of seeing the cold reality of existance being the relevant one here that is causing the spiral into depression.

To this I would counter that surely at least some of your happiness is within your control. This assertion becomes more complex when you are skeptical that free will exists, but if you will simply allow me the assertion that it is possible to control some portion of your emotional state in some circumstances, then surely we would all agree that it is better to choose happiness.

Now, there can be two objections here. First is if you refuse to grant that emotional states can ever be chosen. I do plan to write on the topics of free will and internal control in the future, so maybe I can convince you there, but also maybe not. I would hope you could stay tuned for that discussion and push back where you think I am mistaken on that point.

Second is if you fundamentally disagree that happiness should ever be chosen over unhappiness. I include this for the sake of completeness, but I am not sure anyone actually thinks like this or why they would. If you do, please definitely leave a comment below to state your opinion so that I can take it into account.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Why Nihilism?

I have adopted a certain degree of nihilism as my philosophical framework. What's more, I suspect a large number of modern people have come to many of the same conclusions I have, even if most lack a framework for their scattered impressions and ideas.

The purpose of this project is to articulate and elaborate on the theme of my brand of positive nihilism, and so I need to start at the very beginning.

A nihilist, generally speaking, is someone who rejects religious and moral principles and asserts that life is fundamentally meaningless. You can get more or less aggressive with that, but the basic principals I am working with are:

- Religion is false.

- Morality is invented.

- Life has no inherent meaning.

Obviously, each of these could and has been the subject of libraries of contention, while all I offer are a set of uninformed blog posts, and only until I get bored or too busy to continue.

But I really think nihilism is the natural endpoint of most current modes of thinking, which is of course how I have arrived here.

The age of religious truth is mostly ended. The number of Christians in the west is declining steadily, and the number of people who take their faith seriously is dropping even faster. I think even the devout would agree with me here, though they would frame this as a bad thing where I find it to be positive. In my own personal journey, I find the core values of every major faith I have studied to be unacceptable, even setting aside my materialist skepticism of their truth claims. I will add here that I have not studied Hinduism in any depth, so I can't reject that with the same vehemence I have for buddhism and the Abrahamic faiths, but that is an investigation for another time.

To touch on another topic related to religion is the contention that the Christian faith has been largely supplanted in the west by Liberalism As Faith. This is one of the claims that made Mencius Moldbug so interesting back when he was writing, tracing the intellectual roots of progressivism back to John Calvin. It is worth exploring the degree to which progressivism truly is a faith alongside the question of whether it should be rejected as a philosophical tradition, but for now I will say that I have problems with this movement as well and consider it inadequate.

Having rejected religion as a source of fundamental truths, the inquiring mind naturally asks if there is some other source for truths. Progressives usually deny that they are religious, at least the properly left-wing ones do, and claim that their principles are wholly derived from some other source, like reason, marxist dialectic, feelings, etc. Maybe they are right about that. But for those of us who reject faith and reject progressivism as fundamental values, in what else can we ground ourselves philosophically? We need either to find that ground in some more exotic philosophy, construct our own ground, or become comfortable being philosophically ungrounded.

My approach, to the extent that I have thought this through a little bit before resolving to start writing on a regular basis, is mostly the second option, drawing heavily from the first.

I want to put in some notes here before going on. I don't mean to disparage or reject out of hand the idea of being philosophically ungrounded. I have met some number of people in my life who, while generally intelligent, are philosophically incurious. A few of them call themselves Christians, but for the most part they have no real reason for any of the things they believe. They have a working sense of right and wrong, a practical sense of reality, and a deep ambivalence towards questions that require too much digging. And they live successful lives, as we would normally consider it, content to accept the mainstream as generally correct. There is nothing wrong with this as a way to live, or at least my first intuition tells me. Socrates would certainly disapprove, but philosophy is to a certain extent a luxury.

There are also people who adopt radical subjectivism, radical skepticism, dadaism, or other similar philosophies, making a lack of grounding a virtue. This again is another thing to consider in my growing list of topics to pick at from the Positive Nihilist lens.

And a third note, just because I am initially rejecting these other systems (because, of course, they must all be rejected if we are going to arrive at nihilism), that does not mean that all my conclusions will be radically opposed to those found in these other philosophies. I fully expect to find myself in agreement with some other doctrines, since really, 90% of possible philosophical questions have answers that are nearly universally agreed on. Murder is generally bad. The universe probably exists. Mathematics is reliable. Men with beards are more attractive, intelligent, and virtuous than men without. Those sorts of things.

The final thing I am positing, which like all the many, many assertions I have made tonight I plan on examining later, is that life is fundamentally meaningless. This is a conclusion very commonly derived from both the absense of any god or god-like entity to be bestowing meaning upon life and from modern scientific understanding of the true scale of the universe. And once this conclusion is reached, it is usually ignored when not passing blunts around the circle.

I intend to follow the well trod path of establishing the bankruptcy of existing traditions and the meaninglessness of life, and then working aggressively withing that context to determing why we should live productive lives instead of committing suicide, though that second part is for another post.

This was a bit of a ramble, and it is past bedtimn, so I will conclude that religion is false, all claims to objective morality are false, and asserting that life is meaningless.

Tomorrow I will discuss why we should be happy about this.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Partisan Gloating

Here is a failure of epistemic humility. I am going to gloat over the failure of people who don't agree with me politically. I am going to point out their failure to update their own beliefs because it is easier to spot the mote in Al Gore's eye rather than the log in my own.

The point being, here are a bunch of failed climate predictions. I have always been skeptical of disaster claims, but honestly I don't think I have ever had good reasons to be skeptical. I have briefly skimmed a few arguments about flaws in the datasets, and I have held a poorly thought out belief in the general resilliance of the environment, and I have held what I think is a bit more robust idea in the power of human ingenuity to solve climate problems as they arise, though in this case many of the problems didn't even arrive to be addressed, despite blowing past all the red line limits that they warned about when I was younger.

So while I am enjoying the little thrill from a win for the tribe I affiliate with, it seems to me that I may have just gotten lucky here, epistemologically speaking. Also lucky that climate change hasn't rendered the world an inhospitable ball of fire and/or ice. But I am more worried about living well than about the destruction of the planet right now.

Positive Nihilism Step 1: Epistemic Humility

Where do I start with a project like this, one as vague and poorly defined as its erstwhile subject? Well, it seems to me that a contributing factor in many, many problems in thought, politics, and daily life, is excess certainty.

We see this most clearly in politics. The twats at twitter are completely certain that espousing conservative beliefs is tantamount to violence. And an increasing number of commentators allied with the president seem dead certain that the opposition party is completly psychotic and incapable of rational thought or compromise. I have my own opinions, though we will see that I am at least nominally trying to stop doing that. But all these are mere symptoms of an underlying problem of hubristic certainty.

In my personal life I am sometimes, though surely very, very rarely, incorrect about some matter or another. A fact I have noticed in these very rare instances is that I am often completely certain that I am correct, up and until the point that it is demostrated to me that my certainty was misplaced.

I have never, to my knowledge, been wrong about something and at the same time known I was wrong about that thing. Usually the former preceeds the latter, but never do the two overlap directly. And more generally, I don't think anyone knowingly generates a wrong answer to a problem. Sometimes we are unable to generate any answer and are forced to guess or play probablilities, but if we ever find ourselves holding on to an answer, I think it is nearly always one that we believe to be correct. External reality and the judgement of our peers may or may not agree, but that is hardly relevant to the point.

The point is that, absent external cues, we have no idea if the ideas we hold are or are not correct. Even with external cues, the ideas we generate can get their claws into us and prove at times to be more tenacious that objective reality and well reasoned debate.

This is a problem.

I would like as a general rule to believe things which are true and disbelieve things which are false. I think it would be best to adopt elements of positive nihilism into my life to the extent that they are true and good (look at me slipping an extranious term in there) and reject them when they are false and bad. I have not demostrated that this is a worthwhile rule yet, but allow me to simply assume for now that truth is somehow superior to falsehood, and maybe I will examine this assumption later.

How then, do I undertake a project to examine a philosophy that is new to me, when I am unable to tell a priori what is true?

There do exist in the world heuristics for sifting truth from falsehood. Vigorous debate was preferred by Socrates. Obedience to scripture was preferred by the Christian church fathers. The scientific method has been fashionable of late. Other methods exist as well. But debate is challenging on a blog whose audience consists of maybe seven or eight spambots, scripture is rejected as part of the foundation of nihilism, and the scientific method is too narrow in scope for most philosophical topics, hence the fact that philosophy remains a low paying field for sexually inadequate plebs while sexy STEM fields are reserved for the superiors of the genetic and moral elite.

To end the rhetorical flourishes, I think it is key in this endeavor as in life in general to practice epistemic humility. This is a fancy way of saying that I need to actively start holding in my mind the idea that I may be wrong.

This is harder than it sounds, and to me it already sounds pretty hard. Step one is to cultivate a voice in my ear saying "remember, you are fallable", like the Roman memento mori slave. Step two is to consistently listen to and actively consider that voice instead of just waving it away. Whenever I consider an idea, I should go out of my way to find and consider other ideas. When I am confronted with a problem, I should be reasonably sure about my own foundations before moving on. I already have a tendancy to hedge and qualify statements, but I should do it more and mean it more.

All in all, I need more humility. I need to be less certain about what I think I know. This is epistemic humility. I am going to try and cultivate this in my writing and in general.

But the thing about humility is that it doesn't come with any prizes. You can't brag about your humility, and you can't ever be sure that you are being humble enough. But at the same time, there is no point to searching for answers if you lack the hubris needed to stop at some answer. So I will come to conclusions, and I will shake those conclusions and keep in mind that they could be wrong.

Or at least I will try.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Exceeding Expectations

Oh look! A distraction! So much for turning into a blog about philosophy and self betterment. 
Anyway, I made this a few days ago, but reddit didn't appreciate it, so I am going to post this here, too.

I should write again

I haven't thought about this blog in a while. Ten dollars a year to keep it running seems like a fair deal for a bit of nostalgia. I skimmed through the archives a bit, and I have come a long way in life. From legislative analysis (which I am not sure is even in these archives) to random fiction to political complaining to travelogue, I am starting to think my life has had its fair share of twists and turns despite me recently relating to someone that I haven't really done much in life and don't get out often.

In any case, my on again off again passion for writing has been flaring up despite my lengthy to do list for when I get home next week. I am still sailing, having reached the vaunted rank of Qualified Man of the Engine Department and being only two trips away from qualifying for an officer's license. I am finally building the house I have been planning for years. Most of my passions were funneled into a warhammer hobby that reached full bloom right as a new passion stole my heart away. Juggling the house and love and warhammer and the daily business of life is difficult enough without me adding a responsibility for writing on a regular basis, but the truth is that I was already writing. I have two half-finished and utterly trashy Warhammer fan-fictions, and the recent call for submissions from the Black Library has made it even clearer in my mind that this is not a form of writing that is ever going to pay dividends.

And so I have decided to re-brand and re-open the blog. I give myself 50-50 odds of managing to post anything else after this. After all, 創業は易く守成は難し. The Buddha says, a careless pilgrim only scatters more widely the dust of his passing, or something like that. Actually, The Careless Pilgrim would be an excellent blog name, had I not already committed to Entirely Alive.

In any case, the new subtitle is going to be "The Positive Nihilist" and I will be writing to meditate on self improvement within my own peculiar philosophical system, as well as clarifying for myself precisely what that philosophical system is.

I hope the three spambots that follow me enjoy the ride.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Am I dead?


Or, at least, not as I write this. As soon as hit "Post" things can change, and it would certainly be a shame if these were my last words, but I was Entirely Alive as of the timestamp on this post.

Nor have I, contrary to some speculation, quit shipping. My last post was from my fondly remembered trip on the Liberty Eagle, and after that was three awful weeks on the unhappy Presque Isle up on the lakes, from which I was saved only by layoffs during a shipyard. After that was four months on the Benard Fisher, a military contract that did not allow me to post my location (Korea and Saipan, both excellent places), after which I had fallen clear out of the habit of regular writing.

A return after that to miserable piney point and then to 130 really poor days on the Ocean Globe with my shiny new Oiler ticket. I may write up the tale of that voyage someday, or I may be better off pretending it never happened. A return after that to piney point for my QMED rating, and the first trip after that finds me here, sitting at a power plant in Tampa bay 4 months into a contract on the Texas Enterprise. I am set to get off at the end of the next run, which usually takes a week to go to the Mississippi river, load coal, then return to Tampa. Thishas definitely been the best ship I have worked, from the food to the pay to the (engine) crew and I find myself praying for delays on this final run to stretch out my contract, even as I find myself dreaming of the ease of sittin at home.

In any case, my life is good as usual. I don't expect that this will herald a return to blogging (though it might), I was simply reminded of this blog when Google sent a notice that it hasn't been able to process payment for this domain. Being at the end of a 4 month contract I am hardly short of money, but if I cannot resolve this in the next week or two it may be me that outlives the blog rather than the other way around.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Eagle has Landed

A 120 day trip got cut down to 38 days because the company ran out of contracts to ship aboard the Liberty Eagle. There is a rumor they might be picking up a load in three weeks, but until that time I have been sent back home. I took a shuttle with nine other crewmates into Houston, where I caught the 2 AM greyhound into Austin and arrived at my parent's house at 6 AM this morning, just in time to be unable to get any sleep because the sun rose. Oh well.

Photos are below and a travelogue is below that. Don't expect anything more from this blog until I catch my next ship.

An Eagle in Photos

I took 1079 pictures with my fancy new camera, and stole the contents of the ship's shared camera. Obviously, anything I post will be only a selection of photos. Out of respect for the bandwidth limited, everything is after the jump. As always, click the photo to make it bigger.

Liberty Eagle Travelogue

So I wrote a bunch of posts while out at sea, but obviously couldn't actually post them. Since if I were to post them seperately, they would all show up in reverse order, I am posting them all here as one megapost. It gets sort of long, so I put it after the jump. Photos are incoming.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Every Day is a Good Day

This will be the last post for a while. We are loading soybeans from a crane on a barge in the middle of the Mississippi river, having taken on wheat after a long delay from a conventional port in Galveston, TX (sitting just barely south of the massive floods that hit the rest of the state). Tomorrow we head back out of the river and spend a week puttering south at about 12mph until we hit the Panama canal, and then to drop the two cargoes off in Nicaragua and El Salvador (Not Honduras or Costa Rica, as I had been previously informed). Because I have a terrible fear of roaming charges, the phone is going into airplane mode as soon as I post this and will remain that way until I get back to a US port.

People always ask what I do in a typical day and the answer was always that on my last ship I was just an apprentice and there was no typical day. As a GUDE (General Utility Deck and Engine, what they used to call a wiper) however, that has changed for the better. I am working with two other GUDEs and no higher ranked unlicensed engine men, though the other two I am working with are both qualified as mid-level QMEDs sailing below their rating because conditions in Puerto Rico are apparently rather poor. The rest of the engine room consists of the four engine officers, Chief, first, second, and third. The whole engine crew is made up of good people who are pretty easy to work with, and everyone is more than willing to take the time to help me learn the job and the machines.

This engine room is substantially bigger than the one I worked on in the lakes. Not only does it have a whole additional set of equipment for processing salt water into fresh water and for the additional purification requirements of Heavy Fuel Oil as compared to the Marine grade Diesel we used on the lakes, but the engines themselves are bigger, despite the ship itself being smaller and slower. The three electric generators are as tall as the main engines back on the lakes, though only ten piston instead of twenty, and the main engine is a three story tall, six massive cylinder, hunk of machine. The other GUDE (I say the other even though there are two because one of them talks a whole lot and the other barely speaks at all, language barrier, so I really only end up interacting much with one other GUDE) can't stop telling me just how small even this inflated engine room is.

Speaking of other GUDEs, the old name for the position, wiper, is fairly apt, because our primary job when nothing else is going on is sanitary work. And with three of us cleaning all the damn time, plus the fact that this ship was in layup for two months without a contract until we got this one, mean that the engine room is the cleanest engine room you will ever see. I went down into the bilges, the place at the very bottom where quite a lot of nasty stuff drains down, and didn't even get my white t-shirt smudged.

In any case, I was going to get to a description of an average day as a GUDE aboard the Liberty Eagle (Still can't get over what a fantastic name that is).

On a normal morning I wake up at 0550, put on clothes, get my things together, and take a multivitamin. Now, this last isn't because I lack faith in the food being provided, but rather because I lack faith in my own ability to maintain a healthy diet and would just rather not have to think about any sort of dietary things aside from calories and fibre (protein takes care of itself, since every meal is a giant slab of some sort of meat). And I have discovered since gaining fifteen pounds in three weeks at home and then losing pretty much none of it in the two weeks at sea that I have reached that age I have been warned about for so very long wherein I can no longer eat junk all day without getting fat. The only thing left for me is to decide whether I really do want to avoid getting fat or if I would rather just eat crap and accept the consequences. They say adulthood is all about choices, but I suppose little ten year old me wouldn't have believed that these are the sort of choices that take up most of my worrying. Fully clothed and equipped, I walk outside, wince at how bright the sun is, then walk down three flights of stairs to the main deck, appreciating the scenery all the while before walking back in and down another level of stairs to the main engine control room.

This first two hours is the best part of the day. We sit for a bit until the first or chief comes in and tells us that there are no emergencies, then we go back up and take over our House Sanitary duties. In the first place, being responsible for nothing more than general cleanup of a single deck (I have main deck) is a good way to slowly wake up each day and get some moving around in before breakfast. But beyond that, and this may sound silly, this is the first project at sea that I have been 100% responsible for. My job description includes keeping the main deck clean, but nothing and nobody but me is in charge of how I go about that. I decide if the walls need to get cleaned, or the bathroom needs to get done today, or if I can skip the fire pump room, and then I do it. No supervision, no one telling me what needs doing, no one else involved in the entire run of the ongoing project. Anyway, I sweep, mop, and wipe down a hallway for an hour and a half, all while getting paid for two hours of overtime at about $20 and hour, meaning I make $40 for not a whole lot of work before breakfast.

Speaking of which, after that comes breakfast, the best part of the day. Normally, I can't eat breakfast. If I try to eat while still sleepy and before I have moved around and made space in my stomach, it doesn't sit well and messes up my whole day. But finally I get to eat all the exciting breakfast foods I like, bacon and pancakes and waffles and hash browns and strawberries and sometimes a little bit of eggs, without it sitting too heavily.

After breakfast comes the first real chunk of work, and this first two hours in undoubtedly the best part of the day. We all meet in the office and find out what is happening, and usually this is where the interesting work (i.e., the real engineering work) gets passed out. If there is a job of any size, then typically one of the numbered engineers will take it on and grab one of the GUDEs to help out. These tasks have, in the last two weeks, included cleaning strainers the size of my torso and filled to the brim with mutilated fish parts, removing lengths of pipe for later inspection, replacing leaky valves, clearing clogged pipes, replacing gaskets, skimming oil off the top of a dirty water tank, moving giant hunks of machine parts that easily weighed a full ton across the engine room, replacing gauges, and standing safety watch as dangerous tasks are performed. When we are doing this sort of work the time goes by so much faster and I learn a whole lot more. The best part is that I get picked fairly often for these jobs, in part because the two other GUDEs have limited english proficiency, even though they are both more experienced than I.

And a brief note about that. There are about 21 people on the ship. Of the crew, two are white, me and one of the ABs. The rest include two Philipinoes, a Ghanian, two African-Americans, and the remainder are all hispanic. Of the officers, all but one is white, the exception being the very talented black second engineer. Of the crew, all of them except me and the AB speak heavily accented english of one kind or another that forms a language barrier with the people they are trying to talk to. I have spent just enough time around social justice types to feel like I should be doing something to integrate our community, but not enough to know what to do, and nowhere near enough to actually do anything.

After two hours of that is coffee break, the best part of the day. I don't drink coffee, but I do use this time to study my Japanese flashcards. I haven't fallen behind once in two weeks.

After this is another chunk of work, and this chunk right here is the best part of the day for sure. If there was a job, we finish the job. If the job is finished I have picked up a short daily round of small tasks that need to be done every day, and again actually having some sort of responsibility is novel enough to still feel kind of good, otherwise I go into cleanup mode. This chunk of work is nice because break ends around 1030, then lunch starts around 1130, meaning that I am finally working myself into getting hungry, and then only have to work a little bit before actually getting to eat.

Then comes lunch. I like lunch. First we eat, typically sandwiches but also sometimes hamburgers or today was fried chicken. Then I go back and take the rest of the hour to finish any studying that didn't get done and then take a nap for the rest of the hour. Definitely the best part of the day.

Of course, the best part of the day is the two hours right after lunch. After eating and a nap, we go down and have another short meeting about the status of things and report the successful completion or ongoing status of the morning project, then sometimes more jobs get handed out. Typically, though, things spend all five hours after lunch slowly winding down and I go off with a rag in my hand to find something else to clean. It is an engine room, so there are all sorts of places where small leaks and seepages need to be regularly cleaned up, and just the general movement of stuff kicks up dirt and carbon dust that needs to be kept off of things. Not only does wiping everything off keep the machinery clean, it also forces us to get up close and personal with the equipment and serves as a sort of monitoring whereby we can catch anything unusual or broken before it becomes a problem.

After this chunk of work comes second coffee break, probably the best time of the day and a fine advertisement in and of itself for union membership. Having taken care of all necessary things, the studying and the nap, I use this break to put on some music and relax.

After break is over and everyone feels refreshed, we go back for the best part of the day, the final stretch. An hour and a half to wrap up anything that needs finishing or to pretend to clean while all seven of us collectively run out the clock. Footsteps slow, pauses lengthen, and people just get harder to find as they realize they have some urgent business in a less trafficked and less visible section of the compartment.

After that comes the best part of the day, since after all the biggest meal must necessarily be the best. Dinner each day is a giant slab of meat with an assortment of sides, usually corn or potatoes or corn and potatoes, and also a bunch of icky vegetables. Then back to the room for a bit of light reading before going back down for the final hour.

This final hour is definitely the best part of the day. I call it the final hour, but only in union terms is it a full hour. First we have another little meeting, which if we bullshit can last 15-20 minutes, then we go down and make sure all the projects of the day have been cleaned up, then we pretend to work until about fifteen minutes before the hour is up, at which point we go up to wash our hands and quietly slip out to go mark this last "hour" as an additional $20 of overtime.

After that the official part of the day is pretty much over. I am still on call in case something comes up and they want to pay me more overtime to fix it, but usually the unofficial part of the day is the best part of the day. A shower starts it off, because I have been very strict about keeping all the dirt of the day out of the bed, then I pull out my laptop and play video games or watch movies until it is time to go to bed.

Then, of course, comes bedtime-- the best part of the day.

We are scheduled to sail back down the Mississippi tomorrow. The rest of the run is likely to take two weeks, with at least another week before we can possibly return to the US. As soon as this posts my phone is going off and I will be out of contact with everything for at least three weeks and maybe up to two months.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

View from a window

No one can doubt that we are tied up in Texas. That is an oil pilot light to the side and cattle in the field.

The Liberty Eagle

First day aboard my first saltwater vessel. There is something undeniably attractive about working on a ship named the Liberty Eagle. My Patriotism will be unquestionable for the next four months.

The very first thing said to me as I climbed aboard was the captain saying, "Weren't you supposed to show up tommorow?" but I arrived when the office told me to, so it all sorted out in the end.

I have only my single previous ship to compare it to, and it is in general function not wholly dissimilar to the Sam Laud. It is a bulker, meaning the whole of the front is given over to empty hold space, but the Eagle is a grain bulker, and the holds themselves are designed a bit differently to accomidate bulk foodstuffs. Specifically, capacity is some 60,000 cubic meters or 28,700 tons of cargo, and the ship itself is 190 meters long. This is, in industrial terms, kind of small, but still large enough to afford me my own room.

Since I was early, today is paperwork and a tour. The ship is of Japanese manufacture, and thus all the measurements are metric and the warning signs bilingual.

The eagle is preparing to leave in a few days after 2 months of layup. The word is that we will hop over to Galveston to pick up a partial load of grain, then sail up the mississippi to get a load of soybeans, then sail through the panama canal to drop off the grain on a pacific port of Nicaragua and then the soybeans in Honduras (Edit: not costa rica). The plan at that point depends on market conditions and could see the next update coming from any of the three American coastlines.

Updates will be infrequent, probably one each time I hit a US port.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Voyage Ends

I meant to write some sort of summary thing that discusses just how much Piney Point lied to me about nearly everything it discussed, but I don't feel like it, so I won't.

I got home on the 18th, flying out of Chicago without incident. The next day I made myself a cup of soup and sat down to watch the six months of TV backlog that has built up, and sitting in my familiar chair by my desktop computer, eating soup and watching the familiar intro sequences of familiar shows, it is like no time at all has passed. Everything is just how I left it. Little changes are evident, but only if I look for them.

I will definitely be continuing to ship, no question about that.

Don't expect much from this space while I am home. My writing energies are going to be directed towards another ambition. Consider this a conclusion, and anything that may perchance follow to be a sequel.

In any case, I have a folder full of pictures, so before I compress it and drop it in a backup hard drive, here are some neat looking ones. Apologies if I have posted any of these before.

Having gained a new appreciation for the bandwidth limited, the photos are beneath the jump

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Off the Ship

Returning to civilization for the first time in six months

Chicago in the Mist

This is why I intend to get a better camera- I can see Chicago peeking out of the mists on the horizon, but I suspect it doesn't show up in th_s picture.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Things I Learned in the Engine Room

Looking at leaving tomorrow night, unless something goes wrong, which makes this my second to last day of working in the engine room. Reflections, therefore, are in order.

  • I have learned that painting all day in an environment that permits no distractions can eventually get old. When on deck we could usually paint with earphones on, and while I could conceivably purchase wireless earbuds to wear under some over-ear mufflers, I haven't done so yet.
  • Apparently, and this must be a thing that was planned out, everything that you could possibly hit your shin on in the engine room is all placed at exactly the same height and at the same angle against the shin, such that once you hurt yourself walking around once, every subsequent injury will occur at exactly the same place. I have had a small red bump on my shin for most of this month, and just when I think it is about to go away, Bam!.
  • Painting just by standing around with a brush or roller is pretty dull, but painting that involves crawling, climbing, and fitting yourself on and into things that you don't quite fit in is much more exciting, like Bruce Willis crawling through the building in Die Hard, painting terrorists above the wire beds.
  • Fixing piping seems to be a large part of the engineer's job, and it isn't all that difficult if you know where the problem is. Just isolate the problem area, unscrew everything, replace parts as needed, then screw it all back together.
  • In fact, very little seemed all that difficult so long as one knows what they are looking at and what they are trying to accomplish. For those few tasks that did seem difficult we would call down the Chief, who would exclaim worriedly and then say, “well, guess we have to (leave that for layup / call a specialist)”
  • That said, you really do need to know what you are doing down here to an extent that you sort of don't anywhere else on the boat. Hence, I have spent most of the month painting.
  • There is a window in the engine room, but it isn't anywhere near where there is work to be done. I don't end up seeing nearly as much of the magnificent scenery as I did in galley, and far less than when I was working on deck. On the other hand, we have a repeater monitor from the navigation computer, so I know where we are more exactly than I did previously.
  • The bilges in general aren't as bad as they are made up to be, but the spot where it all gets washed down to and pumped out really is that bad. We went in yesterday to clean it out, not even a very thorough cleaning, just pulling a couple buckets of muck out of the bottom, and I wasn't the one doing most of the cleaning, but three showers and a day later and my hands still smell faintly of oily sewage.
  • I learned, contrary to what piney point insists, you don't have to go to Piney Point or other accredited school to upgrade or get endorsements. Anyone with sufficient appropriate sea time can call up the coast guard and sit for the test. There are advantages to going through the union school, most importantly that some of the hiring hall guys may hassle you for getting a ticket outside of the union.
  • I learned that there are fewer and fewer onboard unlicensed engineering jobs. They get replaced either by more duties for the watchstander and the remaining QMEDs or they get offloaded to specialist electricians/mechanics who live on shore and only get called out to fix particular problems.
  • I learned that the unhappiest person on any bulker is the conveyorman, because apparently his job sucks. That certainly seems to be the case on this ship.
  • I have learned that the real punishment for being an idiot is that people will tell stories about you when they go to other ships. Actually, the real punishment is being injured or killed, usually during your off hours from alcohol abuse, and then becoming nothing but a cautionary tale. I heard stories about the chief who would jump up and down throwing temper tantrums, the chief who would work and call people into his office while completely naked, the engineer who sweated booze (and died from taking his medication with alcohol), the time a famously short tempered chief shouted at a famously short tempered first until a boiler exploded, and other such tales of people who simply aren't in control of their thoughts and emotions.
  • The engine room is probably the only place where reasonable people will set up a portable heater unit right next to a fixed AC outlet and have both running full blast next to each other. It isn't even a bad idea, since that keeps the engine cool on one side while keeping the working space warm on the other, otherwise it would be way too cold outboard near the hull that sits in the cold water and way too warm in the middle of the room where the engines and machines sit.

Lighthouse Opposite Mackinac

Just a pretty picture

This is from yesterday, but I didn't have signal then and only now remembered it.

Mackinac in the snow

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Duluth Harbor Wall of Iron

Sorry I couldn't get a better picture, this thing is so big (both taller and longer than the ship) that I couldn't fit it all in a single image until we were pulling away.

Anyway, this thing is huge, dumping in eight cargo hatches at once. It still took all day, because they broke a loader and had to wait for trainloads of ore, but so it goes.

Today was a good day.

Icy Harbor

The wind has died down, so when they called me on deck to replace the DEU who went over his hours it wasnt bad at all.

A beautiful day today, and they are having mechanical problems with the loader, so score one point for theday and a half delay I am looking for to get off in Chicago. But now I am done on deck, so it is backto the windowless bottom of the engine room to huff paint for six more hours.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


The same veiw as sailing into Superior, but ever so slightjy different for heading to the north instead of the south shore.

Off the Grid in Batchawana Bay

So, I don't know what is saying about where we were, but judging from the pile of emails and texts that came in as soon as we made it back into American waters, it may have been wrong.

About five days ago we were coming up to the Sault Ste Marie locks, but the weather was bad so we dropped anchor in the Mackinaw straight between upper and lower Michigan for about a day. We raced through the locks hoping to beat the weather, and a few disgruntled crewmen say we could have if the captain hadn't hesitated, but didn't. I don't know why we couldn't anchor in American waters, I heard people say that the better anchorages had already been taken, but I don't really know how that works, but in any case we ended up in Batchawana Bay, a beautiful and calm natural harbor wholly enclosed by Canadian territory.

The area was absolutely breathtaking the morning I woke up and saw it, blanketed with a fresh coat of snow that peeked between the wintry tree-sticks that covered the majestic low mountains. I thought to myself that I absolutely have to get a good picture of the scenery, maybe a panorama of the entire bay, but would have to put it off until lunch time because there were engine things occuring. Needless to say, the storm blew in by lunch time, and while it didn't shake the ship in our nice little harbor, it did render everything 1000 feet from the ship completely invisible. The storm rose and fell, but I never saw land again in scenic Batchawana Bay.

After sitting there for two days, we took the north route along the Canadian shoreline to avoid more weather. In the meantime our orders got changed from a Silver Bay-Cleveland run to a Duluth-Indiana Harbor one. After four days without any sort of cell phone signal, parts of the crew were starting to get positively mutinous, threatening perhaps not murder, but at least a bit of whining.

The happy ending is that nobody died and we eventually got cell phone service back.

The other ending is that this phase of the blog is rapidly coming to a close. My 90th day is November 17th (yes, I have counted multiple times to be sure I didn't screw up), so I can get off on the 18th or any time after that. Indiana Harbor is basically Gary, Indiana, which is basically Chicago. The current plan is finally at a point where it isn't likely to change, so we get to Duluth tonight and load tomorrow morning (14th), then it is a day to the locks under good weather (15th) and a day and a half to Chicago (late on the 16th). If the weather stays bad and we go slow or anchor at all, then I will probably be getting off in Chicago, which is always fun. If the weather is perfect the whole way there, then I will still get off eventually.

Fat Jokes and Drug Posters

So it turns out that my prior prediction was incorrect. It has, in fact, snowed again. The weather is so bad, with 60MPH winds not half a mile away, that we took anchor in a marvelously shelter little natural harbor on the Canadian coast. The Chief Engineer said that the weather report goes all the way to Wednesday night, and so we know that we aren't moving from this spot until then. I get good signal, but it is Canadian, so it is nothing but a dirty trick.

I haven't asked if this is a formal system or not, but there seems to be three types of repair jobs on the ship. There are tasks that the QMED does on his own, then there are tasks that the QMED has to go get an engineer to supervise, though they don't really seem to contribute much, then there are tasks that the engineers do and they will call the QMED if he is and they need an extra hand. Repacking the four gaskets at the bottom of the bow thruster this morning was the second type of job.

At the front of the ship, the bow, the top (weather) deck rises up about half a story. The room created by this rise sits on the main deck, but is sheltered. This small structure is called the forecastle (on some ships, it is a whole extra superstructure, but it is just a small room that takes up the front of the ship here). The forecastle holds the forward anchors and windlass out of the elements, and acts as storage for assorted things (like really heavy lengths of chain that I got to haul up from all over the main deck by hand). Beneath the level with the anchor is another room with assorted things, but it also has an electric motor fed by the generators all the way at the back of the ship. This 1000 horsepower motor drives a long metal bar all the way down to beneath the bottom of the ship where it turns a propeller that is oriented sideways along the keel that allows us, in conjunction with the rudder, main propeller, and stern thruster, to move sideways or make sharp turns, mostly on the rivers.

It is two or three stories (about maybe 10-12 meters) from the top to the bottom of the long bar, so it gets its own little room stretching the entire distance. Now this room is only bg enough for two people and the bar assuming that one of those people just squeezes himself in the corner and holds the light while the other person works. Now, in a job that was full of dirty where nothing important could break, I would be the one working while the QMED held the light, but this job was both dirty and held the potential for a screw-up, the entire mechanism being only a few bolts and a thin piece of steel away from the hypothermic waters of Lake Superior and the job itself being ever so slightly technical. Now, both the QMED and I are of average build, I being right at the notional "average" of 5'9" 160lbs (probably a bit more since that month in the galley), and the QMED being slightly larger.

The engineer who came with us has to weigh in well over 250lbs. Explaining what we were going to do to the engineer on watch, he exclaimed, with the assisting engineer out of the room, "but he won't fit down that hatch". But it didn't turn out to be a big deal, since he wouldn't have fit down there with us if he were an anorexic midget, so he stood at the top of the hatch, chatting, supervising, and passing things up and down via rope. At some point the chief engineer came down to supervise, not that he contributed a whole lot. He is of average build, but no way in hell was he going to get his hands dirty down that hatch when three other people were perfectly capable of getting dirty for him.

As the QMED and I finished up, we climbed out of the hatch. I looked over at the Chief and saw him inspecting the thruster motor. He calls out to the engineer, "could you check the hydraulic lines for a crack?". A quick visual inspection of the hydraulic line in question by all three of us shows first that it is intact in the large room beneath the forecastle in which we all stand, and second that it continues down below in the confined space we had been working in.

Now, I didn't offer to go down and check the hydraulic line, on the general principal that I am not supposed to really do much of anything even vaguely technical unless instructed to. The QMED didn't offer to go down and check because A) he probably didn't feel like it, B) the chief had been talking to the engineer, and C) possibly this was above his pay grade, though I don't know for sure. In any case, the chief had asked as if this were a perfectly natural and reasonable thing to ask an engineer to do-- to go into a confined space to check a pipe for leakage.

The engineer didn't say anything, not that there was anything to say, turned and put his feet on the second rung from the top. As he slowly brought himself down through the 24" x 18" hatch his legs fit fine, and then his thighs, and then he got his bellybutton level with the edges of the hatch. Here, at the widest point, his flesh was pressed up flat against the edges with a small roll sitting on the deck spilling over. No one said anything, and the engineer didn't appear to struggle, hold his breath, or do anything in particular to indicate that he was stuck. But after a moment of pause he gave a visible extra exertion and the excess of his body was pulled through, scraping against the hatchway.

There was a leak in the hydraulic line, but it was very small and the chief said it could wait until we lay up for the winter.

Scattered around the ship are safety posters, each with a little safety message and a badly drawn cartoon illustrating it. Things like 'keep your finger off the trigger of power tools when not in use', 'wear steel toed boots', and 'machines can bite!'. These posters get replaced each month with a new poster, presumably because these aren't actually timeless messages of wisdom but instead only fleeting fashions that must be constantly updated to keep up with the rapidly changing 21st century. There is one down in the engineering control room that hasn't been changed since August 2011, probably because whichever mate changes them out has forgotten it was down there. But as a whole they rarely get noticed and never elicit comment.

Until the one posted this month in the crew mess that reads, 'It's clear, it's simple, it's policy, it's the law. Drug use is not permitted." This features a guy with what is probably supposed to be a joint between his fingers. During meal times, anything at all, even something as small as a glance at the poster can be the setup for which the punchline is a mock serious declaration that "Drug use is not permitted". From this I have discovered that 100% of unlicensed crewmen who eat at meal times believe A) Anyone who tries to do dangerous work while drunk or high should be thrown into the sea and left to drown, B) The American drug war is absolute bullshit, as are the company and union prohibitions against alcohol and drugs on ship during a man's off time, and C) Guys who show up to work merely hungover are hilarious and deserve whatever you do to deepen their misery.

In that sense, it is probably a good thing that they get changed out every month, because one month is enough time to wear the joke out, and if it stayed up after that point the poster would become nothing but a serious and sober reminder of a genuine threat to both the careers of seamen and safety aboard the vessel.

In the old days, ships used to have cats. They called them, drawing from the endless creativity characteristic of sailing men since the dawn of time, Ship's Cats. Mostly, they would eat rats, but also they would be adorable, because they were cats. Anyway, I am of the opinion that it is high time to reinstate the tradition of ship's cats aboard merchant vessels, not because we have a surplus rats, but because we have a dire shortage of cats. I have yet to go to the captain with this idea, because you just don't bother the captain with that sort of bullshit.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

First Snow of the Season

Just tiny little snow up near Sault Saint Marie, but the first such that I have seen in ten months.

And, if the weather holds for another week, quite possibly the last of the year for me.

Friday, November 7, 2014


Not that photo! This one!

Actually, I cant tell if i posted the right one or not from the phone.

Across the river from the Detroit stone dock

There is a particular brand of salsa I am fond of, La Costena, and a particular sort of tortilla chip that I like, El Milagro. It should go without saying that the two things are even better together.

In any case, my first pang of homesick has come after six months in the form of an intense craving and the taste of that salsa taunting ghostlike on my tongue.

I dont know if it is "life" or "happiness" that is all about the little things, but it is one of them for sure.

I remember a friend at Piney point asking if I would agree, hypothetically, to sail for two years straight without break or shore time if they paid a $100,000 bonus. I said yes then and would say yes now.

Less to Say, More to Do

It has occurred to me more than once that there is just less to blog about here on the Sam Laud than there was at Piney Point. I think the fundamental reason for that is twofold- first being that there is not as much change here as there was at the fast paced school, and second being that there are fewer rank assholes here than there were at Piney Point causing far less drama. Not that there aren't people with variously unpleasant personalities, but they keep themselves professional at all times, preventing their unpleasantness from getting in anyone's way.

Engine life hasn't changed much from last time I wrote about it. I paint all day except when they pull me off to act as a spare hand on various repair projects. One thing I have been hearing that has started to distress me is that the market for QMED specialists, Electricians, Refrigeration techs, and Pumpmen, is much smaller than I had been told at Piney Point, and even the lakes specialists, Conveyormen and Gatemen, are being reduced in the upcoming contract. That leaves a lot of ships with an oiler who also carries the weight of a wiper and a junior engineer (we don't even have a junior engineer), the rest of the department being officers, meaning that a lot of good money doesn't come out anymore until you have a license. The oiler on our ship has been sailing for nearly twenty years, is a certified conveyorman/gateman/junior engineer, but this was the open job. He doesn't see it as less money, since the option wasn't a higher paying job or this but rather no job or this, which is a good attitude, but one I am taking as instructive.

I have some thinking to do before I go back to Piney Point.

Speaking of which, I finally counted the days (and since then have remained unpleasantly conscious of it) and found that day number 90 is Nov 17th, so I will be looking to get off on the 18th or 19th. Of course, not even the captain knows where we will be ten days from now, so I can't even get a plane ticket until a day or two in advance. Fortunately, the company takes care of all that.

With departures and Piney Point in mind, I have a question for the audience the audience, some of whom seem more experienced than I. There are some pretty dumb people out at sea. Not on this ship, of course, everyone here is a gentleman scholar, retiring in the evenings to the lounge to sit by the fire and gently discuss existentialist philosophy and the works of the classical Greek historians. The deckhands are particularly fond of Kierkegaard, while the engineering officers hold themselves off to the side to play chess on a hand carved ivory and oak board while taking parts reciting Shakespeare together. The Steward softly plays Chopin on the grand piano, though he will do Mozart upon request. The captain watches over from his gilt and velvet chair with a warm glass of aged brandy and the hint of an indulgent smile upon his lips.

But I hear that other ships have stupid people. But for all that there are stupid people out here, there were so many more stupid people at Piney Point, and asking some of the other Piney Point people we can only remember one person who got kicked out while on a ship during second phase for being an idiot. Where, then, do all the stupid people go? Are they somehow convinced to quit of their own volition? Do they get fired quietly and quickly forgotten (given propensity of sailors to tell stories about the very human foibles of their former crewmates, this seems unlikely)? Do they somehow get less stupid? Is there something about the shipboard environment that suppresses idiocy while the Piney Point environment particularly fosters it? Or perhaps the quality of new sailors has dropped precipitously (or, more plausibly, that there were more stupid people, but they were fired in a big wave some years back and those who remain are more competent than the previous average)?

I suspect that if I can't find stupid people that the quickest place to look is in the mirror.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Sitting at Anchor

Last night after dinner, I looked out the window and saw the Mackinac bridge. Then I went to my room and watched Enemy at the Gate, a movie about the battle of Stalingrad. That inspired me to start playing Hearts of Iron, a WW2 game, and before I knew it it was almost 10PM. I pull out my headphones and notice that the engine isnt running, look out the window and see the same damn bridge.

Apparently the weather is bad further up, so the captain chose a spot with good cell reception to drop anchor.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Tour of the Engine Room

Yesterday I got to do real engineer things. In the morning I helped replace a four inch thick butterfly valve in the fire main system, unscrewing things, cleaning the bolts out with a wire grinder thingy, then showing them to the QMED who said that all of the cleaning he had told me to do was pointless because we have to replace them all anyway. So then we cut bolts straight from long stock bars, and that was cool. The valve worked.

Then we serviced the emergency generator, which involved replacing three filters and replace a bunch of oil, which really meant that my job was to catch oil pouring out of places that it shouldn't, then pour it into somewhere better. I made zero mess and broke nothing, which means I won the job.

Last night, while at sea, the deckhands were called out at 2AM. I thought that maybe something had gone wrong, or perhaps that we were tying up suddenly to avoid weather, but mostly I didn't think about it too much and went back to sleep. I heard him coming in a few more times and heard them washing the deck above me, but the full significance of that didn't really hit me at the time. Today we spent the entire day pretty far out in Lake Huron, easily in legal to rinse waters, it warmed up nicely, and the deckhands were given most of the day off. The question then is why on earth they were woken up at 2AM to do a job they could just as easily have done during normal working hours. That question seems to have no answer.

I have been meaning to take pictures of the engine room for you, but didn't get around to it until now. It being now, enjoy a brief tour of the engine room.

At the very bottom of the ship is the tunnel. The sloped ceiling to the left is the underside of the cargo hold, and beneath it is the conveyor belt system

The steering gear. The two wheels can move the rudder manually in the event of an emergency, though I expect it would be no fun. The middle bit is connected directly (more or less) to the rudder.

One of four machine shops. There are four more shelves of the same size to the left around the corner.

The nice machine shop. Smaller, but more complete and well organized.

Here is a cat. Behind it is another workbench, and to either side is another cat. These are our three electrical generators. Only one runs during normal operations, but we fire up another to run thrusters or winches, and all three are required to run the conveyor belt.

This is about a quarter of the valves and pipes that run water around the ship. Most of the maze of piping is under the grates. It took two hours for me to diagram the entire system for Piney Point, walking around a maybe 20'x20' zone following pipes back and forth.

The main event, two medium speed diesel engines. These are about eight feet tall.

This shaft, the width of my entire body, spins when we are moving to drive the propeller. 

Another view, this one of all three floors. The central chamber of the engineering room is really big.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Oil Spills and Fire Watch

I will spare y'all the play by play of engine life, because it would be a long list of "and then I painted, and then I painted some more, and then I painted in a different color." Of note in the painting department, we have boxes standing around full of oil with pumps on the top. The boxes are white, the pumps are yellow. I am told that the last time an apprentice came through the engine room, four or five months ago, he painted the pumps. He did a piss poor job of it, getting yellow paint all over the damn place. There it has sat for five months with yellow splatters on the box and floor, waiting for another slightly more competant apprentice to paint over it and make it look nice again. I don't have a job description (actually I do, it is "assist as directed"), but if I did, it would be "low priority deferred maintanance". Being a white box, there whole setup isn't interesting enough for such a thing as a good job to apply, but I certainly think I did an adequate job, since the flat surface that is supposed to be white is now white.

An engineer spilled a small bucket of oil while cleaning a compressor. I got assigned to clean it up, not because they are just making the apprentice do all the work, but because they had to call the chief engineer down and all three, the engineer, chief, and QMED, had to fill out paperwork and do reporting. After all the paperwork (or at least, after the urgent round of paperwork), even the chief, not exactly a hands-on sort of fellow, got out oil towels and helped clean up. This was a spill of less than a gallon in perhaps the most interior part of the ship, with no where for it to spill out, but any oil spill at all is a big deal that must be logged thoroughly because of an industry wide terror of oil spills.

I was painting yesterday when the QMED comes up behind me and taps me on the shoulder. "mmm-mmph mmmhh" he says. "What?" I shout. You would think that a guy who has been working engine for almost twenty years and currently wearing two layers of hearing protection would know to speak up, but clearly not. "Stand Fire watch" he shouted, just barely audibly. And you do need at least a really good pair of earplugs in the engine room, because it really starts to hurt when you are down on the bottom level unprotected. In any case, doing "fire watch" sounded completely awesome, because fire, so I followed him up. He pointed to a spot on the floor and mumbled something. "What?" I shouted. "Stand there," he repeated, louder, "don't let any fire happen". At which point he pulls out the blowtorch, lights it up, and proceeds to burn the tops of five metal oil drums off. Being (formerly) oil drums, the lid lights up around where he is working and the paper labels on the side burn impressively as sparks stream out, flying ten feet in any direction and staying lit for a good five or ten seconds at times. My job as fire watchman was to watch. And stand. And watch. And I did watch. As I watched I wondered what, exactly, I was supposed to do if there actually was a fire. Maybe grab the extinguisher? But you are supposed to inform someone first. Maybe inform someone? But shouldn't I put the fire out while it is small? Maybe close the venting window and hit the CO2 system? That seems too drastic for me to have the authority to do that. Maybe turn off the torch first or perhaps assist the injured QMED? But that isn't either Informing or Restricting, which are the first things I am supposed to do according to the coast guard. In practice, the QMED would have probably grabbed the extinguisher and I would have gone to notify the watchman, but I realized that for all the firefighting class that I took I really am very poorly trained to deal with an actual fire emergency.

I figure most boats aren't on fire most of the time, and there are twenty other people on the ship, so I will probably be fine to be ignorant. Because that is how emergencies work, right? If you are usually fine most of the time, that is probably good enough.

I went outside to help lubricate the chain on the engineer hoist. If I say that neither I nor the QMED went out wearing hard hats I would be giving the game away, but after finishing the second hoist the hook was almost up to the top when the QMED tells me to go ahead and start wiping the small bit of grease that had smeared on the deck. I pull out a rag and start wiping when chain hits the deck not a hand's width away from my hand. The chain, of which each link is slightly longer than a thumb and two thumbs wide, is supposed to pull up to the hoist engine and then fall into a suspended box, but as it filled this time it spilled out, each link pulling the next link pulling the whole chain out of the box onto the deck I was wiping up. Pushing on my one hand and two knees I leap backwards, going from hands and knees to laying on my back two feet away like a particularly inept ninja. From my butt I watch the entire chain fall out on the deck.

Nothing was damaged, particularly not me, and we got it all fixed up soon enough.

I finally got to play with power tools. The fleet engineer came on to check for leaks or cracks in a few suspicious bilges, and I was responsible for getting the pneumatic drill and pulling off all the bilge covers down at the bottom of the ship.

In any case, I told my roommate that I was working with a really important guy, the fleet engineer, and by working with the important person that meant I, too, was important. He pointed out that the important guy wouldn't be important unless he was surrounded by unimportant people doing all the small jobs, and that the fact that I was working with an important person meant I couldn't possibly be important. By virtue, therefore, of not working with anyone important, it remains quite possible that my roommate it an important person. I told him he was full of shit and he turned up the volume on the TV.