Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Time Travel in Utah's High Country

On a recent mountain bike ride near Richfield UT, they caught me sleeping. I was focusing on choosing a path between the rocks, when my herding group dog, Coffee Girl, took after a herd of sheep that we had almost stumbled into. But she was eventually scolded into returning to me, and the sheep weren't too rattled.

Hey wait a minute, weren't we only a couple seconds from an ambush by giant white dogs, screaming out of the sagebrush to protect their herd?

But none came. As we sidled up the ridge, the size of the herd became more apparent.


Where were the dogs and the human shepherd? Eventually we spotted him. But he seemed to only have a couple border collies to help him.


I waved at him so he'd notice that my dog was now on a leash, but he didn't respond. Maybe he didn't speak English, or even Spanish. Maybe he was a Vasco, that is, a Euskal from the Basque country. I'm a bit skeptical about Great Pyrenees dogs being hostile to humans, but I wasn't so sure what they would think of my "coyote," Coffee Girl, even on her leash. So we kept our distance from the shepherd, and he was spared a dozen questions from me.

We kept climbing on this rocky ATV trail. Half the time I had to dismount and push the mountain bike. You don't want to be naive about ridges. Why are they ridges in the first place? Because they are erosion-resistant volcanic rock, surrounded by easier-eroding sedimentary layers.

I was feeling inspired by the romance of the Basque High Country, and made a rare decision: to go for a loop route instead of the more typical out-and-back. Yes, loop routes are 10 times more likely to get you into trouble, especially since I don't bring a GPS or maps, or even study maps at home all that much.

We were helped by being on the Paiute ATV trail of central Utah. And I did find a loop back home, although it took 5 hours. But along the way there were those moments of Doubt and Foreboding Doom that make an outing interesting. I'm not being facetious. False summit after false summit. I yearned to hear a noisy ATV or to see the dusty contrail of a pickup truck, because that would signify that we had finally succeeded at finding the quick road back home!
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Back at camp around sunset, my dog and I heard the tinkling of a single bell. Sure enough, out on the road in front of camp, the herd of sheep was moving along, and rather briskly at that. I thought there were about 300 sheep in the herd, but was later to learn it was 1200! The herd moved almost noise-lessly as a dense pack, with barely a baah out of them. 

Was the bell on an "alpha" sheep? Was it meant to help the herd, shepherd, or the dogs follow the herd? Or was it meant to help on foggy nights?


Once again we saw the shepherd. Instead of only two border collies he had a small herd of border collies and blue heelers. Is that a walking stick in his hand? He certainly needs one. I guess they don't use those long shepherd's staffs with the rounded crook at the end, anymore.


And yes, three Great Pyrenees. How noble of Purpose they are!



This pastoral experience enriched a wonderful and difficult day of mountain biking. It made it about more than just eye-candy and aerobic exercise. It helped me appreciate, what?, 8000 years of anthropological changes: our development from hunter/gatherers to a pastoral phase with domesticated herds, to agriculture and settlements, then to cities and long-distance sea trade, to industry, and finally to our current phase, such as it is.  

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Let's do a movie quote from Sydney Pollack's 1994 remake of Bill Wilder's "Sabrina": the money-man, Linus (Harrison Ford), has taken Sabrina (Julia Ormond) to his "cottage" on Martha's Vineyard. They take in the view from the oceanside window. Sabrina hands Linus her camera:

Sabrina: "Don't take a picture. Just look."

Linus looks through the view finder and describes what he sees, "Ocean (yawn), ocean, ocean, quaint little fishing village...lighthouse. A guy is going into a lighthouse. There's a job for you. What must that be like? What kind of guy takes a job keeping a lighthouse?"


What kind of man, indeed. And what kind of man becomes a shepherd in the modern age? Is our shepherd (in the photo) out there all night? In the past they must have been. Imagine how cold it must have been, and how solitary. It is easy to see why there was a link between the religious and the poetical imaginations.

After a night of shivering, the shepherd awoke in the mountain fog upon hearing the tinkling of a single sheep's bell. He knew the herd was close and safe.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Finally! The New Ford Van in Real Life

In August 2014 Ford started manufacturing the full-sized Transit van -- not to be confused with the teeny Transit Connect. The full-size Transit is the replacement for the venerable full-sized Econoline E-series vans, which is what I have been driving for the last 239,000 miles. 

So why haven't I been able to find one on a dealer's lot? Somebody suggested it was because the dealers don't really know what the market wants, and they don't want to guess wrong. The new 2015 Transit has a lot of choices: three roof heights, two wheel bases, cargo versus passenger, and three engines to choose from.

At long last I got lucky and saw one at a truck stop:


Unfortunately it was a long-wheelbase passenger van, rather than the short wheel-base, low roof, windowless cargo van that I want. Still, it made a positive impression. Remember that this is a uni-body -- stamped and spot-welded sheet metal -- rather than a box on two frame rails, like a truck.

I didn't have a tape measure handy but there was a Ford Econoline van right next to it, for comparison. The new Transit was a couple inches lower in overall height, an inch or two narrower (hooray!), and closer to the ground (boo!). 

The ground clearance was better than I thought:

Looking from the bow, towards the stern. Pretty clean underneath.
I've often wondered how they measure the "ground clearance" of a vehicle: to the lowest point? To the lowest vulnerable point? And how vulnerable?

From the back we can see the lowest points, I think:

From the stern, looking towards the bow.

The lowest spot might be the welded bracket that grabs the lower end of the rear shock absorber. It also sticks out low on most vehicles, including pickup trucks.

Unlike the Econoline, there is (horizontal) rear stabilizer bar, as there is in the front. But this stabilizer bar is slightly higher than the bottom of the differential housing, as well as slightly aft of the differential. So although the stabilizer bar looks somewhat vulnerable, it might be protected by the differential housing.

The weakest spot in the Transit van are the small tires. There is no bigger handicap than small tires! They aren't even LT series. They are about 3 inches smaller in diameter than the ones on the Econoline van right next to this Transit van. 

But the wheel-wells are pretty roomy. If you could fit bigger tires on the Transit, it might be a viable option as a boondocking machine. But it is still over-priced, and fuel economy is poorer than a pickup with the same engine.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How Can Morale Be So Good in Some Large Businesses?

Once upon a time, perhaps up to a decade ago, Walmart was a winner. You could feel something amongst its employees. But how would you ever have proved it was real instead of subjective and impressionistic? But I was convinced of an elan vital amongst all those low-wage employees in that giant corporation. But in the middle Aughts, it seemed that spirit started draining out of Walmart.

Today I went to Walmart for a routine oil and lube job. There were no long lines, which was a pleasant surprise. Or was it? The first thing they started doing was fumbling with those handheld gadgets that supposedly "manage information" about your rig: real rocket science stuff, like your name, address, and odometer reading. I've yet to see one of their employees use these gadgets without struggle and delay.  No doubt these handheld gadgets were sold as "productivity enhancers" by some executive in the I.T. (information technology) department, back at corporate headquarters.

The next thing they told me was that my tires were worn on one side and they weren't willing to rotate them. Furthermore 'I was to blame,' and so the tire company  wouldn't cough up some money for not living up to the guaranteed mileage. That argument was perhaps correct for two out of the four tires in question. In any case, it was asserted so quickly and aggressively that I became suspicious. 

Inside the store I was asked to sign too many legal disclaimers, avowing that I had been warned by Walmart that I needed a couple new tires.

(I had a flashback at what happened when I bought these lousy tires at Walmart a couple years ago. The employees seemed like real losers. When I got home I popped off the hubcaps and found that 2 nuts out of 8 had not been tightened.)

Hmm, what should I do? It had been years since I bought tires at one of Walmart's competitors. I drove over to Big O Tires. They showed a completely different attitude. The employee who grabbed me at the door did everything: helped me select a tire, gave me a sale price, helped me park in a rather crowded parking lot, and did the installation without making me unhitch the trailer! You know, air-wrenches and floor jacks!  He even finished up with the typical computerized cash register fumble, without handing it off to another employee. 

I was amazed that one employee "owned" me through the entire process. Typically the customer talks to a "customer's man" at the front desk. The guy typically know little about anything automotive or mechanical, but he dresses in cleaner clothes, speaks college-boy English, and is a little more personable. (Or thinks he is.)

The customer might have a pertinent piece of information: the symptom occurs after X, but not Y. Do you think any of that is going to be passed to the guy who actually repairs your car? I once had a repair job become a nightmare because of a poor information-hand-off like this.

The employee at the Big O Tire then helped me learn about a possible upgrade to my trailer tires. Once again, he immediately jumped in with a can-do spirit, infused with experience and skill.

So how would you analyze this company? Would you really learn anything by looking at a financial spreadsheet, subtracting column C from B, and then dividing by column R, ad infinitum? Even if you came up with the perfect formula, have you really explained anything? Can it predict anything? It seems to me that spreadsheet arithmetic merely confirms the Effect, without elucidating the Cause.

We live in an age when something must be scientific to be intellectually respectable. And to look scientific, it must be mathematical, or at least, numerical, countable, measurable. But what if the Cause of a company's success is about cultural values in the corporation? How do you measure or quantify those?