Commenting on blogs

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I've just had to do something I really hate to do. I just spent a couple of hours (closer to 3) summarily dumping blog comments. I had to do that because I ended up with nearly 4,000 comments waiting in my "pending comments" box.

To all the people whose comments I wiped, please accept my apologies. I didn't want to do it, but I had to. I teach three college classes; write two regular blogs; research and write numerous articles on high technology; spend six hours a week pumping iron in the gym; and pump out a couple of novels a year. Once in a while I like to say Hi to my wife. There are only so many hours in a day.

At this point, only about one in ten comments I receive get published, anyway. There are many reasons for that, so I thought I'd post a quick entry suggesting some dos and don'ts that, if you follow them, will up your chances of having your comment see the light of day, and might just reduce the amount of stuff I have to wade through every day.

DO

* Do be patient. Fielding comments is low on the priority list compared to everything else, such as writing new entries. It often takes me a while, but I try to read every comment.

* Do feel free to express your opinion in a comment to this blog.

* Do feel free to disagree with any position expressed in any posting. That just makes a healthy environment for ideas.

* Do fee free to suggest blog entry topics. I often take up subjects suggested by commenters.

* Do use standard English. It's amazing how many comments are unreadable because of simple errors in English. That includes spelling, sentence structure and using the right word to say what you mean. Nobody expects you to be letter perfect, but try hard. Even if English is not your native language, you want what you have to say to be heard. That won't happen if what you say is unintelligible.

* Do think about what you want to say before you start writing. There is always a "take home lesson" for everything you write. That's a phrase or two that you expect your readers to recall later on. If you don't know what you wanted to say in the first place, how will anyone else figure it out?

* Do write out what you want to say before you put it into the comment text box. Many commenters have commended me on how clear my writing is. That's the result of editing. I typically run everything through several (5-10) revision cycles before posting it. My latest novel, which is in the production stage right now, has already been through 11 separate revisions, and most of those revisions were proofread 3-5 times. You can start on a separate word-processor document, then copy and paste into the comment box when you're satisfied that what you've written actually says what you want to say. Nobody expects you to spend a lot of time revising a blog comment, but you need to take the time to make sure it says what you want it to say.

* Do sign with your name, or at least a "handle" that serves as a name. Your handle should NOT be a marketing message! "Buy my stuff" is not a valid handle. Neither is "my stuff's the greatest thing since sliced bread."

DON'T

* Don't expect a response. Generally, I don't respond to blog comments unless I have a specific reason for wanting to. If I do, count yourself lucky. Less than one out of a hundred comments get a response.

* Don't use profanity. This is a G-rated (well, at least PG) blog. Profanity in comments won't see the light of day. My own writing varies from G to XXX, but I know when and where to say what.

* Don't repeat comments. A lot of commenters write basically the same message in comments to multiple entries. That just fills up the space, and ticks me off because I've got to sort through it. I can tell, and will dump repeated comments in a heartbeat.

* Don't include your marketing message. It's my blog. If you want to sell your product or service, start your own blog. Yes, I often promote my books. That's the point: I promote my books in my blog. You don't promote your stuff in my blog. If you try to, I'll just toss your comment into the dustbin.

* Don't fill up my pending comments box with long strings of text that mean nothing. That's a variation on the old denial-of-service attack. But, it doesn't work here. It takes you a lot longer to paste a pile of rubbish in the comments textbox than it does for me to hit the delete key.

* Don't use blog comments to yammer on about something that you want to talk about, but which has nothing to do with the blog. Put that content in your own blog.

* Don't imagine that sucking up to me by piling a lot of praise into your comment will get your marketing message published. I get plenty of praise. If I see a marketing message, your comment's gone!

Those, I think, are the main things to think about when writing a blog comment.

Happy Motoring!

What is a tablet computer, anyway?

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Tablet computer
Variously called tablet PCs, tablet computers, or convertibles, mobile computing devices combining fully functional keyboards, touch screens, and all the performance and features you expect from a business laptop computer are solutions for business professionals on the go.


The iPad was not the first tablet computer. The tablet computer has been around for on the order of two decades. The original tablet computer was not a skinny undersized Internet connection device. It was a super-laptop.


In a fit of marketing hubris worthy of Microsoft, Apple hijacked the term "tablet computer" to paste on their oversized but underfeatured smartphone. The iPad is, in network-systems parlance, essentially a "thin client."


Now, I've never much liked the term "tablet computer," anyway. To me it evokes images of Edward-Gorey-esque illustrations of graveyards. I guess from that point of view, I'm perfectly happy having it applied to the physically thin, usefulness-challenged iPad thin client, which actually does look like a Colonial American slate gravestone that has been torn away from its rightful job keeping the mouldering corpse of a Revolutionary War hero from climbing out of the ground to pester third-millennium technogeeks who just wanna surf the Internet while pretending to pump iron at the gym.


"I'm resting between sets," they usually tell me.


I dunno. When I rest between sets, I'm usually waiting for the stars to clear from my vision, my panting breath to re-oxygenate my blood, and my heart rate to return to normal after exhausting my major muscle groups with nearly three-hundred pounds balanced on my shoulders. The last thing on my mind then is clearing out spam from my email inbox, or finding out what Lady Ga-Ga has been up to today.


But, different strokes ....


So, what were tablet computers during the first 90% of their existence?


Doc Manchek, a main protagonist in my novel Red is seen using the original style of tablet computer to run through his email during a stopover at the Driskill hotel in Austin, Texas while traveling by motorcycle across the southern United States. This description, which was drafted, edited, and ready for publication before Apple brought out their pathetic version, shows what is essentially a full-service laptop computer fitted with a touch screen.


Of course, just pasting a touch screen on a laptop-computer display would make a very clumsy package. To properly operate a touch screen, you've got to have it sitting against a fairly solid surface. Otherwise, poking it in the heat of doing whatever you're wanting to do with your portable computer, from ordering electronic parts online to writing the Great American Novel, or even just shoving email spam into the trash bin, would result in bouncing around of the display, knocking the whole thing off your lap, and possible premature failure of the display hinge. To avoid such unpleasantness, tablet computer makers developed an interesting display-hinge arrangement that allowed the user to either raise the display screen over the keyboard, as in a regular laptop, or flip it entirely over to cover the keyboard so it could be used like the current generation of tablets.


Being a complex enhancement of a top-of-the-line mobile-computing solution (which at the time meant a laptop), the thing cost about double what you could get a high-performance business-oriented laptop for. It was economically justifiable only for people who really needed touch-screen-oriented applications as well as keyboard applications. For the vast majority of casual consumers, who just want to download music videos from the Web, it was rediculous overkill.


Some of us, however, wanted them in them in the worst way. When Apple started yammering about coming out with a tablet computer at a bargain price, we started salivating.


When we actually saw the iPad, however, our faces fell. No keyboard. You try hacking HTML code without a keyboard! Or, writing anything more extensive than a text message. Worthless for professional use. In addition, the thing seemed to lack enough horsepower or memory to do decent graphic illustration. Basically, it was a smartphone that was too big to hold up to your ear!


So, it's not a smartphone. It's not an ebook reader. It's not a real computer. It's too big and heavy to shove into your pocket. It's a thin-client Web appliance.


I'd still like to get myself a real tablet computer.


I guess they're now called "convertibles."


I saw an ad for one of them the other day for less than $600. Maybe next time I get paid.


Managing by walking around

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Alternate text
Managing by walking around is a critical skill for managers at every level in any modern organization. To learn more, visit the blog Rational Supervision entry of 30 May 2010.


In my last blog entry, I talked about the notion of "doing what you do best, and leaving the rest for someone else," and how important it is for people in general, but especially for anyone attempting a complex, technology-based project, such as building a website. I got onto that kick by listening to readers who complemented the design of this blog, and were interested in how I achieved it. Most seemed to be hoping for advice they could use to improve the quality of their own blogs.


That led me to thinking about some of the many simple techniques engineering managers need to learn in order to effectively lead the project teams that are so important, nowadays. Another critical skill for managers, which is illustrated in my latest novel Red is called "managing by walking around." Popularized by Tom Peters in the early 1980s, it is a management technique that has been applied by effective leaders from time immemorial. The most effective leaders interact with their workers - the people who actually produce a company's value added - on a regular, one-to-one basis, and they go to their workers, rather than somehow expecting the workers to come to them.


In Red, the technique is introduced during a conversation between the main character, Red McKenna, and her stepfather, Mark Shipton, who is CEO of a multi-billion-dollar corporation:


"Managing by walking around," Mark explained, "is more of a management philosophy than a set of techniques. It starts from the observation that, while holed up in your office, what you are doing is writing memo after memo, and creating report after report. The people who work for you then have to stop whatever useful thing they're doing to read your memos, and reports. While they're doing that, they can't be doing any useful work."


"Managing by walking around gets you up out of your office, so you can't be writing endless memos that interfere with your employees working. Instead, you go around making brief visits here, and there, just to see how things are going. If you find a problem, fix it as quickly as you can, then get your ass out of there. If you find things going along swimmingly, give some encouragement, and get your ass out even faster. You minimize your interferance, apply your efforts only where they're needed, and keep your crew heads-down working, doing what you really want them to do."


Red's mentor, Doc, later points out a second reason managing by walking around is important: " ... while you're managing-by-walking-around, take a look in their eyes to see if someone's having a problem. That's what's so important about face-to-face visits. ... Once in a while you have to check to see what's going on behind the eyes. ... If some guy's got a colicy kid, it'll affect his performance, but be a temporary problem. If he's heading for divorce, it can mess with his mind, big time ...."


This is especially important for supervising knowledge workers. Engineers, scientists, and other people tasked with creating intellectual property, need clear heads and focused imaginations to produce what companies need them to produce. If someone's mind dwells on personal problems while they're hanging parts on a conveyor leading up to a paint booth, so what? They aren't using much of their brains for their task, anyway. If an engineer, on the other hand, is thinking about their kid's trouble at school, it will definitely interfere with analyzing test data, for example, or imagining the gas flow through a turbine engine.


A third reason managing by walking around is important is that it's the best way for a supervisor to know what's actually happening on the shop floor. Having various metrics piped to a computer on your desk is useful, but doesn't hold a candle to going out there to look around.


The best, most comprehensive metrics consist of only a few kilobytes of data. Your eyes, ears, and noses - even your sense of touch - produce thousands of times more data per second when you step out to the shop floor.


Think of it as the difference between a thumbnail image, and a video clip. The thumbnail image can give you a vague idea of generally what you're getting yourself into by clicking on it. You click on it, however, and download the video clip in order to get the full experience. No thumbnail can provide the richness of that experience.


To take that analogy further, think about how many times you've clicked on a thumbnail, only to find that document delivered was either horribly disappointing, or wildly more than you'd expected. The same happens when you use business metrics as an initial guide, but then go out to see actual conditions for yourself. In most cases, the reality is either far better or far worse than you expected based on the terse summary supplied by business metrics.



Do what you do best ...

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This is going to have to be a short post, sans image because I'm running out of work time, today. Before I dive into what I want to write about, however, I want to thank my loyal fans, who've put up with my website going "dark" for several months while I consolidated my move to Florida. Especially, all of you who've jumped in to add your comments so quickly after I started posting again, and opened the site up for comments. The hard part has been to keep up with all of your kind words.

What I want to talk about today is a little saying I picked up in MBA school, although I do not remember exactly where it originated: "Do what you do best, and let somebody else do the rest."

This saying came up in answer to multiple commenters complementing my blog site, and wondering how I managed it.

The short answer is that I didn't. I'm a writer. What I write about is mostly technology, but I also tell a few stories, crack a few jokes, and even cover some news items.That's what I do best, and have been doing it long enough so I can claim to be an expert.

Although I know how to create a website, and have done so many times, it's not what I do best. Other people can do a much better job in less time than me. So, what I do is hire them to do what they do best -- design websites.

Since I'm trying to drum up interest in my latest novel, Red, and the principle of doing what you do best is a major theme in it, I'm going to be flagrantly self-promoting and refer to it.

The main character, Red McKenna, is on a quest to find her long-lost father. Her initial idea is to just drive to the last place she knows for sure he was, and look. That gets her about 250 miles (out of a couple of thousand) before she ends up stranded by the side of the road.

She does finally succeed in her quest, but not without the aid of over a dozen experts who each contribute a little bit to her reaching her goal, from the mechanic who fixes her car, to the SEAL team that finally springs the trap to catch the bad guy. Part way through the project, she admits: "When I first started out, I thought I could do it on my own, but I couldn't....I didn't realize how big it was until I started working on the details."

What she ends up doing is managing the project, not doing it all herself. She's the one who wants to find her father, but she really doesn't have the skills to complete all of the tasks her quest involves. What saves her bacon is hooking up with her mentor, Doc, who does know how to handle the thousands of details that any project involves. He knows to identify those details, then find an expert to do each one right.

So, when you decide you want to build your website, or repair your car's transmission, or any of the thousands of things that people living in a technological society need to do, start by asking if it's in your area of expertise.

We all have our area of expertise, which is a small island surrounded by an ocean of stuff we're really not competent to do on our own. If what you want to do is in your area of expertise, have at it. If not, go find somebody who can do it better. Then get them to do it.

A final example: I'm in the process of publishing a sequel to Red entitled Vengeance Is Mine! One of the most expensive parts of publishing a novel is getting cover art.

I'm supposed to have some talent as an artist. In fact, my mother once told me she expected me to grow up to be a graphic artist, not a writer. I can -- in fact I did -- rough out a cover for the new book that cost me nothing.

I'm not planning to use it, however. I know that there are people out there whom I can pay to put together a much better, more attractive, and more compelling cover than I can. I'm going to end up paying them to do it because I'm not conceited enough to think I can do a better job than somebody who does it day-in and day-out for a living.

Just as I did for Red, I expect to rough out a concept, which I'll hand off to a professional graphic artist, who will do a much better job executing the finished product than I could.

The Red McKenna Story

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The Red McKenna
series chronicles the adventures of a six-foot, three-inch redhead
with an athlete's body, a mathematical-genius mind, and an
independent streak a mile wide.
The Red McKenna series chronicles the adventures of a six-foot, three-inch redhead with an athlete's body, a mathematical-genius mind, and an independent streak a mile wide.


Months ago, I promised to alert readers of this blog when my first full-length novel Red appeared. Well, it's out. Actually, it's been out for a while in hard cover, paperback, and e-book formats. It is available through online and brick-and-mortar booksellers. Published by iUniverse, the novel introduces a unique heroine whom I think readers of this blog could relate to. She's a six-foot, three-inch redhead with a mathematical genius mind, as well as a crack-athelete's body and an independent streak a mile wide. Her soul mate is a biker who's even bigger, smarter, and more independent. Together, they harness science and advanced technology to solve riddles that life throws at them.


The idea for the story started back in early 2001 on a bitterly cold January night in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. I'd just flown in from Arizona to spend a week emptying out and closing up the house of my recently deceased father, who'd finally succumbed to cancer at age 87.


When I say it was bitterly cold, I ain't just kiddin'. The high for the day was about zero Fahrenheit, which is cold even for New England in January. For a desert rat living in Arizona, it was unbelievable!


Then, the sun set, and it got colder.


I curled up in a lotus position with the thickest quilt I could find wrapped around me, hoping the furnace would soon drive away the chill that had seeped into the walls during two weeks of the house being empty. Since the house had been empty, there was no TV. I'd been cooped up on an airplane for hours with nothing to do but read, so I was read out. My body was still on Mountain Standard Time, and I'm a night owl, anyway, so sleep was many hours away.


I just sat, and thought.


What I thought was the beginning of this story. It was going to be the adventures of two young people who made a transcontinental journey by motorcycle, visiting all the places I liked to go by motorcycle, doing the things I like to do when touring by motorcycle, and meeting the kinds of people I meet when wandering around by motorcycle.


To make it interesting, I'd have the lady be a newbie biker, who'd never been on a motorcycle tour before. Everything would be new to her, and a surprise.


What would she look like? Well, I like tall redheads who are really, really smart. My mother was tall, had auburn hair, and was one of the smartest people I've ever met. My wife is tall, has red hair, and is no slouch between the ears, either. In fact, I'm a sucker for tall redheads with lots of brains. So, my heroine would be tall, have red hair, and be really, really smart.


Since everything in an exciting fiction story must be bigger than life, she'd have to be extremely tall - like six-foot, three-inches tall - have lots of flaming red hair, and be a genius with a full scholarship in an Ivy League college studying something that gives most people phobias: mathematics.


The guy would be a veteran biker, who knew all the right places to go, and could introduce her to the most interesting people. To be able to match her, he'd have to be really tall - like six-foot, six-inches tall - more athletic, and even smarter.


They'd visit motorcycle races, camp out at biker rallies, spend hours shopping at motorcycle flea markets, and spend evenings getting plastered at biker bars. Being really, really smart would give them the wherewithal to thumb their noses at convention whenever they wanted to. They could get into stuff the rest of us only fantasize about.


It'd be a lot of fun for them, and, maybe, for readers.


In that form, however, it'd be lucky to make fifty pages long. That's a longish short story, not a novel. A novel needs a lot more. It needs character development. It needs suspense. It needs mystery.


It needed a lot of work.


Over the next nine years, the story grew. The young lady got a name, Judith McKenna (nicknamed "Red" for obvious reasons), as well as a troubled past. Her troubles, however, were not her fault, and not the fault of any character flaw. The troubles stemmed from a singular event that made building relationships difficult at best, especially building relationships with guys. That event was the untimely and mysterious disappearance of her father just at the time an adolescent girl needs a father figure most.


So, the father figure would be supplied by the mysterious biker, who takes her on a journey, which is no longer a touristy vacation, but a journey of self-discovery. Who was she, inside? How could she relate to other people? What was she going to do with her life?


One of the ambiguities she'd have to resolve could be a bit of sexual confusion. That could be fun!


The mystery, of course, is what happened to her father. Why'd he leave? Why'd he not come back?


Now, my favorite fiction genres over the past lots-and-lots-of-decades have been mystery and science fiction. And, my favorite stories have always combined both. And, my favorite author has been Rober Heinlein, who generally combined those two genres and used them to weave epic tales that explored basic human values. That's what I'd try to do.


Judith's story had a mystery, and had some serious character-development potential. It also had two young people off on their own, providing plenty of opportunities for fooling around between sheets, which will seriously spice up any story. In fact, giving her a chance to peel back layers to slowly discover who this biker was would add a second mystery, which might be fun to develop as well.


What she would find is a scientific genius who could provide technology that would make solving her other mystery - what happened to her father - possible, where it hadn't been before. He'd have built his own company in very short time, capitalizing on his inventions in aerospace technology. I know about aerospace technology. I can do that.


With all that additional content packed in, the space needed to tell the story expanded tenfold. When I finally sat down to type it out, it took a year instead of the three-to-six months I envisioned. From a simple little story about a motorcycle trip, it grew to an epic adventure.


By the way, it's still growing, with new titles coming soon. My wife says she likes the sequel even better.


I think you'll like it, too.


Escape from Illinois

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It's been a couple of days since I last posted partly because so much has been going on that I haven't had a chance to sit down and post. This is just a short synopsis to catch up.

Let's see. The last time I posted was Thursday, and we'd just settled down in Pekin, Ill. The folks at the Pekin Boat Club were fantastic! They bent over backwards to make sure we got in, and had all the services we needed. They're not set up for boats as large as Damifino!, but managed to make do. DR, in particular, took us under his wing. He chauffeured Bonnie around to the laundry in town, and the grocery store. He found me a couple of mechanics to consult with, and even scouted up a 5/8" deep socket to use instead of my missing spark plug wrench (plugs looked good, by the way).

Once again, the points had closed up just enough to cause trouble on the port engine. On DR's recommendation, we headed to National Marine on Upper Peoria Lake (the wrong direction for the trip, but the right direction to get competent help. The mechanic there, George, looked the situation over and said: "Nobody ever lubricated the distributor cam!"

That was why the points gap kept closing -- the rubbing block (cam follower) was wearing down rapidly, so every time we set the points, the rubbing block wore down and let them close up again. I always lubricate points when replacing them, but I hadn't replaced them, just reset them. George lubricated and set the points on the port engine, and, at my request, the starboard engine. So far (fingers tightly crossed), there's been no further trouble.

Friday we found out about the long stretch of the Illinois River without fuel services. With just an eighth of a tank left, I called a halt, and pulled over to the right descending bank at a ferry crossing.

"You can't tie up here!" one of the attendants shouted, echoing the big sign that said: "Don't tie up here!"

I told him we were running out of fuel and needed to call for help. That changed his tune, and he became very helpful, as just about everyone on the river has been.

Of course, just as we started trying to call for help, the thunderstorms started up, and cellphone coverage became nil. The folks at BoatUS connected us up with Mel of Mel's Riverfront Restaurant, just a few miles downstream. Mel had a floating dock we could tie up to, and offered to give me a ride into town to buy gas. Unfortunately, the causeway from the float to the shore was under three feet of water due to flooding.

Did I mention that the entire river system was 25 ft above normal? I should mention that. It's important.

To make a long story short, by the time I got fuel on board (wading across the flooded causeway with six gallon jerry cans full of gasoline), dusk was falling the rain was picking up, and we should have just stayed there.

But we didn't. I made an executive decision to push on to Alton.

Needless to say, about a half hour later, with the fuel gauge on "E," and darkness well and truly descended, I fired up the VHF radio, and issued my first "Mayday" call. The Coast Guard guy suggested that we anchor out of the channel (Where's the d**n channel? Where's the d**n shore? Those trees look awfully close in the searchlight beam!). Coast Guard suggestions are, like those of cops everywhere, more in the nature of commands -- if you don't follow them, you're asking for trouble. So, we anchored (also for the first time since I was 15) and waited for the Conservation Cops from the Sheriff's Department to tow us into Alton Marina.

At Alton Marina -- 2:00 am -- the starboard engine quit, and wouldn't refire. Not even a click, when I hit the starter! I guess it had gotten jealous of all the attention the port engine had been getting, and wanted its share.

Alton Marina is a beautiful spot, which we stayed at through Saturday just to sort everything out. They loaned us a courtesy car to go on a snipe hunt for a starter solenoid. The service manager at the Bayliner dealership, too far upstream to be of any help other than for information, helped me locate the starter solenoid, and explained that it was a standard automotive part, so I could get a replacement at any autoparts store.

So, Sunday morning, fully refueled, restocked, and revitalized, we pushed off out of the Illinois River and into the Mississippi. We got as far as the first lock, when the lock master mentioned in passing: "By the way, have you gotten permission from the Coast Guard to go downstream?"

"I didn't know we needed permission."

"They've closed the section of river below the next lock because of wreckage in the water."

We don't like the sound of "wreckage in the water."

So, we got a phone number for the Coast Guard from the lock master, and called. Rod Wurgler took down all our particulars, and said to stand by. He'd see if we could get permission.

Some time later, he returned the call and said his supervisor put us off until 10:00 am the next (Monday) morning. We were staring at Alton Marina, just under the bridge upstream of the locks, so we called them and arranged for a slip for the night.

Alton Marina is, perhaps, the best run operation we've seen so far. Beautiful covered slips, showers, clean bathrooms, etc. After lunch at their cafe, we met Grandpa Bob, who took me on a snipe hunt for auxiliary fuel containers and a means of lashing them to the deck. It took a couple of hours, but I came home with means to increase our fuel capacity by 20 gal.


Escape from Illinois

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Imagine a beautiful photo of the St. Louis arch as seen from mid-channel on the Mississippi River. That's what we should have here. Bonnie shot the thing, which looks great postage-stamp size on her cellphone, but we haven't figured out how to tranfer it to my computer, so it isn't here.

It's been a couple of days since I last posted partly because so much has been going on that I haven't had a chance to sit down and post. This is just a short synopsis to catch up.

Let's see. The last time I posted was Thursday, and we'd just settled down in Pekin, Ill. The folks at the Pekin Boat Club were fantastic! They bent over backwards to make sure we got in, and had all the services we needed. They're not set up for boats as large as Damifino!, but managed to make do. DR, in particular, took us under his wing. He chauffeured Bonnie around to the laundry in town, and the grocery store. He found me a couple of mechanics to consult with, and even scouted up a 5/8" deep socket to use instead of my missing spark plug wrench (plugs looked good, by the way).

Once again, the points had closed up just enough to cause trouble on the port engine. On DR's recommendation, we headed to National Marine on Upper Peoria Lake (the wrong direction for the trip, but the right direction to get competent help. The mechanic there, George, looked the situation over and said: "Nobody ever lubricated the distributor cam!"

That was why the points gap kept closing -- the rubbing block (cam follower) was wearing down rapidly, so every time we set the points, the rubbing block wore down and let them close up again. I always lubricate points when replacing them, but I hadn't replaced them, just reset them. George lubricated and set the points on the port engine, and, at my request, the starboard engine. So far (fingers tightly crossed), there's been no further trouble.

Friday we found out about the long stretch of the Illinois River without fuel services. With just an eighth of a tank left, I called a halt, and pulled over to the right descending bank at a ferry crossing.

"You can't tie up here!" one of the attendants shouted, echoing the big sign that said: "Don't tie up here!"

I told him we were running out of fuel and needed to call for help. That changed his tune, and he became very helpful, as just about everyone on the river has been.

Of course, just as we started trying to call for help, the thunderstorms started up, and cellphone coverage became nil. The folks at BoatUS connected us up with Mel of Mel's Riverfront Restaurant, just a few miles downstream. Mel had a floating dock we could tie up to, and offered to give me a ride into town to buy gas. Unfortunately, the causeway from the float to the shore was under three feet of water due to flooding.

Did I mention that the entire river system was 25 ft above normal? I should mention that. It's important.

To make a long story short, by the time I got fuel on board (wading across the flooded causeway with six gallon jerry cans full of gasoline), dusk was falling the rain was picking up, and we should have just stayed there.

But we didn't. I made an executive decision to push on to Alton.

Needless to say, about a half hour later, with the fuel gauge on "E," and darkness well and truly descended, I fired up the VHF radio, and issued my first "Mayday" call. The Coast Guard guy suggested that we anchor out of the channel (Where's the d**n channel? Where's the d**n shore? Those trees look awfully close in the searchlight beam!). Coast Guard suggestions are, like those of cops everywhere, more in the nature of commands -- if you don't follow them, you're asking for trouble. So, we anchored (also for the first time since I was 15) and waited for the Conservation Cops from the Sheriff's Department to tow us into Alton Marina.

At Alton Marina -- 2:00 am -- the starboard engine quit, and wouldn't refire. Not even a click, when I hit the starter! I guess it had gotten jealous of all the attention the port engine had been getting, and wanted its share.

Alton Marina is a beautiful spot, which we stayed at through Saturday just to sort everything out. They loaned us a courtesy car to go on a snipe hunt for a starter solenoid. The service manager at the Bayliner dealership, too far upstream to be of any help other than for information, helped me locate the starter solenoid, and explained that it was a standard automotive part, so I could get a replacement at any autoparts store.

So, Sunday morning, fully refueled, restocked, and revitalized, we pushed off out of the Illinois River and into the Mississippi. We got as far as the first lock, when the lock master mentioned in passing: "By the way, have you gotten permission from the Coast Guard to go downstream?"

"I didn't know we needed permission."

"They've closed the section of river below the next lock because of wreckage in the water."

We don't like the sound of "wreckage in the water."

So, we got a phone number for the Coast Guard from the lock master, and called. Rod Wurgler took down all our particulars, and said to stand by. He'd see if we could get permission.

Some time later, he returned the call and said his supervisor put us off until 10:00 am the next (Monday) morning. We were staring at Alton Marina, just under the bridge upstream of the locks, so we called them and arranged for a slip for the night.

Alton Marina is, perhaps, the best run operation we've seen so far. Beautiful covered slips, showers, clean bathrooms, etc. After lunch at their cafe, we met Grandpa Bob, who took me on a snipe hunt for auxiliary fuel containers and a means of lashing them to the deck. It took a couple of hours, but I came home with means to increase our fuel capacity by 30 gal.

Ten o'clock Monday morning came and went. Not having great confidence in our chances, I'd gotten to work on a couple of projects that needed doing -- expecially bolting down that microwave we'd had to pick up at the last minute when the built-in unit that came with the boat went up in smoke the day before we left.

When the job was finished -- about 10:30 am -- I called Wurgler. He hadn't heard, but promised to check and call back. Sure enough, a few minutes later, he called back with our clearance. It took about an hour to rig for sea, then we were off.

The next stop was Hoppie's Marine, about mile 158 on the Mississippi. It is a de rigeur fuel stop because it's 107 miles to the next possible fuel stop after that. Gotta fill up there, or we'll be calling the Coast Guard again!

At Hoppie's a nice little old lady named Fern sat down with us for about a half hour to disgorge all the information she had available about navigating the Upper Mississippi River. Between her wisdom, a few very thick and very expensive books on the area, as well as all the navigational charts available, we've come up with a plan. I'll explain it next time, and tell you whether it worked.

At least, after a week of trying, we've escaped the clutches of Illinois -- for now.

Breakdown! Delays!

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<em>Damifino</em> docked at Pekin Boat Club, Pekin, Ill.
Port engine out of commission, Damifino sits helplessly in Pekin, Ill., only 100 miles from her departure point in Seneca. Yes, that's my wife making out with the dog, Jack. Jack would like it if I moved out, so he could have her all to himself.


I thought we made mediocre to poor progress Tuesday, but Wednesday was even worse!

Some 25 miles across Lake Peoria, Damifino's port (left for you lubbers) engine started acting up. Thinking that the points had slipped closed, as they had on another occasion, we pulled in at the Pekin Access Point -- a public boat ramp with some easy-to-negotiate floating docks extending into fairly deep water -- to have lunch, let the engines cool down, then assess the situation.

No problem with the points. The rest of the distributor system looked good, too. Carburetor accelerator pump was shooting fuel, so fuel is getting to the carburetor. Those are the easy, obvious things.

Getting a little deeper in, I checked the stutter switch. A stutter switch is a little device that robs the engine of ignition spark, and thus power, to make it easier to shift into neutral while the engine is running. Obviously, if the switch shorts out, or is maladjusted, it can make it stall. Since the problem is stalling at idle, the stutter switch is a prime candidate for blame.

You test the stutter switch via the simple expedient of disconnecting it so the engine thinks its contacts are always open. If it is the problem, disconnecting the stutter switch will make the problem go away. I tried it, and the problem didn't go away, so now what?

We're left with fuel issues. I fueled up Wednesday morning, so I might have gotten a load of bad gasoline. The way to test that is to change the fuel filter. So, I commandeered the dog's aluminum water dish to catch the inevitable spillage, and changed the fuel filter. Still no difference.

They were working on a speedboat engine at the next dock, so I went over to seek help. One fellow was obviously the boat owner -- he confined his mechanical activities to blipping the throttle, and looking both confused and concerned. The other, who turned out to be Larry, watched carefully while listening to what noises the engine made.

Larry was the mechanic.

I asked Larry if, after he'd sorted out the speedboat, he'd stop by and take a look at my port engine. He promised to do so, and I got out of their way.

The speedboat sounded as if it had a modified V-6 with a nearly full-race cam, and no muffler. That made it impossible to idle when cold, and sound really rough when warmed up. Perhaps the owner wasn't familiar with the intricacies of tuning a high-performance engine, and wanted it to idle like a passenger car engine. No F--ing way!

Anyway, a few minutes later Larry wandered over to where the Damifino was docked. I explained the situation, and he suggested that the carburetor float valves might be sticking. That sounded like a possibility, so we discussed it. To solve the problem, I'd have to rebuild the carburetors.

That I can do, providing I can find a carburetor rebuilding kit, but it's a big job and not to be jumped into until all other possibilites are exhausted. Don't want to spend a bunch of dollars and a couple of hours only to find that wasn't the problem!

Larry offered to give me a ride to the local Marine equipment dealer. There, the mechanics were all away, but would be back the next day. No, they didn't stock the correct points and condenser to replace what's in there, so no luck with them. I bought a fender adjuster that had caught my eye on a classic Owens yacht the other day -- thought I'd try one out, myself -- and took the store's card to call again if I couldn't solve the problem otherwise.

By this time, it was 3:00 and the day was pretty much shot. With both the temperature and humidity hovering around 95, I decided to give up on solving the problem for the day, and look for a place to tie up for the night.

Larry suggested hiking along the access road a few hundred yards to the Pekin Boat Club, where we could rent a slip for the night.

I'll try again in the morning.



Where riverboat casinos go to die

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Where riverboat casinos go to die
Changing gambling laws have made riverboat casinos superfluous. We spent the night in riverboat ghost town.


This is the second in the ongoing series following our effort to move the Damifino to Naples, Florida.

We only made 74 miles yesterday, which is actually decent progress on the upper Illinois River, with its locks spaced only a few miles. Considering that we didn't start out until after noontime, and passed three locks before giving up the fight at about 6:00 pm, we did okay. It normally takes 1-2 hours to pass through a lock, so getting three hours travel time out of six hours isn't half bad. That's averaging an hour per lock and 25 mph in between.

Twenty five miles per hour doesn't sound like much to people used to burning up the road at 70-80 mph, but on a boat it's moderately fast for a cruiser. Damifino gets up on plane at 12-18 kt (that's nautical miles per hour -- about 15% faster than the same number in mph). Below that speed, the hull pushes laboriously through the water. Above that speed, it skips over the water like a thrown stone. Planing is much more efficient. In between, the hull is constantly trying to climb the hill of water it pushes up as it tries to plow through.

There are two roughly equivalent ways to think of the process of getting up on plane. Sailors think of it as the hull trying to climb up on its own bow wave. Another way to think of it is the hull trying to climb out of the hole in the water (A boat is a hole in the water, surrounded by fiberglass, into which you throw money.) that Archimedes said it must create to get bouyant force to hold the boat up  against gravity. To a hydrodynamicist, the displacement regime is when bouyant forces support the boat, and planing is when the hydrodynamic lift supports the hull. In between is a transitional regime where the hull rises out of the water, so bouyant force is lower, and hydrodynamic lift does the rest.

The best fuel economy -- miles covered per gallon burned -- comes when the hull moves fast enough to be fully up on plane, but not much faster. It's easy to tell when that happens: when running as a displacement hull, the boat runs flat through the water. As hydrodynamic forces come into play, the nose rises dramatically. When fully on plane, the nose drops back to run nearly horizontally again. At that point, you have to throttle back to avoid running really fast. That's when you get best fuel economy. On Damifino that's between 22 and 25 knots.

In any case, the 74 miles we made yesterday brought us to Hamm's Holiday Harbor Marina in Peoria, Ill. I actually passed the place because all I could see was a bunch of riverboat casinos. Clearly, some were, shall we say, "derelict," being drawn up on dry land. One, however, looked like it could be in operation. I figured that didn't look like the marina we were looking for. I was wrong.

When we sailed in, (boats still "sail," even powerboats without sails) we found a deep pool with floating docks presenting dozens of slips big enough to dock the Damifino. With no better directions, we pulled into the easiest slip to reach, and tied up.

The riverboats are a side business for the marina owner. In the past, shore-based casinos were illegal in Illinois, and a number of midwestern states. There was a loophole, however, that allowed casino gambling on floating platforms -- hence the launching of a slew of riverboat casinos.

That's all changed, now. The states realized how much revenue they were missing, and changed the laws to allow shore-based casino operations. That made the riverboats superfluous. Hamm's marina owner (Mr. Hamm?) has made a tidy business of taking these white elephants off the casino owners' hands, and cutting them up for scrap. Those in and around the marina pool are awaiting the gentle ministrations of low-wage workers bearing cutting torches.

The adventure begins

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This en
<em>Damifino</em> docked in Seneca, Ill.
View of the Damifino docked in Seneca, Ill. prior to departure.


This entry breaks, once again, from the stated theme of this blog, which is to look at repurcussions of technological developments for society. We'll get back to that theme when we get back to that theme. In the meantime, take a trip with me down the Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Tombigbee rivers, thence around the Gulf of Mexico to the southern tip of Florida.

Some 40-plus years ago, my then bride-to-be asked: "Hey, could we live on a boat?"

She'd seen my parents spending weeks at a time aboard their 36-foot cabin cruiser during the summer, and it looked like a fun, romantic (and cheap) lifestyle. We were at the time firmly rooted in the Boston, Mass. area, however, so the full-time live-aboard lifestyle was impractical. Yet, the idea persisted, resurfacing from time to time.

Another persistent theme became the "I've never been to Florida. Could we go there?" question. Having visited my grandparents at their winter home near Orlando (long before Disney Corp. turned the place into Mickey's Corporate Office), my impression of Florida was of a gigantic sand spit with bugs, and rain every afternoon. It was never top of my list of places to go, so that idea didn't get very far, either.

More recently, when the school failed to pick up Bonnie's teaching contract for the forthcoming year, we finally decided to chuck it all, and abandon the Chicago-area winters for year-round live-aboard boating at the southern tip of Florida.

In the decades since getting married, we'd developed into gypsies, anyway; we'd picked up our own cabin cruiser; and learned the advantages of avoiding the annual butt-freezing season. It was time to live out Bonnie's particular fantasies.

The first step was, of course, a reconnaissance trip. Borrowing the temporarily empty house of a friend in Marco Island, Florida, we spent a week sampling the fleshpots (which, unlike Las Vegas, means beaches, not night clubs), and scrutinizing marinas.

Destination in hand, we returned to refit the Damifino (pronounced "Damn if I know!" We didn't name her. The previous owner did.) for indefinite occupancy, and move her through the western half of the Great Loop cruise track down through the river system and the Inland Waterway to the Gulf of Mexico, thence around to Florida's southern tip.

Lest this entry be completely without technological interest, let me note that I'm writing this on the upper deck (under that blue awning in the picture) using my laptop computer, which is wirelessly linked to a WiFi router attached to one of the bulkheads below, and running on ship's 12 VDC. Also on the wireless LAN are a printer, and Bonnie's laptop. The router ties into the Internet through a cellphone link.

The text editor I'm using does not run on my laptop. It's an example of thin-client technology in which I type into text boxes in a web page provided by the blogging section of my website, which runs in rented space on my ISP's server. Since the ISP's hardware is a server farm distributed over much of the U.S., it's also an example of cloud computing at its best.

Ain't tecknollogie wunnerfull!

We're now ready -- or as ready as we ever will be. Today, we drop the lines and blow a kiss and a wave to Illinois. In the words of the Paul Simon song: "We're on our way. We don't know where we're goin'!"

We'll know when we get there.

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