Sunday, July 27, 2014

Living History

The Great War started 100 years ago. Besides being of enormous importance to the world over this past century, it is an uncanny illustration of the old adage, 'the more things change, the more they stay the same.' An incident -- the assassination in Sarajevo -- was turned into the opportunity to kill millions by the blundering politicians and emperors that the sheeple stayed loyal to. A couple years later a suspicious or misinterpreted incident, the sinking of the Lusitania, was used to suck the USA into an unnecessary war.

Consider such things in light of what has been going on in Ukraine the last week. And yet the general public learns nothing about how politicians use incidents to start wars.

It is not easy finding good histories of the Great War. Oh sure, I've read Barbara Tuchman, Niall Ferguson, and Martin Gilbert. The difficulty is in finding a book not written from the British or American-interventionist angle. I had almost lost hope until Thomas Fleming's "The Illusion of Victory..."  I will bring up its points in later posts.

What a shame that those of us who knew someone in that dreadful war didn't really learn much from him about the war. I've only seen one photograph of my grandfather in action: he was a midwestern farmboy, and a recent immigrant from Sweden, who they put to work handling the horses that moved the cannons.


Ah dear, I can't find the photograph of Walmart plastic shopping sacks blowing downwind into New Mexican cholla, and being impaled of course. And there were so many sacks that day! It is hard to believe that mere plastic sacks could look so macabre. What a perfect visual representation of the trench, barbed wire, and machine gun warfare on the Western Front! 

I would really appreciate any suggestions from readers about good history books of the Great War.


Friday, July 25, 2014

Is Ice the Best "Battery" for Mobile Living?

Since the last post ended with a bit of a downer, let's see if we can crawl out of the slough of despair today. Let me be a good sport and admit that I am temporarily stymied in finding an economical, high-ground-clearance tow vehicle for pulling my 3000 pound converted cargo trailer/travel trailer and storing two bicycles inside.

Usually when a problem has you temporarily beaten, it is best to put it aside and work on something else.  So let's get to work on reducing the weight of camping gear and personal possessions. One way or another, lighter loads will pay off when it comes time to select a new tow vehicle, whatever it is.

After water -- be it clean, grey, or black -- batteries are the heaviest factor that an RVer has any control over. I am using four 6-volt, golf cart, flooded, lead acid batteries: model GC-2, made by Interstate. With cables, clamps and boxes, let's round off their weight to 70 pounds each.

Downsizing from 4 to 2 such batteries reduces the weight of the trailer by 140 pounds. Imagine how many clothes, dishes, and toys you would have to get rid-of to add up to 140 pounds! 

Unfortunately I don't have an energy-summing device to give you exact numbers. Suffice it to say that my DC-voltage-powered refrigerator is the biggest energy-draw in my trailer, and therefore that is where the improvement must come from. (It's a 12 Volt-DC, compressor-based refrigerator: the Whynter 45 quart model, sold at HomeDepot.com.) 

Let us not think of a battery as an electrochemical device, but as an example of the more general category of "energy storage devices." There aren't too many other examples of energy storage devices besides the battery, but one that we usually overlook is the heat capacity of water and the heat exchanged in freezing water.

During the day, my nearly 500 (nominal) watts of solar panels usually charge up the four golf-cart batteries by mid-morning. Then, the rest of the day, the whole system is just maintaining a full charge on those batteries. Therefore much of the capabilities of the solar system is being wasted.

Wouldn't it make more sense to run the solar system full blast, all day? If I used my Whynter refrigerator as a freezer for various jugs of water (rather than as a refrigerator for food), all of the solar capabilities will be "soaked up" during the day, freezing water. Then, at night, I could just turn off the Whynter frig/freezer, in order to get by on merely two golf cart batteries. The ice jugs would then be transferred to a common inexpensive "Igloo" or "Coleman" cooler chest, which would serve as the refrigerator for my food. 

The Whynter unit has thus gone from being a food refrigerator to purely an ice manufacturing machine. I have done something like this before. Basically it works, but well enough to downsize 4 golf cart batteries to 2?

If the reader knows any success stories (or failures) with this technique, please comment.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Update: Tow Vehicle Shopping the Old-fashioned Way

There must be people out there who are ten times better than me at internet searching. I don't even like buying things on the internet, other than music. 

Today I dropped in on the local car dealer in Gunnison CO just to kick some tires. I was suspicious that my internet searches were at a dead end. As luck would have it, this dealer had recent models of all the categories I polemicized about, last post. It was uncanny.

What an amazing difference there is between seeing something real and merely reading about it. Just think how good those reviewers made the Dodge Durango and Chevy Traverse sound. One glance at them and I chopped them off the list. They had those annoyingly-low, plastic, front-bumper skirts (air dams) that hang down to about 4 inches from the ground. Ridiculous! You couldn't even get close to a concrete curbstone with one of those suburban mommie-mobiles.

The Subaru Outback had a high and clean undercarriage, but it didn't look like a real hitch could be attached anywhere. The Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Xterra impressed me the most.

Perhaps I should start using Ask.com to do searches, and actually ask questions in the search. But does this search engine actually look at the logical thought-content of your question, or does it just pick off keywords? If the latter, the question-like approach is a gimmick to differentiate it in the marketplace.

Today was a powerful example of the internet's limitations. It is fully justified to roll your eyes or sigh in resignation when you ask a human being just about any question these days, and their pat answer is, 'Oh just google it. It's on the internet somewhere.'

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A good primer on four-wheeling at jalopnik.

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A good article on why Ford hasn't gone the Direct Injection route, as GM has. 

Another skeptical article about Direct Injection. 
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One of the commenters suggested that getting bicycles in and out of the back of an SUV would get old, fast. Today I went back to the dealer and got permission to slide my mountain bike into the back of a Toyota 4Runner, and then stand it upright, inside.  It wasn't even close to succeeding, except by lowering the saddle. The 4Runner was long enough for the mountain bike. (Obviously the front wheel was removed.) 

Lowering the saddle each time the bike goes into the vehicle, eh? Not sure I could get used to that.  Presumably the same thing happens with pickup trucks, unless the cap flares upward towards the stern.

I was no fool to have bought a cargo van as my first tow vehicle!

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It is unusual for me to flail away so ineffectively over practical details. Shame on me. When I started RVing, I had the satisfaction of buying an extremely useful tow vehicle at a good price. It enabled me to live a more interesting life, and to live like I wanted to live. I felt like I was beating the system.

(If the cargo van was such a brilliant idea, why doesn't everyone get one? You know why: the Little Woman won't stand for it.)

Naturally  I would like to pull off a stunt like that again. But it just seems like there aren't as many options as there used to be. Every vehicle is loaded with crap. They are too expensive and complicated. Ultimately it is the debt culture that allows this to get worse every year. And every year government regulations force the auto industry down a narrower and narrower path.

How do you "win" when your options wither away every year?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Taking Nominations for a Lightweight Tow Vehicle

It is easy to overlook things when you think alone, so I might benefit from readers' ideas about choosing a tow vehicle to pull my converted cargo trailer: 2900 pounds loaded, 6 foot wide, 350 pounds of tongue weight.

But before getting concrete, let's reflect on the temptations in thinking that I can tow this trailer with 'almost anything.' Wasn't it Oscar Wilde who said something like 'A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing?' Well, 'brevity is the soul of wit' and that aphorism is brief, pithy, and easy to remember. But is it actually informative about what makes a cynic? I think not.

A cynic is not a "negative" person. Rather, he is someone who has been undisciplined with his expectations about new situations and people. He has the bad habit of expecting too much, and therefore, he is usually disappointed, if not completely disillusioned, by how things turn out. He then reacts to that disappointment by throwing mud at new things that come along; it's his way of protecting himself from yet another disappointment.

And that is my situation with selecting a new tow vehicle for a lightweight trailer. I'm being sucked into exciting fantasies about all the new choices open to me: no more 15 mpg unhitched, impossible parking, difficulty in getting turned around, and taking up the entire width of a dirt road with a whale of a tow vehicle. No more am I enslaved to 3/4 ton pickups or vans, with gas-sucking V8 engines. Now I can at least open my mind to:

1.  Half-ton pickups or vans that ride smoother and get better fuel economy unhitched. Most of my miles are driven unhitched. They are still too large in dimensions though, but I would choose a regular cab with a 6.5 foot bed.

2.  Midsize pickups like the Toyota Tacoma or Nissan Frontier. (They don't come in regular cabs, though.) In 2015 Chevy is bringing back a completely redesigned midsize "Colorado."  Too bad that Ford sells Rangers all over most of the world, but not in North America. And why doesn't anybody make a mid-size van like the old Astro?

3. Truck-based SUVs like the Nissan Xterra, Toyota 4Runner, or Jeep Wrangler.

4. Car-based crossover SUVs (Dodge Durango, Subaru Outback, Toyota Highlander, Ford Escape, or Chevy Traverse) as long as they have V6 engines and tow packages.

And what about the Ford Econoline van's successor, the 2015 Transit full-size van? I would get the half-ton, short wheelbase, V6 model. But I have yet to see one! Ford has worn out my patience on this. Also I'm skeptical about the ground clearance. Ideally I prefer a used vehicle with low mileage; vehicles that are new in 2015 kill that option.

My new tow vehicle needs ground clearance "noticeably" better than a passenger car. That kills the Ford Transit Connect and mini-vans. But what about crossover SUVs? I have ridden in Subarus and been very impressed with their ground clearance. I had another fantasy when riding in my friend's Honda Odyssey minivan. How nice it would serve if it just had more ground clearance! But how do you "lift" a front-wheel-drive minivan? Growl. 

My mind used to be closed against towing with a car-body (aka, a unibody, stamped sheet metal that is spot welded together.) All of the crossover SUVs are built this way. How could you attach a decent hitch to thin sheet metal?

Then I crawled underneath a Hyundai Santa Fe and saw that they had two heavy rectangular steel tubes affixed somehow to the rear of the car. The class 3 hitch was then attached to these two heavy steel tubes. So I am more optimistic about crossover SUVs now.

Four wheel drive is not necessary, nor is all-wheel-drive. I lean towards rear-wheel-drive. Remember that modern vehicles all have (brake-actuated) traction control systems.

I am used to the cargo-carrying capacity of a full-sized van, which is extraordinary! Obviously much of that stuff will have to be downsized; and I am already working on that. 

But it must be able to accommodate two bicycles standing up inside the cargo area. Obviously the front wheels will be removed and I could tolerate lowering the saddle. Storing bicycles inside a vehicle is not as hard as it sounds, because only one gets used in any given season. Therefore it is sensible to spend 10 minutes dismantling the out-of-season bicycle.  You just put them parallel, head to tail, with foam in between, and smoosh the whole thing tight with straps.

Please don't mention storing them outside the vehicle. Unacceptable. 
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Update: I ran into an informative article that explained how the Dodge Durango is the only rear-wheel-drive crossover SUV. It comes with the Pentastar V6 engine standard, but the hemi V8 is an option. It is rare for a V8 to be offered as an option with crossovers. But even with the V6, the tow rating is a whopping 6400 pounds. 

With its standard 8-speed transmission, its EPA fuel economy rating is 25 mpg on the highway!


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Small Tribes and Sleepwalking up a Steep Hill

Yet another summer visit, sponging up the remarkable hospitality of a couple in Ouray, CO. In case I needed any more proof how important people were to an interesting travel lifestyle, I certainly got it. 

There is a real advantage to a migrational loop that is approximately the same every year: it seems necessary to help friendships get beyond the 'two ships passing in the night' syndrome that some people prefer. 

Short-term acquaintances seem uninteresting and frivolous to me. There is the tediousness and predictability of playing 20 Questions with them; the struggle to charm each other's socks off; adding another scalp to your belt, for whatever that is worth; and then you never see them again.

Then on to Gunnison CO to meet up with a friend from Patagonia AZ, and her friend. It was a real pleasure to talk around a campfire with other people. I gave up campfires years ago, partly because of the labor and fire safety, but mainly because you need a little tribe of people around the campfire to make it fun.

How on earth did my new camera focus/range-find through a glass and screen window? The cargo trailer now has a kitchen window, and yet the two women who have gotten a tour did not seem overly impressed.
 
My Barmah Australian breezer hat is sacrificed to the tribal god, a jealous god who only allows the pious to wear Henschel hats. Besides, a Barmah gets hotter than the dashboard of a car.

The dogs were part of that little tribe around the campfire. Back in Ouray I would take my dog to their dog park, right on the Uncompahgre river. Both she and I were starting to feel like the other customers there were a little tribe. 

Once I asked the silly question, 'How would dogs act if they were hypnotized?' Another man played with the idea the same way two dogs might tussle over a ball or frisbee. Actually I felt a little embarrassed at such a whimsical question. Apparently it was getting on to the heat of mid-day and my brain was getting sleepy and dreamy.

Later, we started walking home. But before climbing the steep hill back to the campsite, we hit downtown and ate a little. Now I was really sleepy.

I stretched out on a long bench, partly in the shade, and sagged into a siesta. I was aware of heat radiating from a nearby, south-facing, brick wall. But the air and shade were cool at the same time. Noisy traffic was 20 feet away, on a busy federal highway. I was vaguely aware of it, but simply didn't care. It seemed so strange that I had never done this before.

After reviving we started the steep climb home. The sun hit full force. I wanted to stay back on that comfortable and cool bench, and mentally I did. How could I sleepwalk up a hill like that?!

I was aware of danger in crossing the busy federal highway twice, so, with effort, I stayed conscious enough to do that. But the exercise seemed to have no stimulating effect until the very end of the climb. 

Don't ask me what any of this means. It was the first time it had ever happened, therefore I am writing about it. Relaxation is a wonderful thing; we probably can't ever get too good at it. 
  
Has nothing to do with the theme of this post except that I am still feeling whimsical. By the way, I always thought a box van like this was an excellent idea for a custom RV, except for the difficulty of finding one with low mileage.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Dealing with Disappointment on the Trail

Can eyeballs 'smack' in anticipation, like lips? I think they can. At least that's what mine were doing the other day on a mountain bike ride on the Unc, as one commenter calls the Uncompahgre Plateau in western Colorado. I have a special fondness for wild roses, especially when I notice them for the first time, usually in mid-June. I am fond of the seasonal ritual.

But the first sighting of this June disappointed me. The roses were waning and withering. Too late.

Oh certainly, this is just a minor disappointment along the trail, but it seems valuable as a simple and quintessential representative of an entire class of disappointments.  It is important to decide what attitude we should have about these disappointments.

It caused me to recall something said by a bicycle tourer. It was one of those statements that sticks with you because it stands out from commonplace chatter.

He said that he only remembered the little disasters and misadventures that occurred on his tours. The perfect weather, the pretty scenery, and the days of smooth clock-like progress never stood out in his memory. Expressed more brutally, they were meaningless and forgotten. 

Here's another example of the right attitude from a cycle tourer on the Great Divide Route on CrazyGuyonaBike.com :
But I went that way an hour ago. It didn't look right, it didn't feel right, it didn't match up with the next set of directions on my AC map. I am now three hours lost, it's 90 degrees, and I'm not riding the bike, I'm pushing. And there ain't no shade.
 You gotta love a guy like that!

So the wild roses were a dud. Now what? What is this disappointment good for? What would you have me do?
 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Optimism about the Country that used to be America

For the first time since the Fourth of July was officially declaimed (by me) as the most idiotic national holiday, I feel optimistic about America, or what remains of it. 

1. Many Americans seem to be at a tipping point: they are abandoning their passive acceptance of the neo-con dream of permanent war (mostly in the Mideast.) Republicans are catching on to the fact that today is not the day after 9-11, and that endless militarism is not the ticket to electoral success.

2. It's not impossible that Rand Paul will be the Republican candidate for president, rather than some senile warmonger like McCain or some low IQ Bahbll Christian.

3. No matter what your politics most people know that at least two healthy parties are necessary for a healthy democracy. Until the Republicans free themselves of the neo-con, Rapture Christian, Israeli-lobby doctrine of Permanent War, the Republican party is doomed. Is it just wishful thinking or are they actually starting to free themselves of the stain of the last 13 years?

4. Thanks in part to the centenary of the Great War (World War I) good articles are appearing on the internet about the Great War, British/French imperialism after that war, and American interventionism in general. I am hopeful that Americans will start seeing Arab and Muslim terrorism for what it really is: an Effect; the Cause is Western imperialism.