July 6, 2010

Computers know best

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

IN THE BEGINNING there was flax. And flax begat cotton. And cotton begat a whole bunch of exotic chemical compounds derived from oil. We have entered the Plastic Age of sails.

Laminates of Mylar, Kevlar, Spectra, nylon and Dacron are light, air-tight, and stretch-resistant. Sailmakers now talk of “building” sails instead of “making” them, although they still describe themselves as sailmakers rather than sailbuilders. Computers design sails now. They’re even being fashioned on full-size molds of the exact shape required.

But they’re still the mysterious, magic engines we have always known, although not understood. What we do understand is that small differences in shape make large differences in performance.

Lowell North said in a November 1996 interview in Latitude 38 magazine that computers now designs better sails than humans do. And not even the best intuitive sailmakers can see the difference.

Aha, I hear a cry from the back over there. “Who’s Lowell North?” you say.

Ignoramus. He’s the Olympic gold medalist who founded North Sails and built it into the biggest sailmaking firm in the world before selling out in the 1980s.

“None of us could tell which sail was fastest by just looking at it or looking at 3-D pictures of it,” he admitted. “No way — not one of us had a clue. I had figured I knew exactly what a fast sail should look like. But it wasn’t until we came to accept the fact that we didn’t really know what a fast sail should look like that we really began to make progress.”

Today’s Thought
Men are going to have to learns to be managers in a world where the organization will come close to consisting of all chiefs and one Indian. The Indian, of course, is the computer.
— Thomas L. Whisler, Professor of Business, U of Chicago

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #66
Engine blowers. Two of the most important rules of thumb for engine compartment blowers on gasoline engines:
—They should always be set to blow air out, not in; and
—They should be run for at least five minutes before starting the engine.

“Every time I sneeze I’m overcome with hot passion.”
“Good grief. What do you take for it?”
“Black pepper.”

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