Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Marathon Rocks

Boot Key Harbor, Florida

Man oh man, how nice to be reminded of how pleasant Florida can be.  It is not only the wonderful weather, but all the good friends.   Being back in Boot Key Harbor really feels like home.  I know I’ve blogged before about having 15-20 homes he (places we visit), but I guess I’ll throw in the towel and confess that Marathon/Book Key Harbor is our premier among homes.

We were surprised at how easy the driving was.   We started Sunday in Manning, GA, and we could have made it to Marathon in 13 hours.  Instead we took a side trip.   We drove to Labelle and intercepted Jeff & Wendy on their W32 Calypso.   They were cruising up the Caloosahatchee River heading for Lake Okeechobee.   We met them in Labelle and the four of us enjoyed a feast at Honest John’s Log Cabin.  Blog readers might remember our accounts of Honest John’s.  Last year we extended our stay in Labelle just so that we could eat at Honest John’s two days in a row.

On Monday we had a great drive thorough the Everglades.  We saw places we’ve never been before such as around Immokalee, FL.  Then we intercepted Alligator Alley and drove East to Homestead. All the time the weather was getting better and better.

By mid afternoon we were in Marathon and we met with Bob and Sandra.  They are our hosts this week, as we stay on board Carpe Diem.  It was a great reunion.  We missed them all winter.  Tonight we all have dinner with Darrick and Sharon, more best friends.  

All I can say is wow; life in Book Key Harbor continues to be the greatest.

Next, as we head north we’ll have to make some choices.  Kathy&Dick, Pat&Ray, Dave&Jonnnie, Chris&June, and Bo&Joyce all lie north of here and we’d love to visit them all.  Some are on the FL east coast, some on the west coast.  We’ll have to make a choice.

Also on my agenda is to stop at Sun Elec in Miami to buy solar panels.  They  charge a lot for shipping, so we can save by stopping in.  Right now however, we’re just enjoying being where we are.

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Savannah, Georgia

Enough with projects. Enough with the flu. Enough with winter (even North Carolina winter). We're heading south for a break.

Even better. We're heading for Marathon to visit with Bob and Sandra and the rest of our cruising friends. To tell the truth, we've been feeling a bit lonely and left out during our self imposed northern winter.

In less than 90 minutes, we will cross the border into Florida. We will be traveling for a weekly so. Wish us bon voyage.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Box Canyon Rule

Zebulon, North Carolina

The most valuable and lasting benefit I got from learning to fly airplanes is what I call "The Box Canyon Rule."

Here's the problem.  Every year several people lose their lives trying to fly airplanes up box canyons in the American West.  It must be very tempting.  The problem is, what do you do when you get  to the dead end? Well, plan A must be to either climb out of the canyon, or to make a U-turn and fly back out again.  In real life, that does not always work; and when it doesn't lives are are snuffed out on the canyon walls.   The significance of the box canyon is that there is no feasible plan B.
The box canyon rule is simply, "Don't fly into a box canyon."
The more general form of the rule is, "Don't follow any plan to which there are no feasible alternative plans."  
The risks I try to avoid while cruising are more abstract than real box canyons.  Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of factors.
  • The obvious ones.  Do not sail into uncharted waters (i.e. waters I don't have charts for.)  Do not enter strange harbors at night.  Don't go where currents are too strong to overcome with our vessel.
  • Weather margins.  I always try to return to a safe port at least 24 hours before an acceptable weather window may close.  If dangerous weather approaches, my margin increases to 36 or 48 hours.
  • Navigation: If all 4 GPS apparatuses on board suddenly fail, I have ways to do backup navigation.   I also have multiple backups for engine failure, sail failure, and hull integrity failure.  We have ample food and water to keep going for many weeks.  We have multiple methods of backup communication.
  • Personal limits:  I never allow our reserves of endurance or good judgement get dangerously low.  I'm keenly aware that fatigue robs judgement, and that as we get older fatigue appears quicker and that we fatigue more rapidly in bad weather.
Don't assume anything if you can avoid it.  To avoid collisions we keep a safe distance from other boats when possible to avoid the need to assume that the other guy will do the safe thing.  We always talk to a draw bridge tender by radio rather than assume that he sees us.
Here's the method: Think critically about your assumptions.  If an assumption is critical to safety, then you must have a feasible backup plan if that assumption proves false.  If you don't have a feasible alternative, don't go.

I should also define safety in this context.   Of course life safety is foremost, but for me that's not safe enough.  I plan to avoid situations which could be so scary, dangerous, or financially ruinous that it would cause Libby and I to give up on our cruising life.   We have no backup for this life style choice.  We must make it work.

In part, that is the reason for our current stand down.  I sensed that we (the crew) and Tarwathie (the vessel) were becoming accident prone.  Our implied plan A was that no such accident would be really serious.   Once I recognized that we had entered a box canyon, I chose to back out immediately.  I hope to make both the crew and the vessel in better shape to resume cruising next year.

[Note: I first posted this item on 11/8/2010, then I immediately withdrew it for rewriting.  This is the improved version.  Jim M,  read the first version before I withdrew it.  His comment was: 
Dick --
Your Box Canyon post is superb and should be required reading for all boaters. It is the most clear and articulate writing that I have seen on why and how to think about risk in a boating environment but is very broadly applicable no matter the boating style.
BTW, professionally, I am a risk manager as I run the credit function for financing large scale energy projects so I really appreciated the post both personally and professionally. Jim M. in CT 


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Amazing Genes

Zebulon, NC

Im happy to report that Libby is much better.   I'm also totally surprised.

You see, with her getting this illness one week after me, the experience was very fresh in my mind. I could see her symptoms progress hour-by-hour.   They seemed to mimic mine exactly.  Therefore I extrapolated to the end and assumed that the rest of her episode would match mine.  Not true.  On Monday morning, she seemed be completely free of the virus.   That is 24 hours faster than my experience.  Also, her recovery seems to be more complete than mine.  My head is still stuffed 10 days after my so-called recovery.  Her's is much better than mine.

Should I attribute it to Libby's superior genes?   Why not? I'm particularly fond of Libby's genes after all.  They and I have been getting along for more than 50 years, so far.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Jefferson's Right

Zebulon, NC

I published a new book, Jefferson's Right, on amazon.com 

The book is about the current debate about gun-control.  I maintain that both sides in the debate are disingenuous.   Pro-control advocates deny it, but their real goal is to nearly eliminate all private gun ownership.  Their tactics mirror those of the anti-smoking campaigns.  Pro-rights advocates claim that they need guns for sport and for self-protection.  Baloney, many of them want to protect their right to resist government, by violence if necessary.  They have trouble articulating that right however.  It is not rooted in The Constitution.  The book explains the origins of this right and explores the implications.

The right to resist, to revolt, to secede, to abolish government, all mean the same thing.  The right was best expressed in The US Declaration of Independence, in singularly inspired prose written by Thomas Jefferson.  The US Constitution however, explicitly denies this right.  The book explains and helps to resolve this contradiction, and it sets the 2nd amendment in its proper place.

Finally, the book examines the possibilities of non-violent alternatives to gun ownership.  After all, the high social cost of gun ownership is readily apparent.   If we acknowledge the right to resist, is it necessary for the public to exercise that right?   The book explores threats, both internal and external that having an armed public may protect us from.

Once disarmed, the public can never become re-armed.  Therefore, the realism of threats must be considered in the context of the expected lifetime of American society; two or three centuries at least.  In that time frame, many adverse events might occur, that are hard to imagine today, or in a 10 year planning window.

The book is very brief, almost essay size.  You would only need to read 16 pages.

I'm learning fast, that it is one thing to write a book, and quite another thing to promote it and to entice people to read it and comment on it.   I very much need some public comments and reviews; especially reviews on amazon.com.

You can buy Jefferson's Right for only $0.99 on amazon.com.  You can also read the full content free of charge here.   If you think that it is provocative and deserving of wider discussion, please tell your friends about it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Zebulon, NC

Last week, I was down with the flu.  Libby and I both had flu shots, but they are only 50% effective for seniors.   It was awful.  I can't remember ever being so sick in many decades.  But finally, this week it tapered off.  I'm still congested, but better every day.

The bad news is that on Thursday this week, Libby began with a slightly sore throat; the same symptom I started with.  Oh no!!!  That's right, she has the same thing, roughly one week behind me. It has also been many decades since Libby was really sick, and neither of us is as young as we once were.

Then things went from the frying pan into the fire, I head that this weekend forecast called for snow and miserable weather in NC.  That was too much.   I packed Libby in the car and drove to Dave and Cathy's house.   I can nurse Libby back to health better in a warm house with a regular bed.   So here we are.   We are grateful to have that alternative.  Thank you Cathy and Dave.

The bad news is that Libby had a very miserable night last night.  The good news is that a week ago I had a similarly bad night, but that was the worst of the flu.  Today she's feeling better.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


New Bern, NC

On a Friday night in 1985, I was reading a copy of Scientific American in bed. I came upon a fascinating article by Martin Gardener on something called the Mandelbrot Set. The article included some stunning graphics which come from the trivial recursive formula Z=Z+C. The next morning, Saturday, I rushed to my office at ASEA-Atom to write my own program to create such graphics. I happened to have a Textronix color graphics terminal on my desk, plus access to banks of the most powerful minicomputers in the world at that time. Being a veteran FORTRAN programmer it took me only minutes to write a program which began producing wonder opus graphics. I played with that program for weeks, and shoes it to all my friends and neighbors.  It was great fun.

The Textronix terminal had only 800x600 pixels, each with 24 bits of color. Even so, and even with those powerful minis working for me, it took almost an hour to compute a full screen picture. I went through all sorts of tricks to be able to zoom, pan, preview the region of interest, and to interact with it in real time. There was a business benefit to that because I taught myself lots of software optimization techniques that I later used in company products. Such is the power of games and play in computing; they motivate us to advance the state of the art.

What prompted this post today is that I discovered and downloaded an app yesterday to do Mandelbrot graphics on the iPad. My God, what an unbelievable difference 30 years of technology makes. The number of pixels and the beauty of the screen are much better on the iPad. Most amazing, the one hour wait for a new calculation is now reduced to a second or less. It happens so fast that the eye can barely catch something that looks like a flicker. The iPad must be on e order of 10,000 times faster than those superminis from 1986. Even more amazing, I have reason to believe that the Android phone in my pocket is more than 5 times faster than the iPad. The pictures posted here came from that app (in Libby's hand I might add.)

When I first started working professionally with computers in 1966, computers cost millions of dollars and many were as big as houses. They were roughly, 10,000 times slower than 1986 computers or, 1,000,000,000 (one billion) times slower than my phone. Memory cost $1 per bit and my wage as a graduate electrical engineer was about $4/hour. Today memory costs are lower by a factor of 100 billion, but wages are higher by a factor of 15, so bits per hour of labor is up by about 5 billion to one.

It has been a wild and wonderful ride for tekkies of my generation. Just to remain useful and to avoid obsolescence of skills, we had to surf on the leading edge of that fantastic tidal wave. I'm very grateful for the privilege of having been a part of it. Perhaps now you understand why my fascination with all things computer continues even during our cruising life years.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sickness On Board

New Bern, NC

Sickness on board the boat is not something I like to blog about.   Libby especially feels it an invasion of her privacy if I write that she's not feeling good.   Fortunately, it is not something that we have to deal with often because we very seldom get sick.

However, seldom does not mean never.   I got my flu shot for this season but last Friday I came down with the flu anyhow.  I spent 3-4 days being very miserable and letting Libby nurse me.  I think it has been more than 40 years since I was that sick before.   But now, I'm 85% recovered and willing to write about it.

Cruisers get sick less often than the general public for the simple and obvious reason that they have less contact with other people.  The more time you spend in contact, and the larger the groups you are in contact with, the greater your exposure.   If our contacts are mostly to other cruisers, then exposure is reduced.  Contacts with children, or in a doctor's office, or a hospital, would make exposure go way up.  If it was just Libby and I out at sea for weeks at a time it would be extremely unlikely for us to come down with an infectious disease.  Who would we catch it from?

On the other hand,  our offshore custom with just the two of us as crew leaves us largely unprepared for incapcitation of either of the crew.  I'm afraid that we would fail at our duty to keep a sharp watch out 24x7 unless both of us were in top shape.  For the kind of coastal cruising we do, our backup is to change plans and head immediately to the nearest port in case of sickness.   For ocean crossings, I just don't believe we would be safe without additional crew.  

What about single-handed ocean crossers and circumnavigators?  Sorry, I believe that all captains have the moral obligation to keep a 24x7 watch and single-handers can't do it.

What about sea-sickness?  mal-de-mar?  We encountered that a couple of times.  We have remedies on board which include an electric-shock wristband that Libby uses when the need for relief is immediate and drastic.  It works.  

Friday, February 08, 2013

Feeling Antsy

 New Bern, NC

Last Sunday was a very nice day.  I felt antsy.  I felt like going out and doing something out of the ordinary, but I didn't have any good ideas.  I asked Libby for ideas.  She didn't have any either.  Then the thought occurred to me, I would not be short of ideas if we were in Marathon.

Burlington, Oriental, New Bern, Saint Augustine, Vero Beach, and The Abacos, and Marathon, are all among our favorite cruising destinations.  Yet Marathon stands out as being substantially better than the others.  It is not just in our minds, I think many cruisers would agree.  

If we had been in Marathon last Sunday, and if the weather was nice, and if we were bored, we could have:

  • Gone to Sombrero beach to sunbathe and swim.
  • Gone for a bike ride.
  • Gone fishing in Whiskey Creek
  • Gone fishing on the 7 mile bridge.
  • Take the boat out to Sombrero Reef for snorkeling.
  • Take the boat out to Coconut Key to anchor for skinny dipping and nature.
  • Visited the artist colony on Pigeon Key
  • Gone to The Turtle Hospital
  • Arranged a Balderdash Tournament
  • Attended a lecture on some aspect of cruising.
  • Yoga at the Tiki Hut
  • Gone out for a guy's lunch (or a gal's lunch for Libby)
  • Watched TV or surfed the net at the marina office.
  • Gone for a hike at Cranes Point nature area.
  • Gone for a day sail in The Atlantic Ocean
  • Gone for a day sail in The Gulf of Mexico (Florida Bay.)
  • Hosted a dinner party on the boat.
  • Played tennis, or bocci ball, or softball in the park. 
  • For young folks, played street hockey or skateboarding in the park.
  • Gone for lunch and waterside atmosphere at Keys Fisheries or Sunset Grill.
  • Gone for a cool waterside drink at Burdines or Dockside
  • Toured by dinghy the mangrove forests or the network of canals of Vaca Key.
  • Sat under "the tree of wisdom" joining the ever present crowd of regulars. 
  • Taken the bus to Key West, Islamorada, Key Largo, or Florida City.
  • Taken the bus to Big Pine Key to gather pine needles.
  • Assisted another cruiser who asked for project help on The Cruiser's Net.
  • Hung out my hammock and tarp on the forward deck and lounge in the shade, mild temperatures and gentle breezes as I read a book and snacked on chips.
  • Gone to a movie.
In New Bern on that Sunday, the only thing that occurred to me was go to a movie, so that's what I did.

Note that that my list assumes you do not have access to a car, nor to a large wad of money, and it does not list nighttime activities or things to do on other days of the week.  I'm sure that blog readers could have added another dozen or two things that I didn't think of.  

No other place in the US East Coast, or The Bahamas offers such a long list.  No wonder cruisers like it.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Republished from Risks Digest 27.15

Risks Digest 27.15

From: RISKS List Owner
Date: Tue, 29 Jan 2013 14:49:23 PST

RISKS-LIST: Risks-Forum Digest  Tuesday 29 January 2013  Volume 27 : Issue 15

Peter G. Neumann, moderator, chmn ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy


Date: Tue, 22 Jan 2013 21:21:44 -0800
From: Paul Saffo 
Subject: Digital Map Error May Have Led To Minesweeper Grounding

This is a good one given the fact that the skipper of the minesweeper was
warned over the radio by the park rangers that they were on a collision
course and the skipper told them to "contact the US embassy.  Rather like
the old story of the battleship skipper ordering the lighthouse to move!  -p

Christopher P. Cavas, Digital Map Error May Have Led To Minesweeper Grounding

A digital chart used by the minesweeper USS Guardian to navigate Philippine
waters misplaced the location of a reef by about eight nautical miles, and
may have been a significant factor when the ship drove hard aground on the
reef on 17 Jan 2013.

As of 18 Jan, U.S. Navy ships have been directed to ``operate with caution''
when using similar electronic charts and compare the map data with paper
charts, which are considered accurate.

The Guardian drove onto Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea around 2:25 a.m. on
17 Jan (some sources cite a date of 16 Jan, since that was the date in
Washington, D.C. when the incident occurred). The reef is about 80 miles
east-southeast of Palawan Island.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

New Book on the Way

New Bern, NC

Read the blog post here.  My friend Doug Campbell, a long time writer and a regular reader of this blog announced that he has a book contract to write about the loss of the HMS Bounty.  He says:

Besides telling the story of the ship's final few days, our job will be to come as close as possible to answering the questions that began circulating as soon as the maritime community learned that the Bounty had set sail from New London, CT, on a path headed straight for a hurricane. Some have suggested that the captain was suicidal, some that he was homicidal for putting his crew in such danger. Many have claimed he was crazy. 
I'm hoping that, through interviews not only with his crew members but with family members and others who knew him, we will be able to find a clear path to the actual truth.
 Congratulations Doug.  That's a great topic.  I'll be first in line to read your book when it comes out, and I bet other readers of this blog will be right behind me.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Help Needed Solar Panel Purchase

New Bern, NC

My next item on my list of products is to buy and install a solar panel.  I'm feeling inadequate in this department.  I read the specs on the panels and I'm bewildered.
I currently have a 50 watt panel that is mounted above the wind vane of the Monitor self-steering.  I also have an inexpensive pulse width controller that can handle 7 amps, and that limits battery voltage to 13.8   I figure that it makes 1/3 to 1/2 of our power needs at anchor.   A calculation of our needs says that we should have 120w at 25 degrees latitude or 180W at latitude 45.

I'm looking to replace it or to supplement the existing panel.  I figure that next year I can replace the controller with a MPPT controller.

Sunelec.com out of Miami has long had the best prices around (under $1/watt), but recently they seem to have shifted to selling pallet lots only.

I would really appreciate it if a blog reader would volunteer to consult with me on this purchase dickandlibbymills@gmail.com


Video Learning Endorsed

New Bern, NC

I want to give a ringing endorsement to the concept of free online courses on video.  I've been indulging every day in a series of tough courses for the past two months.  I must say I'm amazed at how much I learned.  In fact, I don't think I could have mastered those courses at all in a conventional classroom setting.

I first learned about the idea from a TED talk by Sal Khan.  I visited his site Khan Academy, where there are more than 3000 short lectures on a host of subjects.  I tried Chemistry, a subject I nearly failed in college.  To my delight, I learned what I never did in College.  I also took Khan's courses on economics just for fun.  Now I can draw Keynesian curves with the best of them.

In his talk, Khan said that he discovered by accident that presenting lectures in 10 minute bites was much more effective.   He also discovered that with video learning the goal should be 100% comprehension, not 80% or 90%.   You can rewind and replay as much as you need to achieve 100%.  If you do, then all the subsequent lessons are easier.

Then I turned to something much harder.  The famous theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind from Stanford University taught a series of courses he called The Theoretical Minimum. It was a continuing education class designed for old farts like me.  Old people don't have so many years in front of them so they are in a hurry to learn.  Susskind designed these courses to train people to become theoretical physicists the simplest and fastest way.

Anyhow, The Theoretical Minimum online is a series of  45 lectures, 90-120 minutes each, covering.

  1. Classical Physics
  2. Quantum Physics
  3. Relativity and Field Theory
  4. General Relativity
  5. Cosmology
(p.s. iTunes-U provides the best and easiest way to view them free)

I did them all in 10-20 minute chunks.  I did rewind and replay whenever needed.  I also paused replay and visited Wikipedia whenever an unfamiliar calculus concept was mentioned.   Wow!  It worked better than I dared to imagine.  I not only learned a whole lot of fascinating physics, I also learned the equivalent of 6 semesters of advanced calculus, just to keep up.   I had no idea how elementary my engineer's college education really was.

I'm positive that I could have never kept up on Susskind's courses in a conventional classroom.  It was heavy duty stuff with almost all the time doing math on the blackboard.  If I missed a point, my mind would mull it over and over as I failed to pay attention to what followed in the next few minutes.   It would be a case of falling gradually further and further behind.  Using the videos, I managed to keep up, and I believe with 100% comprehension.   (Note that comprehension is not the same as retention.  To retain the stuff I would need lots of practice and homework too.)  But retention was not my goal, merely the joy of learning.

Now, to my delight I found another two dozen of Susskind lectures on particle physics, The Standard Model and quantum entanglement.   Oh boy, I'm looking forward to them.

My endorsement is limited to my experience.  I am aware that there are lots of online courses being offered to students from commercial sources, and that many of these courses are scams; they provide little benefit for the cost.   Nevertheless, MOOC (massively open online courses) is a fad right now among universities world wide.  I say hooray.

If you love learning, or if you need a particular subject, I suggest that you give online videos a try.  Try www.khanacademy.org first, and iTtunes-U next.

p.s. Libby and I are now taking a course together, and having fun discussing it with each other.  It is a Harvard course called Justice.  We found it on iTunes-U.   It is said to be the most popular Harvard course ever, with more than 1000 students packing the lecture hall.  It is about morality, philosophy, and social justice.  In the end it teaches students to think critically.   Libby and I are amused at how na├»ve (meaning uncritical in their thinking, pliable. ignorant) those super smart Harvard students are.  Our 68 years make us very much smarter than those students about life.

Friday, February 01, 2013

A Plug

New Bern, NC

As you know, we are sitting this winter out in New Bern. Therefore, this blog has less fresh news of living The Cruising Life. However, our friends Jeff and Wendy aboard the W32 Calypso, are not only cruising but they started their own blog, and it is very entertaining. I recommend it. You can see their blog by clicking on Calypso in the right margin here (scroll down a little), or by clicking here.

I especially liked their story and good seamanship protecting a girl in the water. Read the post Lake Worth Anchorage here.

By the way, Calypso is doing something we never did. They are traveling from Miami to Marathon on the Bay side. There are lots of interesting paces to visit that way. However, we always believed that iy was too shallow for a W32 to make it there without running aground. They haven't made it yet. We will follow their blog with interest.