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Removing Coolant Hoses
April 17th, 2012 | View Post
As a non-mechanic, there has definitely been some interesting learning here. Basically I've learned that the way most buses work is that they run long insulated automotive tubing from the engine towards the back of the bus. Some of these hoses contain circulate coolant for heating the bus, the others carry air conditioner from the compressor in the back to the front.

Well since we're modifying the bus, none of this is necessary. The old A/C compressor is huge, heavy, and unnecessary. I basically spent the entirety of my bus-working day removing all of these old tubes and wires.

This is what the mess looks like from the back. You can see the A/C box towards the right.

This was the fan in the center of the bus that I removed last week. Little did I know at the time that one of the hoses connected to it contained coolant. Fortunately the bus had been off.

Just a side view of the bus at sunset.

You can actually see the tubes hanging out the bottom on that last photo. In all, I'm guessing I removed about 140 feet worth of tubing, and probably more than 1,000 feet of wiring. The only thing left to remove is the A/C unit itself. I'm going to have a welder create a custom box there to house the generator (a lockable cage of course).
Old Air Conditioner Removed
April 16th, 2012 | View Post
I really don't know exactly how this very primitive-looking A/C unit worked, or IF it worked for that matter, but it had to go. The only real convenience it offered was a relay switch near the steering wheel (for powering it on and off). The downside is that it's 30 years old and doesn't really do anything. Admittedly the fan does work, but I'm not sure it pumps out cold air. Additionally, and because it's been half-assedly connected to the front alternator, it's a huge drain on the electrical system.

A photo of the old A/C.

This old A/C consists of 2 condenser units connected to sewer-grade PVC pipes. Each unit has a Freon tube that pumps into it and small fans that push the air out into the PVC. The PVC is then routed into a tube that runs the length of the bus and evidently is supposed to push the air. Presumably the air towards the back would be much stronger than the front, but I never really tested it that thoroughly.

The Freon tubes connected to the unit.

I wasn't really sure how to deal with these things. I tried unhinging them, but they had just been set for too long and wouldn't budge. Finally I just wound up cutting through the lines. I was terrified for a second as a pressurized gas leaked out, but it was just for a second and whatever pressure was left was entirely drained.

The wiring harness of one of the units.

I also had to go in and cut and cap all of the wires. I figured that they're on a relay from the front, so may as well keep them until I am certain they're not useful. I also kept the condenser tubes in place so that I have the ability to hook them up to a new A/C unit.

And finally a last look:

MUCH cleaner looking without that old A/C unit in the back. It's a little harder to see, but we also finished removing and wire-capping all of the light boxes that had been on the ceiling.

Hardwood Floors Installed
April 14th, 2012 | View Post
So continuing on with the wonderful bus conversion, we finally have hardwood floors installed! It wasn't quite as trivial as I thought it would be (even having installed a few floors before). The problems mostly arose from the slight curvature of the 3/4" plywood surface, the occasional screw or bolt that had not been fully countersunk, and the glue. I've learned my lesson, I will NEVER glue a floor surface on ever again. The epoxy is not what I thought, is incredibly difficult to work with, and it gets everywhere - including the skin. But fear not because wood glue is one of the easiest glues to remove from one's skin and this is wood glue, no?

I read the safety sheet AFTER the installation and discovered one is not supposed to work with NA-8500 adhesive without proper gloves. I actually went so far as to call poison control late last night just to ask if there was anything I could do to get the glue off of us. Unfortunately "wait it out" was the official answer (soap, detergent, vegetable oil, mineral oil, and gasoline did not work). So here I sit actually looking a bit like a leper as I type this, my hands burned and peeling from this über adhesive glue. Be forewarned should you decide to wood glue your hardwood installation. On the upside, it's probably pretty damn effective.

Here are a few pics:

Caroline spreading some of the glue with our 1/4" x 1/4" glue trowel. MUCH harder than it looks. For reference, always apply the glue orthogonal to the direction of the wood grain

Mike Crockett was helping us to install the floors and took care of all of my wiring issues as well. There were cheap reading lights all over that I had removed and capped (the wires are good, so may as well keep them handy and accessible)

Almost there!

I finished the front half of the bus myself this afternoon. Relaxing after a lot of back breaking work. The gluing really takes it out of you.

The final wood surface. Unfortunately it got late by the time I finished, so I couldn't grab one in the day light.

The New Bus
April 13th, 2012 | View Post
So I've been interested in getting a bus of some sort ever since I toured New Zealand in a camper van back in 2003. It was just such a great time that I have always wanted to do a conversion myself. The dream has always been alive, but has just never come into full fruition - until now.

Caroline and I started chatting about the idea of having a bus and so after tons of research and a lot of poking around, I found a relatively inexpensive Ford Econoline E-350 Private Bus. She's definitely a sight (of some kind), but I think with some hard work, and some fresh paint, we can definitely convert her into a cool little toy.

A first look at the bus in my driveway

The original back of the bus (the front rows of seats are just behind me in the shot). You wouldn't know it from looking at it, but all of that rubber on the ground probably weighs almost 200 pounds!

Caroline removing one of the passenger seats. They were quite a bit harder to remove than one might imagine. Not to mention, the steel frames they sit upon are heavy as all can be.

There were some pretty old wires in the engine compartment, so I started replacing them one by one. This is the new terminal lead I installed today

The inside of the bus after completely stripping it down to its 3/4" plywood shell

As I was finishing removing an old kitchen exhaust fan this evening, I disconnected a rubber hose from one of its two vents. I assumed that the hose was just for air exhaust, but evidently it collected water as well. As soon as I pulled the hose off, the dirtiest water I have ever seen started gushing from the spout. I managed to redirect most of it outside, but I can't imagine the parasites that entered my body through the initial 20 seconds or so of trying to stop it from squirting.
Wall Street vs. Hollywood?
April 12th, 2012 | View Post
A few weeks ago my father and I were discussing the influence that American corporations have on politics. It's a pretty important topic these days given the rather bleak state of the economy and the seemingly endless corruption being uncovered. Between the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, and everyone in between, nobody really seems happy with the way the government is conducting its business. And in my opinion, rightfully so.

But as we continued chatting, we discussed the fact that for whatever reason, voters instinctively tie Wall Street CEOs to the Republican Party and Hollywood celebrities to the Democratic Party. It's one of those things that most of the voting populous just seems to accept. Obviously there are notable exceptions to this rule, but I think most people would assume that if you work on Wall Street, you're voting Republican, and if you work in Hollywood, for a Democrat.

While there are undoubtedly some social issues that could be addressed, the biggest problem in 2012 is hands down the economy. Liberal friends of mine often bring up the huge disparity of wealth that exists within Wall Street corporations, how that gap is widening, and how it is being used to control Washington. The data seems to corroborate this and I definitely believe it's a problem we should be [intelligently] discussing as a nation. But my father was quick to add to our discussion that this same disproportion of wealth is rampant throughout Hollywood as well. The difference is that nobody really seems to notice, much less care. Curiously, we even go so far as to celebrate this disparity with the affectionate term "celebrity".

This raises a pretty interesting philosophical question. If two groups are ultimately responsible for the same fiscal gluttony, why is one celebrated and the other castigated?

Since the crux of our discussion was riding on the back of conjectures and assumptions, I thought it would be interesting to actually do some research on the matter. That is, how do the top dogs of Wall Street and Hollywood actually stack up against one another? Is there a difference between them and if so, what is that difference? After a bit of online research, I constructed this table of the top twenty Wall Street and Hollywood salaries of 2010 (it was difficult to find consistent data for 2011). The results are pretty interesting.

Wall Street Hollywood
CEO Company Employees Millions Celebrity Title Millions
Philippe P. Dauman Viacom 10,900 $84.5 James Cameron Writer, Director, Producer $257.0
Ray R. Irani Occidental Petroleum 11,000 $76.1 Johnny Depp Actor $100.0
Lawrence J. Ellison Oracle 111,297 $70.1 Steven Spielberg Director, Producer $80.0
Michael D. White DirecTV 25,700 $32.9 Christopher Nolan Writer, Director, Producer $71.5
John F. Lundgren Stanley Black & Decker 36,700 $32.6 Leonardo DiCaprio Actor $62.0
Brian L. Roberts Comcast 126,000 $28.2 Tim Burton Director $53.0
Robert A. Iger Walt Disney 156,000 $28.0 Adam Sandler Actor, Producer, Writer $50.0
Alan Mulally Ford Motor Co. 164,000 $26.5 Todd Phillips Writer, Director, Producer $34.0
Samuel J. Palmisano IBM 426,751 $25.2 Taylor Lautner Actor $33.5
David N. Farr Emerson Electric 133,200 $22.9 Robert Downey Jr. Actor $31.5
Howard Schultz Starbucks 149,000 $21.7 Will Smith Actor, Producer $29.0
William C. Weldon Johnson and Johnson 114,000 $21.6 Joe Roth Producer $28.5
Louis C. Camilleri Phillip Morris International 78,300 $20.6 Kristen Stewart Actress $28.5
Randall L. Stephenson AT&T 256,420 $20.2 Jerry Bruckheimer Producer $27.5
Miles D. White Abbot Laboratories 90,000 $20.0 Robert Pattinson Actor $27.5
George W. Buckley 3M 80,000 $19.7 Jason Blum Producer, Writer, Director, Producer $26.5
Louis Chenevert United Technologies 199,900 $19.5 Tyler Perry Writer, Director, Producer $25.0
Robert P. Kelly Bank of New York Mellon 48,700 $19.4 Jennifer Aniston Actress $24.5
Muhtar Kent Coca-Cola 139,600 $19.2 Jon Favreau Director, Producer $24.0
Robert J. Stevens Lockheed Martin 126,000 $19.1 Nicolas Cage Actor $23.5
Total: 2,483,468 $628.0 Total: $1,037.0
Average: 124,173 $31.4 Average: $51.9
Source: Source:

I was actually pretty shocked by the side-by-side comparison. Certainly we're all aware of the amount of money that celebrities make, but I was a little surprised to discover that the Hollywood list was significantly better than the Wall Street list. Even more surprising is that the Wall Street figures include base salaries, bonuses, yearly stock grants and options, and even estimated company perks. The Hollywood figures only include estimated earnings from movies and specifically exclude special appearances, television works, and perks.

A side-by-side graph of the top 20 Hollywood vs. Wall Street salaries in 2010
(ordered from highest salary to lowest)
(Download High-Res)

Of course there are plenty of other factors that can be considered too.

For example, Wall Street corporations are frequently condemned for allowing huge disparities of wealth between their employees. In other words, while the CEO might be making tens of millions of dollars annually, those working just as hard at the bottom may be struggling just to feed their families. I would not disagree that this is a major concern of our long-term economy. However, having been an extra on a movie set before, I know for a fact that I was only paid minimum wage for my work and suspect this is pretty consistent across the board. Moreover, and having lived in Hollywood, I'm positive that your average "actor" is flat broke. Therefore it would seem to suggest that the same income gaps probably exist in Hollywood as they do on Wall Street. So why is one fundamentally better than the other?

Another common point of critique is that corporate leaders are consistently sending American jobs overseas. This is definitely a political point of contention and another serious issue we should be trying to intelligently address. But again, I'm not so sure Hollywood operates on a much different principle. Many of the 2010 and 2011 blockbusters I researched were filmed in exotic overseas locations. In those particular cases, the national and local economies of foreign nations were the beneficiaries, not the United States. I would also suspect that foreign film crews are predominantly used in overseas shoots as well (albeit have no specific evidence to support this claim). But again, couldn't Hollywood just fly entire film crews and cast members (even the extras) abroad? Naturally the answer is yes, but much like Wall Street's argument, their margins would significantly suffer. But why is this an acceptable practice in one realm and not the other?

We might also consider the topic of actual employment numbers (included in the table for reference). While I unfortunately was unable to locate data on specific movies, various online searches suggested a modern summer blockbuster might require between a few hundred and a few thousand cast and crew members. But for sake of argument, let's assume a big Hollywood blockbuster is going to require 10,000 people and that the top billed actor is willing to settle for just $20 million (these figures should be greatly skewed in favor of Hollywood). Sam Palmisano, the CEO of IBM, gets paid $25.2 million annually - a tremendous sum of money no doubt. But we might also consider that he essentially presides over more than 426,000 employees (not to mention shareholders)! The per-employee financial difference here is so great that it can actually be measured in orders of magnitude, and that's making very generous assumptions in the case of Hollywood. So again, I am in no way attempting to justify Wall Street, but this same Hollywood disparity is phenomenal, especially if we consider a "per employment" sort of scenario.

We could even delve into the topic of corporate subsidies if we wanted to, but once more, Hollywood gets tremendous incentives and tax breaks to do what they do. Not only that, but they have the convenience of regulating their own industry whereas Wall Street at least has to contend with the SEC and a few other governmental bodies.

The bottom line is that I love Leonardo DiCaprio as much as the next guy, but I sincerely doubt he is going to give up the earnings of his next $50 million movie deal so that his set gaffers can get paid better. No more than the average CEO is going to give up his $50 million dollar salary so that the company electricians can get paid better.

The fact is that both Wall Street and Hollywood have a lengthy list of economic pros and cons. In some cases those pros and cons overlap, and in other cases they're unique to the industry. The point is that neither is better than the other when it comes to addressing the dramatic income gaps that appear to be widening in the United States. And yet for some reason it seems that the country remains deeply divided on which side is "good" and which side is "bad", which side is celebrated and which side is condemned.

As with most of my writings, my point here is not to make a case in favor of one side or the other. Rather, my contention is simply that as a nation, we are so incredibly susceptible to marketing and hyperbole-driven agendas that we've become deaf and blind to the realities of our own frustrations. We completely ignore the fact that both sides are willing participants of nearly identical agendas. I believe our greatest societal flaw is that we try to rationalize why one side is somehow better than the other one, completely ignoring the possibility that perhaps there are some pretty singular agendas floating between the two of them.

Personally, I commend anybody who is able to play the system for what it is and come out millions of dollars ahead of everyone else; I only wish I were clever enough to do the same. But having succumbed to a life far from that reality, I just wish my fellow countrymen and women would consider the fact, even if for just a moment, that perhaps their political team of choice isn't really all they've convinced themselves it is. I think that would truly be worth something we could all benefit from.
Colombian Travel vs. American TSA
March 22nd, 2012 | View Post
As I wind down my eight day voyage to Colombia, I can't help but dwell upon the non-sensible, invasive, and criminal sham that the United States' travel policies have turned into. Colombia, perceived by Americans as a third world land of drug cartels, kidnappings, and guerrilla mercenaries (none of which is really accurate), has absolutely superior air travel service compared to the United States. This is true both of the government policies surrounding travel and the actual service provided by at least one private domestic carrier.

Domestically, a group of us flew from Bogotá to Cartagena on Avianca Airlines. The experience could not have been more positive. After quickly checking in with a friendly staff we proceeded to security. The line was short. We didn't remove our computers from our bag, nor take off our shoes, nor throw away our bottles of water. Nobody intended to make us assume the position of a criminal and examine our naked body. Nobody intended to feel our genitals, nor to have us remove articles of clothing. We put our carry-on bags on a conveyor belt and comfortably walked through a metal detector. Those of us who tripped it were not harassed, but rather quickly wanded down and sent on our ways.

A simple chart comparing the security protocols I experienced between the United States TSA and the Colombian airport security

It was everything a country like America should be capable of.

The only additional (though arguably positive) layer of security is that they check bag tickets after you pick up your bag on the conveyer. Although this does slow the process down by a few minutes, I can appreciate wanting to protect against private theft.

The airline itself was also phenomenal. Avianca has a brand new Airbus fleet, each seat fully loaded with televisions, gaming devices, and USB mounts. All of the in-flight services were completely free of charge despite the flight only being an hour. As a strong proponent of allowing foreign carries into the US domestic fleets (one of the US' many anti-competitive laws), I would definitely welcome Avianca with open arms and in all likeliness become a frequent flyer.

Internationally, the departure process has been almost as easy, albeit with a few more steps. After receiving our tax vouchers at one window and then checking in with United, we proceeded through to immigration and had our passports stamped. Security was almost identical to the domestic flight only they did ask us to remove our computers from carry-on and place them in a bucket (much like the TSA does). There was no removal of shoes, no trashing of water and food, no groping, no naked body scanning. Rather just a simple metal detector with a follow-up wand.

The only annoyance came after waiting at the gate for about an hour. Evidently a secondary screening process was being setup and we had to leave the room, and re-enter through the secondary metal detector. There was one bit of stupidity here. I was allowed to bring my metal water bottle full of water through, but I was not allowed to bring my half-full plastic water through. Curiously though, I was allowed to pour the contents of the plastic bottle into my metal bottle and continue without further incident. Go figure.

All in all though, it was a pretty positive experience.

I spoke with a couple of Colombians about these processes and they agree that traveling around Colombia is a very pleasant experience. They also said that they hated travel procedures of the United States citing that they're treated very badly, generally as if they're terrorists.

I will continue to strongly oppose the TSA and all levels of government that use fear and American ignorance to strip individuals of Constitutional rights. I strongly encourage others to do the same.

March 23, 2012 5:13pm CST Edit: After chatting with members of the Reddit community about this post, I'm told that my experience may have been unique. Further discussion seems to suggest that the lighter security I experienced was due to my traveling during the low season. Others have reported significantly more invasive scans, albeit body scanning technologies are still not present.