Saturday, September 24, 2011

It's now an RV

After the disaster of the $250 parking ticket, I decided to re-register my vehicle as a California Housecar (RV).

I went down to the DMV, filled out the paperwork, and went through a brief inspection. Got a new set of plates, and paid my new registration-- now $90/year instead of the $350/yr I had been paying. Great, that'll make me back the cost of that ticket, not only this year but for every year in the future.

Next: I have to get some work and start making some more money!

Monday, September 5, 2011

$250 parking ticket?

I just got a $250 parking ticket, for parking a commercial vehicle in a residential area.

Really? $250? For parking? One night?

That's almost as much as my registration. And my 6-month insurance payment. Both of which are due this month. It's also more than I paid in a whole YEAR of parking tickets back before I figured out where to park without getting ticketed. Or so I thought. It's certainly more than I spent on fuel to drive to LA and back last month. One ticket.

This is a deeply troubling development.

The ticket was stamped early in the morning, before sunrise, before most people are awake, so I don't think it was a neighbor complaint.

It might have been a particularly unpleasant and sadistic cop, with either nothing better to do, in a bad mood, but that wouldn't explain the outrageous fine for something so simple; cops don't set the amount of the fines.

So it was a city government either deeply corrupt and shaking down everyone they can for money, or on some kind of weird war march against... something, I'm not sure exactly what.

This is really bad. I'm in kind of a financial hole right now, and I'm not sure how to get out of it. I spent much more than I made last month, including on that trip, and I didn't work at all because of the trip.

The registration bill is $350, and the insurance is $350 too. This is ugly. What I really should do is try to get the vehicle re-registered as an RV, then the registration will be $80 or so, and insurance will probably be less too. I have the paperwork; I just need to make the appointment to go in and get it done.

So now here I sit. My source of random programming gigs has seemed to dry up. I have one project I can and probably should complete for money, even though it probably won't amount to that much, but I can't get motivated to do it, even though I don't want to disappoint the customer who's waiting for it.

Like the ticket, this situation is really my own fault, due to fatalism and weariness really. I was really tired last night, and I just wanted to sleep, wanted to be left alone. I picked a spot that I'd parked in many times before, even though it didn't really feel right, because I hadn't been back there in a year or so. The last time I was in that neighborhood, I got a ticket for not turning my wheel properly against the curb on a hill. Still, that was only $35. And I stayed away for a while. I really should have continued to stay away. I certainly will now. Whatever is going on there regarding cops and parking, I don't want any part of it, thank you very much. $250 for parking!

My work fatalism is similar. I'm tired. Even after fixing my glasses situation, I can't really focus my brain on programming. It's torture, it's not fun, and the only reason I do it is because people will pay me to do it. Reading code and documentation makes my eyes, head, and neck ache. Doing mechanical-related stuff doesn't wear on me as much, because I don't have to use my eyes and brain so much, I can use my body, hands, etc, and that's less strain. But all my van-related projects are mostly done, and I don't see any reason in making work (or spending money) on stuff that isn't really necessary. I just want to be left alone, to maybe read non-software-related stuff, and think about more human things.

I've felt this before: like I keep getting hit, and I want to crouch down in a fetal ball and wait for the beatings to stop. I felt it a lot when I first started vandwelling. But, what I've learned over the last few years is that there is that the beatings do not stop on their own, that they just get worse. I'll have to battle back on my own in order to obtain any real relief. And I'm so tired, so much just wanting to rest, to sleep, to grow old quietly and safely. That is all I want.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Trip went well

Well I completed an 1000-mile round trip journey into the hot land and back. It went great! Everything worked more or less as planned.

The cab stayed nice and cool, and no coolant leaks or coolant smell, since I bypassed the heater core. Transmission ran great, engine ran great, all was well. I went down the coast, saw some beautiful country, stopped along the way at campgrounds on the cheap, toured around in LA, did my obligations there, and came back. It was a joy being at home no matter where I was.

I bought two new tires for the front, and moved the front tires onto the rear, replacing the two balding ones. So for the first time in the 4 years I've owned this van, I'm driving on 6 GOOD tires now.

I learned a few things. First of all, I'd overinflated my front tires, so my handling was kind of dodgy; it felt like the van was weaving all over the road whenever I went over any kind of bump or hill. I think my rear springs are sagging too; will have to find out what's involved in putting a new leaf in there. Bled a few pounds out of front tires and that improved the handling a bit. Also, I carried way too much fuel. There are a couple biodiesel fueling stops along the way, and they're very nice, and open convenient hours, so I could have done it all just by filling up along the way. The 5 gals of spare fuel I brought just added weight I didn't need, so I didn't use it on the way back.

Also, I know now what my MPG is. 10. Yes, 10. I get 10MPG. And biodiesel is like $4.60 up here. So it was not a cheap trip. Granted, that 10MPG includes winding down the coastal highway 1 at an average speed of 40MPH, so it's not really a freeway measurement. I took the freeway on the way back and I'm sure that was much better mileage.

And, in 100-degree heat, the fan and vent is useless. My insulation certainly works great-- it's 20-30 degrees cooler in the box than in the cab, for example-- but once the heat picks up in the afternoon, the fan is just moving the hot air around. At night, it can take an hour or two of running the fan full-on, before the interior finally cools down. And even with the sun shining brightly during the day, there's not enough sun to fully recharge the batteries from running the fan at full 4A blast at night. I think if I had to spend more time in that kind of hot climate, I'd have to say, nevermind the solar panels, just park in the shade as much as possible.

When I got back, it was time for an oil change (I do mine every 3,000 miles or so). I know, I should have done an oil change BEFORE driving 1000 miles through the heat, but I'd just changed it and it wasn't quite ready to be changed yet. So I waited until it'd been 3,500 miles, and the oil was FILTHY. Just disgusting, much worse than last time I changed it. Black, nasty oil. That'd mean carbon. Also, it was MORE viscous than clean oil, a lot more viscous. Biodiesel blowby? Maybe my rings are going, or my valve guides.

Another very odd thing: my air filter is filthy, but it's filthy with what a brown discoloration that looks and smells like biodiesel! It looks soaked. I'll have to get a postal scale and weigh it versus a clean one to see how much stuff is actually in there. But, how is biodiesel getting into my INTAKE air? The only thing I can think of is that perhaps, when I start up the engine cold in the mornings, and I always get a huge cloud of white smoke coming out, sometimes the wind blows some of that into my intake and it gets caught in the filter over time. Not sure though; that one is a puzzler.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The work gets easier

Doing work on my van has become an absolute joy. I love it. I know what I'm doing now, and that makes it fun.

I finally got my cooling system squared away. I did a bunch of research and realized I'd been misreading the test strips. Turns out I desperately need to replenish my SCA's, so I'm in the process of calculating exactly how much I need to add and will add it.

I think my heater core is pluggged up and possibly leaking too, but getting to it requires dismantling the entire dashboard, steering column, and ignition lock, so I just bypassed the heater. Bent the supply hose around double into a U and connected it to the return. Done. On this vehicle, the heater core is ALWAYS live, no matter whether the blend door is in the hot or cold position! So by disconnecting it, it'll probably stay a little cooler in here on the hot drive south.

My coolant was in what looked to me like perfect condition. I also checked the flow of my transmission cooler and it is excellent. I did find a bit of sand (yes, sand) in the coolant, but it wasn't magnetic, so I'm not worried about it. A friend said that it might be sand leftover from the cast iron block stamping! Imagine that.

The squeaking/parping sound may have been caused by transmission fluid dripping onto my drive belt and more or less ruining it. I cleaned it off good with rubbing alcohol and the squeak stopped. But I also did the transmission cooler line check, so perhaps the noise was coming from the trans after all. No matter; it's gone now either way.

Well that's it, I'm ready to drive. I might replace two balding rear tires first before this trip, depending on whether I can afford it. I'd like to bleed my brakes but that's easy, and top up my differential which is seeping. I probably should do an oil change, but I'm not really due for one until AFTER the trip, so I'll probably wait on that. I'm sure by then my air filter will be toast. This turbo breathes a lot of air, and riving around on dirt roads is rough on my air filters.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Moore's Law and capitalism

I've said for many years that there is only one thing that capitalism does better than anything else, and that is: make cheap gadgets.

I'm thinking about this as I'm sitting here, I'm legally considered homeless, but I have no less than 7 microprocessors in here! Most of which were cheap or free. I also have at least as many embedded microcontrollers too, and another half-dozen sitting in a drawer as chips ready to be placed into some project or another.

I'm part of a technologically-advanced underclass. I'm told that in China there are huge masses of deeply poor people running around with tons of microprocessor gadgets as well.

Moore's Law keeps marching on; computers keep getting more powerful and cheaper every year. As for other things like food, medical care, etc, even energy, not so much.

There are some interesting developments attempting to apply Moore's Law to problems like energy (i.e. solar energy, battery-driven cars), but they're haven't become quite the self-accelerating spiral that the semiconductor and consumer electronics industries are yet.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Showers? What showers?

Over the past month, I've tried getting by with little to no showers, but washing myself down with a washcloth every night instead. It is working out very well. I feel cleaner, and I don't have to be near a gym all the time.

I can also do rather gross, sweaty, nasty mechanical work too, freely and without worry, knowing that at the end of the day I will be clean, and I can do the work not necessary within a short walk from a shower.

On a financial note, I made a profit this month, and was very pleasantly surprised by that! I managed to make back the loss that I suffered last month, so I'm basically back to just breaking even again. But I did it with only two relatively small projects, and both of them very enjoyable (though not terribly well-paying). So I'm happy about that.

Fighting off a summer flu now (the worst kind), and camped out in a lovely, quiet, but still centrally-located spot which is quickly becoming one of my favorites. Quiet is so important to me. It's really all I want, is quiet.

I'm not looking forward to driving down the coast next month. I'd really rather drive UP the coast, up north, that's where I want to be! Maybe later in the month I'll do that, if money permits. But for now I am committed to this trip down south, so we'll see. A lot of research was required to locate biodiesel stations along the way, but I think I have a path mapped out. Still, I'm going to take along an extra 15 gallons of fuel, just to be sure. I could always put dead dinosaurs in here if I really got stuck, but the fun is trying to do the trip without having to resort to that.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

More cleanups

I organized my storage so I could get to my files more easily, then I organized some of those files, now that I can get to them! And I found the receipt for my "biodiesel" pump. Turns out, I bought the wrong thing, it was NOT rated for biodiesel, just rotary oil pump. So now I'm going to sell the thing, once I finish cleaning it off.

I found a new biodiesel-capable pump online for $50, which is less than I paid for the incorrect one several years ago.

I also replaced a badly rusted bolt and washers on, my driver's mirror. Total cost $1.07, which is much better than the $200 that Ford wants to charge me for a new mirror assembly! The arm for mirror is rusted, so I will need to change it out eventually, but I just bought myself another year if I want to. And I might be able to find something aftermarket for a reasonable price.

I found the source of that whining sound at engine speed before the van warms up: it's either the transmission or torque converter. And the source of that "parp-parp-parp" sound that is like a loose bearing somewhere: it's the reverse gear on the transmission. The sound only happens in reverse, and for a short time after the vehicle has been in reverse, and only when the engine is fully warmed up.

My next significant mission is to check the transmission cooler/pump flow rate (for obstruction or other problems), and to drain all the coolant and replace it with new.

Also, a friend has found an interesting single-tank, electric-heated SVO system for Mercedes, which maybe could be adapted to my Ford PowerStroke. If so, and if I feel like trying another fuel experiment, I'd love to be able to run on straight veggie oil instead of dealing with biodiesel. But it may take me months of careful investigation before I'll even know whether I want to do that.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Solar electrical notes, lots of them

Long post, originally intended as an answer to a vandweller mailing list post. It was too long, so I decided to put it here instead.

I started vandwelling with just a vague notion that I rely on electricity and internet a lot for my work, so I knew I needed "lots" of electricity. I overdesigned and underdesigned as a result.

After some years of thrashing around, I found out that the solution was to actually MEASURE stuff. Like, with an ammeter. And then do some math. Then I can make useful decisions to make everything work right.

For example, laptops suck for vandwelling, IMHO, especially if you rely on them a lot. Mine uses 2-5amps at 12v! When I started out in my van, I was also stupid enough to hook mine up to a large-screen monitor which required an inverter, for a year. The inverter was inefficient and used up current itself, as well as having somewhat low efficiency in converting 110v to 12v and then the monitor's own power supply converting it back to whatever the monitor used inside (probably 12v and 5v and 24v). Not smart.

What I learned is that netbooks and smartphones are nearly ideal for vandwelling. They hardly use any electricity and can be easily charged up off of your alternator (if you drive a lot) or a modest-size, relatively-inexpensive solar panel or genset and house batteries (if you stay local a lot).

If you use a 12v netbook, DEFINITELY get a car-adapter for it. Your batteries do not put out 12v-- they put out whatever they have left in them plus whatever is being used to charge them. Your alternator or solar charger or genset or whatever will shove 14V or more at your netbook. Mine took the abuse valiantly (probably has its own internal 12v regulator) but started making buzzing sounds when running in high-voltage situations. I got a DC-DC converter and all is well. When your batteries are low, they'll put out less than 12v. Get a DC-DC car charger/converter/adapter for the netbook that'll give it a nice regulated 12v no matter what.

Likewise, electric refrigerators are GREAT for a solar-based van setup, if you buy the super-efficient Danfoss (TruckFridge) models that only need 2A to run and only run a few hours a day, and keep your van and refrigerator insulated well enough that they hardly need to run at all. If you don't have enough charging or battery capacity, get a propane or 12v/propane/110v hybrid kind. My TruckFridge uses up 5-10Ah a day, and most of those during the day when the sun is shining bright, so they're hardly any drain on the batteries.

I had made the mistake of buying a cheap thermo-electric cooler and ran it for a few months-- it used 4A, ran half the day, and didn't even cool the food properly (only 20 degrees F below ambient). Dumb dumb dumb-- I trashed my very expensive battery array that way. This was before I'd learned to actually measure anything before deciding whether (or how) to use it. The TruckFridge works a lot better and uses less amps.

Having a separate "house" battery from your starter battery is a good idea in all cases, and essential if you are charging anything more than a smartphone. The House battery (or batteries) should be an AGM or other deep-cycle-- designed to be run down deeply over a long period of time. Starter batteries are designed to provide cold-cranking amps (to start your engine) quickly and then expect to immediately start being charged back up by the alternator. They do NOT like being deep-cycled or run down slowly over time, the plates get sulfated (ruined).

Also, make sure you match the battery size to the amount of charging power you have. Solar panels only trickle-charge a large battery array-- it depends on how many amps it generates-- though a large solar array could bulk-charge a small battery no problem. I was dumb enough to buy 400Ah of battery capacity for a solar panel array that could only generate 15A when at full sun at noon in summertime. Some simple math would show why that was moronic: how long would it take for a 15 amps to charge up a battery array cycled down only part way, say to 300Ah, which would need 100Ah to fully recharge? It can't do it in one day for sure; there aren't enough hours of full sunlight, even in summer. Also, batteries need a few hours of continuous charging EVEN AFTER THEY ARE FULLY CHARGED to stay in good condition. You don't want to let deeply-discharged batteries-- even AGM's-- sit around for days or weeks (or months or years, as I did), before hooking them up to something studly enough to fully charge them within a few hours.

It's OK to have a larger number of amp-hour capacity in your batteries than you can charge up in just a few hours of sunlight at whatever amps your panels put out, but you'd also need an AC converter or genset (or both) that'll put out enough amps to really bulk-charge your batteries should you run them down, and be able to do that a day or two after running them down. (I bought a 75A 110V converter a few years ago and finally hooked it up at the beginning this year. Dumb of me to wait so long.).

My old G1 Android phone has 1.4Ah batteries, so charging it up from completely discharged state uses only a couple amps. I don't worry about it either. My panels generate 15A in sun in summer, and at least 5A even in fog and winter. The phone is a non-issue.

Back to the original question (from the vandweller's list) about leaving the charger plugged in: best to measure it and find out. I put an ammeter on my smartphone charger and found out that it uses 0.01A (10mA) when idling; so it's not crucial that I turn it off or unplug it all the time. Likewise the charger for my netbook uses 0.01A when the netbook isn't plugged in, and the netbook itself uses the same amount, so to have my netbook on and sleeping only uses 0.02A (20mA)! So that's something I don't worry about most of the time.

However, my dual-core 64-bit laptop and the charger for it uses almost 0.5A (500mA) when the computer is TOTALLY OFF (weird, or design flaw), and can draw up to 5A when running all-out! So I rarely if ever use it anymore, and only when in full sun and my house batteries are all charged up. I don't even have the big-screen monitor hooked up anymore.

Very long answer, but figured I'd share some of this at some point, and this seemed like a good enough place to do it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Productive day

I went to the car wash and pressure-washed (with soap!) my van. It looks better than it probably ever has. Fits in much more nicely in suburbia now. Maybe the neighbors will be happier with me. It was worth the $6. I may do this more often, And also I might avoid parking directly on the beach; the van gets soaked with spray and salt and gets very dirty-looking. I like it better clean.

Also, I put in two shelves at storage, one big one, and one mezzanine. I threw out 3 large garbage bags of crap I didn't need anymore. It's much more organized, so it'll be easier for me to get in there and clean up paperwork now, remove more stuff, and just be a more useful storage space.

I noticed my transmission grinding sound is back again, but only in 2nd gear. All the other gears are fine.

I also put together some trim items in the cab that I'd taken apart to get easier access for other work. It looks a lot cleaner now.

I've been really enjoying doing maintenance work lately! And home-improvement work, and even just cleaning and organizing. I like it. What's wrong with me? I was never like this, was always a creative type. Now I'm enjoying cleaning, maintaining, and organizing much more than creating.

I located my biodiesel hand-pump at storage, and it drove me crazy how dirty and rusty it is! I felt a compulsion to get a wire brush and some paint thinner out, and start cleaning it off. I had other work to do, so I put the pump in the van and I guess I can clean it off some other time.

I'm loving how my van runs now, how great it sounds. It's got a new low-end hum in its exhaust note, and feels like it has got a lot more power too.

I will very likely take a long trip on the California coast next month. I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

It was empty

I went camping this weekend, and on the way back I climbed up a deserted, winding mountain road. It was fun to throw a 1-ton van around like it was a sportscar!

But as I got to the top of the hill, my transmission (under my feet) felt really really hot again! Oh no! Didn't I just change the fluid and solve that problem?

I found a flat spot near the top of the road, and checked. The transmission dipstick was bone dry! DOH! I put in a quart of fluid and kept on going. It helped a little.

When I got back into town, I checked on a flat spot again. Sure enough, still empty.

The service manual says that it takes 20 quarts! It says I was supposed to put in 14 quarts, then put in a half-pint at a time, with the engine hot and running, run it through all the gears, then check again, until it got to the fill line, which should be 20 quarts. Well, the dipstick is the fill hole, so this is a huge pain, because not only does this take forever, but it takes even longer since the dipstick tube gets coated with fluid and the reading is useless. You have to wait like an additional half hour for the fluid to drain out before the dipstick reading makes any sense.

So, I just cheated, and since there was 13.5 quarts of old fluid that came OUT of the transmission, I just put 13.5 back IN and figured that should be the same. I assumed that there just was more fluid somewhere in the system that I didn't manage to drain out when I cleaned it.

Well, I was wrong. The transmission was dangerously low all along, and I filled it dangerously low with new, clean fluid. That was not smart.

So what I've done is, the slow way: fill it with a half-pint, go drive somewhere wasting fuel to heat the thing up, find a level spot, check it, fill it with another half-pint, go do some more useless driving, then check it again, fill it again, etc.

Slow and wasteful of expensive fuel. But, it works. I've got the transmission full to about halfway up the hot fill range. I'd like to top it up a bit more, but that can wait. It does seem to run a lot better now, and the grinding sound I had for years is gone. Temperature feels fine too.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Massive work completed

I just completed what is probably the most massive and productive batch of maintenance I've ever done on my van. It went very well.

The secret was to do it in recursive, repetitive steps. This is because my van is, as a friend recently put it, "a rolling booby trap". It's true. It really sucks working on this thing. It's got a huge 7.3L diesel engine squashed into an engine compartment designed for a much smaller gas engine. The engine itself is great. But getting to stuff is a nightmare. I really have to take the whole thing apart in order to get to just about anything, and there are goofy design decisions in the way at every step, plus the usual old-vehicle things like frozen bolts and deterioration.

So I learned the technique: first plan carefully, of course, and order any parts I might need in advance. Then take apart the first layer of stuff I need to remove. If necessary, fight all the rusted/frozen/stuck bolts to the death. Then reassemble (using anti-seize!). Wait, and order more parts if needed. Reaarch more. Rest. Go back and re-dismantle what I'd just put back together-- more easily thanks to the anti-sieze and practice-- and go deal with the next layer of stuff to fight. Finally I get to my objective, and I can do the work.

I was lucky enough that the rain FINALLY stopped (hopefully until fall), and even more lucky to have a safe, quiet, centrally-located, long-term parking space to use for working, two weekends in a row. The whole project took 5 days.

So I replaced my fuel pump. And.... the fuel leak is at long last gone! Getting to the fuel pump required removing the exhaust, up-pipes, and turbo, and also loosening the fuel filter housing, as well as the usual rigamarole of removing all the air intake hoses, the doghouse cover, and disconnecting two batteries under the hood and in a separate housing on the frame rail. Yeah. I had to destroy and replace four frozen bolts in order to get to this point.

While I was doing all this, I also replaced turbo pedestal o-rings, fuel supply sleeves, and fuel filter, and I cleaned off an enormous amount of fuel and dirt and melted rubber and who-knows-what-all-else from the V of the engine and all around that area. Basically, I finally made my van biodiesel-ready-- after almost 4 years of driving it on biodiesel. Every rubber object in contact with fuel (including now the diaphragm of the fuel pump) has been replaced with biodiesel-rated Viton. Yes, this is something I should have done after first buying the van, but, hey, I was pretty ignnorant, and emotionally not very healthy then either.

While I was at it, I also retrofitted an inline transmission fluid filter onto the return hose of the transmission cooler.

My headaches appear to be gone. I think it may have been the glasses all along. I probably do need bifocals, but I'd rather spend the money for that than for brain surgery, that's for sure. I have an appointment to get a CAT scan next week so we'll see what's going on for real then.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The improvement continues

Life continues to get better financially, which makes life better for me in every other way possible.

Last month, I made twice as much as I spent! I successfully kept my spending down to about the mininum I've been able to keep it down to sustainably, and yet I managed somehow to make twice that much.

That's a profit. I actually made a profit. For the first time in 10 years, I made more than it costs for me to stay alive.

I cannot express in words what a relief this is. Now I just need to keep this going, every month, for the rest of my life. Well, that doesn't sound like any fun, but that's the reality. And, since it was easier this month than last month, that's encouraging.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Tranny shack

I have noticed that my cab seems a lot hotter lately. I investigated and found a couple random things.

One, the exhaust pipes leading into the turbo had rusted really badly. I scraped the rust off and coated them with peanut oil. But why are they rusting so much? Is the heat coming from some problem that is causing the engine to run too hot? Cooling system is normal, but then the cooling system is SUPPOSED to keep an engine cool that is running too hot. It's still strain on the cooling system if it's running hot. But is it? And why?

Secondly, my transmission fluid level had gotten low. So I topped it up. Maybe that's where the heat is coming from? It seems a bit cooler since I topped it up. I investigated and found that I really should have changed the fluid and filter a long time ago, it's supposed to be 15K miles and I've gone past that, also didn't know when the previous owner had last done that job, if at all. And that might explain the grinding noise I hear in 2nd and 3rd too. So that's a task I've got to do, and I purchased the parts and supplies and will tackle it as soon as the rain stops. There's a leak from the rear of the transmission where it couples to the driveshaft, but that looks like it'd be a huge task to fix, so I'll leave that for later.

The fuel pump is still leaking, and I really have no excuse for not fixing that in the next few weeks, weather permitting.

Maybe my exhaust heat is coming from just having more of a lead foot lately. And, I realized as it is now June and still raining, that perhaps the rusty exhaust is simply from this being an exceptionally wet and rainy winter. More stuff to think about.

Another random van-related problem is that there are sensors which will tell me everything I need to know-- including the transmission fluid temperature, and all kinds of data-- but I can't have access to it because Ford wants $7500 for the documentation of the Mode 6 OBDII codes. Theives. There is software I could buy which would read this stuff, but it is $300. I might end up having to spring for it, just to make my diagnostics easier.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


I am an intuitive kind of guy. I get senses, premonitions, vague musings, and then I investigate them and try to nail them down factually. This drives a friend of mine crazy-- he's very German, and the whole idea of intuition irritates him to no end. But I do have very sharp senses, and, when I do the work to follow up on them with more Germanic, deterministic, scientific kinds of techniques, the intuitions almost always turn out to be right. Usually my intuitions are driven by sounds and feelings, more than visual things.

Suddenly, I got a sense that my metal overhead cabinet lockers were not bolted on right and were going to fall down on my head. I've always heard a lot of clattering and banging around back there when I drive, but I figured it was normal. Suddenly I got a sense it was not normal, it was urgent. So I investigated, and they both seem pretty sturdy.

But while I was at it, I had a look at my wooden kitchen cabinets. And, one of them was not properly bolted in! When I put them in over a year and a half ago, I missed the hat channel (the closest thing I have to studs in the outside walls), and I guess I just figured that was good enough. They were sturdy at the time. But they were never really done right; the screws were just in the plywood, which means they weren't securely bolted in. And, from all the driving around, the metal screws had basically sawed part of the wooden plywood into sawdust, and thus worked themselves loose. The cabinet was flopping around and would have fallen down on my nice counter and sink.

So I unscrewed the screws and started drilling them back in elsewhere, feeling around for the hat channel. It was almost an inch to the right on both sides. Now that thing is in there good, and it ain't going anywhere.

Glad I followed my intuition there. Note to self: if metal isn't fastened to metal in a moving vehicle, it isn't really fastened.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Summer suspicion season

My existence depends on people not paying attention. I live in people's neighborhoods, at their sufferance. As long as they don't notice me, I'm happy and safe. That's usually the case with suburbanites-- they're locked in their houses in front of the TV most of the time. And especially in winter, which is rainy season here in California.

But summer is the season of suburbanites stepping out of their houses for the first time in 9 months, and actually talking to each other. They finally start paying attention to what's going on... including my presence, and suddenly they don't like it.

This happens to me every summer. Last year it really rattled me. This year, I've gotten used to it. The solution that worked last year, and will probably work this year too, is simply to abandon my favorite spots and find new ones.

But when suburban suspicion hits, it really hits me like a punch in the stomach. It's very unsettling. And I've had three of these in the last week! First, in one of my favorite spots, two people were walking some dogs. The dogs were barking like crazy at my van. The man walking the dogs doesn't think it's any big deal. The woman walking with him is wondering why the dogs are freaking out. She asks him whose truck that is. He says, "Hmm, it's a commercial truck, but there's no sidepanel on it, could be anyone's, I don't know", and doesn't give it another thought. She's not buying it though. On the way back, the dogs freak out some more, and she says, "Wow, they keep wanting to look backwards". Yeah, at me, no doubt. I saw no reason to panic-- thanks to the man's utter lack of concern--, but I left the next morning, haven't been back, and won't be until fall, thank you very much.

Then two days later, another favorite spot, I park at like 10pm, and get ready for bed. As is my habit, I usually turn off my headlights and just use parking lights to park. And I hear someone saying, "It drove up with its lights off!" Great. In this case, I left immediately.

Then another couple days later, in a totally new spot in a somewhat more rural area that I rarely visit, I wake up from a nap to hear two neighbors talking to each other, and one guy says, "Something's not right about that truck." Then I hear the other one talking about blocking the street or sidewalk (I was parked same as everyone on that street), how technically something or other, etc. I left an hour later.

What's hard about this is that I feel like I'm getting beaten up, from all sides, and that there is nowhere I can be safe. I need to escape to a place where I'm not hated and feared. It is no fun to be hated and feared.

Last year I went camping, where I could pay for a parking space and be somewhere I had absolutely every right-- I paid for it!-- to be. And that took the anxiety off. And then I started just looking for new parking spots. I think that will work this year too, so off I will go.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The sounds of Crown Victoria

I have really good hearing. This helps me with a lot of things, like overhearing conversations, or diagnosing/recognizing mechanical problems. It's also annoying, as when I'm parked around noisy motors, power tools, etc.

But another useful thing is that I can recognize very clearly the sound of some vehicles. Crown Victorias, for example, with their police-outfitted engines, are very unique-sounding. Whenever I hear one, I know exactly what it is (and it almost always gets my heart rate up too) . A trip over to the window-- or the sound of a radio, or worse, a flashing light, a knock on the door, or a ticket on the windshield-- always confirms it (though I have occasionally confused a taxicab-- still a Crown Vic with the same kind of configuration).

I think the unique thing about those vehicles is the way they idle. They're powerful engines, and always well-maintained, but they sound like they're working hard at idle. They usually have either two alternators or a very heavy-duty alternator, to run all the police-related 12v equipment (laptop, sirens, radios, powerful lights, etc), so that's probably why the engine is pulling hard at idle. The loud whining/grinding of the alternator is an easy giveaway too.

So the past two days, in two completely different jurisdictions, I've heard cops idling near me. Very disconcerting, but apparently they weren't interested in me, which was a huge relief.

Two days ago, in the middle of the night, I heard one idling, for about 15-20 minutes. The cop got out of the car, walked around-- thankfully, not towards me. Then got back in. No radio sounds, no lights. I didn't hear the cop drive off, but all of a sudden the sound was gone. Huh? I went to the window and looked around-- nobody around. Wow, he drove off fast, and cleanly and SMOOTHLY too, no screeching tires. Just vaporized, from idling to gone in an instant. Then a few minutes later, off in the distance, I hear a siren, and some very serious guy talking at someone through a megaphone. Hmm, well maybe the cop was sitting around doing paperwork, or getting instructions, or something. Sounds like he got whomever he was looking for. I looked in the morning, and no tickets on my windsheild, no "friendly notices", nothing. So that was good.

Yesterday, in broad daylight, in a totally different city, I hear the same sound. This time I go right to the window, and sure enough, the cop is right there acrooss the street. He's parked on the opposite side of the street, which is a very good sign-- when they are after you they park behind you, so if you drive off they can run after you, or directly in front blocking you, or both. The cop doesn't get out of the car. About 20 minutes later, he drives off. Hmm, another paperwork moment? I have no idea.

I'm pretty sure none of them are interested in me or has any reason to be. I don't worry nearly as much as I used to, now that I have a bit more understanding of what they're about and what motivates them.

A few months ago I was parked in a huge shopping mall parking lot with 4 cop cars parked right next to me-- all of them hanging out-- while I was doing the same-- visiting with a friend in here--, and I had no fear at all, just said my goodbyes after a while and then drove off. They either didn't know or didn't care that I was there-- just another delivery truck serving one of the businesses in the mall.

So this cops-idling-around-me thing is probably coincidence, but if it keeps going on, then I'll have to try to figure out what's up and why.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Facing the obvious

I've learned in recent years, and especially in the last one, that most of my problems (indeed, most of almost everyone's problems) are caused by failing to face the obvious.

Facing the obvious is a surprisingly un-obvious thing to do. Maybe because it's scary, maybe because it doesn't fit preconceived notions, maybe because it has implications that are unpleasant, or merely just unexpected.

But I now find it fun to face the obvious, because it almost always means finding solutions. And solutions make life better. So I'm motivated.

It has been very liberating to face the obvious fact that I needed to find work that paid better than what I had been doing. I did, and life is better.

Today, I faced another obvious fact: my solar electrical system-- the one on which I spent a tremendous amount of money, is crucially important to my survival and my livelihood, and has basically been keeping me alive for 4 years-- is completely wrong.

I have 400Ah of battery. I have a solar panel array that produces 215W of power in blazing sunlight at noon in summertime at lower latitudes (and a lot less here, at all other times, and none at night). At 12v, that's 17A, best case. The panels also go through a controller that can only push out 15A, max. Realistically, in winter it's maybe 5-10 amps for a couple hours a day. I have a nice plug-in 110V charger that can put out 75A at a go, but I don't have much opportunity to plug it in.

So, I don't really even have to do the math on this. The solar charger is totally unable to charge these batteries enough to keep them from sulfating (i.e., getting destroyed). It just doesn't put out enough amps. And I wasn't able to plug in to the 110V charger often enough to compensate for that.

This has been going on for years. I ran a laptop computer and LCD monitor for a year which used up way too many amps. Then I fixed that by getting a netbook, but I went years without really ever fully charging the batteries up from the year they were undercharged. Then I ran a 4A refrigerator for most of this past summer and fall. I didn't even hook the 110V 75A charger up until last fall, and I haven't been able to use it much at all. I now run a refrigerator off of this system, and even though it uses only 10Ah a day, that's still a lot of strain on an already-weakened battery. Finally, this winter has been exceptionally dark and rainy, and again I didn't use the 110V charger much. The bleak truth is that I have probably already destroyed my very expensive batteries-- because they were too big for the system.

In fact, the batteries were so huge, that it's taken years for them to degrade to the point where I can even notice they're degraded. But they are, and it's time to face it.

That's not very fun. But facing it is. I screwed up; it happens. I built the system before I understood what I was doing, and it shows.

Now that I know this, I can buy new batteries, and they should be about 1/2 the capacity I have now-- or 1/4 the capacity if I'm just going to charge them off of solar. That'll be a lot cheaper, and it will free up a lot of storage space (and GVWR weight).

Or, I could put in a large battery bank like I have now, but then I'd have to plug in more often. Or I can do some combination thereof: have a small bank to run just off of solar, and thrash that one every day, but keep a large one too that I plug in to keep charged-- just for emergencies--, and switch between them as needed.

I also can do nothing for a while too. This isn't really urgent, and I can probably limp along with these ruined batteries for as long as a year, maybe more. I can just keep an eye on the voltages.

But information is power. And the kind of information that comes from facing the obvious, is, I think, the most powerful kind.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Clip Clop

I notice sounds. A lot. My whole world is made of sound, and always has. This often irritates me to no end, as in when I'm in a city environment, or around a lot fo machines, or in a noisy suburb with the lawmowers, weed-whackers, chainsaws, band-saws, and leaf blowers going. It also is useful-- though often unsettling too-- when isolating problems with my van. I can hear tiny bearing noises, suspension noises, wheel and differential and transmission noises, etc. I need to be alone and I need quiet. This has a lot to do with why I'm a vandweller. It also has a lot to do with why I spent so much time insulating and soundproofing my van.

But my attention to sound is also helpful when listening to what's going on outside the van. I don't have windows, and my couple fish-eye viewholes don't often give a lot of detail, plus, I have to get up and walk over to them in order to see out. Also, in rain or fog, they get too blurry to be useful. But I can hear better than most folks. So I often know what is going on around me by sound. I can usually tell what kind of car, what kind of people, what mood they're in, what they're up to, all kinds of details, etc.

This morning, I was parked in a rural area, but a fairly upscale one which relies heavily on tourism. And I hear some people-- rich white older people, mostly-- parking next to me and blathering at each other, while making clip-clop sounds. Wha? Horses? No, not horses, I don't hear the sound of horses breathing or chewing or what not, and the clip-clop was different, only two at a time not four. Humans with hooves? No, while I am a fan of Pan, I doubt he is a tourist. Finally I get up and look out the peepholes, and I see people with bright flaming-yellow flourescent jackets. Oh, duh, of course: bicyclists. Yep, they have helmets too. The clip-clop sound was people walking around on their clip bike shoes!

I am feeling fantastic right now because I've found a way to make enough money doing computer-related stuff this month to meet my expenses, and even get ahead a bit, in only a few weeks of work.

This is a big deal, really. I've gotten ahead, for the first time in years. I've made it.

It was hard work-- 80 hour weeks, to be sure-- but not any harder than I've worked for myself for no pay at all on my own projects (home improvement, fixing my van, arts projects, etc.). I am indeed a brutal workaholic when I get onto a project. Now it looks like I've found at least one customer who values that talent/disease enough to pay me for it. It is a bit sad that I've abandoned my vocation in order to obtain this success, but, you know, homeboy's gotta eat.

So, right now, I feel I am close to obtaining-- or maybe have already obtained, on a provisional basis for one month at least-- vandweller success: to only have to work a few weeks out of the month, and have plenty of time and money left over to have a rich and wonderful and stress-free life. Now the task is to see if I can keep this up sustainably, month-after-month, over time.

I think the challenge will be to keep the income coming, while keeping the expenses from growing. A new phase in the journey: not finding a solution, but keeping it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Been busy over here

I've been extraordinarily busy lately. Which, after scanning past posts, means I've solved my motivation problem! The experiments have worked. Muaa hahahah haaaa.

Speaking of experiments, one of the productive things I did was being lucky enough to have someone give me an old Android G1. I love this thing. I ditched my Sprint USB EDGE modem and data-only service, and my old 7-11 SpeakOut prepaid phone, and got a T-Mobile account with 500 mins voice (I use maybe 100-200 a month, not a talker here), unlimited text (which I use a lot), and 2GB data (which the plan says "unlimited" in some places, but on the contract it says 2GB, I guess no more unlimited)... all for LESS than what I was paying Sprint for just data. Perfect! I am HAPPY. I'm online, my phone is now my data modem, I have working phone service (no more SIP with lousy reception), bluetooth headset for taking calls while doing other things, and I have a Linux box in the palm of my hand, which I've rooted and hacked and now running CyanoGenMod on.

The only problem is reception in some of the coastal areas I love to stay in. It sucks a lot. My van, since putting in all this insulation, is basically a Faraday cage. Waves don't get in or out: that includes both sound waves (which I don't want!) and microwaves (which I DO want!). I'd just put an antenna on the roof (which is what I did for WiFi years ago), but this phone also has no external antenna connection.

The only place I have any kind of cell reception is right underneath my vent fan in the roof. Seriously. Standing with my arm raised up over my head into the well of the vent is not conducive to phone calls or internet access.

So I rigged up what I'm calling The Android Jock Strap. It is several velcro cable ties, duct-taped into an underwear-like configuration, leaving a space in the bottom for the USB connection. And I have hung this for the time being from the vent open/close knob (I'll have to find a better place to hang it). It looks ridiculous; I'll have to post a picture of it.

And, it works! I'm posting this from an area which had no reception at all up until a few minutes ago when I put it up and tried it out.

Ah, yes, Duct Tape. It's like The Force: it's everywhere, and it binds the universe together.

One of the main things I'm enjoy about this phone is a little app called Astrid, which is a to-do manager. I love it very much. I put my priorities in there, and I look at it, and they go wherever I go so I have a reminder, and I do my priorities, and I get them done. Then I have tons of time to work on other things. It is easy enough to enter items that I can put important things in quickly, but it's time-consuming enough to enter the items so that I don't make huge lists of not-really-important stuff. Also, the screen is small so it encourages me to not clutter it up with too many meaningless action items. Just the big stuff, that's all.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Well that was kinda gross

For the last 3 months I've been suffering with chronic diarrheah. It was unpleasant. I couldn't figure out what was causing it. I tried changing my diet, habits, and nothing helped.

Finally I decided to clean out my cleaning-water storage bottle. See, I keep my cleaning water in a 1-gal (too small; I need to get a larger one) bottle under my sink, with a 1/8" hose that goes up to a standard spray-bottle sprayer handle. That's how I wash stuff in my sink. I also have a funnel and a tube going down to the bottle, so I can refill it without having to climb around under there to remove it and rethread the hose and checkvalve, etc.

Well it was disgusting. The submerged part of the fill hose was black with bacteria, and the bottom of it had a quarter-inch layer of dust and sediment and who-knows-what. So I dismantled it, cleaned it out, put in fresh water, and put a couple drops of bleach in there just in case.

And, after a few days, finally, my stomach is back to normal again.

I had been poisoning myself with some kind of bacteria. I didn't think it mattered much since I just used the water to spray things to clean it, and never used it for drinking or cooking (I have a separate 5-gal Arrhowhead bottle for that), but I guess the residue of this on my dishes, bowls, and pots and pans, was enough to botch my intestines in a big way.

Glad that's done with!