Where have all the megabytes gone?

Modern tech is great.  Cellular networks and the Internet are like oxygen to us frequent travelers, especially people like me who work from the road.  I couldn’t do what I do without those two technologies in my Airstream.

The really amazing part of this is how quickly the capabilities of mobile tech improve. In 2003 we had no mobile Internet at all.  You had to find public wifi or haul a satellite dish around.  In 2005 we got one of the first cellular Internet data boxes on the market, as a loaner for evaluation.  It cost $3,000 and was the size of a dictionary.  When I went to rallies everyone wanted to borrow the signal.

Just a decade later we have devices the size of a pack of gum that give us Internet at speeds literally thousands of times faster.  We talk to our phones and think it’s no big deal that an artificial intelligence answers with a cogent response. And every serious Airstream traveler I meet has some form of this tech, so nobody thinks it’s worth borrowing anymore.

But there’s a big hairy downside to this, which is increased complexity.  If you don’t understand the implications of the new tech as it arrives—and some technological update arrives almost every day—you’re going to eventually get caught at the losing end of something you never saw coming.

I’m pretty tech savvy and it still happens to me regularly.  Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, and a million other players are constantly coming up with new stuff to make my life better, and most of the time it does, but at the same time it’s like someone changed the dance floor to an ice rink in mid-step.

Well, I can handle tech stuff, given some time. The human element is trickier. I’ll give you an example.

When we got on the road last May I noticed an amazing spike in the amount of data we were using.  We have a Verizon Jetpack like many other people, and I had bumped up the data allowance to 24 gigabytes (gb) per month, which is a lot.  The previous year we had gotten by on 6-8 gb per month, so I was feeling pretty smug about how we’d never have to worry about data usage again.

Strangely, before we even got to Alumapalooza in Ohio, half of our data allowance was gone.  The rest disappeared by the end of the billing cycle. I queried my fellow travelers but they denied responsibility.  I re-iterated the importance of not watching YouTube or other videos, and avoiding sites where video ads automatically load.

I pointed the finger particularly hard at Emma, since she’s a known bandwidth hog. Many teenagers these days use the Internet as a hangout, constantly interacting on social media, chat rooms, forums, even shared Google Docs—and Emma in particular is famous for having twenty to thirty tabs open simultaneously on her browser.  Her defense has always been that she avoids videos and doesn’t leave web pages open that might automatically refresh themselves (or have ads that refresh).

So I dug into the tech problem.  First, I made sure nobody else was using our wifi.  I’ve used the name “Airstream Life” for the wifi ID for years and it was possible a few other people had devices that would log onto our wifi automatically when they were nearby.

I also looked at usage logs, changed the password, checked all the laptops for applications that would automatically update themselves, and turned off or limited cloud services that automatically sync data (like iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.)

What I found is a deck stacked against RVers who use cellular hotspots like Verizon Jetpack/Mifi devices.  There are many ways your laptop can be using data when you don’t know about it.  Some applications will automatically send data reports, synchronize files, or update themselves unless specifically told not to.  The problem here is that you’ve got to find them all.  There is no single setting that takes care of this, so the job requires a methodical approach, checking each application and service individually.

The other problem is that Apple has set up mobile operating system to update certain things when the phone or tablet is connected to wifi.  This means when your iPhone or iPad is sharing your hotspot, they think they have unlimited data and they begin to use it as such. So it’s a good idea to tell your iDevices to “forget” your hotspot.

I did all that and it didn’t help.

Last Friday Verizon notified me that 18 gb of our data plan had been eaten up by the Mifi in just two weeks.  At that rate I would run out of data in a week or so, and be unable to work, so this was serious.  I started digging through the computers, iPad and iPhones again in a frantic search for a clue as to where the data was going.

On Monday, Verizon informed me that another 4 gb had disappeared over the weekend.  I started physically turning off the Mifi whenever I wasn’t using it, but now the crisis I had feared was upon me.  I spent most of Monday at Panera Bread, nursing a chai tea latte and using their free wifi.

Then I found a useful app which helped me identify the problem.  It’s called Bandwidth+ and it’s free to Mac users on the App Store for free.  I highly recommend it.

Bandwidth app

It just sits in the top toolbar and shows you how much data you’ve used since reset.

I put Bandwidth+ on all the laptops this morning, and checked a few hours later. In four hours  … (wait a second.  Let me put that into Daddy-speak) … in four hours of working my fingers to the bone trying to provide a living for my family and put food on the table and save for a college education for my beloved daughter,  I used a grand total of 100 mb.  That’s not a lot.

Emma woke up at the crack of 10:30 a.m., promptly got on her laptop to check in on her virtual world, and in one hour she used 145 mb. In other words, she was consuming data at a rate almost six times as fast as her under-appreciated, hard-working Dad.

I also looked through the data usage logs with Verizon tech support and together we found several evenings between 9 pm and midnight when our usage exceeded two gigabytes.  (A gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes.)  That’s like eating the entire buffet table at a Las Vegas casino. You could stream a feature-length movie with two gigabytes.  Funny thing, though: those nights I wasn’t working late.

So the problem seems to be identified:  TEENAGER.

At this point there was only way to deal with the problem.  I bought another 6 gb from Verizon to get through the rest of the billing period and changed the wifi password.  If you are parked to an Airstream on the west coast sometime this month and you see a wifi signal called “Sorry Emma”, well, you’ll know why.

Modern day problems.  They’re different, but in the end, they’re the same.

Temporary Bachelor Man strikes again

Temporary Bachelor ManRight now he is lurking in his secret lair, but soon that superhero of summer, Temporary Bachelor Man will appear.

It has been too long since he donned the Mighty Vest Of Masculinity, slipped on the Sacred Sunglasses Of Limited Eyesight (e.g., ne-cherchez-pas-la-femme), lifted the Flaming Torch Of Bachelor Cooking, and wore the all-powerful Cuffs Of Household Servitude.

Each summer I take a few weeks away from the Airstream to fly back down to southern Arizona and bake in the heat, solo. It’s a great opportunity for me to get serious projects done, since there’s nobody else here and little going on to distract me.

This means I tend to put my head down and tackle those projects that have accumulated in the first half of the year. It’s much like hacking away at an overgrown kudzu in the back yard, except it’s in my brain. After a few weeks, things are much clearer and the mental constipation that comes from having too much unfinished business is gone.

But there’s a real risk of being over-focused.  I could easily end up resembling Howard Hughes in his final days cooped up in his penthouse at the Xanadu Hotel.  I get so engaged with my projects that it is easy to forgo the niceties of shaving, eating, and engaging with humanity.

That’s the reason for TBM.  His heroic character inspires me to escape laptop computer bondage once in a while, and go explore Tucson for those little details of the city that I would miss in the busier snowbird season. TBM is a mighty tester of local restaurants and food trucks, prowler of odd corners and back streets of Tucson, and watcher of movies featuring absurd testosterone.

In other words, there’s nothing like a little deprivation to make you appreciate what you have.  “Nothing going on” means there’s reason to go digging a little deeper, which means just going out and poking around until something (a historic building, a cultural event, a rattlesnake) emerges.

Tucson is a curious city and most people miss that fact. It’s the only city I’ve ever seen that has dirt roads and horse ranches right in the middle of everything. It has all kinds of strange and historic neighborhoods that are so cut off by latter-day road projects that you almost can’t get to them without knowing the secret route. In a country driven by chain-store development, the illogical corners and little urban mysteries are exactly what I like about the place.

Last Sunday I picked up my buddy Nate for a day of cruising the parts of inner Tucson that we had no business visiting, looking for interesting things. It was perfect weather for it: 107 degrees and blazing sunshine ensure that very few other people will be out, so whenever we found something worth photographing we could simply stop the car in the middle of the road and take our time. It was a uniquely Tucsonian thing to do, and given a liter of water per person for a half-day, I would recommend it to any urban explorer.

One easy aspect of Tucson to explore is food.  For such a small city, Tucson has a remarkable range of cuisine. I don’t know why. Restaurants keep popping up and disappearing, so much that I once calculated I could visit a different restaurant five days a week for a year.

Sadly, half of them would be hamburger places. I have nothing against hamburgers but I don’t know why we need McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, Five Guys, In’n’Out, Whataburger, Smashburger, Monkey Burger, Blake’s Lotaburger, Zinburger, Freddy’s, Fuddruckers, Culver’s, Diablo Burger, Graze Premium, All American Burger, and many other local spots.  They’re mostly good, but a dozen or so chains selling essentially the same product is not the definition of “variety”.  Hamburger joints are second only in number to the Mexican restaurants, but since we are only 70 miles from Mexico I can understand better why those are plentiful.

One of my TBM goals this year is to explore new and different local restaurants.  I think the only way to know if you’ll like a place is to actually eat there.  Yelp, in my opinion, is worse than useless.  Too many of the reviews seem to be from whiny people talking mostly about themselves and complaining in a most disgusting tone of entitlement about how the waiter didn’t bring their ice water fast enough.  I have found several real gems of restaurants that I love, and every single one of them is panned mercilessly by the self-absorbed Yelpers, people who think Cajun cooking comes with red sauce because that’s what they get at the mall Food Court.

Whoops, did I just go off on a rant there?  I was going to say that my prowl with Nate ended up at a local Indian cafe and market, which wasn’t bad at all for a late lunch, and that seemed like an excellent reward for our efforts. My goal therefore, for the two weeks I have left as TBM, will be to explore other local hidden restaurants as frequently as I can.

Now, I won’t be telling you about what I find unless you come to Tucson. In our new world of crowd-sourced information, there’s benefit to keeping a few things quiet. A quick way to ruin a good local attraction is to tell the world about it. But I mention this as a suggestion to you.  If you live in, or near a place that you have never really fully explored, perhaps it’s time to do so.

By this I mean walking or driving through the places you have never had reason to go to, just to see what’s there.  Walk along the river that runs through your city (or in our case, the dry washes). Check out that bike path, even if you have to do it on foot.  Try a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and banter with the waitress. Waltz into that bookstore in the old brick building. Make a list of odd places you’ve seen and start ticking them off, one by one.

Then you’ll have adopted the heroic and expansive attitude of Temporary Bachelor Man, Discoverer of the Unexpected. It’s just like traveling in the Airstream, only very very local.  So I predict you’ll be surprised and somewhat invigorated by whatever you find.

What’s my old watch worth?

Just now I was winding a watch.  Remember doing that?  Decades ago we all had mechanical watches, and spending a few seconds every day casually winding the little crown was just something you did without thinking much about it.

1958 Sputnik watchI like the little break that winding a watch requires.  Like pausing to scratch an itch, or sneeze, or tie your shoes, it’s just a tiny moment when you aren’t expected to do anything else, and it buys you a fraction of the day that’s all your own.

That might seem very trite but consider that tennis champ John McEnroe used shoe-tying very effectively to throw off his opponents and grab a mini-break during intense matches.  Every moment counts, and some can be made to count more than others.

In the case of this watch, which happens to be a Soviet “Sputnik” (Спутник) watch made in 1958, there’s a comforting little zik-zik sound that I like to hear. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because it reminds me that the watch is a fragment of history in itself, a commemorative item made in the First Moscow Watch Factory near the peak of the Soviet Union.  Just knowing that tickles me.

Perhaps it’s simpler than that.  I have to admit I like to see the little Sputnik dial rotating as the seconds tick by.

The ticking reminds me that this is an entirely mechanical device—no transistors, chips, battery, LCD display—made from tiny bits of geared metal and even tinier synthetic ruby bearings, lightly lubricated by oil, designed in the slide rule era, and powered by a few seconds of zik-zik every day. Such devices are virtually unknown and unappreciated by most people born in the 21st century, but since they still work (in many cases far better than their modern equivalents) I think we should all remember them.

I’ve written before about my penchant for vintage devices, which seems to have gotten more acute as I’ve grown older. It’s not nostalgia; most of the mechanical things we have were designed and obsolete before I was born.  I don’t recall my mother having a 1948 Mixmaster, but I love the one Eleanor inherited from her father.  My fascination is probably because of my father, who was trained as a machinist in his early career, and who had a basement full of fantastic devices for turning metal into mechanical wonders.

As a child I could not understand most of the tools.  I knew what his lathe could do, but not why I would have any practical reason to spin metal shavings off chunks of metal.  I loved hefting the weight of his micrometer and spinning the handle to watch the scale climb with uncanny smoothness.  It was a device of intriguing precision (which we associated so much with him that it was brought out at his memorial ceremony). But at no time did I have any idea what I might measure to a thousandth of an inch. I still don’t—but I like that tool.

My father made, among many other things, devices called Goldblatt Clamps.  He was so useful at making such things that he was given a deferment from the Korean War for a while (he went later). We still have a box of the clamps, made of precious metals such as silver and gold.  I have no use for Goldblatt Clamps but the mere idea of them is strangely compelling.

So perhaps for the reason that I grew up among machines, I have great respect for them.  The things engineers made in the 1950s and 1960s blow my mind to this day.  (One good example is the famous SR-71 “Blackbird”, which is still the fastest and highest flying aircraft ever made. It was designed on paper, 33,000 sheets of it.)

IMG_6323I can think of another reason I like the mechanical things.  I have an extremely close relationship with the laptop computer that I’m currently typing this on.  Airstream Life and most of my current life activities would be impossible without it. I spend all day with it, more time than I spend with my family, which is sort of horrifying if you think about it.  I spend more time with this thing than I do eating, sleeping, exercising … pretty much everything except breathing.

The computer is a valued tool which I appreciate mostly because it just works for its intended purpose, but it’s essentially a disposable black box. It can be opened but mostly what you’ll see are more black boxes. It works on principles that I intellectually understand but which I cannot touch, and it will inevitably fail for reasons that I cannot determine.  When that happens, it will likely not be repairable.

Thinking of that, I look at the watch I’m wearing today. It is the antidote to short-lived black boxes. An assembly line of Soviet comrades made this watch 58 years ago and it still works. It may work for another hundred years, given an occasional cleaning and lubrication.

Sure, it only does one thing, but that’s not its key value anymore. Now it is a bit of history, a reason to take a 30-second break each day, and a spark of perspective to counter the crazy smartphone world we inhabit. That’s worth more to me than knowing the current time with atomic precision.

You might wondering if I’m ever going to talk about Airstreams in this blog. I think I’ll leave making that connection to you, if you see one.  Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

(PS: Temporary Bachelor Man will be posting next.)

Why I launch slowly

Tomorrow, the Airstream will leave home base and begin its annual trek across the USA, not to return until probably October.

The Airstream sits in the carport tonight, fully loaded for the expedition, tested, and hitched. After the weeks of preparation and packing, it feels like a quiet moment before a storm, full of anticipation of the unknown experiences to come.  It’s exciting and a little scary.

I like to tow the Airstream out very gently as it departs its winter shelter, like a mighty ship slowly breaking free of dock. There’s a practical reason for this: with the windows rolled down I can listen carefully for anything that might be amiss, perhaps something dragging, an unexpected squeak from the wheels, a scrape or a hiss.  Of course I’ve done a careful pre-trip inspection and walked around the trailer doing final checks three times, so the precaution of listening should be unnecessary, but I like to have that last moment of assurance before we head toward Interstate 10 and accelerate to full cruising speed.

From that point the Airstream will be expected to roll smoothly and quietly for many thousands of miles.  Our trip plan calls for heading up to northern Arizona as far as we can get on our first day, stopping somewhere in the Four Corners area, then gradually continuing on to Ft Collins CO by Thursday. After a rally, we’ll make stops in the plains states and eventually Chicago, then over to the Airstream factory for Alumapalooza.

After Alumapalooza we’re going to make a stop or two in PA and NY, eventually ending up at Colin Hyde’s shop in Plattsburgh for some upgrades.  (I’ll talk more about that in a future blog.)  Then to Vermont to see family, and later in the summer we’ll head west all the way to the Pacific Ocean and down to central California for Alumafandango in late September. The end of the trip will be in early October, probably, back at home base in Arizona.

It’s an ambitious plan and in the course of it the Airstream and its tow vehicle will accumulate perhaps 8,000 – 10,000 miles.  We’ll spend about 130 nights in the Airstream (I’ll spend a bit less because I’ll be TBM in Arizona for a month) and sleep in about 18 different states.  But we do something like this every year, so the “trip of a lifetime” by most accounts will be just “the summer” for us. After a decade it has become something we are used to, but it’s no less exciting for that.

I often read comments from bloggers and people on forums, asking for advice and expressing their concerns about launching on a big trip.  That is understandable if you’ve never done anything like this before, but if you are one of those people let me give you my bit of advice: it’s easier than you think.  You can do it. You’ll figure it out and probably have a great time in the process. Just take a moment to breathe before you go.

Even now, after literally years spent in our Airstream and who-knows-how-many miles, I have a little trepidation as we pull out of the driveway. That’s the other reason why I listen to the Airstream and launch it slowly, majestically, into the sunlight and down the road. I’m really just giving myself time to absorb the change, and gather courage for the challenges and adventures that will soon follow.

Starting Monday I’ll be posting more frequently with photos and stories from the road.

Pack your inspirations

Alumapalooza is around the corner, and that means it’s time to get serious about traveling again.  That event (held every year at the Airstream factory after Memorial Day) has been the kick-off for our summer travels for the past six years, and this year will be the seventh.

We’re not the only ones gearing up to hit the road either.  I’m hearing from friends all over the country who are anticipating saddling up and hauling the Airstream out later this month or in May.  Many of them will be out for weeks, which is great for them.  They’ll have fun and maybe we’ll cross paths at some point.

Getting ready for Alumapalooza is really only the beginning for us.  The Airstream won’t be back to home base until September, or possibly October, so we have to pack and plan for a magical mystery expedition.  I don’t know exactly where we will be later this summer because some of our plans are going to be spontaneous, which means we could encounter temperatures from freezing to 110; activities like hiking, motorcycling, and swimming in the ocean; social events ranging from the five-day party that is Alumapalooza, to quiet nights in the middle of nowhere; and much more.

HSSA foster kittens-1A couple of weeks ago Eleanor and I started to talk about our preparations to hit the road, and just about every day we do something to advance the cause, because it really takes that long to get a family of three and a small business ready to go. It would be easy if it were a simple matter of packing, but of course there are all the other things in life that get in the way.

For example, we have foster kittens again (yes, those two pictured really are our current obligations: Coleman and Storm), and I’ve been doing maintenance on the cars, we are taking a language class, Emma has a karate tournament coming up, etc., etc.

HSSA foster kittens-2All of these projects and obligations seem overwhelming at times.  Sometimes I feel like the month of April is really just about getting ready to leave, and it seems tedious, but then once we do finally start traveling everything falls into perspective.  The prize of being on multi-month adventure is well worth the advance work.

What I really like about traveling this way is that we don’t have to plan everything in advance. I’m a planner by nature, but in this case it’s actually easier if we don’t.  We have a general plan based on a few hard deadlines (Alumapalooza late May in Ohio, Alumafandango late September in California) but everything else is subject to whims and winds—and opportunities that may arise.

Fuel prices, by the way, hardly come into it at all. I mention this because if you are considering becoming an Airstream traveler you might think fuel cost is a big deal.  Really, it’s one of the smaller budget items since traveling by road is more enjoyable when you drive less and explore locally more. I expect we’ll spend about $1,500 for fuel this season thanks to low diesel prices currently, and for four to five months of travel that’s a bargain.

Organ Pipe Quitobaquito pond

The photo above is from a recent 2-night trip with my friend Nick, back to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  Out there in the desert you’ll find a strange sight, a lovely pond filled with tiny desert pupfish just a couple hundred feet from the border fence.  This memorable trip across southern Arizona wasn’t expensive. It’s not about how far you go, it’s about what you can find near where you are.

This season we’re winging it more than usual.  We always have a list of “maybe” ideas handy when we venture out, and this year’s list is really wild.  We’re considering “side trips” as far apart as Newfoundland and Oregon.  We’re keeping an eye out for cheap last-minute flights to Europe and bargain cruises to Alaska.  It’s quite likely that none of these ideas will pan out, but it’s fun to have ideas to consider.

As I said, flexibility is a big advantage of traveling this way. When we walk out the door of our house, the adventure begins. Discovering where it ends up is the fun part. Pack your ideas and inspirations in the Airstream and see what happens.