Thursday, October 31, 2013

Blogging from the boat

My lovely wife and I are finally on our way. I can't believe all the stuff we crammed into a 19 foot boat.

We had a long day on the water. We are anchored at Anclote Bar, near Tarpon Springs Florida. Right now it offers good protection, but if the wind comes out of the East, it'll get bumpy. We are well anchored so I'm not worried.

The island is a good place to gather shells, walk the dog, and stretch our legs.

We've one neighbor spending the night in a trimaran.

I'm loving it!


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Single point failure and triage

When my lovely wife and I were out on the water, we overheard a call for help from a powerboat. They were in contact with the Coast Guard. It wasn't anything major. Their battery was dead so they could not start their engine. Boat US was notified and was on the way.

Long time readers know I'm a belt and suspenders type guy. If I had a powerboat, it would have a second outboard small enough to pull start. Ideally, it would have the ability to charge a battery. (like the 6 hp outboard on my sailboat.) That way it would be possible to charge the dead battery while slowly making headway.

Growing up on lakes, I had friends who had powerboats. Back then, the biggest outboards on those boats was about 50 hp. In a pinch, with a strong arm, they could be pull started. We did it often enough. Sure beat the heck out of trying to paddle a powerboat back to the dock. Big outboards are much more common today and there is no pull starting them.

The day we heard the distress call we were sailing down the long channel back to the boat launch. Winds were favorable and we were riding a rising tide. We lost the wind in a narrow channel, but by then we were only a couple hundred feet from the landing. I fired up the outboard, but we could have easily paddled and/or polled the rest of the way.

Sure, I felt clever enough, but this was the same channel back in February where we ran out of gas, the winds were against us, the tide going out, and it was dark. Yep, felt like an idiot then. Helpful fishermen towed us the rest of the way. Since then we've added three times the gasoline capacity, installed a depth gage and carry a powerful spotlight. Even I get caught ill prepared -once.

The boat with a dead battery is a perfect illustration of single point failures. One critical thing fails and it's over. Modern man lives with single point failure systems all the time. Here it was a boat's battery, but it could be his house's electrical, water, or sanitation system. Even people's food supply is just-in-time or not at all.

I wondered why people tolerate so many single point failure points in their lives. Then it occurred to me. They are used to help being just a call away. The guy with the boat called the Coast Guard who sent help immediately. People expect power lines to be repaired, streets cleared after storms, stores restocked, FEMA to rescue them, and police and fire to be just minutes away. Sometimes it even happens that way. Other times, not so much.

Emergency services work best when there are few emergencies to deal with at once. One boat in trouble is no big deal. However, if there were suddenly 100 boats in trouble at the same time, it'd be a different story. That's when a little something called triage comes into play. Most civilians are not too familiar with the concept.

Roughly, it goes like this. In a big disaster resources are insufficient to deal with everything at the same time. So things get sorted into three categories. Those that can't be handled with the resources at hand. Nothing will get done for these people. Nothing. Nada. Zip. They ain't even gonna try. On the other end of the scale are the people who might need help, but aren't going to die in the short term. The boat with the dead battery fits into that category. It's not on fire or sinking, so it can wait. In EMS it would be non life threatening injuries. People are hurt and suffering, but they aren't going to die in the next few minutes. Between those extremes are those that you have a reasonable chance of helping. With luck, you can help most or all the people in that category.

In a big disaster, do you really want to trust in the triage system? Will your problem fall in that narrow sweet spot where help is available? Heck, even if you aren't going to die, why deal with more pain and discomfort than you need to?

Look around for those failure points in the things you count on. Then imagine help will not be on the way. More often than not, you'll find there are relatively cheap and easy solutions that will make all the difference.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Traveling with a dog

My lovely wife and I brought the dog out to the parking area where we keep our boat. The dog likes to go where we go. We set her up in a nice shady place with fresh water. I got busy working on the boat and didn't pay attention to the dog for a few minutes.

When I looked back at her, she'd discovered her rope was long enough to reach a fire ant nest. There she was, busily digging away and trying to eat ants. Crazy dog. I pulled her off the nest and brushed the dirt and bugs off her muzzle. Best as I can tell, she didn't receive a single ant bite. I get zapped just walking across a field, trying to avoid the little beasties.

Lucky dog.

It is different traveling with a dog. Her needs have to be met. We are always on the lookout for dog friendly beaches, restaurants, and places to walk her. Back home, I rarely pick up after the dog. She heads out to the dense brush where no one goes and comes back to the door when she's done. On the road, all too often, the dense brush is replaced by a human with a plastic bag. Oh well, my dog, my responsibility.

Fortunately, the dog loves to go sailing and doesn't care for swimming. She stays on the boat. A lot of people like dogs, so seeing a happy dog on a boat can be a good ice breaker. People come over to say hi and pet the dog.

On the other hand, the dog is very protective and lets us know when someone is coming by. She's good security.

There are places we can't go and things we can't do because we have a dog. That's life. Some doors open and other close. When my lovely wife got this dog, I said we'd better take it everywhere with us. That way she'd be used to travel. It worked great. When she's in the van or on the boat, she feels safe and is relaxed. It doesn't matter that “home” is constantly relocating.


Monday, October 28, 2013

Test run in the Gulf of Mexico

Our test run of the boat got off to a bad start. We couldn't even leave the parking lot. A brake switch that I'd replaced turned out to be defective. Nothing worse than new parts that don't work. Once that was sorted out, we finally hit the road and drove to the boat ramp.

The first launch after a long trip always takes longer. The boat gets stripped down more than normal when hauled long distances. The rig takes time to set up and tune. There's lots of fiddling around with boaty bits.

We finally got out on the water. The outboard started on the third pull and ran great. The new plugs made a big difference. The new fuel tank worked the way it was supposed to. My storage box for the tank worked out fine too. It's not in the way, which was a possible concern.

My fancy cell phone with all the navigation bells and whistles? Due to a miscommunication, it was left back in the van. We continued on with our Garmin GPS, compass, paper charts, tracfone, and two VHS radios. The relevant waypoints were still in the GPS from last year, so navigation was easy.

We also discovered the mast light wasn't working. We travel at night and often anchor out, so it's mission critical. I'd thought I'd fixed it back in New Hampshire as I'd found some bad wire connections. However, I didn't get a chance to test it before hitting the road. Apparently, there are more issues to be resolved.

Another thing we need on the boat is more AA batteries. We had plenty of AAA, but not that many AA -the size the GPS takes. Usually I keep a good supply of both on board.

The main thing is that we got out on the water. Motoring out is pleasant enough, but I really start to smile when the sails go up. The wind picked up, the dolphins came to play and all was right with my world.

While out in the Gulf this little fellow landed on our boat. The poor thing was exhausted. It rode with us all the way back to the boat landing. Once we got near shore it flew up into the trees.

As soon as we loaded the boat on the trailer, the dog wanted to head out on the water again. She really loves boats. The dolphins were very exciting.

There's nothing like time on the water to lift my mood.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fukushima, the flood, and feeling antsy

I'm feeling a bit antsy these last few days. The root causes are varied. There are a lot of things out there that concern me, but that I have no control over.

Take Fukushima for example. The Japanese government would like us all to forget about it and assume it's being taken care of. It is not. Evidence points to huge swaths of the Pacific Ocean being poisoned. The plant continues to spew radiation and the situation could get even worse.

It got me thinking about nuclear power in general. I've great respect for science and engineering. The minds that can conceive of nuclear power and build the systems are very clever indeed. Unfortunately, the real decisions are made by bean counters who's concern for the company's next quarter's profits exceeds concern for the planet. A long term hazard is being managed by people with short term focus. That's a recipe for disaster.

Nuclear plants have backup systems, but they aren't good enough. To be totally safe, the backups have to be totally automatic and good for as long as the nuclear fuel and byproducts are radioactive. That's many thousands of years, if you were wondering. Current backups are good for about 3 days. Fukushima didn't even get that, as for some reason they didn't properly plan for a tsunami on an ocean front location prone to earthquakes.

Something like a CME that could take out multiple plants at the same time. That would be, at minimum, a civilization ending event. At worse, it could be a species ending event.

There's not a darn thing I can do about it.

Currently I'm staying at my dad's in Florida, a state that generates about 10% of its electricity from nuclear power. In some small way I'm part of the problem. Of course, in my home state of New Hampshire, something like 40% of the electricity comes from nuclear power. That's one of the reasons I finally disconnected from the grid. It's a small drop in the bucket, but it was my drop. It is said that none of the drops of rain feel responsible for the flood. After all, they are just one drop.

On a personal level, I'm really looking forward to heading out the sailboat. It's a tiny boat on the big water, but somehow I feel much safer and more at peace out there.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ready to go

My lovely wife and I have the boat about 95% loaded up for our trip. We were going to take it for a shake down cruise on Friday, but conditions out in the Gulf were a bit rougher than we liked. Soon we'll get out on the water.

We moved a lot of supplies and equipment from the van to the boat. That saves us a lot of money. The van supplies were built up over a number of months. All we have to do is to buy some gas for the outboard, load up our clothes, and we are off.

Depending on the results of our test run, we'll be ready to head down the coast after that. In the mean time, we are still hanging with dad. I've been helping him with a few little projects around his house. At least we aren't putting in new floors this year. Someone saw me pressure washing the house and wondered if dad was feeling poorly. They are so used to him doing all his own work that they assumed something was wrong. Those folks didn't know I'm his son.

My lovely wife and I told everyone we'd be down to Florida in October, but apparently not everyone believed us. People back home are surprised to see we really did leave. Many assume we are still around. I can tell by the messages that get forwarded from my home phone. Imagine if we really wanted to disappear?

I got another call from the Attorney General's Office. They wanted help getting hold of my dad to confirm he really wasn't in New Hampshire back in November. Turns out dad's phone number is hard to find, along with his correct address. Long story about that. Dad lacks a lot of paperwork and documentation that most people normally have. He's not even trying and is almost untraceable.

Dad finally had a short conversation with them and with any luck this will be the end of it.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Saved by the beard

My home phone messages are forwarded to my e-mail account as audio attachments. Checking my e-mail I discovered a message from a lawyer with the New Hampshire Attorney General's office. That couldn't be good, I thought.

Using my cell phone I got in touch with the office. They were following up on on an old complaint on voter irregularity. Okay . . .

Someone identified my dad as possibly doing something inappropriate leading up to the last election. Dad, however, was in Florida the whole time. The lawyer heard that was the case and I was able to confirm it.

Here's where it gets even more personal. Dad was identified from an old newspaper photo. The lawyer thought that I, being his son, might fit the bill. However, dad is bald and clean shaven. I've a pony tail and a beard. There is no way I could be mistaken for him. That pretty much settled it. He thanked me and said it looks like he'll be closing out the case.

Still seemed pretty weird to me.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

Box of gasoline

Back in February we ran out of gas on the way back to the dock. I suppose one can only expect so many miles from a 3 gallon fuel tank. I bought a 6 gallon tank to double our fuel capacity. Unfortunately the 6 gallon tank didn't fit in my boat's fuel locker.

This is the solution.

This box holds the 6 gallon tank and fits in the stern of the boat sorta like a poor man's lazarette. It's a better solution than just having the fuel tank loose in the cockpit. The box sits up off the floor to allow any water to drain out the scupper. There are vent holes to keep any vapors from building up. I'm painting the box a light color to help keep the gasoline cool. The top of the box could also be used to store other items.

We also still have the 3 gallon tank, so that's a good solid 9 gallons of gasoline. That's not much for you motorboat guys, but it's a lot for a small sailboat with a 6 hp outboard.

Can't wait to try it out in the Gulf.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fake Gore

No, not Al Gore, but gore as in blood and guts. It's the Halloween season so we are inundated with scenes of gore. Lawns are decorated by plastic skeletons and decapitated heads. TV is flooded with horror movies. It's strange what passes for entertainment.

Generally, I'm not much entertained by fake blood and guts. As a former firefighter I saw more than my share of the real stuff. Splattered bodies were just another bad day at work. The one thing about obviously dead people is that there's nothing you can do for them. About all you can do is maybe screen the death scene from the curious public. The dead deserve a bit of dignity, if for no other reason that it makes the surviving family feel a bit better.

A buddy of mine once called me to complain about his bad day at work. One of his superiors in the office took credit for his work. The day he called me, I'd had a fire with a triple fatal. I was with the crew that discovered two of the bodies. A third body was so burned that I did not recognize it as a body. The house was on fire, filled with smoke and heat. I crawled right through the charred remains. My gear smelled like death for week, in spite of multiple washings with industrial soap. My friend decided his bad day at work wasn't that bad after all.

So yeah, gore isn't particularly entertaining for me. I don't have a PTSD with these events or anything like that. It's just sad. Why people are fascinated by this stuff is beyond me. Maybe it's because so few of us actually have dealt with real death?

There is one horror film genre that I'll watch for old times sake. When I was a little kid my grandmother would sometimes babysit me. She let me stay up late at night and we'd watch zombie movies together -the old shambling corpses with parts falling off and everything movies. My grandmother and I would both laugh and laugh. I have warm memories of those late nights with my eccentric grandmother. Good fun.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Almost melted in the hot sun

My lovely wife and I have been getting the boat ready for our trip. I changed the plugs in the outboard and rewired the charging plug. My dad just happened to have built an outboard stand. He doesn't have an outboard. Of course, he won't say he did it for me, but we both know. Thanks dad.

I must admit to not being quite acclimated to working in the hot Florida sun yet. By noon time I thought I was going to melt. Heat stroke is no joke so my lovely wife and I took a break until later in the afternoon.

We could leave with the boat the way it is now. However, I'm going to tweak a few more things before heading out. Some projects are easier to do on the hard than on the water. The thing about boats is that there is always more that can be done to them. At some point if you don't say “good enough” the boat never leaves the dock. The trick is to make sure the essentials are done.

One thing that's been missing this trip has been organization. Before leaving New Hampshire, we wanted to have everything organized. It didn't go well. At some point we threw our hands up and tossed everything in the van. After all, we could always sort it out while staying with my daughter in Massachusetts for a few days.

Then on the way down we got into a little fender bender. The time that would have gone into organization went into trailer repairs. Not only that, the accident tossed things around a bit. Finally, we are sorting out the mess. The sailboat is small, so we must organize. That's the only way to fit in all we need without forgetting anything. My lovely wife made some progress with organization while I was working on the outboard. It won't take much to get everything ship shape and Bristol fashion.

While it's not as exciting as dancing with the dolphins, boat work has to be done. We are in no hurry. It's not like we only have a week or two down here. We aren't exactly on vacation. When the time stretches to months, it's a lifestyle.

I'm also enjoying time with dad, as I'm lucky to still have him.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Dress up

So I was wondering why so many adult grown men and woman play dress up. First we have the reenactors, the SCA Medieval people, the French and Indian War folks, and all those folks running around fighting the US Civil War all over again. Okay, I get it. The garb fits the time period.

Then we get a further out there with the Steampunk people who dress in what I guess one could call Victorian Science Fiction. They dress in a sort of Victorian garb, but with various levels of embellishment. It's the world of steam powered robots after all. Things are bound to get a bit twisted.

For complete character emulation one has to go to something like a Science Fiction or comic book convention. That's where the cosplay folk come out in droves. There are people dressing up like their favorite characters, with various levels of success. Some are amazing. Other are almost sad. Picture the 300 pound middle aged woman in Star Wars Princess Leia metal bikini. Now stop picturing that before you hurt yourself.

We are in the Halloween season. Remember when it was only one day, and for kids? Now it's one of the biggest holidays in the United States. In Salem Massachusetts, Halloween goes on the whole month of October, but it's a special case.

Why is playing dress up so popular with adults today? A large part of it has to be escapism. They can dress up and assume a persona that's much more exciting than their day to day life.

Then it occurred to me: why can't people dress up and live the lives they want all the time? Is it because most of us wear uniforms? There are those who wear actual uniforms: police, fire, EMS, military, security people and so on. Then there are those who don't wear official uniforms but might as well.

We've all heard of “proper work clothes.” Not all offices require suit and ties, but there are requirements. If you don't think your job has a dress code, come in dressed as a pirate some day and see how that goes over. There are strong pressures to conform. I laughed like crazy when a friend described for me the allowed clothes for casual Fridays. Turns out it wasn't flip flops, cut off jeans and T-shirts.

Dress codes are subtle forms of control. Making people dress alike is part of trying to get them to think alike. I'm actually encouraged that more people are wearing unusual garb on their days off. Maybe it's a sign of them resisting the pressures to conform. Some are even getting dressed up without there being the social sanction of special events. Friends of mine have dressed up in Victorian clothes to go out to tea or a picnic in the park, just for the heck of it.

As for me, my conformity wardrobe is limited. It was difficult to scrape up enough “suitable” clothes for jury duty. In recent years my dress can best be described as “sea hobo.” Ratty shirts, shorts, sandals, sunglasses and my iconografic wide brimmed hat. I guess I've no one to impress and no real job to go to.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

The last electric bill

Today my last electric bill came in the mail. Not the most recent -the last. Service is now cut off, on my request. When we get back home in the spring, we will be relying completely on our solar electric system. There are a few tweeks and upgrades that I'll do, but we already generate enough of our own power to get by.

It's both exciting and scary. Always in the back of my mind was the idea that if the solar electric system had problems, the grid was there to take over. The way things actually worked out is that the vast majority of the time it would be the grid that failed. My homebrewed electrical system is more reliable than the system run by a major corporation. Scary to think they are running nuke plants.

Have you ever figured out what it costs just to have services? Most of my electric bill was for “connection fees.” That bill has to be paid even if zero watts were used. Almost all utilities have something similar. Never make or receive a phone call and you still get a phone bill. Don't use a drop of water and there will still be a water bill. Watch no television and there will still be a cable fee. These things add up.

Eliminating the electric bill was just the most recent of these monthly services to disappear. I've my own well and septic so no water and sewer fees. We don't watch cable TV so no bill from them.

So what monthly services do we pay for? Internet is the big one. That's $42/month. Technically, we could live without it, but we don't want to. In fact, being able to pay bills on-line and do research makes it a tool that pays for itself.

Having the Internet allows us to have our phone service over the Internet through Vonage. That worked our to almost half the price of my previous land line service. Messages sent to my home phone catch up to me in the form of e-mail audio attachments. That's useful to me.

Cell phone service is a strange one. We don't get reliable cell phone service at home so we only use it on the road. Most years we got by with a prepaid Tracfone. It's basic, but cheap. This trip I'm using an iphone and paying on a month by month basis. For me, that seems expensive. Once I get home in the spring I'll probably cancel the servcie. It's good to not be locked into a contract.

Now I know of some hard core folk who don't even have phone service. Some are hermits who just don't talk to anyone. Others are hardcore short wave people. Seems that only works if everyone you want to talk with is also a hardcore short wave person. Some just use it as cell phone replacement to keep in touch with family members.

I am surprised at the number of people on very limited budgets who pay large monthly fees and never think about it. It's a blind spot in their budget. TV is the one that drives me nuts. Shut that off and get a library card. Your life will be better. Okay, less extreem, just put up an antenna or get a Roku device for free Internet channels. Small steps, but once those invisible bills become visible, who knows where it will end? Maybe you'll get your “last” electric bill someday too.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Little tin boxes

My dad lives in a “retirement community.” That means it's a trailer park for older people.

It's actually not a bad lifestyle. The trailers are pretty low maintenance. There's lot of activities for people to do. People walk and bicycle all over the place. Dad seems to like it.

I tend to look at systems and self sufficiency. These trailers are connected to city water, the power grid, public sewers, and just about everyone has the phone/Internet/television bundles. Actually, it's not that much different that the way most people live.

Maybe you don't live in a little tin box, but most houses rely on outside systems to keep them going. Cut all the wires and pipes that come into your house and is it livable? Cut the power from most trailers and it's a tin box sitting in the sun. Dad's is somewhat better off than most as at least he has some good shade trees. How's your house situated?

Energy changes everything. Abundant grid tied electricity makes these tin boxes livable. People may look down on the humble trailer, but most “normal” houses don't do any better on the self sufficiency scale. It's not the house, but the systems that keep them going that matter.

Dad's pretty limited with what he can do with his trailer. The park has rules. It's not like he can drill a well, replace his sewer with a composting system, or put in alternative energy. When you move into a park, there are some things that one just has to accept.

Don't be too smug if you own your own house. Is there a homeowners association you must conform to? Sign any agreements? Restrictive zoning? Might as well be living in a trailer.

Rural life is different. Even a trailer out on the woods can be part of a self sufficient lifestyle. The land around the home makes all the difference. A good well, septic system, solar panels, and trees for firewood make my homestead a bit better for the long term.

My income is fairly limited. Because of that, I try and avoid bills that can go up steeply without my control. Electric rates can make huge jumps. A friend of mine is looking at big increases because a major industry that used to use power went out of business. The stranded costs of a big power plants will be passed on to the rate payers. My dad is looking at a 25% increase as his energy company has a couple of failed power plants to decommission.

My local power company will be doing rate increases for much the same reasons, but they'll have to do it without me. I'm completely off grid now. Perhaps they'll pressure government to outlaw off the grid living. I'm not paying for the bad decisions the local power company made.

Some places are being hit with huge water bills, or sewer bills. At least a person could always turn off their TV service and save some money that way. Sadly, TV can be hard to give up in most households.

Affordable and reliant energy makes all the difference whether or not life in the park is viable. On the bright side, it's just a trailer. It's not like leaving a mansion behind. Dad can always bunk in with me if necessary.


Friday, October 18, 2013

Stuff to do and stuff done

My van just barely limped into my dad's yesterday due to a plugged fuel filter. Today I had the joy of replacing the filter. Whoever designed the filter system on a 2001 ES 350 van has some explaining to do. It's nearly impossible to change the filter, even after substantial disassembly of various engine components. Nearly is not completely so I eventually was able to accomplish the task. Sometimes the solution is brute strength.

I had two spare filters on-board. One bad load of diesel and filters quickly die, so having a couple handy is a good practice. Also, every tool necessary to change a filter is kept on board the van. Another handy item is a headlamp. Sure beats holding a flashlight in one's teeth.

The previous time the filter had been changed back in February at a New York State rest area. It was 30 degrees, windy and dark. Today, in Florida, it was 80, sunny, and I was working in my parking area.

While the van was apart I attempted to fix the AC. I'm not sure if the fix will hold, but I thought I'd try the economy patch job first.

Part of settling in to my dad's place was getting connected to his home computer network. He had computer work done since I'd last been here, so the password was new. Dad could not find where he'd written the new code. It took a good hour and half with two different technical support people to acquire the password. At least everyone was patient, so it could have been worse.

My lovely wife and I even worked in a little shopping. Sadly, my dad's refrigerator is stocked with the quick frozen meals of the older bachelor. We bought some real food for all of us. In our travels I was able to pick up a few little marine supplies that were unavailable back home.

-and this was supposed to be a rest day.

Apparently we didn't need the rest. I must admit that I felt worse at the start of our trip than at the end of it. After doing all the last minute house chores and loading the boat and van, I was pretty beat. We made plenty of stops on the way down and it paid off.

I see the government decided to put off the day of reckoning one more time. A casual reading of the agreement seems to point to large amounts of pork spending being used to grease the skids. There's always money to bribe key congress critters. Looks like an expensive way to kick the can down the road.

Here's an idea. Let's use all the unlimited money that we were going to spend on a Middle Eastern war on the US economy instead. There's never a money shortage for war. Let's use some of that magic money domestically.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Made the trip

When a long trip starts with a minor accident before even leaving my home state, it doesn't bode well.

We did have a few minor problems, but nothing we couldn't deal with.

There was a bad smell and a loud hissing noise as we pulled off the highway for lunch. At first I thought it was my radiator. There was no coolant on the ground, so it could not be that. After pulling off the air filter I discovered a split air conditioner hose. My guess is that it was weakened in the crash and just let go when we tried to use it. While inconvenient, we can live without air conditioning.

During the last 8 miles to my dad's, my diesel fuel filter plugged up. We couldn't go faster than about 45 mph. Fortunately, it was a 50 mph road, so it wasn't too bad. We made it safely to our destination.

Tomorrow, I'll be busy fixing swapping out the filter and checking out the AC to see what it'll take to repair it.

We used to do this trip of 1700 miles in under 30 hours. That's moving right along and only taking the occasional cat nap. Then we started towing a boat with the truck. The trip took a good two days as we traveled a lot slower pulling the boat. Sometimes we'd even take a hotel room to get a night's sleep.

The van has a comfortable bed in the back. The trip takes at least three days now. It's easy to crawl in the back and get some good solid sleep. While the trip takes longer, at least we don't arrive looking like zombies. Instead of immediately falling into bed, we took showers and then went out to dinner with my dad.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Waiting for the train crash

Anyone else waiting to see what kind of train crash will come out of D.C. these days? Some people have told me that they almost want the US to go into default just to see what will happen. Its like a disaster film where we've lost interest in the heroes and bad guys and want to see things blow up.

Why not? It's not like the folks in D. C. care about people. It's not like they care about the responsibilities of their office or the good of the nation. They don't seem to treat this seriously so why should anyone else.

Maybe everyone just wants to see the world burn?

Let's carry the train metaphor on a bit. There are those who want to crash the train of state to destroy the conductor. The fireman's not on the job, the brakeman's not on the brakes, and the conductor is collecting fares at random. In the mean time a handful of passengers are jumping out the back. We all suspect this wont end well.

Train crash? Disaster film? Horror movie?

You know what I think? Perhaps, just perhaps, people want to see things totally collapse as they feel it's the only way to throw all the bastards out. They think the system is so broken it can't be fixed. On my bad days, I fear they may be right.

. . . on my bad days.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Specialist

Specialization is what's rewarded in modern society. With the time necessary to get really proficient at any one thing, it makes sense. The world is interconnected so the market pays the specialist. More people now live in cities. General skills are not needed. In every large city, there is someone who can do anything you need done, and do it better than you can. With an Internet connected world, it's possible to tap into the knowledge base of the very best people on earth.

I know this, yet I'm a generalist. My skills are wide, but not as deep as most professionals. I'm a pretty good electrician and help people with their electrical problems all the time. Need an off grid house wired from the ground up? No problem. Sell my electrical skills? That would require a license. The effort required to acquire one isn't worth it for me. I'd be forced to specialize to justify the investment. Sounds boring.

The other day my buddy's house had run out of furnace oil. He got more, but not in time to keep the furnace from running dry and becoming air bound. As luck would have it, knowing how to bleed the air out of a oil burner is one of my skills. Would I like to work as a furnace repair man? Heck no!

Carpentry, mechanic skills, computer repair, fiberglass work -heck I can even pick out some cords on a guitar. Professional level skills . . . close . . . in some things, but in others I just get by.

Where generalized skills are rewarded is in rural life. There are no experts close by. More of the basic things of life are your responsibility. Incomes tend to be lower, so the only way to afford to get things done is to do them yourself.

Specialization is a major trend, but there are those swimming against the tide. The Maker Movement is one of those things. There are those who just want to build cool stuff. There's a desire to create. We are used to people who create by doing art. Others create by building their own robots, or brewing their own beer. It could be anything.

Then there's the example of Cuba. It's a large island nation with a sizable population. Twice they lost all their professional technical people. The first time when Castro took over and there was a major exodus. The second time is when the USSR collapsed and Cuba was cut off from Russian technicians -along with most of their oil.

The Cuban people learned how to keep old cars going with no access to spare parts. They are experts at tearing something apart and making something new out of it. The home grown solution is the only solution. Life goes on. For example, a broken washing machine is more than junk. It's a source of parts, motors to run other home brewed equipment, wire, metals, pulleys, belts. It's like the Native Americans with the Buffalo, nothing goes to waste. Everything is looked at something that could become something else.

Maybe the greater society works more efficiently when everyone specializes, but that assumes there's no break in the great web of interconnected skills. Efficient systems are also fragile systems. Anything that disrupts that web shuts the whole system down. That's when having some good generalized skills come in handy.


Friday, October 11, 2013

On the road again, and again

The last couple of weeks before our trip it seemed that all our friends and family wanted to get together. That was great, but cut into our packing and planning. At some point the thing to do was to just get everything loaded in the van. Sorting can happen later.

The house shutdown went well. Of course, I won't know exactly how well until it's time to restart everything. That's when I find out if the plumbing was well drained or if I need to play plumber again.

We were a bit late meeting up with friends downstate due to an accident on the highway -mine. Nothing major, no one was hurt, but we tapped bumpers with a Buic. Both cars were drivable. I haven't had an insurance claim in 39 years of driving. Let's see how my insurance company treats me.

My lovely wife and I will be spending time with family for a few days. My grandson will be baptized on Sunday. A niece whom I haven't seen in a few years will be flying up. Our other daughter and her family will be joining us. Even if they weren't family, they are the sort of people I'd like to hang with anyway.

We should be back in the road again on Monday. I think I'll wait until the commuter traffic dies down to a dull roar. The 95 loop around Boston is crazy drive at the best of times. The plan is to head far enough west to avoid the Boston/Washington DC urban areas, then head south. Over the years I've learned the shortest path is not the fastest.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Trip Prep

The boat is loaded up and ready for our trip. The van isn't fully loaded yet, but we ran out of daylight. However, I did load up 30, 4.5 gallon jugs of waste veggie oil. That's 130 gallons of alternative fuel. It replaces about $500 worth of diesel. Not too shabby.

Last minute errands have been run. The post office knows to forward my mail. I did some business at town hall. Final supplies were bought -including 1.75 liters of 12 year old single malt scotch. New Hampshire has some of the lowest liquor prices in the country, so I had to stock up. It fits in nicely with the gallon or so of rum on the boat. That pretty much rounds out the medical kit. Snake bite is a terrible thing.

We had some friends over to help us empty out the refrigerator. Nothing like a good meal before a road trip.

The neighbors know we'll be gone for the winter and will keep an eye on the house. We turn the heat and power off, so all the plumbing has to be drained and winterized. Time spent on a proper shut down saves grief when restarting the place in the spring. Some people keep their houses heated when they go south for the winter. I've a couple problems with that. For me, one of the reasons I can afford to go south is that I'm not paying for heat all winter. Personally, I think it's more risky to keep a place heated that to properly shut it down. A missed fuel delivery, a furnace malfunction, or even an extended power outage and all the plumbing freezes and is destroyed. Insurance is supposed to cover the damage, but I've heard horror stories from people who've tried to collect.

If I miss a day or tow of blogging, is because of travel. It shouldn't be any more than that.

Wish me luck.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Solar hot water heaters

Let's look at three levels of solar hot water heater.

First we have the Yuppie level. Hire a reputable firm to install the latest in solar hot water heaters. It's a wonder of copper, glass, pumps, computer chips, and other cutting edge technology. It most likely has sophisticated freeze protection: automatic drain back or a working fluid with heat transfer. It probably has thermal mass storage for cloudy days. You really don't need to know the details. What you need a big fat bank account as these systems start in the $10,000 - $30,000 range and goes up from there. May you live long enough to see a return on your money.

Next we drop way down to where I live, the Downwardly Mobile. We look at solar water heating because other ways of heating water are too expensive. Our designs are based on old hippie-tech from the 70s. Salvaged water tanks, recycled glass and wood. Google or look on Youtube for batch solar water heaters and you'll get an idea what they look like. It could be as simple as a big coil of black plastic pipe left out in the sun. No two will be exactly alike. This is all do it yourself work. If we spend over $100 we feel wasteful.

Now let's go all the way down to Hobo level. This is where you end up when all your other plans have fallen into the crapper. Your budget is about $3. You find a one gallon jug with a screw on cap. You punch a bunch of holes in the cap. Then you paint the jug black. If you don't have paint maybe you wrap it in black tape. The jug sits in the sun full or water until hot. Sprinkle it over your head as needed.

Do not disparage the hobo water heater. Your finances might be a hobo level, but you don't have to smell like an urban camper. When it get right down to it, hot water is all about cleaning.

My hope is that by doing the “downwardly mobile” tech, I don't slip too far down and have to employ hobo tech.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Interesting off-grid day

A buddy of mine had me over to his place to help him with some wiring. We hooked up a 14,000 watt kiln to a 175,000 watt diesel generator. We put in breakers, a massive power switch and all that. I'd never played around with a generator of that size. It took a bit of figuring out, but the generator fired up without exploding or catching fire. The multimeter showed it was putting out rock steady voltage just where it was supposed to be. Nice.

He has an off grid house and normally his power needs are small. However, his wife is a potter so they needed a lot more electricity than their two solar panels put out. The diesel generator will be running on waste vegetable oil. My buddy is picking up WVO from my clients for me all winter. He should get a good stockpile while I'm gone.

One the way home a strong storm overtook me. Just as I pulled into my driveway, the grid and Internet went down. My lovely wife had friends over and they were doing crafts. I switched over the whole house to off grid solar electric power and they were all set.

The Internet went down for a few hours, but it's back. I was wondering if I'd be able to do a post tonight or not. I'd better sent this out as the wind and rain is strengthening.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Will the checks stop?

With no end to the government shutdown in sight, and the October 17th debt ceiling fast approaching, people are getting worried. Obama has raised the possibility that Social Security checks might not go out. That would get interesting.

As luck would have it, by the 17th I should be visiting my dad at his retirement park. If things are not settled before then, I'll be around a lot of angry old people.

Under normal political conditions that would not be allowed to happen. Old people vote. They also have pretty good lobbies. Usually that's enough to keep the checks flowing. These are not normal times. Politicians are much more concerned about ideologies than the good of the country.

My very own lovely wife is on a SS disability. Her check is almost half of our income. What would we do if that was cut off? How would that affect our travel plans?

Most likely we'd go sailing anyway. However, it would affect how we'd travel. Forget about spending a lot of time at marinas and dock side restaurants. Rice and fish would be a big part of our diet, cooked on the boat. There are a lot of things to do and see that don't cost much money. Reading good books on a beach somewhere isn't too hard to take.

Maybe that's the wise thing to do. Head out to sea until the whole thing blows over. Of course, that's pretty good advice for just about anything from personal troubles to a full blown zombie Apocalypse.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Vested Interests

I was goofing off the other day, doing some light and humorous reading on the Internet. Sometimes I turn to for a few laughs. This time, however, it really put things in perspective for me. This article: 5 Seemingly Harmless Groups That Wield Terrifying Power, got me thinking.

Reading though the different examples, I came across something I didn't know before. There was a powerful “Ice Lobby,” that set back refrigeration and air conditioning for 60 years. In the days before refrigeration, ice was cut from northern lakes and shipped all around the country. That's how food and drink was kept cold back in the day. What I did not realize was that for 60 years, refrigeration technology existed. Only the vested interests of a powerful lobby from the ice industry kept it from being developed and widely used.

Suddenly many of todays problems came into focus. The world is a pretty screwed up place, but that's because there are powerful interests keeping it screwed up.

Here's just a few big ones:

Take the whole fossil fuel industry. Much of it can be replaced with renewables using off the shelf technology. Never mind all the alternative energy develops the industry bought the rights to and have suppressed. *yes, that's a real thing. They've used their considerable clout to keep us tied to a system that no longer makes sense.

The medical industry is a mess. To fix it would require a revamp from the ground up. Intuitively we know there has to be something wrong with a system that charges $20 for a couple aspirins. There's a lot of money being made with the current set up. Health care is not the focus. Making money is.

Money itself is a mess. There is something wrong with a system that concentrates so much wealth in the hands of so few who produce so little of value.

The whole “justice system.” The prison industrial complex is a powerful lobby. There's a lot of money being made locking people up. No wonder so many people in the US are in jail. It pays.

President Eisenhower warned about the Military Industrial Complex. It hasn't gotten any weaker since his day. Huge sums of money are being spent on things that do a lot more for company bottom line security than National security.

The whole homeland security gig has become another vested interest. The more fear, the more money security companies make.

Big agriculture is another one. I don't think we evolved to live on GMO grain, high fructose corn syrup, and chemically altered meat. Doesn't matter, as that's where the money is at.

These are all powerful forces, and they are holding us back. Just like the Ice Lobby, it's going to take years for these outdated systems to get replaced.

. . . or maybe it won't.

Every time someone puts a few solar panels, plants a garden, takes care of their own health, provides their own security, takes part in “unofficial” economic activities, and forms their own networks, they strike blows against the empire.

Maybe this time it's different. Good ideas can spread rapidly, without being mediated and controlled by the powers that be. Imagine if during the years of the Ice Lobby people had something like the Internet. People would be building AC units in their garage, improving the designs, and sharing their improvements. Southern Redneck engineering was up to the task. Just the promise of cool place to have a cold beer would have been motivation enough.

For me, freedom is my motivation. All those big vested interests do not have my freedom in mind, just the opposite. That's why I'm cutting them out of my life every chance I get.

And to think I was looking for a little light entertainment.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Lucky, no breaks

I fell off a ladder and landed on my back in the driveway. It was maybe a 5 – 6 foot drop. While not a big fall, it did knock the wind out of me. While I was pretty stiff and a bit scuffed up, nothing appeared to be broken. Some folks might go to the hospital to get checked out, but not me. Heck, I didn't go to the doctor's much even when I did have insurance.

I'm a big fat guy, not a young as I once was, so I'm lucky not to have broken anything. In my defense, I do get a fair amount of physical exercise. One the things that probably saved me was my years of martial arts training. Falling was a big part of my training.

Over the last few years there were probably a number of times I should have gone to the hospital. A few years back while picking up firewood, my pickarroon glanced off a log and embedded itself in my leg. That left a nice scar. Probably should have at least gotten a tetanus shot. Oh well.

At least I've learned to wear safety glasses. My day to day sunglasses are actually tinted safety glasses. No fancy Ray Bans for me. My sunglasses say Dewalt. The extra impact resistance has come in handy more than a few times. One of the most useful inventions for us aging do it yourselfers is safety glasses with bifocal readers built in. No longer do I have to choose between eye protection and actually seeing what I'm doing.

My last pair got ruined when one of the lenses got a big glob of marine adhesive on one of the lenses. My first thought was darn, I ruined a pair of safety glasses. Then my second thought was duh, that's exactly why I was wearing them. Sure beat the heck out of a trip to the ER.

I'm on a disability retirement from my days as Firefighter. I don't make a big deal about it, but my lungs are fragile. Due to a legal loophole, workman's compensation doesn't have to pay the medical expenses of my condition. That's fine. The treatments I used to get were generally ineffective or made things worse. A couple times they overdosed me on medications. That was no fun. One medicine I was lucky to have refused. The next year it was taken off the market because it caused heart attacks.

As you can imagine, I'm hesitant to sign up for the new medial insurance. Doctors and I rarely get along. When my old plan got to almost $1,000/month, I had to drop it. Here's the thing about insurance, even if you have “good” insurance, a catastrophic illness will still bankrupt you. My parents had what was considered one of the best plans in the state. Mom came down with MS, then cancer. The things not covered by insurance bankrupted them.

As I see it, my options are like this. I could get a cheap plan and pay for most things out of pocket, which is what I'm doing now. I could really stretch the budget and get a better plan, but face financial ruin from a catastrophic illness anyway. Not much choice.

There are times when I wished I lived in the civilized world where the average person doesn't have to make these decisions. Instead, we have the worse of both worlds. In a truly Libertarian Capitalist society I could pick between competing medical providers. Prices would be common knowledge, as would the quality of care. In a socialist system, the state would pay for everything and I'd only have to worry about paying my taxes. `

I'm not afraid of dying. Death and I have gotten close enough to shake hands a time or two. Everyone dies. Right now, I'm enjoying life. After years of struggling to regain some semblance of health. (no thanks to the doctors) I'm having a good time. I refuse to let the fear of illness or injury keep me from living.

That being said, I'm taking precautions I never bothered with before, like good first aid kits and safety equipment.

Well, I'm going back up the ladder. There's still a project that needs finishing.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Phone Home

Until now there was never a reason for me to get a smartphone. There's no cell phone reception at my house, as we are snuggled up the side of small mountain -the wrong side. As I'd still need a land line for the home, a smartphone is an expense I could not justify.

We've been using a cheap $10 Tracfone for travel. When were broken down in the middle of the Everglades, it was great to be able to call a tow truck. Once in a while we'd make a phone call to check in with family and friends.

One of my daughter's upgraded to an iphone 5 and she gave me her iphone 4. Recently, I bit the bullet and paid to activate it. Because I own the phone, I don't have to have a contract. Instead I'm paying by the month. When we get back from our trip in the spring, I'll reassess our communication needs.

Not that many years ago there were a lot of open wifi signals. While there are more of them now, most are protected. Even with a wifi signal booster, it's often impossible to find an open signal. Then there are all those places completely out of wifi range, but still in reach of a cell tower.

The smartphone can act as a wifi hot spot. I'll be able to connect my computer to the Internet through the phone. Sure beats using my big gorilla thumbs on a tiny iphone keyboard. One goal is to be able to keep updating this blog while on the sailboat.

Another daughter and her family gave me a Snowlizard case for my phone. It's waterproof to 2 meters, has a backup battery that more than doubles cell phone life, and even has a solar charging panel. Suddenly the phone is a real boating tool.

Sure, I can take pictures with the phone and not worry about getting it wet. That's nice, but the apps available really extend its function. I've a app for local tides, which is always good to know. Active Captain has an app. Combined with Gulf and Atlantic electronic charts, it's a real navigation device.

That doesn't replace my charts, compass, Garmin GPS, VHS marine radio, or my backup weather radio. It is one more way to do things, and redundancy is always nice. Navigation is mission critical, so anything that adds to that is a help. Of course, none of those things replace actually looking around to see what's going on. It would be silly to get run over by a tanker while watching the pretty little screen.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Water Bear

See, I'm not just about sailing. Here's the big old bear in my canoe. Way way in the distance you can just make out the While Mountains, (behind my head) The Whites are just about due south of where I am. Yeah, I'm that far north.

Pretty here, isn't it?

We had two of my canoes out on the lake and one of my daughters brought her kayak.

I can't believe my lovely wife and I only have one more week before heading south for the winter. All the critical projects have been completed. If I don't get to the rest, we can still head out. That's a good feeling.

The weather's been rather pleasant for the fall. The long range forecast for the next weeks looks pretty good. October is a funny month here in the north. Anyone remember “Snowtober?” The weather can turn from pleasant and mild to winter.

When it turns cold, it can get brutally cold. In previous years I've seen fishing shacks on the ice as early as the end of November. This year I'll have no idea, nor interest on when the lake freezes over. What will concern me is when it opens up again in the spring. The average ice out date is around the third week of April. That's when we plan on being home again.

As for now, I'm enjoying the mild days.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Still plugging away

The days have been warm and dry for this time of year in northern New Hampshire. It's perfect weather for working on the sailboat. With all the paints, varnish, and adhesives that go into boat maintenance and repair, that's a good thing.

I'm taking care of all the little things that annoyed me. The new shelves inside the boat are working out well. The marine radio is mounted at a much better angle and is easier to use. There' s a nice new depth finder up and running. The cabin light is in a better place. Lots of little things add up to big improvements.

While it doesn't compare to actually sailing the boat, puttering around on it has been pretty fun.

For all the work I've been doing on the boat, there's been very little spent on the project. This whole operation is pretty low budget.

My lovely wife has been planing our packing. The next time I'm in the boat I'm going to take measurements of all the storage compartments. That way she'll be able to figure out what goes where. On a tiny boat, organization is the key.

Working on the boat and imagining great days on the water, sure beats the heck out of thinking about the garbage on the news. Cheap therapy.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Yep, the government shut down, except for anything that would inconvenience anyone of substance. There will be plenty of suffering, but not at the high end of things. As usual, those who can least afford it will be the ones to suffer.

Now let's imagine if the government would really shut down. Stop paying the politicians and let's see how long it takes to sort out a budget.

Nope, it's just a teaser, political theater for special interest groups.

Instead of these partial pseudo shutdowns, why don't they shut everything down. Maybe it's time to give anarchy a shot. Anarchy, contrary to popular belief isn't necessarily chaos. People self organize without leaders all the time.

These faux shutdowns are teasers.


Doesn't stay fixed

A couple weeks ago I laboriously set up a way to pay my bills on-line. The process was unnecessarily complicated by my old credit union being bought out by a much bigger fish.

Today I discovered that the payment system that worked well last week wouldn't even let me into the system. That's how it started.

Not having time to deal with that , my lovely wife and I went into town. After treating her to lunch, I learned my debit card would not work. It took a while to get through to the credit union on the phone. Eventually, the problem was sorted out and the card ran just fine.

Soon after my lovely wife walked into the local branch to change the pin number on her debit card. There was a very long line. Apparently, when they transferred the old accounts to a new server, they entered then in such a way that every single account was in default. No wonder the card would not work.

It didn't matter if it was a debit or a credit card. Nothing worked. Imagine trying to buy something at the store. Your debit card is refused. Then your credit card from the same institution is also refused. That's what happened to a lot of people.

It occurred to me that a person would do well to have access to accounts from different institutions. Local accounts for day to day use, and then maybe a card with a national bank for emergency use only. Operator error crashed my local accounts, but it could have been a natural disaster. Being able to tap into funds from across the country could be a good thing.

Of course, I took out a good wad of cash before leaving the credit union.