Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Both Real and Phony Benefits from a Bigger "House"

Do most people see economics as an arcane subject? At other times it might turn them off because they can easily spot the political ideology hiding underneath the surface of mathematical pretense. They should have the experience that I just had.

There is always a tweak or two that can benefit any RV.  Because my "RV" is a customized cargo trailer rather than a 'suburban house on wheels,' I am free to get out the tools and blast away at it as I please. 

There was a noticeable pinch spot in the little cargo trailer that could be felt many times per day. It only took an hour of sawing and orbital-sanding to eliminate the pinch.  

And yet how much material had been removed? Compared to the overall area (square footage) of the trailer, one part in 500 had been removed. In volume, one part in 3500. In weight, one part in 10,000.

Despite such small numbers, I actually felt a temporary euphoria similar to what a salary-slave feels upon getting a 2% raise, after being told by the boss that the office average was 1.9% (and glossing over real cost-of-living inflation of 8%.) 

Looking at my new-found freedom of movement was like topping a saddle/pass on my mountain bike, and being surprised by the noble expanse of land on the other side:

High grasslands near Datil, NM.

Finally out of the vertical confines of the San Juan mountains, near Gunnison, CO.

Apparently it is a trait of our species to respond strongly to tiny changes, not only of the "before versus after" kind, but also static comparisons of different types, such as Smith's pickup truck with a "zQ" decal on its rump, versus Jones's "zQi" insignia.

Is it beneficial to us to have brains that work like that? It makes us prone to Envy. It also means that the objective reality of anything is less important than our prior Expectations. 

But it is helpful too, since small differences contain "time sensitive" information when we avert danger, seize opportunity, hunt, identify sexual advances, react to changes in clouds, ice forming at the edge of the lake, the irruption of bugs, the first symptom of a disease, the incipient bloom of a plant, etc.

The bigger McMansion we live in, the less likely we are to be strongly affected by a one hour project. And retirement age people are becoming desperately impoverished with respect to "hours." The sheer size of a house has little marginal utility to someone whose grains of sand have mostly run down through the hourglass. Why then do they still act like having "lots of space" matters to them? Hours or square footage -- which has the greatest "marginal utility"?

After being impressed by the movie version of "The Fountainhead," I am rereading the book. Here's a quote from the book about the un-heroic character, the beginner architect, Peter Keating:
"He had forgotten his first building, and the fear and doubt of its birth. He had learned that is was so simple. His clients would accept anything, so long as he gave them an imposing facade, a majestic entrance and a regal drawing room, with which to astound their guests. It worked out to everyone's satisfaction: Keating did not care so long as his clients were impressed, the clients did not care so long as their guests were impressed, and the guests did not care anyway."

An intense appreciation needs a noticeable shortage beforehand -- something that bites a little. And yet the pursuit of the Large gobbles up most lives, even as the value of  'A Bit Larger' declines to zero.

At any rate, it would be lucky for a new student of microeconomics to have a strong experience like I just described, rather than thinking that the field was just a bunch of jargon and spread-sheet arithmetic.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Snowbird Searches for the Right Myth

My bio-rhythms have been so screwed up with the 90 degree heat in Yuma -- in February! Soon I was in Patagonia AZ at over 4000 feet of elevation. It felt so good to sleep in a chilly bed again; to get out of bed in the morning and walk while trying to keep my toes from touching the 40 F floor; to put on a jacket and walk downtown Patagonia. Ahh, cool air and warm sun.

Over the winter in Yuma, things that seemed like luxuries at the beginning began to bore me. Even my dog got bored: we walked in a beautiful desert at sunrise and sunset, but there was no game there. Just rubble. Eventually a snowbird can't or won't apply the mental discipline needed to ignore the overcrowding.   

The tipping point came when my attitude changed about my road cycling club, the main reason why I was there in the first place. The high speed riding by 70-year-olds seemed so admirable at the beginning of winter. By the end, my loyalty to living at the point-of-diminishing-returns reasserted itself.

Does all this sound like complaining? It isn't. What it really means is that my winter has succeeded; it has served its purpose. Earlier in my career I would have been frustrated with these end-of-winter feelings; after all, it sounds bad to use words like 'bored' or 'sick of.' But words like positive, negative, good, and bad really don't apply so well to a natural cycle.

What did I think? That retirement was 365 days per year of wrinkle-free perfection? Where do we get such crazy notions? Probably from our Christian tradition of going to heaven for eternal bliss, even though it really must be sheer boredom up there. When Western Civilization started outgrowing Christianity intellectually in the 1700s, all the mighty intellectuals did was replace the idea of a far-away heaven with a more immediate, material, and utilitarian paradise.

We all like the Spring themes of rejuvenation and renewal. Again, it fits in with the Christian theme of resurrection -- or is it the other way around?

The myth of a dead "vegetation" god, who goes into the ground for awhile, and is reborn during the planting season occurs across the spectrum of ancient myths. We who are of northern European background think of the deadness of winter, but the theme works well whatever the cause of the agriculturally-dormant season. For instance, in ancient Egypt the floods came in late summer, and the planting started in October. 

Our pre-snowbird lives prepared us to see winter as a drab dark dormancy, and to look forward to spring for warm sunshine, blooming wildflowers, and cute witto bunnie-wunnies being born. But this myth does not really serve the needs of the snowbird, who experiences an active and delightful winter. In order to get the most from my snowbird lifestyle I need to abandon this winter dormancy/spring rejuvenation paradigm, and embrace a new model for life. If you want to personify this, just for fun, let's say I need to find a new myth, a new "vegetation deity."

Was there ever an ancient civilization with 12 months per year of agriculture, as in Yuma? The crops would have changed, but agriculture would not have gone into dormancy in the off-season. What kind of myths did they create?

Such an ancient civilization would be the soul-mate of the modern snowbird, who lacks a dormant season, but merely changes his "crop" with the seasons. A snowbird needs to let their imagination run in the direction of that myth -- if there were one.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Part 2, Better Traction on the Tow Vehicle of a Travel Trailer

Since the internet primarily offers infomercials and entertainment, it is difficult to find helpful information about four-wheel-drive and better traction. I had almost given up before finally bumping into this article, which serves as a primer.

Today's post is aimed at finding shrewd low-cost methods of getting better traction without being suckered into a high-cost pickup truck. Automobile manufacturers use the marketing gimmick of "bundling," and the weaknesses of the male ego, to raise the cost of a pickup truck into the stratosphere. 

This post is not aimed at:

1. A pickup pulling a fifth wheel trailer, which then is empty when you unhitch, meaning little weight on the rear tires.

2. A pickup used in town for getting groceries or hauling kids to school, and therefore has no weight on the rear axle.

3. Lowering a boat trailer down a boat ramp until the rear wheels of the pickup are sitting on ooze, algae, or moss.

4. Snow or dune buggy terrains.

5. Doing sharp turns on mountain switchbacks, a terrain best handled by 4WD with open differentials or by all-wheel-drive.

That is a lot of 'nots'! What it does pertain to is RV camping on (3 or 4 digit) dirt/gravel roads on BLM and national forest lands, with a pickup or van pulling a conventional "bumper pull" travel trailer. Here you have plenty of weight over the rear axle of the tow vehicle, including drinking water, tools, books, and the weight of the cap for a pickup truck. Therefore a rear wheel drive pickup truck won't get stuck on wet grass, as is true of the suburban driveway queens.

Traction problems are of two independent kinds, with only one of them benefiting from 4 wheel drive.

A) Front to back. This can only be solved by getting a 4WD or all-wheel-drive.

B) Left wheel to right wheel, on a given axle. Best addressed by a differential locker.

Example B) is what this post is aiming at. The typical situation on banked or crowned dirt roads, during the monsoon season, is loose mud on the right hand side ("starboard") of the tow vehicle, since that is where the ditch is. Meanwhile the left side ("port") is high and dry, with good traction.

Another typical situation is a muddy two-track which has random puddles here and there. Only one wheel slips at a time.

The last typical traction problem is the loose gravel coming out of an arroyo crossing. Admittedly this case may be more of a front/back traction problem, which is best for 4WD.

When your dominant traction problem is one wheel on any given axle, 4WD will not help much. What you need is a differential locker. They completely lock the differential, even if one wheel is up in the air! (Limited slip differentials are different than a differential locker.)

Alternative 1) Did you know that you can add the (electrical) eLocker differential locker by Eaton on a low trim level (work truck) F-150 pickup? The differential is "open" until you push a switch, at low speeds, to make it lock. You can also find low trim level Chevy Silverado work trucks that have a different differential locker, also made by Eaton. These are low cost ($400) options, as is the towing package. Why doesn't every half-ton pickup customer choose them? We know the reason: they think the half-ton pickup is just a passenger car that looks cool and macho. They are not interested in actually using it as a truck.

Generally manufacturers try to make you believe that you need the expensive premium off-road package, with all the trimmings, to get differential lockers. That way you will buy a $50000 pickup truck instead of putting a $400 option on a low trim level ($25000) pickup.

Alternative 2) The other way to address bad traction on one wheel is to use the traction control systems that are now standard on virtually all vehicles. They use the information from the wheel speed sensors to detect slippage in one of the wheels, and then apply brake pressure to it. They also back off the throttle. If such systems got good enough, differential lockers would be unnecessary for many customers, and campers like me might be the beneficiaries. I'm not sure that they are good enough yet, particularly after getting stuck. I would be interested in pertinent anecdotes from the reader.

There is almost a conspiracy of silence over this issue, since the automobile industry doesn't want people escaping their $50,000 driveway queens. But I finally found one good article by a Chrysler engineer about Jeep's traction control system. Presumably their system is even better on a new vehicle.

Alternative 3) Aftermarket lockers. Someone recently told me about how pleased he was with a low cost ($350 plus two hours installation) aftermarket differential locker called the True Lock. He added it to his 4WD Jeep and saw a day versus night improvement. But his Jeep was old enough to lack a modern traction control system. Would the latter get confused by the True Lock? Compatibility with modern control systems is essential for any aftermarket locker. Here again, the internet is too busy with infomercial and entertainment to explain this issue well.

Let's assume that compatibility exists. Where can you get an aftermarket locker installed? Presumably I wouldn't want to go to one of the upgrader/modifier businesses that caters to the hard core "enthusiast" crowd, at astronomical prices. What I need is a good mechanic who has experience with frugal traction-oriented customers.

You cannot expect miracles in all situations from this scheme of saving money with a differential locker on a 2WD truck: it won't help if the left rear tire and right rear tire have equally bad traction, or if you are slipping on a steep switchback, where a differential locker would keep you from turning sharply enough.