February 6, 2011

WAAS at last

I TOOK MY COURAGE in both hands the other day and upgraded my old Garmin 72 GPS.

I’d been putting it off for nearly three years, fearing that messing with its little electronic guts would render it useless for ever. It didn’t strike me for quite a while that the heart of a GPS is just computer program, and when you upgrade it you simply replace the old program with a new program. Well, duh! you might say. All I can say in return is that it wasn’t duh! to me.

This whole business started right after I bought the Garmin 72 brand-new in 2008. I switched it on and it would work fine for a while and then suddenly go blank. No action at all.

When I complained, the Garmin people said Oh yeah, we know about that, what you have to do is disable WAAS.

Right. Of course. Disable WAAS. Naturally.

“What is WAAS?” I said. “How do I disable it?”

It turned out that WAAS was the magic beam from the sky that made corrections to the GPS signal when the military deliberately made it inaccurate, so Osama bin Laden couldn’t send a nuclear missile directly down a Pentagon chimney pot. But WAAS, the wide-area augmentation system, made it accurate again. (Much to Osama’s delight, no doubt.) Only, on the 72, Garmin had got the software program wrong. When WAAS kicked in, the computer went nuts and quit working.

To disable WAAS you had to switch the GPS off, switch it on again, press Page twice, followed by Menu then Enter. Press Menu again twice, scroll down to Set-up, and, under General, scroll down to WAAS, scroll down to Disable and press Enter. Simple. Now I had a GPS that was as inaccurate as the military wanted it to be, despite the fact that I’d paid for increased accuracy.

I pointed out to the Garmin people that they were still selling the faulty 72 model all over the USA, even though they knew it was flawed. They shrugged. You can get a correction online, they said. Or you can send it back and we’ll fix it.

I said: “How’s that going to help the poor bastard who’s trying to find his way into port some dark night in a raging storm and his Garmin 72 goes blank on him?” Garmin shrugged. They don’t take any responsibility. It says so right there on the screen as soon as you fire the thing up.

The next question: How do I download the corrected computer program and stick it in my GPS? Simple, they said. Just log on to our website and download it to your computer. Connect your computer to the GPS and download the new program.

Now, after many hard lessons, I have learned to be wary of instructions like these. How do you connect the GPS to the computer? I asked. “Oh, don’t you have the right cables?” Why would I have the right cables, I asked. What were the right cables? Did I have to buy the right cables, when this was their mistake? I must have sounded either persuasive or pissed off, I don’t know which, but they said oh very well then, they would send me the cables free.

They arrived in quite a large box, labeled “USB to Rs232 Converter Cable,” a box that also contained a PC cable, a six-page USB cable installation manual, and a disc with a USB cable program for use with computers using the Windows 98/2000 operating system. My operating system was Windows XP, of course.

I took one look at the 12 feet of combined cables and the assorted hardware and software, and weighed up the possibilities for disaster. I decided they were many. I also decided that 90 feet of GPS accuracy, the normal sort of average with WAAS disabled, was good enough for me. And then I set off on a six-week trip around Vancouver Island.

But a couple of days ago I got to thinking about how the old Garmin 72 is outdated already, and I probably need a newer GPS now, so what is there to lose if I mess around with the old one?

I dug out the old box of cables and fastened them together. I found the holes in the computer and the GPS to stick them in, and I linked my computer to the Garmin website. I placed the Garmin software disc for the UBS cable in the tray, just in case, and I downloaded one of two software programs. I had no idea which of the two programs was the right one, but I guess I lucked out because I didn’t destroy the computer’s hard disc and the GPS didn't explode.

So now, just when it’s time to throw the darned thing away, I have a Garmin 72 GPS that is working perfectly, WAAS and all.

Today’s Thought
Science is some kind of cosmic apple juice from the Garden of Eden. Those who drink of it are doomed to carry the burden of original sin.
— Lewis M. Branscomb

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #156
Propeller facts:
--A decrease of one inch in diameter is good for an increase of about 300 propeller revolutions per minute.
--On sailboats, minimum clearance between hull and blade tips is 10 percent of propeller diameter. On powerboats, 20 percent or more clearance if usually needed to prevent vibration.
--The thinner lock-nut should be installed on the prop shaft directly against the propeller hub. As the larger, second nut is tightened, it assumes all the load on its own threads.

“Have you been offered a job lately?”
“Just once. Apart from that I’ve met with nothing but kindness.”

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

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