San Francisco, CA

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Oh, to be back in my beloved City! I lived here in the ’90s, and it’s good to be home. Here are of few pleasures from the trip:

Food and Drink

Vintage soda fountain cocktails at the Ice Cream Bar in Cole Valley

Soba noodles at the Citrus Club in the Haight. This was one of my favorites in the ’90s, and they’re still good.

Off the Grid food truck festival in Fort Mason.

The Proxy Project shipping container food court: Smitten and Suppenkuche’s Biergarten. Try the Tcho chocolate krispies on your ice cream. The lamb bratwurst with mango salsa is the best sausage we’ve ever had.

Fish tacos at Papalote in the Mission

Creme Brulee cart: try the whisky caramel sauce

Retro cocktails at the Bourbon and Branch speakeasy. They do amazing things with lavender and lillet.

Pakwan, our favorite Pakistani greasy spoon

Food stalls at the Ferry Building farmer’s market. Try the enchamale at the tamale stand.


Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with 20 minutes newly-found footage, at the Castro

Musee Mechanique, a living museum of arcade games. Go on a weekday, as it’s nuts on the weekends.

Maritime Museum — fascinating ships and expansive views

Exploratorium. Their new location in the piers is stunning.


Greenwich and Filbert street steps in Telegraph Hill. Watch for the wild parrots.

Carved ceilings in the Mission District library

Bay walkway between pier 1 and pier 20

Hearst Castle, San Simeon, CA

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A Spanish cathedral and an Italian villa had a baby, and they named it Hearst Castle. This trip proved to be the perfect preview for our trip to Spain and Vienna. William Hearst did the “Grand Tour” of Europe as a boy, then sought to build an eclectic European castle on the California coast. Julia Morgan’s genius shines. Can you imagine working as an architect with a client who changed the blueprints daily? Julia masterfully blends building materials from Spain, Egypt, Greece, and Italy while making it all work together.


Cambria, CA

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Ocean, pinot, ollalieberry pie, and views. What could be better? Start with a walk on the boardwalk at Moonstone Beach. Then head inland through town to the Stolo family winery for a pinot and cabernet flight. Finish the day with a mini ollalieberry pie in the garden at Linn’s farmstore.

San Luis Obispo, CA

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Go on a Thursday evening for the farmers’ market, if you can. The whole downtown becomes a lively party, street fair, and local food tasting. Yum! Vendor stalls offer lots of dinner options. The sausage BBQ had the longest line. Eggplant parmesan and bratwurst were both delicious. After dinner, catch live music and enjoy the garden at Linnea’s Cafe. Then sip an espresso at the funky cafes on Higuera street. The next day, work off the calories at Bishop peak, which has expansive views and bouldering access. San Luis Obispo is an up-and-coming startup community. They have a coworking space, accelerator, incubator, and Start Up Weekend. The entrepreneurial community benefits from the energy of Cal Poly university and from a growing population of tech-savvy Los Angeles escapees. While SLO isn’t a beach town, the beach is a half hour away. Head south for sunny beaches, or north for the contemplative fog and friendly seals of Morro Bay.

Sunstone Winery, Santa Ynez

Visit Sunstone for the architecture and gardens. Stay for the delicious wine. The tasting room is modeled after a Tuscan winery, with all the stones imported from Tuscany. $15 buys a tasting flight. The pinot noir is rich and well-balanced. They do offer snacks on site, but they’re pricey. Take your tasting glass out to the garden and enjoy a budget “Tuscan” vacation.

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Lost Abbey Brewing, San Marcos, CA

After Zion, we headed back to Southern California. Lost Abbey specializes in abbey-style ales. Their “Angels Share” bourbon barrel trappist ale is smoky and rich. There’s a food truck just outside most days of the week. It’s a relaxing place to spend an afternoon.


DC-DC Conversion and Power Efficiency

Many of our electronic gizmos plug into a common 120 VAC outlet.  Most of the time, you don’t need to know anything else: things just work.  But, living in a van is not “most of the time.”

The typical electrical system in a van, RV, or boat is nominally 12 VDC (often closer to 13.8 VDC).  To get 120 VAC, you need an inverter.  This conversion process is anywhere from 50% – 95% efficient, depending on the quality of the inverter, input voltage, and load.  Take a look at the manual for an inverter to learn about efficiency.  You should find a curve showing efficiency vs. load.  Lazy manufacturers will just give you a single best-case efficiency number.  Cheap inverters often don’t list efficiency, and, in these cases, I assume the worst.  In any case, using an inverter wastes 5% – 50% of your precious, limited power.

To rub salt in this wound, consider that most small electronics, including computers, LCD monitors, and phones, internally operate off low voltage DC, often between 3.3 VDC – 24 VDC.  So, these gizmos contain an internal AC-DC converter or an external AC-DC “brick”, which are between 20% – 90% efficient.  You waste power converting from low-voltage DC to 120 VAC.  Then, you waste more power converting from 120 VAC to low-voltage DC.  And, you waste space for both the inverter and possibly one power brick for every gizmo.

What can you do?  How do you eliminate this waste?  In some cases, you can connect a gizmo directly to the 12 VDC system bypassing the inverter and power brick.  In other cases, you can connect your gizmo via a DC-DC converter, which regulates the voltage to whatever the gizmo requires.

  1. Make sure your gizmo has an external power brick.  If the 120 VAC power cord connects directly to the device, then you’re out of luck, short of hacking up the internals of the device.  Shop around for devices with external power bricks.
  2. Figure out the power requirements.  Typically, there’s a label on the device listing input voltage or voltage range, peak current, and AC or DC.  You might also see peak power instead of current.  Divide power by voltage to get current.  If you can’t find the power requirements printed on the device, look on the power brick or in the manual.  If your device requires AC rather than DC, it’s probably not worth the effort to eliminate the inverter and power brick.  I’ll assume the device requires DC power, which is the case for most small electronics.
  3. Understand that your vehicle’s 12 VDC system may range from 11 VDC – 15 VDC, depending on temperature and battery charging.  If you gizmo accepts this voltage range, your life is easy.  Along with a suitably sized fuse and wire, you may connect directly to your vehicle’s electrical system.
  4. If your device needs a voltage within this range but does not specify that the entire voltage range is acceptable or if your device needs a voltage outside this range, you cannot connect directly.  You need a DC-DC converter.  The Internet is your friend.  Jameco Electronics and Digikey sell a huge selection of DC-DC converters.  Shop for a converter that accepts 11 VDC – 15 VDC input (or greater range), an output voltage within the range printed on your gizmo, and an output current at least as large as that printed on your gizmo.

Here are a few tips to help with wiring:

  1. Always use wire rated for at least the maximum current.  Better still, make sure the gizmo’s maximum current is no more than 80% of the wire’s rated current, just as a safety margin.  There’s no harm in using larger wire than necessary, except for higher cost and more difficult routing.
  2. Always use a fuse or circuit breaker to match the wire’s current rating.
  3. Swipe the connector from the device’s original power brick.  Most gizmos have a small round power connector of various diameters.  Cut off and reuse the original plug.  Make sure you get the polarity correct when you rewire the connector.
  4. Use heat shrink tube and electrical tape to protect connections and bare wire.
  5. If you need part of your wiring harness to be removable, consider using Anderson PowerPole connectors.  They’re easy to assemble and durable.

Living in a small DC house, I find these changes to reduce wasted power and to reduce piles of power bricks worthwhile and relatively easy.  So far, I’ve converted a monitor and modem, and I’ve specifically chosen other items that run directly off 11-15 VDC input.

Chillin’ Down

With the hot summer temperatures, I’ve become unsatisfied with my refrigerator temperatures.  Even after running all night without opening the door, my refrigerator runs about 12C-14C.  With normal use, the temperature rises upwards of 20C.  Your friendly FDA recommends a maximum temperature of 4C.

After a bit of investigation and discussion with a fellow van owner, I set out to improve matters.

  1. I measured about a 0.53 VDC voltage drop (3.9%) from the battery bus bar to the refrigerator.  The manufacturer of the refrigerator requires no more than a 0.5 VDC drop.  The requirements I gave my installer called for no more than a 2% drop, a common standard for solar-powered systems.  Excessive voltage drop wastes power and reduces the performance of the compressor.  I replaced the needlessly roundabout and undersized 14 gauge wiring (the refrigerator’s manufacturer requires 12 gauge and recommends 10 gauge) with a more direct 8 gauge run, and I now measure a 0.14 VDC (1.1%) drop.  In an ongoing effort to cut RFI inside the van, I added a mix 31 ferrite to the power leads, too.  But, I haven’t actually noticed any RFI from the refrigerator.
  2. I insulated the compartment containing the refrigerator.  Due to the size of the opening and clearance for the mounting flange I could not add insulation directly to the refrigerator.
  3. I added a fan to the rear of the compartment containing the refrigerator.  I manually control this fan with a switch.
  4. I added a fan inside the refrigerator to circulate cool air from the freezer area.  The fan runs only when the refrigerator is running — I spliced into the fan control output of the compressor electronics.

Time in hot climates will prove my efforts.  But, the initial results look good.  The temperature drops faster and stays below 10C.

Refrigerator temperatures before improvements

Refrigerator temperatures before improvements

Refrigerator temperatures after modifications

Refrigerator temperatures after modifications


M4C: Man Seeking Coffee

A good cup of coffee is surprisingly difficult to find.  The popular chain “coffee” houses usually serve some sort of foul brownish liquid made palatable with milk, sugar, cinnamon, caramel, and other such travesties.  These shops are in the business of serving “coffee-based beverages,” but I just want coffee.  DoubleShot Coffee in Tulsa, OK introduced me to coffee as a complex, flavorful beverage that stands on its own.  As I travel, I struggle to find decent coffee.  I’ve had many cups that barely deserve the adjectives “brown” and “warm”.  I’ve had a few good cups.

I recently visited Seattle, the supposed homeland of awesome coffee.  Here’s my opinion of a few shops:

  • Victrola Coffee Roasters – I visited the Beacon Hill shop.  At first, I didn’t see the shop and figured my smartphone had lied to me about location.  But, the shop is there nestled between several larger storefronts.  The espresso is fantastically creamy, thick, oily, and rich.  And, the barista was making fun of caramel machiattos.  Victrola is my current favorite espresso in Seattle.
  • Espresso Vivace – Parking anywhere near here was an hour long driving-in-circles hell.  But, the espresso is memorable and tasty.  Unlike other shops that pull doppios, Vivace pulls ristrettos only, espresso made with less water than usual.  Vivace lives up to its reputation for fantastic coffee, and I only wish I had more of it.
  • Caffe Vita – After finishing at Vivace, I noticed that Vita was just down the street.  With more than a hour left on my parking meter, I set out on foot.  The espresso is certainly excellent, though my ability to really evaluate and appreciate espresso diminishes after three in one day.  Vita was using bottomless portafilters, something I’d never seen before.
  • Stumptown Coffee – Stumptown was my final stop of the day and did not disappoint.  The espresso is definitely top tier, but my ability to say anything more intelligent diminished even more by the fourth in one day.  Stumptown coffee is available in branded shops and independent shops throughout the region.  The independent shops vary from pretty good to boring.
  • Mondo’s – This coffee stand is in a grocery store parking lot just off the freeway.  Judging by the morning traffic, it’s a popular stop for folks heading to work.  The espresso is decent.  The Americano is weak, watered-down, and nearly flavorless.  But the stand is convenient.
  • Vince’s Coffee – This shop is in Renton, a suburb southeast of Seattle.  I had business nearby and stopped here for breakfast.  The shop is pleasant with nice hardwood floors and plenty of seating.  The espresso is decent, although the burrito I had was uninspired.  If I lived nearby, I’d visit again.
  • The French Bakery – Good coffee seems frustratingly difficult to find outside of downtown Seattle.  This shop, besides offering very good baked good, sports a $22000 Mistral machine and the best espresso I’ve found in the ‘burbs.  Downtown shops are still much better in my opinion.
  • 148th Ave Coffee – This shop gets good reviews online.  It was conveniently located near a nice park, so I dropped in.  The staff is friendly, the WiFi is fast, and the environment is quiet.  However, I feel bad for the fine coffee plants that died to make this place’s espresso, marked with overpowering notes of thin, sour, and foul.
  • Starbucks – This chain offers the same mediocrity everywhere.  Don’t bother unless you need free (albeit usually slow) WiFi.

I’ve also briefly explored coffee options in Bend, OR:

  • Backporch Coffee Roasters – Backporch appears to be the single largest roaster in town with two shops.  Both locations are nicely done, but I prefer the southern location over the northern because their roaster is here and the environment is a bit more relaxed.  The coffee they were serving was very good but a bit too bright and acidic for my tastes.  The cappuccino was exceptional in the traditional 5 ounce size.
  • Lone Pine Coffee Roasters – Lone Pine is, literally, in a downtown alley and is a favorite.  The staff is knowledgeable and helpful, and they roast in shop.  The coffee is fantastic, and the shop is relaxed and pleasant.  If I lived nearby, I’d be a regular.

I look forward to finding more coffee on my travels!


More Tiny Houses

Tiny houses, typically complete homes with all the usual amenities in a few hundred square feet, make the news again. This article nicely discusses the cost and size benefits in dense urban areas.

Tiny homes hit the big city by Emanuella Grinberg, CNN (Fri September 21, 2012)

Thanks, Ken, for the link.