Look, mom! A Barbie Boat

boat on a trailer

Living in New York in the early 90’s I caught a clip on television of a new radical boat from Bombardier’s Sea-Doo division called the “Speedster.”  This jet boat, weighing less than 1500 lbs., generated over 170 horsepower from twin Rotax marine rotary engines.  The clip showed the boat launching from ramp-like waves and flying through the air.  With its light weight, power and agility and 55 mph top speed, it sounded to me like my Lotus Elan, but for the water.  A bit of research led me to a dealer in Mt. Kisco, New York.  He had three Bombardier jet boats in stock, but only one with the twin engines, and it cost more.  But, he said, it was so quick, there were rumors it might be withdrawn by Bombardier for safety reasons and he wasn’t allowed to order any more.  Maybe it was too fast and dangerous? Either he was a superb salesperson and had me perfectly pegged or I was the biggest sucker born, but in a matter of hours, I was pulling this new boat and trailer into my driveway.  I couldn’t wait to try it out.

Having this boat on the Hudson River north of New York City was a hoot.  Nearly all the boats on the river were far larger. This “rocket ship for the water,” as it was to become known, was a blast to drive. On several occasions we made the 35-mile trip to Manhattan, circling NYC amongst monstrous cruise ships, powerful tug boats and high-speed cigarette-style speedboats. When sitting still or slowly trolling through the water, it looks a bit like a floating hot tub.

One afternoon, meandering slowly along the city’s west side, I began getting some derisive, NY-style trash talk from a hotshot captain of a 40+ foot, twin outboard engine racing-type boat, I challenged him to a race.  I pointed to the end of a pier about a quarter of a mile down the shore, and suggested we see who could get there first. With several people in his boat egging him on and a host of onlookers, he was eager to shut me up.  We lined up and pointed our respective craft toward the pier, about five football fields away.  Someone on his boat yelled “Go.”  We were off!  As his engines roared to life his props began wild and noisy cavitations, while my two internal engine impellers promptly launched my lightweight little boat out of the water and toward the pier.  We must have been 200 yards beyond the bigger boat before he’d managed to get his ride onto a plane.  His boat weighed at least 10,000 lbs. empty, and he had 5-6 people in it.  It really was no contest, given the short distance.  When I reached the goal-line pier, I did another thing my little speedster was great at, which was to turn on a dime and stop, calmly sitting in the water for 5-6 seconds waiting for the larger boat to come screaming by.  After he’d finally turned around and pulled his boat close to mine, the chagrinned captain and his amused passengers were intrigued. They had tons of questions about my little boat and they passed us over a few beers from their onboard refrigerator.

Cockpit of the See-Doo Speedster

I loved my little boat. In my mind, it was indeed much like my Lotus Elan — far faster and better-performing than anyone realized.  Captaining the diminutive craft, I secretly thought of myself as Mario Andretti on the water, capable of out-driving, out-running and flat out putting other boats to shame. One day Ginger and I were loading the boat onto its trailer at Croton-on-Hudson’s Senasqua Park boat launch.  As I pulled it out of the water with blond-haired, 8-old Ginger in the driver’s seat of the boat, my car window was down. I couldn’t help but hear the excited squeal of a young girl as she ran from the swing sets towards the boat ramp area with her arm outstretched, pointing at our boat and calling “Mommy, look, look, there’s a Barbie boat.” I was shocked. I fumed, “What could she possibly mean? This is a macho screaming high-performance jet boat!”  As I got out of the car to strap the boat to the trailer, I gradually began to see it in a new light.  “Okay, it’s color scheme ‘sort of’ looks like it ‘could’ have come from a collection of Barbie accessories, and it is kind of small.”  Ginger guided the little girl around the boat and with her mother’s blessing, helped her up so she could sit inside it.  She was beyond thrilled and I finally had to laugh.  And from then on, it lost its powerful and dangerous mystique and became “the Barbie boat.”

Moving to Minnesota a few years later turned out to be a boon for the boat.  You may not have heard, but Minnesota has an above-average population of lakes, as does nearby Wisconsin.  The Barbie boat became the ideal cabin accessory for my daughter and her cousins and my in-laws.  They all learned to drive it and parents learned to relax as they realized it had no dangerous props and how much fun the kids were having pulling each other around on inflatable water toys.  The boat was a hit at the annual Net Perceptions family picnic, although I was never able to get our CEO, Steven Snyder into it, but many employees had a great time.

The boat made the trek to Arizona. Pulling it behind our SUV, we were  driving along the Colorado River just east of Moab, UT, when I saw a spot where we could drop the boat into the water and so we did.  It was a beautiful, fun afternoon, although Maggie was nervous about what laws we might be breaking. We enjoyed the Sea-Doo for a few years on the man-made lakes in Arizona, zipping in and out of the water-flooded canyons. But with Ginger gone and her cousins visiting less and less, I finally let it go.  While it morphed in my mind to “the Barbie Boat” many years ago, it is always pleasing to see nautical sites refer to it as one of the greatest boats ever made.

End

P.S.  You can find the full specs on the boat here.  It’s full name is the Sea-Doo Sportster 4-TEC

On the lakes in Minnesota, pulling kids on inflatables
Three across seating keeps you nicely wedged in when doing rapid turns and jumping waves.

Damn science stuff

In today’s Arizona Republic newspaper one of our local columnists alluded to a certain political attack on science. Reports that “science got X or Y wrong” on topics from global warming to Covid-19 are frequent, leading me to conclude many people have a deep misunderstanding of what science is, actually.  Hopefully, I can shed some light.

Science isn’t a thing, it is a process.  It is a model consisting of specific steps designed to lead to the truth.  The scientific method dictates how experiments must be done. It specifies double-blind testing and other processes to eliminate the influence of bias or prejudice.  That is science, an objective, standardized approach to conducting experiments and, in doing so, improving the accuracy, consistency and reliability of the results.

No matter the field, from biology to physics and engineering, the process of making observations, testing, and continuing to revise a theory based on the results remains the same.  My friend Frank was involved in software testing in his business career.  He knows firsthand how the process works and why it was so important, even when his superiors at the time pushed to bypass testing or minimize its importance. A scientific theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation.  Theories are tested in experiments under controlled conditions.  Established scientific theories have withstood hundreds and even thousands of rigorous tests and close scrutiny to become what now embodies “scientific knowledge.” Sometimes people attempt to denigrate certain aspects of scientific progress by saying “it’s just a theory.”  Technically, in scientific terms, that is correct.  But gravity is also a “theory,” although I’m not sure how many people would wish to throw themselves off a cliff with the idea that “falling is just a theory.”

As additional scientific evidence is gathered, theories are frequently modified. On occasion, it can be rejected entirely if it cannot fit the new findings.  That does not mean all theories can be fundamentally changed.  Foundational scientific theories such as gravity, evolution, heliocentric theory, cell theory, plate tectonics, germ theory of disease, and many others aren’t going to change.  Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould explained it like this “…facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.”

The scientific method consists of the basic steps below and what led to the breakthrough in medicine responsible for my being here today. I’ve included a diagram of the scientific process at the end of this article from Wikipedia.

  1. Ask a question.
  2. Do background research.
  3. Develop a hypothesis, a proposed explanation for the question.
  4. Test the hypothesis in a manner that allows for proof or disproof of the hypothesis.
  5. Analyze the results of the testing.
  6. Formulate a conclusion.
  7. Refine and Repeat (back to #1).

This past year I read two history books on how open heart surgery began and how we got to where we are today.  One is “The Sublime Engine” by Stephen and Thomas Amidon.  The other is “King of Hearts: The True Story of the Maverick Who Pioneered Open Heart Surgery” by G. Wayne Miller.  The topic interests me, of course, as I had my first open-heart surgery when I was 15 years old in 1966. While far enough along back in 1966 to confidently predict good results, the dangers in this surgery have been reduced a hundredfold since then by repeated experiments which these books chronicle. My family and I were relieved that although I had two additional heart surgeries in 2016 and 2018, much of the medical mysteries surrounding my particular heart issues have been uncovered.  You can read more about those surgeries here.

What I like most about the scientific process is that once you’ve crafted the hypothesis you wish to test, you set up your experiment to not only find data to help prove your theory but also identify what factors, outcomes and data may potentially arise which could disprove or raise doubts about your hypothesis. You must try your damnedest to prove your hypothesis is wrong because in so doing, you test that it’s right. You can’t focus only on the affirmative – you must construct the negative arguments as well.  When setting up an experiment, there is a human tendency to want it to be true and to prove it is so.  The scientific process anticipates this human bias and compensates with how tests must be set up, such as double-blind testing, but also in requiring strict and exhaustive peer reviews.  Many scientists make it their cause to repeat experiments with greater thoroughness than the original work to cast doubt on conclusions.  In science, this is not bad manners but a highly-respected and important part of the process leading to the truth.  During my debate competitions in high school, my partner and I often did not know on which side of a proposition we would be arguing until just minutes before the competition began.  Learning to be equally persuasive and able to support both sides of the debate resolution greatly sharpened and deepened our understanding of the issues we debated.

While my parents were very religious, I am eternally grateful when the life of their child was on the line, they chose science and the medical establishment to find a solution to a defect in my heart that would have ended my life at a relatively young age.  Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse, it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions on hard evidence — evidence that is continually updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along.

It is unclear to me what process those who claim science is “wrong” would have us use in its place. Should we adopt a “might makes right,” approach, where whoever’s bigger, stronger or richer gets to dictate what is true? Perhaps we should allow truth to be determined by whatever political party accumulates the most votes in a particular voting season? Frankly, the idea of accepting the opinions of actors, musicians, politicians or religious leaders over the findings of a group of established scientists just seems wrong.  Is it rational to decide the truth for your life based on slogans, wishful-thinking and superstition?

I’m grateful to be in the final third of my life.  I doubt I’ll ever see the results of a society of parents who choose to ignore science and not vaccinate their children against polio, smallpox, measles and Covid-19 and whatever else we vaccinate against.  Vaccines save lives.  Science saves lives.  I believe in saving lives through knowledge.  Science is the right path to gain that knowledge.

The scientific method is an ongoing process

Top Tier TV Pick #2 – My Octopus Teacher

official Netflix trailer

Craig Foster filmed and narrates the underwater adventure “My Octopus Teacher,” focused on a single subject, an amazing little creature. Naturalist photographers normally stay in the background.  Not in this film and it makes a wonderful difference. You’ll come away uplifted and knowing far more about lives much more connected to us than you might at first think. You can watch it on Netflix.

Not all recommendations are going to be nature shows, but this one and the first (Our Planet) just happened. Trust me, they’re both wonderful.  My own underwater experiences involved more than just SCUBA.  Before becoming a certified diver, I spent my youth and early twenties free diving using only a snorkel and good swim fins, no oxygen tank or wetsuit.  After years of using oxygen tanks at various storied dive locations around the world, I tired of the bulk and re-certification needs for SCUBA, and went back to free diving.  While it took a while for my lung capacity to return, I fell back in love with the glorious feeling of freedom when free diving.  Foster’s dependence on this approach makes a considerable impact on the film. My Octopus Teacher will take you to an exciting new world, full of beauty and glorious surprises.

But how do we know it is true?

paper in typewriter says Investigation

In response to an email suggestion to watch the documentary “Totally Under Control,” a friend replied saying: “Thanks! Sounds interesting…but I have to ask the question: is it true? How do we know?”

Official Trailer for The Social DilemmaWith all the charges of “fake news” and media distrust, it turns out the methods for determining credibility and levels of truthfulness from various information sources hasn’t changed that much and most people know about it to one degree or another. My recommendation to watch the documentary carried with it the caveat it was controversial.  But I do think it is true, and toward the end, I explain why.

Most can discern when information supplied to us is trustworthy and true. Few people equate their doctor’s prescription for a new medication to an Internet video hawking a miraculous supplement. We know now research studies underwritten by tobacco companies “proving cigarettes were highly valuable digestive aids and safe,” were lies. Educated people naturally consider the sources of the data to judge the degree of trust it should be given.

In high school my “sport” was debate. I loved debating, was very competitive and on a team that made it to the state level. Between my junior and senior years of high school I spent two weeks at Michigan State University in a debate training institute.  Anyone in debate knew arguments must be supported. The first step in building that support was verifiable facts from trusted sources – encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, etc. And one’s sources meant something – judges did not score facts gleaned from The Reader’s Digest as high as from The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times.  Lacking factual support for an argument, you went to the next tier of proof, which was opinion.  Sometimes a quote supporting your position from a well-known, highly-educated and credible individual with a trusted position in the topic area could be almost as persuasive as fact. The more and better your sources and quotes supported sound reasoning and logic, the greater your chances of winning.

Dan Gillmor

Another area where I have experience is journalism.  Early in my free-lance writing experience, my work was subjected to fact checkers. Wow, what an experience! These professionals walked me through my piece sentence by sentence, challenging everything I’d written, asking over and over again, how did I know the truth of what was on the page, did I have more than one source, what were the sources, and so on.  Not all writers are trained journalists following ethical standards and not all magazines demand it, though a great many do.  Dan Gillmor wrote for the San Jose Mercury News during the part of my career when I was starting companies in the Bay Area. His articles were universally prized and hard to get. Meeting him once at a coffee shop for an interview, I offered to buy his coffee. He said, “No, it isn’t permitted by the newspaper.” In those days, coffee was only $2.00, but he was still not allowed to accept even that.  The paper understood a gift, any gratuity, or anything like that could subtly seep in, create familiarity and affect a story. Their reporters had to remain totally unbiased. Years later we became friends and he told me one day, “You know I can’t write about your companies anymore, don’t you?” He went on to explain he considered me a friend and the paper would assign someone else to cover if in the future I believed I might have something newsworthy.

Newspapers and magazines have various levels of ethical reporting and journalistic standards. The very best ones not only make those standards and policies available to the public, but make it absolutely clear to all writers and editors, that violating any of the guidelines can lead to termination. As an example, you can find the standards and ethics for the Washington Post here.

The WSJ and The Washington Post news organizations are widely respected, even though their editorial (opinion pages) hold very different opinions from one another. To their credit, both publications understand the difference between opinion and the facts they gather and report in their news pages and draw distinct lines between them.

At one time, both network and local television stations had newsrooms and viewed themselves as professional journalists.  Some still do, but others clearly dedicate the time formerly considered news, to creating stories that attract the most eyeballs and advertising revenue. When these programs began to be disguised as actual journalism, is when television news lost its credibility and became pure entertainment.  Today, cable and network television “news-like” content is being produced by people who fall into one of two camps:

  1. Television reporters, writers and anchors who are actual journalists and operate within a well-defined set of standards and ethics, which they have no problem disclosing or talking about. They have no issue correcting mistakes on the air.  They have frequently graduated from top schools with advanced degrees, are well-read, articulate and cautious. They tend to work hard on stories, ask interview questions which display deep, expert and thoughtful preparation. They provide highly useful and important context and background to help viewers comprehend a particular story.
  2. Reporters more skilled at story-telling than having a real concern for actual facts. Their goal is high ratings for entertainment. They are often egotistical and shamelessly sensationalist.  They have little or no respect for journalistic ethics. They may have a certain view of the world which they frequently share with their audience. They are not above promoting and sometimes even creating unsubstantiated stories with zero fact checking or scenarios they “report,” as if it were “news.” They are rewarded with massive amounts of money because they generate eyeballs/ears which the media entities that employ them turn into dollars.

So, how to you know truth? The easiest and fastest way, look at the source.  In the case of the documentary I recommended, it was produced by Alex Gibney, an Oscar-winning documentarian. You don’t win Oscars in the documentary category by making stuff up. His team was careful to site their sources. Since this is about Covid-19, they filmed interviews and reproduced other interviews with attribution from the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and CDC director Robert Redfield and others directly involved.  Others they interviewed were the people in charge during the period for which they were reporting. Michael Bowen, who is interviewed extensively for the film, is a republican who voted for Trump and believed in him passionately. Bowen’s life-time of involvement and experience in the medical supply chain business provide highly credible insight into what caused so many deaths in the US.

Beyond this particular film, generally, if you don’t want to be deceived by what appears to be news but really isn’t, follow these guidelines:  First, reduce the amount of time you spend with any television programs in category 2 above. Second, read news as reported by news organizations with a documented set of ethical standards and a track record of supporting reporters who write challenging pieces, even when unpopular. And third, read the opinion pages of not only the publications with which you agree, but also read opinions of those who are on the opposite side of where you typically tend to be.  Reputable fact-based publications are always careful to label opinions as opinions.  They do not peddle opinions as facts.