Thursday, February 26, 2015

Celestial nav

Did you ever choose to read a technical manual which describes a process you have no practical use for?
Last night I purchased a pdf file of Kris Larsen’s latest publication via The Smallest Forest’s Etsy store HERE. WTF is an Etsy store, you may not ask because unlike me you probably know all about all the groovy cool stuff on the interwebs... but I’ll tell you anyway.
According to the Etsy website, this is what Etsy is:
“ Etsy is a marketplace where people around the world connect, both online and offline, to make, sell and buy unique goods.” 
The Smallest Forest is the name of the blog (and trading name) of Natalie, an incredibly creative woman who happens to be Kris’s missus (Not sure she’d want to be referred to as that but this isn’t about her.) Or you can find more information on Kris's website Monsoon Dervish. Anyway back to the technical manual and why I bought it and why I like it. 

My cheap knock up of Kris Larsen's Manual of sextant navigation

The title is: 'Manual of sextant navigation', by Kris Larsen 2014.
No I don’t actually own a yacht… no I haven't sailed in a couple of years and never out of sight of land, I don't expect to sail a yacht in the very near future... So why did I buy this book?

6 Reasons:
  1. I am fascinated by the technology. A device invented over 250 years ago which can be used for accurate navigation today!
  2. Sextant’s conjure romantic ideas of the self-sufficiency and personal skill required of a navigator at sea
  3. I particularly like the author’s style of writing and attitude toward the procurement of knowledge and the wisdom he appears to have gained through his life experience. (I think it came from hard work… I’m not prepared to put that to the test)
  4. I am curious about the effectiveness of instructional styles
  5. I like to support people who actually stick their neck out and create something themselves (sheesh if I can’t get my act together to do anything creative myself at least I can keep the hope alive by contributing to the subsistence of those who do… (for $3.94 AUD)
  6.  I really like old brass stuff and sextant’s look, well, they’re sexy!
My thoughts on technical writingAlthough the use of correct terminology is important, I don’t believe that the over use of jargon or technical terms is always necessary to produce a good instructional guide. How are you going to follow instructions if you’ve fallen asleep reading them? I have come across a few books which somehow manage to speak naturally to the reader in the way a master would to an apprentice. They are written in a style which engages the reader in a personal way keeping the instruction simple but clear and to the point. It is a great skill to know what will be of use to the novice and what can be discarded. 

The Book
Having read the first few pages (and some at the back) I am really impressed with this manual. Of course I must qualify that by saying I am not currently attempting to put it to practical use at sea, I don’t have a sextant my interest at the moment is only in the theory and the style of instruction. I imagine there’s an unspoken disclaimer to the reader that a navigator is responsible for his or her own calculations and the author can not be held responsible for technical errors or misinterpretations.
Kris has included plates with hand drawn sketches, tables and technical diagrams, which are presumably sufficient to assist the reader with their application what they have learned in the main text of the manual. What I really like about the book is that Kris has anticipated the various errors a navigator might make or stumbling blocks inherent in the use of the sextant, or navigation generally, and has included troubleshooting suggestions in a very natural way in the body of the text. It reads like he’s right there with you talking you through the process so you don’t fall in a hole!
I have to say the guy has a brilliant mind and things he seems to find effortless I struggle with even the rudiments of understanding, but somehow (possibly with more humility than he’s prepared to admit to) he has managed to pear everything down to  the most comprehensible language which I reckon really helps to demystify the whole process for novices with a fried noodle like me.
I’ve printed my copy and used a comb binder to put a front and rear cover on it.
If you’re into sailing, celestial navigation or would just like to see how a person with practical experience is able to convey their deep knowledge of a fairly technical craft then I reckon get a copy of this manual! A pretty cheap investment I reckon. If you have any doubts about his navigational skills have a read of Kris's book Monsoon Dervish (transcript here). 

Kris and Nat are currently living somewhere near João Pessoa in Brazil, Kris sailed most of the way there single handed traveling from Darwin, East to West. His rout took him north of Madagascar and following the African East coast he sailed on the southern ocean and across the South Atlantic (Ok it seems the long way round but he knew exactly where he was going!). Based on Kris's past form he would have navigated the entire journey by sextant. Kris sails with no satellite navigation, not even a compass, (Or motor).

OK that's enough of a plug for the fella they call 'Longrasser'. Just buy a copy and read for yourself.

Other reads

If you're into navigation and want to really challenge your capacity to combine cosmology or cultural narrative with science try reading:

The Last Steve Thomas (see Amazon HERE). 

Or if you're into bicycle maintenance:
My favorite writer of technical instruction was the Bike Guru Mr Sheldon Brown (1979–2008).
Sheldon Brown hand built the best database of bicycle technical information and practical advice I've ever seen. I discovered his website back in about 2005 and referred to it regularly. When I wanted to know more I'd send Sheldon an email and he used to reply to me. At the time I had no idea exactly how popular he was, he must have had 1,000s of people contacting him every week! Sadly Sheldon passed away in 2008, he is a legend in the world of cycling and is much missed.
Sheldon is a must for backyard bicycle mechanics.


Chandra Eswaran said...

Hi David,
I am not into navigation, but I do agree that Sheldon Brown wrote very good technical articles about bicycles.

Have you noticed that many appliances now come with no printed manual included in the package? I am talking cameras, food processors, etc. I seldom throw away a user manual, but I am disappointed to learn that i have to print them myself these days. Anyways, enough rambling from me :)

Have a Great Day!
Peace :)

David J said...

Ha! You could make a decent comic out of the collection of dodgy instruction booklets we've got at home. Too bad for anyone who doesn't have internet