George Dyson, Writer and Boat Builder


Cool Tools Show 164: George Dyson

Our guest this week is George Dyson. George divides his time between building boats and writing books, and some fo the books he has written include Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship, Darwin among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe.

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Show notes:

Peavey ($74)
“[This is] a tool that has literally not changed at all for 150 years, and it is still made by the company that it’s named after, the Peavey Company in Maine. If you do any work in the woods, with logs, chainsaws, things like that, it allows you to basically put a big leaver on the end of a log and roll the log around. It’s just a beautiful work of art tool and sort of a miracle that it’s still made and survives. You spear the log, and then that hook catches and suddenly you have a really secure five- or six-foot lever arm on the log. I cut a lot of firewood on the beach, and before you cut a log you want to roll it over and clean the sand off. It’s the only tool that’ll allow you to do that without sort of killing yourself. … It’s a classic, absolutely essential and unequaled tool for any serious woodsperson.”

Netting Needles ($9) and How to Carve a Net Needle and Weave a Survival Gill Net video,
“[This] the net needle, which isn’t really a needle. Some people would call it a similar to a weaver’s shuttle, but it’s a little, very cleverly-made design. In fact, you can find them more or less unchanged in archeological sites that are 5000 or 6000 years old. It’s a small sort of cigar that you wind up with net-mending twine or string or anything like that, and then you have a pretty good length of string or twine on this thing that it gives you something to hold on to, and you can immediately mend nets, or of course I use them lashing kayaks together. So it’s the kind of thing that I wouldn’t go anywhere without one in my toolkit somewhere. They’re made in all sorts of sizes. There’s flat ones, and there’s three-dimensional ones, which are better. They’re still made in Norway, and there’s a company in the United States, the Loomis Company, that makes the Norwegian pattern. … It just becomes almost automatic or second nature that as you’re weaving this thing in and out and let come off every now and then you have this handle you can pull on, so it’s a kind of tool that becomes part of your mind.”

Lanolin in bulk ($50/gallon)
“Lanolin, or wool grease, which is actually a wax, is a by-product of cleaning raw wool, but it’s the best part — it’s how sheep in wind-swept northern Scotland stay waterproof and warm. It is used in all kinds of products, from lip balm to anti-corrosion coatings, but you can buy it pure and unadulterated for about $50/gallon which is a lifetime supply for you and many friends. It is absolutely unexcelled for chapped skin and lips, and is favored by all serious mariners for lubricating through-hull sea-cocks and corrosion protection of metal parts and fasteners that may be exposed to years of saltwater before having to be taken apart. … it’s the greatest corrosion protection known to the maritime world. Even modern, the most modern, sailboats will still use lanolin. I gave a whole lot to everybody for Christmas. I bought little cosmetic jars, and if you heat it up … It’s very interesting. It’s actually a wax, not a grease, so if you heat it up a certain temperature then it becomes liquid. You can fill the containers, and everybody loves it. It’s like 100-proof lip balm with nothing else diluting it.”

“I make my living writing books, and so my tool for writing books is a software package called Scrivener that actually Neal Stephenson gave me sort of a beta version of when it first came out. It changed my life overnight. I had been struggling writing. I wrote my first book with no computer at all, I guess with a typewriter, and the second in Word on floppies, and the third one with Word and a hard drive. And then I got Scrivener, and in 24 hours I was using the program and it became transparent, and I never used Word unless I had to again. It’s just a miraculous piece of software written by one person. So I looked at my last book, Turing’s Cathedral, and if you open up the Scrivener package it is 3730 separate files of things that I collected and worked into the book, yet when you look at it from the outside, from the writer’s side, you just are sort of looking at a typewriter, and you can pull out the ideas it. …. You can just throw out all this stuff and then shuffle it. It’s miraculous for a piece of software for organizing.”

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