panoply of updates, part 2

More updates. I had planned to post this immediately after a panoply of updates (part 1) but I got distracted by the arrival of really large book. Perhaps you heard of it? Harry Potter and the Weekend of Accomplishing Absolutely Nothing?

The Return of the Cold-Brewed Coffee

My iPhone post was exceptionally popular the week I posted it, what with frenzy being at its peak just before the phone was released. But then as I watched my stats I noticed something funny: there was another post that was consistently getting better hits. A post I wrote almost exactly two years ago about cold-brewed coffee was by far the most popular post on this blog, even more popular than the iPhone post.

What the hell? I thought. It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on: the New York Times had done an article about cold-brewed coffee, and it had sparked a fad. Suddenly my review was in great demand from the curious. (the same thing happened when I wrote about no-knead bread; perhaps if I want to be a more popular blogger I should just always write about what the New York Times writes about.)

I panned cold-brew coffee in that original post. I had nothing good to say about it. “Tastes like ass” was the term I used, and I stand by that assertion. (“assertion,” ha ha ha. I’m sorry. I am 12.) I have a bunch of friends who have glommed onto the fad recently and they insist that my method was flawed, that you need to make smaller amounts than the full pound at a time I was making, and you don’t need to dilute it.

I am still dubious. But perhaps I will try it just to update that post and keep my stats up.

Death and Camping

An update for the happy camper (1 and 2)

A couple weekends back we drove out to the Sierras for the Death Ride, one of Eric’s two big bicycle events of the year. I’ve written about the Death Ride before, here and here. Eric wrote up his Death Ride story on his blog.

Normally for the death ride we get a motel room some distance from the ride, wake up at 3AM, and drive in a panic for an hour to the start of the ride in hopes of finding a good parking spot. At 5:30AM when Eric leaves I go back to sleep in the back of the car and wait for him to get back.

This year we have the VW camper van. This year we could camp along with a zillion other bicyclists in the park next to the start line. This year there would be no parking spot worry. And best of all, we could sleep in. All the way through to 4AM, when the Death Ride organizers turned the loudspeakers on, put the volume up to 11 and woke us all up with rousing music. The Mission Impossible theme. Appropriate.

This was our first big camping experience with the Eurovan and I am happy to proclaim it a success, mostly. On the one hand, sleeping in the poptop is comfortable and spacious. The windows in the side of the poptop are right at eye-height, which means as you’re dozing off in the wilderness you can look out at the stars (and the night sky in the sierras without any urban light pollution: tremendous). On the other hand given that the poptop is canvas it is very noisy up there. If you’re not used to a lot of noise — and we’re not, we live in the country — normal outdoorsy noise from other people can keep you up at night. We didn’t get a lot of sleep. I’m thinking earplugs.

Hanging out in the Eurovan is awesome. All the windows have curtains and there are accessory curtains for the windshield so you can make it entirely private if you, um, want to do private things. With all the doors and windows open it’s airy and comfortable, and sitting on the rear bench seat with a lemon soda out of the fridge and a bowl of blueberries on the table, reading a book, is almost decadent.

On the other hand if you really want to have the genuine sweaty and uncomfortable camping experience you can shut all the windows and does get really hot and stuffy inside fairly quickly. If you’re really lucky you can trap a couple really angry yellowjackets inside. Your choice.

what a cool job

I’m not currently looking for tech writing work, but I keep my eye on the job listings just to see what kind of jobs are out there. And this posting just appeared out on craigslist:

Technical Publications Manager – Automotive

Tesla Motors is currently seeking a Technical Publications Manager for our After Sales Operations division (ASO).

The Technical Publications Manager is responsible for the creation, printing and distribution of all external technical documentation associated with Tesla cars. These include but are not limited to: Owners Manual, Service Manual, Flat Rate Manual, Parts Manual, Circuit Diagrams, and Technical Bulletins.

Tesla Motors is the company here in the bay area that is making high performance electric cars. Their first car is mighty darn pretty.


Writing manuals for an electric car would certainly be way more hella fun than writing the same old API documentation (setCommandOperation: set the operation for the command. zzzzz). Unfortunately, this is a job for a tech pubs manager. As a manager you get to make sure other people have all the fun while reserving the pain for yourself. I suck very badly at that.

Perhaps the future Tesla tech pubs manager will need a tech writer contractor. Hint hint.

the happy camper (2)

In the previous installment of this elaborate justification, a VW bus had followed us home.

big blue camper van

This is not the prototypical 60’s hippie microbus. For example, it was made in this century, and has things like airbags and a decent engine. Volkswagen continued to make this vehicle — in different configurations, and renaming it to the Vanagon, and then the Eurovan — all the way up through 2003, and in fact they are still making them in Europe. (They call them “multivan” there. Please resist making nerdy Fifth Element joke). But they stopped importing them to the United States a few years back for of lack of interest. Eurovans don’t really fit well into the typical American car lineup: they don’t compete well with normal minivans because they’re big, boxy and they don’t handle all that well, and they don’t compete well with commercial vans because they’re too nice inside. It didn’t help that when they were new they were also way too expensive.

Given all the changes over the years there really isn’t much hippie left in the Eurovan anymore, although there are still plenty of them around in hippie towns like Santa Cruz, which is where we found this one (through craigslist. of course). Ours is a 2002 Eurovan, and is the “Weekender” model, which means it is set up for casual camping. Permit me to show you around (some of this is duplication of what I wrote on flickr already):

big blue van

Yes, it is very very blue. We have a thing for blue cars. Note the blue truck right behind it.

There are hippie stickers on the windows which will have to come off. I’ve been debating painting skulls on the back to counteract the hippie effect.

come on in

The van seats seven. Two in front, two rear-facing seats, and a big bench seat in the back. I suppose you could stack a few more people up on the floor if you had to. All the seats are way comfortable. The folded up rear passenger seat comes out easily. All the others will come out with a little more work. With the seats out it’ll fit a motorcycle with no problem.

big rear hatch

This is a huge gaping maw of a back hatch. The shelf will hold about ten bags of groceries, and there is tons of storage underneath. The shelf itself lifts right out; Eric is going to fabricate some bike racks so that we can put bicycles sideways in back here. He thinks he can fit two bikes in, minus the front wheels.

The rear seat folds forward should we feel suddenly compelled to buy 4×8 sheets of plywood. (you never know. the space station might need a patch).

And more cupholders

There are cupholders and accessory power plugs all over this van. One would not want to have to reach very far to get to your beer or plug in your computer, after all.

Or for parties

Speaking of beer, there is a little fridge under this seat. The fridge and all the accessory plugs are driven by a separate battery, so you don’t drain the car running your stuff. (tidbit: the manual for the refrigerator is in german, and they call it Die Kuhlbox. From now on all refrigerators shall be Die Kuhlboxes.)

There’s also a little table, and lights, a separate heating system for the back, and curtains. Basically: it’s a small studio apartment on wheels.


This is the best part of the Weekender model Eurovan: the poptop roof. There’s a real bed up here, a mattress and everything. You can also prop the roof of the van into the poptop when it’s up, which lets you stand upright inside the van.

The bench seat in the van itself also pulls forward and completely flat — you can sleep two up in the poptop and two down below. In fact come to think of it I once had a studio apartment that was smaller than this van.

How does it drive? Well, a sports car it ain’t. It is a big, boxy, heavy van. The engine is a 2.8 liter VR6 with 200HP. It is tuned for torque, which means it can get out of its own way but it won’t really beat much of anything in a quarter mile run. On our twisty bumpy road it grips just fine but it’s not all that happy. It rattles a lot. On town roads or on the freeway it smoothes out and has no issues; it feels like just a large, slow, car. Maneuvering it around in parking lots is somewhat challenging; ironically it is much easier to see the back thanks to enormous mirrors and the square back end than it is to see the front which is pretty much invisible below the windshield.

Now we just have to decide where to go. Somehow the trip ten miles into town for breakfast once a week now seems somewhat…limiting.

the happy camper

A few years back we thought, maybe we should buy an RV.

Contrary to what you are thinking we have neither taken leave of our senses nor have we suddenly aged 40 years. We have no intentions of retiring early, selling the house, and spending the rest of our lives driving between the Koa Kampgrounds.

But we are the sort of people for whom there is no better vacation than to just point the car in some random direction and go out and explore for a couple weeks. A big stack of AAA maps and a full tank of gas: all we really need for big fun. An RV would mean we could go farther out without having to think, OK, time to go look for a motel room. We would be carrying our motel room with us.

We’re also the sort of people who occasionally load up the truck with bicycles or motorcycles and drive out to events or gatherings where typically there is camping. We can camp, sort of, in our current car, if you fold the seats down and don’t mind getting jabbed in the back by a tie-down. But it’s kind of tight. Not in the good kind of way. More in the ow you’re on my arm kind of way. There’s not a lot of room for both people and stuff in the car, and definitely not people and stuff and bicycles, or people and stuff and motorcycles and friends.

So we thought, hey, an RV.

But there are problems with RVs and other travel-type vehicles. Trailers of all sorts are difficult to maneuver and you have to go tediously slow on the highway when you drive them. Campers are top-heavy and hard to get on and off the truck. Full RVs are usable and comfortable but they’re expensive and…well, full RVs are just ugly. Insanely ugly. Good lord, are they ugly.

RV designers seem to be trapped in this strange time warp, a sort of Eisenhower-meets-Nixon design sensibility. Not the midcentury design that is cool and retro these days; it’s more the decor and panelling and textures you find in the suburban homes of old people who die alone and who are eaten by their cat. RV design gives me the willies.

And then there are the exteriors. In addition to a barge-like shape, RVs all seem to be decorated on the outside with some kind of inexplicable ocean theme, with blues and aquas and waves and names with “wind” and “foam” and “surf” in them. I’m not quite sure of the intention here. When I think of driving an RV I imagine other marine themes, for example, “I am driving a humpback whale,” or “the tide comes in faster than this vehicle climbs this hill.”

They do make a sort of RV called a Fun Mover which is not so bad, and happens to be an appropriate RV for our chosen lifestyle. With the Fun Mover, instead of the normal RV back full of bathroom or bed or widescreen TV they have an empty space and a big panel door that folds down into a ramp. They make them that way so that you can load up your ATVs or your motorcycles and go out with your RV into the unspoiled wilderness and, um, spoil it. And the RV manufacturers are, indeed, much better at designing the interiors of Fun Movers for people not on social security, or at least designing them for people like us — solvent and spoiled GenXers who seem to believe we have fun we need to move. They are less mobile suburban ranch homes than they are mobile garages. “Look,” said Eric, once, thrusting an RV magazine at me. In the magazine there was a picture of a Fun Mover, open in the back. “They’ve covered the ENTIRE INTERIOR WITH DIAMOND PLATE.” Now that was one cool RV.

Alas, Fun Mover exteriors still bear a strong resemblance to large oceangoing mammals.

At this point you will brightly point out the Airstream. Airstreams do have the significant advantage of being wholly not ugly. I actually know a few people who own Airstreams enough that it almost qualifies as an Airstream community. My sister Sharon has an airstream she actually lives in and drives back and forth to school. It is fabulous. She bought it for like $150, it is totally original, and for that we hate her. Jacob has an airstream he is restoring. Dori and Kathy have Airstreams they use as offices. I will point out however that airstreams are trailers and thus crossed off the list, and it would be tough to stuff a motorcycle through the door of an airstream.

After dithering about it for a while we were eventually dissuaded from the RV idea by a few significant issues besides the ugly part. First of all, we own way too many vehicles already. We have kind of a vehicle problem. There’s this thing? Where you have a big garage and a barn? Suddenly you find this really great deal on, well, anything, on craigslist? Cars, trucks, motorcycles, farm equipment, former soviet weaponry, submarines, space stations, it’s all just too cool and it’s cheap so you have to have it? We have this problem. Junk fills up the available space. It just happens. I can’t explain it.

Secondly, although we drive a whole lot, we don’t actually camp very much. Not much at all. Maybe once or sometimes twice a year. Most of the time we just find a motel at the end of the day. For a while we had this theory that if we bought a camper, we would go camping more often. This is the same sort of magical thinking that leads one to believe that if you sign up for a gym membership, you will go to the gym. Or that if you own a space station, you will of course instantly become an astronaut.

Then there is the RV gallons-per-mile problem which needs no further explanation.

But then in the last year so things changed. Eric has been doing more bicycle racing, and we’ve been traveling a lot more to farther away places. And we’ve been thinking in general of downsizing our vehicle collection, trading down the big vehicles from the cheap-gas-large-car-dotcom-exuberance era and getting smaller cars and fewer of them. So the thought of some kind of vehicle we could travel and camp in was becoming more appealing. Maybe not an RV. Maybe something smaller, maybe a camper or a trailer or…or…

Maybe a bus. A VW bus.

big blue camper van

(see Part 2)

you are now driving war

From a post on Eric Rescorla’s Educated Guesswork I found out The Truth About Cars blog, an auto blog that is written by completely insane people who are nuts for cars. Eric points specifically to this review of the Audi RS4 (a super-hot sedan), and I’m going to quote the same parts he did because it’s JUST AWESOME.

Audi used every trick in the playbook to get the RS4 — with 58% of its weight over the front wheels — to handle near-on perfectly. Credit the DRC (Dynamic Ride Control) which hydraulically links the diagonal suspension bits to each other. As the front wheels read the road, the rear shocks preemptively (and correctly) react. This setup works so well the WRC just banned it. The engineers also made sure every body panel in front of the doors is composed of kilogram saving aluminum. And the 19′ Pirellis are fantastic. While the initial turn in isn’t as effortless and eager as say an EVO, this two-ton all-wheel driver can safely carry more speed through a corner than you can handle. After the apex, the RS4 can blast sideways with
such force that you will swear you are piloting violence.

And that’s before you push the innocuous little button marked ‘S.’ Normally, the RS4 is faster than whatever car you are driving next to, sounds bonkers and has a devastatingly punishing ride. Push the button though, and three things happen. First, the throttle control is
remapped so that the rev-happy mill will crank faster with less input. Second, valves open in the mufflers changing the sound from Howard Dean’s scream to Gunnery Sgt. Hartman showing Joker his war face. Lastly, the shocks get firmer and the ride goes from mercilessly
painful to f-you. I absolutely love it. Forget violence, you are now driving war.

Wow. Just. Wow.

confessions of a car salesman

I am kind of halfheartedly shopping for a new car. I say halfheartedly because there are few activities on this earth I hate more than buying a car. The very thought of having to set foot in the vicinity of a car dealership makes me cry piteously, break out in a rash, get a migraine, see bats, hear voices, and have to go lie down for a while. In fact I can feel a headache coming on just writing about it here. What? Did you see that?

Why can’t you buy a car on yet? That’s what I really want., which is a very excellent site and very helpful in giving me lots of information about cars so that I won’t cry so much when I do have to travel within some distance of a car dealership, sent one of their reporters out to be a car salesman for a while. He worked at a traditional high-pressure sales lot and a no-haggle lot. And after reading this if I had any hope that that car dealerships were not the most miserable places on earth I’m well disabused of that notion. Its good, albeit horrifying, reading.