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.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Part 1: Improving Traction in the Tow Vehicle of a Trailer

Rewrite: good grief, I started off on how-to trivia before I discussed the 'why' of getting better traction: it will give you more freedom in choosing campsites and provide a higher quality experience. 

But I have gotten-by just fine at dispersed camping without making a big or expensive project out of better traction. My rig was nothing special, traction-wise: a two-wheel-drive van pulling a 4000 lb (loaded) travel trailer. It had the standard open differential and lacked an electronic traction control system which is standard on newer vehicles. 

But remember that an "equipment X worked well enough for me" type argument is a circular argument. You know the limitations of your equipment, and compensate for them by restricting your campground choices. That is what I want to rise above. (Circular arguments like this eat up enormous amounts of time and space on public discussion forums.)

'So what?' if you get stuck every couple years? Be a good sport about it. See it as an adventure. If nothing else, you will leave feeling pretty good about the human race when a passing motorist stops by to be the hero, probably in less than 30 minutes. Then he will not even want to accept a few bucks from you as a token of gratitude, despite having just saved you towing charges and hours of waiting for it.

Work it out in advance so that the hero's time is not wasted: get a piece of chain, a couple quick links, and a nylon tow rope. Find the right spot on the frame to hook to. You might even want to mount a hook or eye-bolt to the frame.

Don't worry, I don't plan on becoming a recreational four wheel drive (4WD) off-roader. But the 4WD sub-cult supports an industry and products that can also help the general public (of non-enthusiasts) get better traction in their tow vehicle.

Recall that somebody (like me) who gets a higher clearance and lightweight trailer needs to finish the job by improving their traction (and possibly clearance) in their tow vehicle.

The Yuma 4WD mafia has already provided some useful advice to me. A business who helps the sub-cult modify their jeeps was clear about where I should start: get the tire inflator needed to "air-up" the tires after you are done with the backcountry road. More on that in a minute.

1) But step one is to use all-terrain tires with more aggressive tread. That is such an obvious thing, but it is hard for a cheapskate not to go looking for the least expensive pavement-oriented tires at one of the big tire outlets. Knobbier tires will probably cost and weigh a little more and take a little off your fuel economy. But if you are serious about getting better traction, you must give in on something!

2) He recommended dropping the tire pressure to 18 psi during off-pavement use. Of course, he was referring to a light jeep, not to a heavier pickup or van. Besides a more comfortable ride, the lower pressure gets you better traction in soft sand and mud since it results in a bigger contact patch ("flat spot") at the bottom of the tire. 

Once again, this is an obvious idea, but it is hard to overcome one's timidity in lowering the pressure to the 20 psi area. 

So why don't we do it? Because it is a hassle to put the air back in, that's why! And you must do so before driving at high speed on the pavement. Say what we will, something must be convenient or we won't do it. Some four wheel guys use pressurized tanks (like little scuba tanks.) Some install on-board compressors. 

3) But the least expensive way to air-up is to use a portable tire inflator. Your mind should turn red with rage over your past experiences with these. You probably bought a cheap piece of crap for $30. In the past I got better results with a screw-on brass tire inflator tip, rather than those hateful lever style inflator tips. Of course, you can get lucky and get a good lever style tip -- one that leaks air slower than the rate of pumping it in -- but over time the rubber ages, or gets too hot or cold, etc. 

4) But there is still a problem if the inflator is powered through the cigarette lighter. These connections are limited to about 9 amps DC; they are also unreliable. There are heavier duty inflators available that clamp right onto the battery posts. Both Viair and Slime make this kind. It permits raising the amperage to 15--30 amps DC. Excellent!

5) What about "getting unstuck" products like "Portable tow truck" and their competitors? (Search traction pad, traction mats, getting unstuck in mud, etc.) These are corrugated mats or boards, usually of tough plastic, that can be jammed in front of the drive wheels when they are stuck. Does anyone have any experience with these?

6) There are tire chains of course. Like most people I have never had these because of cost, weight, noise, and the inconvenience of installing them. Perhaps this last issue is 50% psychological? But you can't install tire chains after you have gotten stuck. 

Ahh but wait, yes you can. There are temporary chains for short distance travel at low speeds that can be installed after getting stuck. They are metal chains that are completed with a nylon strap and buckle -- you just insert the nylon straps through the holes in the rim, if you have them. Perhaps I could overcome my reluctance to bring chains if the cost and weight were low enough.

Next episode I will discuss possible ways to get better traction without getting stuck in the trap of overpaying for a four wheel drive, over-sized pickup truck. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What Are The Best Topics for a Blogger?

For some reason, I am thinking about the rules for "good blogging." Which topics are worth discussing in a public forum? Consider a single example of how important this can be: imagine how much improvement you could get in movies, plays, and novels if the writers would decide that adultery and love triangles are topics that have been beaten to death, and should be allowed to rest for a couple centuries.

As usual when embarking on any issue, progress is most rapid when we invoke Horace's "fleeing vice is the beginning of virtue." First, bloggers should abandon their mundane and picayune "practical" details.

Yes I know, there are readers who think that practical minutiae does them more good than arguments and opinions. But what if we are careful about the method of opining? Rather than shoving pre-packaged opinions down the readers' eyeballs, what if we invite the reader along as we develop an opinion, all beginning with concrete observations?

Let's start by modestly asking how many of "our" opinions are just hand-me-down prejudices and hearsay about abstractions and slogans? These are things that the opinion-monger has no concrete experience with.

I am suggesting a method of developing opinions that lends itself to an allegory. Perhaps it was on the jacket of a book long ago that I saw a drawing of a sculpture that affected me deeply. A marble column came out of the ground, looking more like a geological outcropping than a sculpture. As the eye moves upwards, it starts to see artificial cracks and flutes. Obviously it is taking "form", but you are not exactly sure of what. Then it starts to look like two blocky human legs. Upward your eyes go, to musculature and clothing. And then to the face and eyes, with all their nuances of expression. How perfectly this upward evolution of the sculpture describes the development of a blog post!

This subject is similar to one discussed in a classic essay by Montaigne, "On Experience." 
Men do not know the natural disease of the mind; it does nothing but ferret and inquire , and is eternally wheeling, juggling, and perplexing itself like silkworms, and then suffocates itself in its work...

It thinks it discovers at a great distance, I know not what glimpses of light and imaginary truth: but whilst running to it, so many difficulties, hindrances, and new inquisitions cross it, that it loses its way, and is made drunk with the motion...

...the frequent amorous glances they cast upon their [own] work witness that their hearts pant with self-love, and that even the disdainful severity wherewith they scourge them are but the dandlings and caressings of maternal love;
for as much as, in my opinion, of the most ordinary, common, and known things, could we but find out their light, the greatest miracles of nature might be formed, and the most wonderful examples, especially upon the subject of human actions.
Let us walk about as the ancient philosophical school of the Peripatetics did, and stumble upon provocative observations, while keeping our feet on the ground as we try to explain them. But our thinking should proceed as the sculpture proceeds upward. We come to see our observation as an individual member of a category. Then we see the observation as the expression of an Idea and the embodiment of a Principle.

It would be good to stop at the head of the sculpture. Let's not go spiriting off into the fluffy stuff of metaphysical clouds. We have probably already made enough mistakes in one essay, and more thinking won't correct those mistakes. Let it rest. Go out into the desert again tomorrow and look for another oddity to explain.