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Anke and I live aboard WAYWARD, and wrote about it's design and construction at

Access to the net comes and goes, so I'll be writing in fits and spurts.Please feel free to browse the archives, leave comments where you will and write... I'll respond as I can.

Fair winds!

Dave and Anke
triloboats swirly gmail daughter com

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Optimal is Not Optimal: The Sweet of Suites

Heh. Clever. But I believe...
A generalist knows more and more about more and more
until eventually s/he knows something about everything.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
-- Robert A. Heinlein

If one's only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
-- The Law of the Hammer

Avoid optimization; Learn to love redundancy.
-- From Nassim Taleb's Phronetic Rules

Optimal is Not Optimal: The Sweet of Suites

Let's get it said, upfront. I'm a Generalist. Jack of Many Trades. Proud Master of None.

I'm much less drawn to Rules than to Rules of Thumb. I admire precision, but prefer the loose fit. I'll take one-size-fits-most over tailor-made any day of the week. 

So here's the problem with Optimal. It is by definition the very best solution for a particular problem. Often very particular problem. A problem one can foresee with great confidence and specificity. A can opener. A mouse trap. A barrel bolt. These things have solutions that are pretty durned optimal and are notoriously hard to improve upon.

But problems abound, and each has its own, special way of driving us bugnutz.

Generalized (sub-optimal) tools and approaches cover a much wider range of problems. So wide that they often spill over into other whole species of problem. A suite of generalist tools - especially those which work well together - cover a very wide range indeed.

In discussions I read on the subject, Specialized vs General evaluations tend to measure in degrees of Success (often vs Failure). For example, a Specialized tool has a high degree of success, but only at a narrow task. The Generalized tool is assessed at some lower degree of success, but over a swathe of loosely related tasks. Most such writers argue for the General.

What I think is often missed is that Efficiency is a much better standard. The Generalized tool will succeed... it just takes longer for a small fraction of that range. That it does so over a wider range of problems is a better measure of its advantage over Optimal. It is less efficient at one particular task, but more efficient overall.

Veritas rabbet planes

Consider the Rabbet Plane vs the Chisel.

I'm not knocking the Rabbet Plane. This one by VERITAS is a well designed thing of beauty and a boon to the task. If your life calls for a lot of rabbets, it may pay its way. But it's not happy performing most of the other chores one asks even of a plane. Very bottom line, it's a specialized Chisel.

But which fits better into a limited space toolbox? Which is less expensive to purchase? To replace or repair? Can it do any single thing a chisel cannot? No. Can a chisel do things it cannot? Let me count the ways... (okay, I won't... you get the picture).

Another important consideration is reliability. Given quality components, this is the product of simplicity (less to go wrong) and imprecision (loosely 'coupled' components).

Okay, I once said, I get KISS. But imprecision is a virtue??? 

Turns out that precise, tightly coupled systems are prone to failure. The kind of failure that chewing gum and baling wire can't fix. A little sand in the finest Swiss watch and it will drop to merely semidiurnal success. But one can make a sundial with a stick stuck into sand. If it gets kicked over, stick it again and recalibrate. [We can also use that stick to lean on, plant a seed, pry a up a rock, bind a tourniquet, whack a mole...]

Efficiency, as I mentioned, is a factor here... that sundial has its limitations in this regard. Cost / benefit analysis is the guide. That stick is very efficient, in its modest way.

A final point I seldom if ever see discussed is how well tools (or approaches) work together in suites (combinations). What I call the sweet of suites.

Simple, generalized tools can join forces to accomplish almost anything! Their areas of efficacy overlap, affording redundancy and  choice. A heavy screwdriver can be a prise bar can be a chisel can be a lever can be a...

NOTE: We are strictly warned against abusing a tool beyond its designed purpose. HA.

A sweet suite of tools, skills, approaches, methods, guidelines... what-have-you... covers the ground. Covers it better, to my mind, than any ungainly heap of one-shot wonders.


NOTE: I realize that all this is, in fact, a spectrum. At the KISS extreme, brain + opposable thumbs is as simple as it gets, and all the others are to some degree specialized. The kind of optimal we look for will always be the happy middle ground.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

OVERVIEW: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande


Words to live by.
Words to die by.

Really, what's the difference?

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

See also this review by Maria Popova

All boldface below are quotes from Dr. Gawande's book.

In Being Mortal, Dr. Gawande writes:

This is a book about the modern experience of mortality -- about what it’s like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong.

Our main take-aways from the book:

Quality of life is preferable to mere quantity for the vast majority of us.

Care should be determined - in discussion with one’s family, doctors and care-givers - by asking...

  • What is our understanding of the situation?

  • What do we fear?

  • What do we hope for?

  • What are the trade-offs we are willing to make?

  • What are the trade-offs we are not willing to make?

  • What is the best course of action which serves this understanding?

Consider, answer and communicate, if possible, before the onset of care…

  • Do you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops?

  • Do you want aggressive treatments such as intubation and mechanical ventilation?

  • Do you want antibiotics?

  • Do you want tube or intravenous feeding if you can’t eat on your own?

Hospice approaches and attitudes appear to serve the terminal patient much better than standard medical interventions.

In the Epilogue, Dr. Gawande writes:

We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. 

Those reasons matter

not just at the end of life,

or when debility comes,

but all along the way.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Love Among Mortals

Photo by Silke Schmidtchen

You think you have time.

-- From Buddha's Little Instruction Book by Jack Kornfield

Love Among Mortals

Facing Death is transformative.

Somewhere, in the back of our minds, we all know - in a general kind of way - that we are mortal. But then a moment comes when we look Death in the eye and know it for ourselves... for our Beloved... and that knowledge becomes both specific and immediate.

For me, such a moment marks the very beginning of our One Precious Life. 

As sailors in a wild and wooly place, Anke and I live with perhaps a better view of Death than many. We often sail near the edge, and far from any hope of help should we fail dangerous.

This last autumn, we had a wild passage, where Death was grinning over our shoulders right along, breathing down our necks. It started with a small thing - a jammed block. So many deadly outcomes are the end of a series of small steps inching, then leaping toward disaster. We were able to manage our issues and all was, in the end, well.

But it was another reminder that - even in the mundane day to day - Death can come for us.

And now Plague walks all the lands of the world.

A time of pandemic binds us all in a moment of the awareness of our mortality. The last century has brought humanity a growing understanding of disease in its causes and cures. Yet we remain stubbornly mortal, and a tiny molecular machine - devoid of hope or malice - reminds us collectively of that fact.

For some, inevitable Death sucks all meaning from Life. For others - count me among them - Death is that dark background against which all life is luminous. It's proximity reminds us to live. NOW.

And what is the one thing worthwhile? That one thing to pursue with all the resource of our One Precious Life?

If you ask me, it's Love.

Power? Pffffft. Fame? Sic transit. Stuff? Can be useful but can own us and weigh us down. Wealth? You know what it can't buy. 

We think we have time... let's assume we don't, and start loving.

Happy Valentines Day, all ye Young Lovers! 

(And that includes you, my fellow Elder Farts!)

Saturday, January 23, 2021

When Panic Rears Its Ugly Head

 Cartoon by Gary Larson 

The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.
-- From Frank Herbert's Dune

Don't Panic. 
-- Printed in large, friendly letters on the cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

When Panic Rears It's Ugly Head

Panic is one of the very worst dangers sailors face.

Panic may paralyze us. It may send us into a frenzy of useless or even detrimental action. It may benumb the mind or send it reeling.

Panic, more often than not, is a far greater danger than the conditions which invoke it. Indeed, it can strike in a total absence of danger if the situation is misread.

An instinct to freeze in the face of danger might 
sometimes help prey animals survive. Panic adrenalized flight might have helped our ancestors live to fight another day.

But panic on board – whether of captain or crew – is not our friend. 

It can overwhelm anyone, but favors the unprepared. It's contagious and can debilitate an entire crew. At worst, those caught in its grip are a danger to themselves, the crew and the vessel.

Fortunately, we can reduce its onset with training, and break its grip with breathing and focus.We are none of us immune to panic, but neither are we its helpless victims.

Panic - and climbing out of it - is serious business, for which it is well to be prepared.

It was a dark and stormy night. 

Well, not stormy, yet, but one was bearing down on us. And it was dark... that nebulous kind of dark where even silhouettes are blurred and indistinct.

We had fetched the reefbound entrance to a fjiord. Just the sort of place that wind, when it hits, funnels together and venturies itself into a rage (vent = wind + furies?). But we were ahead of it and dropped anchor close in the lee of a sheltering island.

Before we could set the anchor, however, the first lick of squall pounced on us and stripped it, blowing us back into exposed water, embayed by rock and reef, lost in blinding rain and intensified dark. 

This is not as dangerous as it sounds, but calls for close sailing in tight quarters, with strong, confused winds. It was just a matter of navigating between the lighter water smudges bracketing the island, visible at either end of our tacks. Round up and stall in the blackouts. Work our way into the inky lull between them and anchor on soundings. Not an everyday occurrence, but we've practice aplenty.

Anke went forward to haul the anchor, while I raised sail, an operation that briefly fouls the deck with loops of halyard. Normally this is cleared at leisure as each sail is raised. But, with trouble close to leeward, there was no time for niceties. Sails and anchor up, we set course close-hauled, intending to tack back into our island's lee.

Anke returned to the cockpit and took the helm while I set about clearing the decks by feel. Despite the fact that I couldn't see any of the lines, by habit, I put my head down for a moment. A side gust hit, and we heeled hard and SLACKTIDE rounded toward it in a swoop, dumping power and regaining her feet.

As my head came up, I found that I'd lost my bearings. Neither wind nor the sketchy blots of black fell into a pattern I could recognize. Which way to turn and how long before burning up scant searoom? Panic clamped down hard. Heart pounding, mouth gone dry, knees weak and knocking, mind clutching wildly at any purchase within that churning darkness. 

Breathe x four, and my mind began to work again. Still disoriented, but ready to do the sensible thing... ask Anke what's where. 

And she soon set me straight.
Panic took me in its vice that night. It happens. And if we don't get a handle on it, it'll run us under.

Note: If we'd both been lost, an unpanicked assessment would quickly reveal standard options; heaving to or dropping anchor till bearings were regained. If we drag, we can row out another, or dredge downwind (dragging anchor acting as a drogue to keep head up; back sails to skin through breaks in the reef (clearly visible for ultra-shoal draft as patches of smoother water between breaking water). If a lee shore (no breaks), ground out and step ashore if and when we must. The first happens now and then, the latter two once or twice.


So here are some tools we've found useful. While they don't all address panic itself, together they lower the odds that panic will take over. And once your mind is your own again, you're ready to take on trouble.


Take care of yourself – Dress appropriately for conditions. Get adequate rest. Eat and drink well (never alcohol, however, while at risk).

Outfit yourself – Reliable gear that works well together across real and anticipated scenarios gives you the physical basis to deal with emergencies.

Train yourself – Develop skills before you need them, and practice them in increasing conditions. If nothing else, imagine scenarios and response in detail.

Drills help immensely. But a word of caution... skills are most powerful when seen as modular – useful separately or in combination with others. Seen thus, they empower improvisation. Overfocusing on set drills can leave us unprepared when the real world deviates from the 'script'. I seen it happen!

Orient yourself
 – At all possible moments, know where you are. Where are your fall-backs? What is your fail-safe strategy? What is the path of least resistance?

In the Moment

Breathe! -- First thing you'll need is oxygen. Adrenalin kicks us into high gear and we start burning through O2 reserves like wildfire, and we need to up our intake.  

I like the 'fourfold breath'... enough air to supply the brain, and counting helps focus and bring me back. Consciously use feature to ease yourself down. Four quick breaths are not enough to hyperventilate or delay your recovery. But do take more if you need to. 

TIP: If you are in the grip of panic, it may help to close your eyes for this step... this shuts out alarming visuals which, at this point, you are in no shape to process. Benefit varies from one individual to the next, however.
NOTE: I've since read of a technique use by US Navy Seals called square breathing. In 4 seconds, hold 4 seconds, out 4 seconds, hold 4 seconds. Repeat. Long story, but this helps bring O2 and CO2 into balance.
DO NOT PROCEED until panic ebbs... until you do, your actions are unlikely to be helpful and may cause harm! Our best shot is to keep with it until we have ourselves in hand. Note the distinction between panic and merely being afraid. You can function with the latter.

To captains:
 If you allow your personal panic to persist, both ship and crew are as though rudderless. Your calm and confidence aid the crew to deal with their panic. You may have to relieve crew who cannot control their panic before it spreads lest 
they endanger the ship or themselves with panicked mis-actions.

Assess, Address, Appraise – What are the dangers and/or damages? Options? Resources? Priorities?  What is your plan? Are your actions producing their intended effect? What must be done to remedy, if not? Don't hesitate to trade up one plan for a better one, where possible. We need to home in on effective address, pronto.

To captains: This is your responsibility. If time allows, consider consulting with knowledgeable crew. Consider staying in the moment... what came before or comes after is likely irrelevant in the crisis.

Communicate – Make sure everyone involved knows their job. If time permits, fill them in on the situation and the why of what they're told to do. This helps them deal with their panic. Help them with that process where time allows. 

To crewmembers: Consider that the skipper may not have time to fully brief you. This is the time to 'put your head down' and perform each assigned task to the best of your ability. If you observe something urgent, report it, but consider that the skipper must rank that information into priorities to which you may not be privy. S/he may have you abandon your assigned task in favor of another as plans change rapidly. Resist the urge to act without instruction (at least such actions as dropping or raising sail). 

Buy time – Actions which buy you time – to think, orient, improvise, etc. - can be invaluable, even when they don't directly improve your situation. Make the most of the time you've bought!


Attend to the ship –  Damage assessment and control that hasn't been addressed during the emergency. Make all gear ready to run. Get to shelter, if necessary. Initiate repairs, if necessary.

Attend to the crew -- All present and accounted for? Any trauma or medical issues? Apply first aid, if necessary. Get help, if necessary.

ReAssess – What went well? Not so well? What could be improved? Has training adequately prepared each for their role? Was the ship's outfit up to snuff? 

Fix what's broke.
NOTE: As with any debriefing session, this is not a blame game. That someone panicked and/or was unable to to climb out from under it is not  reprehensible, but rather grounds for further training. This includes everyday and emergency seamanship AND in techniques for ending panic.



Bonus Feature

In the following scene, from the movie Flight, involves a flight crew's response to mechanical failure.

I admire this depiction of the captain's expertise and handling of the situation and crew. He is decisive and proactive in both respects. He plays a large role in keeping his crew from panic and moving toward a solution.

NOTE: This scene focuses on what happens in the cockpit but includes asides depicting physical trauma to crew in the cabin. It was loosely inspired by a real life incident (Alaska Airlines flight 261) in which all passengers and crew perished)

Though ultimately unsuccessful, by not panicking, threal-life cregave themselves and their passengers the best chance of survival. They were posthumously awarded the Airline Pilots Association Gold Medal for Heroism.
Please view with discretion.

From the movie, Flight, starring Denzel Washington