Cruising Without a Bruising

by Doc Searls

Tales of woe by frequent travelers rarely earn
sympathy--even from their own breed. But that
doesn't stop them from telling their tales anyway: "The caviar in First was okay, but the toast was
stale. And they wouldn't give me an aisle seat."
Fortunately, I have no tales of travel woe to
tell about the Linux Lunacy Geek Cruise earlier
this month. Quite the opposite, in fact. But I
won't tell those either. Not yet, anyway. Because
there's real suffering in the news, much of it in
the places we just visited.

Cruising the Caribbean during hurricane season is
a bit like dodging slow-moving Frisbees, each one being
300 miles across. Ships can do the dodging, but land can't. That
was one of the biggest lessons--about Linux, as
well as other natural developments--that I'm
still learning right now.

See, as I'm writing this, Hurricane Wilma is
wrapping up her own tour of south Florida, the
latest stop in her itinerary. Before that it was
the northeast Yucatan peninsula, where she paused
for several days, destroying much of Cancun,
Cozumel and the surrounding resort region with
Category 4 winds.

Two weeks earlier, I had been sitting in an
Internet cafe on Cozumel, enjoying the first
cheap and fast broadband of the cruise, wrapping up
my column for the January issue of Linux Journal.
It was a convivial experience. When the
proprietor's Wi-Fi router--a generic Linksys,
with Linux inside--went down, I helped him get it
up and running again, the usual way: unplug,
wait, replug. He treated me to a Coronita, a
small Corona beer, and then to another. It was
hot outside, as it had been for the whole trip,
so I welcomed the air conditioning that blasted
down on the desk I borrowed in the back room
there. In the late afternoon, my sister pulled me
away from my work so we could have lunch in Plaza
del Sol, near the pier where the giant cruise
boats dock. Nearby stood a tall flag pole, with a
huge flag waving in the breeze. As we headed back
to the boat, a passing squall treated us to an
evening rainbow over the island.

Here's a
I read this past Monday morning:

The small piers for dive boats are destroyed.
Punta Langosta cruise ship pier near downtown is
partially destroyed. The roofs of Casa Denis
restaurant and Plaza del Sol shopping area are
gone. The giant flag pole is gone.... he talked with
the owner of Rock 'n Java restaurant and the
building is intact, but all contents destroyed,
as is the case with most oceanfront businesses.
Almost every palapa structure has disappeared. It
sounds like McDonalds has been destroyed. The
expensive oceanfront shops were severely damaged
or destroyed and are being looted. They found a
dead body on the oceanfront, but thought that
this person had been dead for several days--and
was washed up by the hurricane (Do not panic, we
do not think there was loss of life in Cozumel).
The oceanfront street on ! the west side of
downtown is intact--the seawall held. Most
concrete structures are intact, but received
water damage. Flooding was not a major problem in
downtown, although rain was forced into every
crack, so many homes received some water damage.

There are links a number of wreckage pictures at
that same
and some can be matched up with
my sister and I took during our visit there. I doubt
that the Internet cafe is up and running. In
fact, I'm guessing it was destroyed. The building
was flimsy in the back and sat atop the seawall.
If anybody knows its fate, tell us in the
comments below. I don't know the name of the
place, but the sign in front said NET PHONE, as I
recall. It was a very short walk south from the

I also wonder about
, which is down the
coast from Cozumel and Cancun. On that shore
excursion we bypassed the fake town set up for
cruise ships and took a taxi a short distance
into the little beachfront village of
or Mahajual--they spell it both ways). We ate
outstanding fresh grilled local fish and shrimp
and some of the best ceviche I've ever had. That
was at the
Faro restaurant
, which is
essentially a thatched roof over a grill and a
bar, about 20 feet from the water. The extremely
told us that the offshore reef
offers protection from heavy surf, but that storm
surges from hurricanes threaten the town itself,
which has an elevation of about one foot above
high tide. I haven't found any reports on the
Web, except from
local resident

(an American ex-pat) eager to return home. Since Wilma angled
to the northwest across Cozumel, I think Costa
Maya was spared. This time.

Our first port of call on the trip was
Georgetown, on Grand Cayman, which was also a
stop on the 2002 Geek Cruise. (Here are
Part I
Part II
of the reports on that trip.) For
that shore excursion I joined Greg Haerr, Ted
Ts'o and others for a tour of
and various
corners of the island, including the Cracked
Conch, an excellent seaside restaurant. Two years
later, in September 2004, Grand Cayman was
trashed by
Hurricane Ivan.
On our way out to a
rendezvous with tame stingrays, our guide on the
bus told how all the trees on the island were
poisoned by standing salt water, after Ivan's
storm surge swamped everything its Category 5
winds didn't blast to shreds. The island was
clearly back in business, but also had a long way
to go. Some hotels (such as the Hyatt we passed)
are still rebuilding. And whole forests were
still bare and brown.

Between Costa Maya and Cozumel, we visited
Belize, a country that seems never to have
recovered from
at least four
: Hattie
in 1961, Mitch in 1998, Keith in 2000 and Inez in

Hattie was the worst.
She hit
just past midnight
as Halloween began, bringing 160 mph winds (gusts
to 200 mph), first to the village of Calabash
Caye on Turneffe Atoll, then to Belize City,
which was the capital of what was still British
Honduras. Calabash Caye was wiped off the island,
along with most of its 300 residents.
Belize City,
the only city worthy of the noun in the
whole country, was destroyed. Civilization failed
and British troops were called in.

The story of Hattie was told to us on a bus tour
of the city, on our way out to the rain forest
where we floated on inner tubes for two miles on
a narrow river through limestone caverns. (The
best shore excursion ever, in my long experience
with these kinds of things.) The city never
recovered. Now, 44 years after the storm, many
empty lots are occupied only by concrete pads.
Driveways lead to nowhere. The sense of
vulnerability was so complete that a new capital,
Belmopan, was built inland on higher ground.
(Perspective: Belize City has a population of
perhaps 60,000, and
just 7,000.)

When Hattie struck in '61 I was a novice ham
radio operator in New Jersey. I remember the
hurricane because I took an interest in
a large (20kW) AM station that broadcast on the unlikely (actually, European-standard)
frequency of 834kHz, sandwiched between WCCO/830
in Minneapolis and WHAS/840 in Louisville. I
could pull in Radio Belize on a good transistor
radio at night (when AM signals bounce off the
sky) by turning it so the directional antenna
nulled out the U.S. powerhouses to the West, and
picked up the signal from Belize to the South.
But my main instrument was a Forties-vintage
receiver fed by a 40-meter
antenna out back (I also had an 80-meter, but
oddly it didn't work as well for AM, though it
should have worked better). The BBC News was
often what allowed me to identify the station. So
was its Caribbean-accented English and diverse
cultural programming. For a long time, Radio
Belize was my favorite (and farthest) DX catch on
the AM band.

The station survived Hurricane Hattie, but not
the tides of progress. I didn't hear a single
local AM signal during our stop in Belize.

Fact is, AM never was very compatible with the
tropics. Too many thunderstorms down there,
causing too much static. For many years the
"Caribbean Band" (low short wave) was used,
alongside the AM band, because the higher
frequencies were less subject to static from
lightning. Radio Belize's signal in that band was
at 3.3MHz. (OR "Mc." They still called them
"cycles" instead of "Hertz" back then.) At 5kW,
it wasn't a bad signal, either.
Last night I checked that band with a shortwave
radio, and heard little North of WWV's time
standard signal at 2.5kHz. The band, and the
technology, are obsolete.

Which brings me to the lessons learned.

First, what matters are values that have been
familiar to Unix and Linux hackers for
generations: durability, resourcefulness,
recoverability, reusability. Watching Wilma tear
up the tranquil settings where I had passed just
a couple weeks earlier, my mind turned to the
constructive (and reconstructive) efforts that
followed Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which
struck the Gulf Coast in September. The efforts
I've followed most closely are: 1) the
blog, which is the latest incarnation of Michael
Barnett's Interdictor, which chronicled and
facilitated the survival of DirecNIC and its
thousands of customers from Ground Zero of
Katrina in New Orleans; 2) Brian Oberkirch's
Slidell Hurricane Damage Blog,
which serves as a
virtual newspaper for Brian's hometown, which
suffered terribly from Katrina; and 3)
Recovery 2.0,
a joint effort by many interested
individuals. All run on Linux and make use of
open source tools. This isn't just coincidence.
It's more like evolution in the sternest
Darwinian sense of the word. These are survival
efforts, in some cases by real survivors.

I watched these efforts grow and mature in a very
short time. That would not have been possible
without building on a groundwork of long-proven
open source development tools and methods, and
the values behind them.

Part I
of this report, I said Linux is a species. Watching the wake of Wilma, we get to
see how sturdy a species it really is.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux
. He writes the Linux for Suits column for Linux
. He also presides over
Doc Searls' IT Garage,
which is published by SSC, the publisher of Linux

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