Flying All Over the Planet

I’ve been enjoying the new Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 which features the ability to fly anywhere in the world with often amazing displays of detail and realism, including live weather effects.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s several reviews (IGN, Polygon, Gamerant) and a few showcase trailers:

Approaching Santa Cruz in a Daher TBM 930
(notice all the detail in the cockpit: sunlight, reflections in the windshield, etc.)

Even with the whole world available to explore, it’s particularly fun to fly around places that you know very well from the ground.  I’ve created a couple of videos of such flights – here’s the Santa Cruz area, including the boardwalk, downtown, Scotts Valley, Felton and along the coast to Año Nuevo:

Some locations (like Santa Cruz above) benefit from detailed photogrammetry data providing lots of realistic detail. Other locations get carefully handcrafted buildings and objects (particularly at select airports), while the rest of the planet gets more generic textures and topographical information from satellite data and auto-generated details like trees and buildings. For example, the generic buildings populating the ghost town of Bodie are very out of place in my little tour of the Eastern Sierra – from Bishop to Mammoth and on to Mono Lake and Bodie:

Lots of folks are already making add-ons that you can drop in to enhance the rendering of a particular location or add a particular plane.  Here’s one great index of available add-ons for MS Flight Simulator.


I’m running MS Flight Simulator on my 16″ 2019 MacBook Pro, an ultrawide LG monitor (3440 x 1440) and a Logitech G Pro Flight Yoke system with rudder pedals (much easier to fly with than the keyboard controls).  It’s a pretty immersive experience:

Be aware that, as with the newest graphic cards, every flight yoke is pretty difficult to find anywhere at normal retail prices right now ($165-ish) as the release of this game (and the pandemic) has driven them out-of-stock everywhere.

Notably, this game can be very CPU and even network intensive (the world does not fit on your hard drive) so the game can bog down even if your GPU has cycles to spare.

I’m currently using a Red Devil Radeon 5700 XT graphics card in an external GPU enclosure (connected via Thunderbolt) running MSFS 2020 on Windows 10 via Apple Boot Camp.  This set up allows for mostly (but not entirely) Ultra settings.  The 16″ MacBook Pro can actually run MS Flight Simulator with the built-in 5500M GPU at lower Medium-High settings.  (I’m looking forward to getting the twice-as-fast, next generation Radeon 6800 XT once they become widely available and no longer all snatched up by scalpers.)

Note that you’ll likely need to go through a bit of hassle to successfully configure these AMD graphics cards under Boot Camp.  See the egpu.io forums and bootcampdrivers.com for help. (The Nvidia cards don’t require workarounds for Boot Camp but they’re not supported at all on macOS, whereas the AMD cards work under macOS without doing anything.)

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Gaming Continues

Despite the upheaval that is 2020, the gaming continues with Near and Far, Elfenland/Elfenroads, Ecos: The First ContinentCryptid, Galaxy Trucker, Streetcar, Memoir’44, Covert, Now Boarding, Great Western Trail, and a few Clank! expansions: Sunken Treasures, Temple of the Ape Lords, and The Mummy’s Curse.  Then there’s our new favorite trick-taking game, The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine.

We also played a number of titles from the Exit: The Game series, but I don’t recommend them – they’re often a rather mixed bag and sometimes annoying in their puzzle designs.

  

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A Limited Halloween

No social gatherings amid the pandemic of course, so a rather limited Halloween this year – just in costume to go pick up some take-out food, play a board game, watch a movie:

 

   

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Great Horned Owl Fight

I heard a crash and thud this evening like falling furniture but saw the cats weren’t the cause.  After a minute or so there was another thump and thud and the sound of an owl hooting.  So I grabbed my camera and went upstairs to the patio outside the bedroom, expecting maybe to see an owl going at the plastic owl on the patio. (The fake owl is there to keep away small birds that would otherwise fall prey to Pan as he lies in wait every morning.)

Not something you see everyday…

However, what I found was two great horned owls in a vicious brawl on the patio floor.  Pan and I watched from behind the door as they kept at it for some ten minutes or so, despite me turning on the porch light, making noise and cracking open the door to get a better look.  After nearly ten minutes of this, and not wanting to see how far this would eventually go, I pounded on the glass to drive them off.  Now I’m imagining that one of these owls was a newcomer trying to encroach on my neighborhood owl’s plastic “mate” on my porch.

It’s not unusual for us to see or hear owls around the house here in Santa Cruz, including perched on my bedroom roof but I’ve never captured decent video or photos of them.  (Unfortunately, I didn’t notice my auto-focus was disabled on my camera until five minutes into filming this brawl.)

Before posting, I looked online to see if this vicious-looking fight is something great horned owls commonly do.  I found that they are territorial but confrontations are usually in the form of sounding vocalizations and spreading wings before escalating further.  However, it sounds like they are known to sometimes go so far as to kill each other in territorial conflicts.  Would love to read comments on this encounter from any well-informed folk.

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Transit Van Conversion Complete

It’s not only more-or-less complete, but it’s in the driveway!  I’m tweaking things and making some additions but after about 15 months from initial contact to finish we finally got to pick it up from Van Haus Conversions in Vancouver, WA in mid-September, amidst the smoke and fires across the western states.

This previously empty Ford Transit cargo van is now officially a nimble little 4×4 adventure campervan, (or disaster bug-out van, or zombie apocalypse survival unit) or… The New Traveling Cat Adventure Vehicle.  It’s quite the change from the original Traveling Cat Adventure Vehicle which was a 25-ft Sprinter-based Class B RV from Leisure Travel Vans. We had a good time with the LTV Unity, but our two biggest wishes were to 1) have internal storage for our mountain bikes and 2) downsize to a smaller, more off-road-capable camper van, which would also allow us to park more easily in busy metro areas.  We did take the Unity out on dirt roads a lot but we were often of course constrained on just how rugged the road could actually get with a vehicle of that size and length.  Anyway, here it is – wishes made true — and it looks great:

The new campervan is built on a 2019 Ford Transit cargo van (Long Body, High Roof, 148″ wheelbase, non-extended, 19.5 feet long).

QuadVan in Portland, Oregon did the conversion to support 4×4 as well as upgrade the suspension, add a locking differential and protective skid plates, raise the low-hanging rear shock mounts and the overall body and add all terrain tires.

Van Haus Conversions did the build out to a campervan.  (Here’s some pictures of the work in progress.)  The design features a queen-sized raised-platform bed that creates a large “garage” space for bikes and gear underneath.  The living area centers around the galley with a sink, refrigerator, double burner induction cooktop and a fold-out swiveling table between the two front swiveling seats and a small bench seat that hides a dry composting toilet.

I’ve set up a separate page (Transit Van Conversion – Tips and Details) where I’m documenting various build details and decisions, where to buy stuff and all the additional customizations I make along the way, like I did for our LTV Unity.

Click through for a full gallery of the completed build – I’ll continue to update the gallery as I make changes to the van:

     

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Mmmm… Acorns

Nom nom nom…

They’re so desperate for acorns, it doesn’t even matter if I’m in the open garage using noisy power tools:

*Must* *have* *acorns*…

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Fire and Smoke and Evacuations


Leaving heavy smoke in Tahoe on Wednesday 8/19

We headed back home on Wednesday, leaving the heavy smoke in Tahoe from the Loyalton Fire, through the smoke filling the Central Valley to reach the heavy smoke in the Santa Cruz Mountains from the CZU Lightning Complex fires.


Looking south and west from the house  (Wednesday evening, 8/19)

 
Ash and charred leaves deposited around the house (8/19)

As we came through Vacaville and Fairfield on I-80, we slipped through just before the LNU Lightning Complex fire jumped I-80 and even saw flames from the interstate:

 
LNU Lightning Complex Fire about to cross I-80 near Fairfield on 8/19

On Wednesday and Thursday we prepped for evacuation, loading up the cars with necessities and some irreplaceables, prepping the house as per wildfire pre-evacuation recommendations (moving furniture away from windows, etc).  Sure enough, the mandatory evacuation zones were expanded Thursday evening to include everything west of highway 17 (including downtown Scotts Valley).  We’re a little south of Scotts Valley and just east of highway 17, but we decided to go ahead and evacuate Thursday night – heading back to Tahoe.

The evacuation areas are expected to remain in effect for a few weeks.  Darlene will be renting a place near Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto as she’ll be returning to work next week.

So far, it looks like they’ve been able to mostly hold the fire west of highway 9 and north of Santa Cruz and Davenport.  Unfortunately, we’ve got the potential for more fire starts due to more dry thunderstorms expected around the Bay Area from Sunday (8/22) through Tuesday morning (8/24).

Here’s a combined, interactive map showing both the perimeter of the ZCU Lightning Complex fire and the evacuation area.  63,000 acres burned, 77,000 people evacuated – snapshot as of Saturday, 8/22:

Here’s a really nice mapping tool (CalTopo) that can overlay various satellite data (like VIIRS) on a map source of your choice and plot additional weather data like wind patterns.  You can even zoom in to see individual temperature sample numbers showing where the fire is hotter and cooler or no longer present:

For more info on the Santa Cruz Mountains fires, here’s some resources:

Update (Thursday, 8/27):  81,000 acres affected as of this morning but they’re continuing to get good control of the fires across the Santa Cruz Mountains.  As the mandatory evac area was never extended to where we are (just east of highway 17), Darlene headed back on Monday evening since she had to go into work at the hospital on Tuesday and I headed back with the cats on Wednesday evening as things seemed to be continuing to go well.  As of 3 pm Thursday, they’ve lifted the evacuation order on Scotts Valley and surrounding areas.

Update (late September): As the number and size of the wildfires continue to grow across the western states, we get a taste of our potential future norm, including days that look like night and seemingly right out of “Blade Runner 2049”:

And when we ventured up through Oregon to pick up the Transit campervan in mid-September, we encountered some of the worst air yet: PM2.5 counts of well over 500.

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Just A Smidge of the Pacific Crest Trail

Darlene and I enjoyed a little three-day backpacking excursion along a tiny bit of the Pacific Crest Trail last week.  We started at the Donner Pass trailhead and headed south for 10 miles towards Granite Chief (near Squaw Valley).  Most of this section is walking a ridge line with wide open views in every direction.  It was pretty windy the whole day but that seemed to keep away any threat of afternoon thunderstorms – which would be a bigger concern along this long, very exposed crest.

It’s actually a nice, gentle climb most of the way, climbing up from Donner Pass through the Sugarbowl ski area, past Anderson Peak and Tinker Knob before dropping down to the first potential opportunities for water between Tinker Knob and Granite Chief after about 9 miles.  As it turns out, both Darlene and I had issues along the way that led to us moving super slow (me favoring a twinging knee and her with leg and hip troubles).  As for water, the most reliable looking source turned out to be dry. With a bit of scouting, I found a tiny little spring hidden in the creek bed not too far from the trail crossing and so we camped nearby.  (For any one looking for info on “California Section K” of the PCT, it was the stream coming off teeny Mountain Meadow Lake near the PCT intersection with Painted Rock Trail.  The creek just south of Tinker Knob was still flowing though.)

 

Feeling much more sore and stiff than usual, neither of us felt up for doing much of a day hike or any peak climbing the next day so we just spent it hanging out and recuperating.  Our return hike on the third day to Donner Pass went easily though (aside from a minor slip and fall and bloodied knee) and we enjoyed a gorgeous day with little wind on the ridge.

Click through for the full gallery:

   

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Big Bear Visit

We had a big bear visit the Tahoe house a few days ago – for size comparison, that bear box holds two full size trash cans and then some:

Update: And another couple of visitors in September:

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Some More Tahoe Trail Riding

While up at the Tahoe house over the past two weeks, we got in some nice rides – and avoided any crowds.  We hit up the usual Sawtooth Ridge loop (just south of Truckee), found some fun trails accessible from the house (KB Trail and Rise and Shine, etc. just above Kings Beach) and we finally, finally, made it all the way out and back from Stampede Reservoir (some 24 miles) on the Emigrant Trail starting from the amusingly named Donner Party Picnic Area (seriously?).  I was totally spent, sore and dehydrated, but no need for cannibalism.  Darlene on the other hand was all smiles – as she was riding her new pedal assist e-mtn bike!

Click through for the full gallery:

   

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Gaming through the Pandemic

The board gaming continues through the pandemic – albeit just me and Darlene (and Pan, of course) in person and strictly via online platforms with other friends.

Here’s some pictures from March through July – click through for the full gallery:

 

     

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Comet NEOWISE

Darlene and I went out last night near the Truckee airport to see the comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE).  It’s currently relatively close to the sun so it’s not visible in the sky for very long before sunrise or after sunset.  It is visible to the naked eye but not super obvious – you have to know where to look for it.  It looks most impressive with binoculars or a telephoto lens on a tripod (and a few seconds exposure).  In a telescope, you won’t see most of the tail as it’s quite long!

It’s likely to get brighter over the coming week as we get to our closest approach July 22nd, though it’s also possible it’ll break up.  It’ll appear higher in the sky (and further from the sun) as the month progresses.  July 20th will be nice too as it’ll be a dark new moon setting with the sun and the comet will be higher in the sky after dark

Here’s more info on where/how to look.

Continue reading »

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Transit Van Conversion In Progress

Conversion of this Ford Transit van into a super-cool 4×4 campervan (aka, the Traveling Cat Adventure Van II) is now finally really making progress after several delays, most notably the shutdowns for Covid-19.

It was a year ago, last July, that I ordered the van and set things in motion.  I wasn’t able to find a Transit van anywhere that wasn’t either completely bare bones or loaded with every option – including glass in the rear doors and dark paint that I didn’t want, both which would make the van less comfortable in hot and sunny climates.  So I had to order from the factory.  I was able to finally pick it up last December and pass it off to QuadVan for the 4×4 conversion part, including upgraded suspension, locking differential, raised shock mounts and all terrain tires.  (More details here.)

Van Haus is doing the actual campervan conversion and we worked out a mostly final design layout in January.  I was originally excited about doing a build like this one where there was enough storage for the bikes inside the van under the bed but still room for a wonderful dinette seating area situated mid-cabin.  The platform for a queen-size sleeping area would extend out over the dinette area.  However, given all the gear we like to carry on our adventures (mountain bikes plus gear, two-person inflatable kayak plus gear, telescope and camera gear, folding chairs, portable grill, etc.) plus room for the cats’ litter box and feeding area… well, it seemed pretty clear we needed to dedicate more room to the “garage” by doing a common fixed platform bed.  Plus the queen-sized bed needs to be oriented lengthwise since I can’t fit width-wise between the walls of a van, even with those side extrusions some people put in.  So here’s the final design.  Plus, now there’s room for a full cat apartment under the bed platform.

 

Due to scheduling and miscommunication mishaps, the van didn’t actually get over to Van Haus until late-February and then didn’t really get started before everyone went into shelter-at-home mode in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.\

At the end of May, Van Haus was able to start work again, albeit at a much slower pace with social distancing safety measures in place.  I already sold the original Traveling Cat Adventure Vehicle in late May and now Darlene and I eagerly await completion of the van conversion, hopefully in August sometime.

As of late June, they’ve installed the front side windows and the little bunk windows over the sleeping area, the powered Fiamma awning w/LED light kit, the 500W of solar panels on the roof, the MaxxAir fan at the rear of the roof, the Amp Research powered steps on both driver and passenger sides, the various external ports (120V, 12V, aux solar, shore power, etc), my two little cellular booster antennas and the swivel seats in the cabin area.

As of early July, they’ve now installed the floor, all the wiring runs, the infrastructure for the upper cabinets, ceiling insulation and initial wall insulation, and the bug screen.  They’re now in the process of making the wall panels and when those are done the full wall insulation will go in.

Mid-July now, and the wall insulation is finished and the wall panels are in.  They’re starting work on the cabinet parts using a CNC machine:

   

It’s late July now and the cabinets are coming together and they’re building the aluminum bed frame.  They also tried squeezing my spare oversize tire underneath the rear of the van but then convinced me to go with getting a tire carrier for the rear door (from Aluminess).

 

Early August and now some of the overhead cabinets are installed, plus the bench seat (which hides the toilet) and the Rixen heat/hot water system.  The electrical components (inverter, fuse box, battery system) and other plumbing will be going in soon.  They’re estimating another two weeks of work.

Click through for the full gallery:

   

Well, early September now and the van build is complete… except we’re waiting on the spare tire carrier for the rear door from Aluminess.  With luck it will actually arrive at Van Haus by Sept. 14th or so and we’ll be able to drive up there and take delivery of the van later that same week.  Fingers crossed – it’s been 14 months since I started this whole process!

Mission accomplished in mid-September: Transit Van Conversion Complete

 

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Bear Inspection

We came across a bear near the Tahoe house today – inspecting a neighbor’s “bear box”:

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Model Y vs Model 3

I decided to go ahead and replace my Tesla Model 3 with a Model Y – both are Performance versions but with the standard wheels and suspension for added clearance. I’ll miss the Model 3 – the Model Y doesn’t feel quite the same, not quite like it’s on rails but I was just too tempted by the additional cargo space of the Y for easier loading of our bikes and other bulky items.  Plus the Y has a tow hitch at bumper level, as opposed to the aftermarket hitches for the 3 which tuck under the bumper.

So, besides the obvious additional rear cargo space, the rear under floor and side pocket space and the frunk are all also larger.  There’s extra room in the rear seats and easier entry/exit all around due to the higher seating arrangement.  The Model 3 is of course more aerodynamic but the Model Y now has a heat pump and an inventive valve system to direct heat to/from the motor, battery or cabin as needed.  This gives the Model Y very similar range as compared to the Model 3 despite being larger, at least until this heat pump/valve system is carried over to the Model 3.  Update: Yup, as of late 2020, along with some other changes and additions, the late-2020 Model 3 has gained added range from the new heat pump system.

Click through for more comparison pictures:

     

 

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Painted Tzolk’in Gears

After painting my Middle Earth Quest miniatures, I turned to my Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar gears. People have done all sorts of very cool, detailed painting with these, but I was just intending to give them a simple wash to make them look a bit like weathered, stone Mayan calendar dials (like these).

Unfortunately, two coats of the wash spoiled the effect so I just added a little bronzing over the stain and called it a day.  (I got the 3d-printed center discs to replace the original stickers from here.) I was most worried about replicating the tiny food day icons/symbols with a painting brush but those turned out great!

 

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