My first off roading YouTube video

During my last trip to Moab, I tried out some trails northwest of the main Arches National Park entrance. For six months of the year, the main Arches entrance has a very long line set aside only for people that already grabbed a 1-hour reservation spot to enter, and they’re not easy to get. Last year it took me many tries to score an open spot, then it took over an hour to get through the lines.

However, if you have an unlimited National parks pass (I got mine at REI) and a 4×4 off road vehicle, you can take Willow Springs Road and its associated trail to get into Arches National Park via the “back” entrance. There are several things along the trail worth visiting, and when you’re done you’ll be back on pavement, about 15 miles deep into Arches, where you can visit all the famous arches and rock formations on the drive out at the main entrance.

I did this trail last week, shot a few video clips, then did some narration to explain it all. Then I grabbed the Mr. Beast font and made a silly thumbnail much in the style of YouTube tropes. Enjoy.

Blacks Beach/Torrey Pines real-time erosion

I was randomly scrolling YouTube and ended up watching about half a dozen videos capturing some landslides near San Diego, California, specifically in the Blacks Beach and Torrey Pines area. There’s been a ton of rainfall recently and as you watch this, much of it is simply mud and dirt that hasn’t been compressed over time to stone, so it’s prone to natural mass wasting events like this. The video above goes for about five minutes as the hillside slowly slumps to a lower angle, with lots of the vertical towers of rock and mud tumbling below.

Again, this is mostly natural stuff that is supposed to happen, not particularly human influenced, captured by someone at the right spot at the right time to record it all.

Moab winter trip report

This week I took a quick solo road trip to Moab, Utah to explore some trails and see the southwest under a light dusting of snow (it’s hot as heck in Moab 6-9 months per year). I know every guidebook says to only go there March-October, but I’d been watching the weather for weeks and despite torrential rains and cold fronts slamming the US, Moab–even at 6,000′ above sea level–is remarkably mild and sits in a rain shadow, while Salt Lake City a few hours away gets pummeled with snow.

Having Moab all to yourself

My last trip to Moab was during the 2022 Easter Jeep Safari, when about 20,000 jeep owners descend on the small town like a giant CES consumer electronics convention. Hotels can be $500/night, restaurants are packed and the trails around Moab are choked with built up off road Jeeps.

In mid-January, things are different. You can drive right into Arches National Park without using their online reservation lottery where thousands of people jockey for a one-hour window that gives you permission to enter the park. Instead, you just drive in, park near one of the arches and walk up to it. Seeing so many famous spots all by myself was pretty great. I once went to Yosemite in early January and got to sit at the base of massive waterfalls that see millions of visitors each year, but I was completely by myself in total silence. Most of my time in Moab was like that.

Off road trail fun

The main reason I went to Moab was to explore more tails in the Jeep I bought last year. I had an incredible time on mellower trails on my last trip, and wanted to try more challenging things.

Arches national park

Day one, I did the Willow Springs road, to Eye of the Whale arch, to Tower arch off road trails that eventually spit you out in the middle of Arches National Park. I saw petrified dinosaur tracks and hiked to two arches, and drove up and down the mildly challenging trails for a couple hours that morning, having a blast the whole way.

Fins and Things

In the afternoon I drove Fins and Things, which is a popular trail near downtown Moab. It’s often marked off as easy-ish and a good introduction to Moab’s off road trail network.

I went in expecting a cakewalk and I did all the extra optional sections and harder obstacles when options were available, but I would describe it as solidly in the middle to difficult range—not easy at all. There were tons of short shelf climbs and drops, times I had to use my front-trail camera to see because out the windshield was only sky. I had to use front and rear axle lockers to get up particularly steep sections, and every transition tested the approach and departure angles of my Jeep.

My favorite bit was the photo at the top of this section: you’re about 90 minutes into covering only 6 or 7 miles and then you see the back half of the trail on petrified sand dunes (called “Fins”). If you look closely at the image, you can see the black line of tire tracks going off into the distance and back again, each dune requiring steep climbs and descents.

When I finally made it out a couple hours after starting, a sense of relief washed over that you only get from intense, stressful but fun trails.

Dome Plateau trail

I devoted my second day to the Dome Plateau trail. It’s an all-day long trip of 35 miles criss-crossing a plateau above the Colorado River and promises some of the best landscape views in all of Moab. I knew this one could be sketchy because the four or five trail videos I found on YouTube all involved people losing the trail, running out of fuel, and generally barely making it out safely. I prepared as best I could, I had a full tank, food, water, drinks, a 20ºF sleeping bag and pillow, waterproof shoes, a winch, and a giant duffle bag filled with recovery equipment. My cell phone booster meant I had phone connections for about 75% of the trail and my iPhone went into SOS satellite mode outside of that.

Still, things got dicey at several points. The climb in the first couple miles was pretty gnarly and this trail definitely requires a body-on-frame lifted and modified off road vehicle like a Jeep or a mid-sized or full sized truck.

It was just above freezing when I started and after a few miles snowflakes began to fall, but they melted on impact with the windshield. A mile later and the snow was sticking. Then I was just on snowy trails for the next few hours.

The thing about climbing an off road trail in snow is that if you can’t make it up in the first try, you don’t just put it in reverse and try again, because often you start sliding out of control, down a hill. So I had to hammer a few steep climbs to make sure I got over the top in one go.

I understand why people often get lost on this long trail since it has lots of twists and turns with tiny forest service signs to denote the trail, and I only completed it successfully by using “Follow Mode” in the Trails Offroad app, while also keeping the Gaia app on my CarPlay screen with topo maps and the same trails as a reference. There were several spots where the trail faded into a forest, only for me to double-check my two maps to realize which couple of trees ahead I was supposed to drive between to keep going properly.

The incredible views the trail is famous for were largely gone in the clouds but I did seriously enjoy two spots on the trail. The first was the La Boca Arch, which was about halfway into the day. I hadn’t seen anyone since I started the trail so having the arch all to myself was pretty great.

The other memorable spot was Cave Springs closer to the end of the trail. It’s a series of caves with active springs inside dripping out, helping erode the bottoms of these giant sand monoliths. I took a late lunch here, sitting on a giant slab of fallen rock in total peace and quiet. Apparently cowboys camped here to stay out of the weather in the old days.

Exiting the trail, things got a bit dicey because you have to drive through a flash flood wash area with dozens of shallow river crossings. I had to avoid one section of the trail that was completely washed out, but I got to see two abandoned shacks on the alternate route that looked to be cabins from the 1800s, just sitting and slowly decaying on a hilltop.

The final section of wash was only up to a foot deep in spots, making the water crossings easy even during a rain/snow storm. In the end, it took about four hours to complete and I’ll definitely return on a sunny spring day to enjoy the views I missed that day.

Tips and lessons

Moab offers utterly fantastic scenery unlike no other, and it’s only a few hours out of Salt Lake City. I will probably return to the region every six months or so for the foreseeable future. There’s just too much to see, experience, and cover in this area that each trip I feel like I’ve only scratched 5% of what is there.

The land is a bit dangerous and no joke. In the winter, you can easily get stranded far from cell service making quick rescue impossible. The other nine months of the year you battle heat exhaustion and dehydration. You shouldn’t go four wheelin’ alone, especially in poorly marked snowy conditions, but if you do, be prepared with self-recovery equipment, emergency comms, food, water, and sleeping gear. There are half a dozen companies in Moab who will rescue you, but it can cost thousands of dollars to assemble a team to tow you out to safety.

The bible for getting to know the trail network is the Funtreks Moab book. I would also strongly suggest using the Trails Offroad app, which mirrors many of the trails found in the Funtreks book, but on your phone complete with turn-by-turn directions and hints and photos and details of each major obstacle. I would have been completely lost without it and it’s a unique set of features I haven’t found elsewhere. I found the Gaia app useful for reference, but didn’t get anything out of having the OnX Off Road app, as the crowd-sourced trail info was poor.

In the end, I got snowed out the last day of my trip and headed home early, as several more trails I wanted to do were closed due to the extreme winter weather. Despite weeks of blue skies and cold temps but no snow, a winter storm finally slammed Moab. I plan to return in a few months at the start of Spring for another trip, and I am counting the days until it happens.

Hanks for the memories

Earlier this week I listened to the Bullseye interview with Tom Hanks, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard from host Jesse Thorn. Tom tries to keep things light and deflects Jesse’s early queries with attempted goofs, but soon after, Jesse gets deep and I probably learned half a dozen things about Tom Hanks in this one interview that I’ve never heard before.

Then I thought about how many interviews have I heard with Tom Hanks. It’s not outrageous hyperbole to say I’ve heard Tom Hanks talk about himself probably 100 times before. I watched Letterman religiously for 15 years. I watched Carson, then Arsenio, then over a decade of Conan. I’ve definitely heard Tom Hanks pitch a new movie many, many dozens of times, and he rarely reveals anything about himself personally.

Anyway, do check out the Bullseye interview, it really goes to deep places about ten minutes in and continues to the end.

First thoughts from a Rivian R1S test drive

In February of 2020, I plunked down a deposit on the Rivian R1S, a 3-row full electric SUV soon after the Rivian truck was announced and truck prototypes were shown at various events. I’ve owned nearly a dozen different trucks over my life but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate off-road capable SUVs as more useful. It’s a full EV with around 300 miles of range, can seat 7 people in a pinch, and has more than seven feet of flat floor inside with the seats down (longer than a queen bed!). It seemed like the ultimate go anywhere, do anything, but also do-it-in-extreme-comfort kind of car.

I ordered it right before COVID first hit, and my Rivian profile page said I was six months away from getting the R1S built for about two years, regularly updating to six months further into the future as dates approached and their production got further behind. Last Fall, they committed to early reservation holders like me and I got a build date of February or March of 2023, which still sounded impossibly far off into the future.

Last week, a greetings email hit me from Rivian saying my build date was just around the corner and we’d soon figure out logistics, and if I wanted to test drive one, I could try out a R1S in Portland. I immediately replied and today I spent an hour in a Rivian for the first time.

The good

Right off the top, it’s a very nice luxury SUV that feels like it warrants its high ($80k-90k) price. It’s feels big inside, but not super big on the outside, more like a mid-sized SUV. The horsepower and torque is ridiculous, with 845hp and 906ft/lbs of torque and when I hammered the throttle to the floor it really sent you back into your seats in the way only big EVs do.

I was impressed that in normal driving, it felt very mild-mannered, and drove completely like a normal SUV. If you wanted to haul ass you had to slam the gas pedal to the floor, whereas in a friend’s Tesla Model 3 I felt like I was accidentally making the car go way too fast constantly.

The interior is great, with tons of good ideas. Touch your finger to any light in the ceiling or above the doors and they turn on via capacitive touch. There’s an always-charged flashlight in the driver’s door you pop out by tapping it. The bluetooth speaker in the center console is also always charged and could be nice for beach trips.

I was impressed with the interior space when you fold down the second and third row seats. You get a fully flat floor, about 86″ long and about 56″ wide, which is a tad narrower but half a foot longer than a queen-sized bed. Even at my 6’3″ height, I can sleep comfortably in the back as-is and would totally use this for camping with an air mattress (that can inflate thanks to the built-in air compressor in the back!)

Rivian is doing monthly over-the-air updates and recently they added a “Camping Mode” which is really slick. You can turn off all the electronics but keep the heat or A/C going as you sleep inside overnight. You can turn off the lights and screens and presence monitors to save battery life. I don’t know how much total battery gets used by 8hrs of light heater or air conditioning running, but if I ever camped in a RV spot at a campground, I’m sure you could keep it plugged in and comfortable your entire trip. The best feature of camping mode was that it used its own air suspension to fully level the car front/rear and side to side, so it doesn’t really matter where or how you park, each of the corners has about 8″ of suspension travel to tweak until the whole thing is perfectly flat.

For the most part, it was very quiet inside, the suspension felt smooth enough on rough roads, and all the nice touches were delightful (there are something like a dozen USB-C ports all over it front to back).

The not so good

With any new car company, it’s a bit risky to buy their first edition cars because they’ve only been in production for a year or two. This is why the doors of a Tesla might not fit together well, but if you buy a Ford Mustang or F-150 EV, the bumpers and doors always line up perfectly because the company behind them has already produced cars for over 100 years. It feels a little risky to plunk down so much money on essentially an untested new release from a new manufacturer.

It’s also weird how about 75% of the car feels like the highest luxury, but about 25% doesn’t at all. You get heated and cooled seats up front, heated seats in the second row that slide forward/back and recline. But the third row seats are manually raised and lowered (most minivans over $40k have power 2nd/3rd row seating), and there’s no heads up display option above the dash to help you keep your eyes on the road, even though most cars over $60k have some sort of HUD option. During the test drive I was sitting in the backseat for a bit and it was getting warm, and I checked the little center console video display and saw my climate controls were set to 73ºF. I couldn’t find an arrow button to cool things down and the rep mentioned it was keyed off his settings up front, and I couldn’t change the temp, only turn my vents off or on.

There is no CarPlay or Android Auto in the Rivian because Amazon was an investor so the only voice assistant inside is Alexa, not Siri or Google. This is almost a dealbreaker for me since I use CarPlay heavily to keep my eyes on the road while having texts read to me or picking music by voice. The Rivian rep on my test drive said they currently don’t support letting you know you got a text or hearing it read out loud, but hope to include it in future OTA updates.

Last thing that stuck out was the regenerative braking. When you lift your foot off the gas pedal in most EVs, you can optionally have the car use the engine to recapture power into the batteries, but also slow down without touching the brakes. This is called “one-pedal driving” in EVs, but what was shocking to me was even in the mildest mode, the Rivian R1S regen braking was really strong, to the point that passengers can start to feel car sick as the car bucks any time the driver lifts their right foot. I’m sure this will take practice and after a week I’d figure out how to leave very slight pressure on the pedal to “coast” a bit more, reserving full regen braking for stop signs and lights. I’ve driven about half a dozen different EVs over the last few years and the Rivian easily had the strongest regen braking (and it couldn’t be turned off completely or turned down, only made even more aggressive).

The verdict

I’m going ahead with my long standing pre-order but while I’m happy with my built-up Jeep Rubicon plugin hybrid off roader, this will be my partner’s daily driver car. We’ll take it on camping trips in the state, but rarely go on road trips longer than 300 miles since high output non-tesla charging stations are few and far between, especially in the deepest reaches of Oregon (though Rivian is trying to build their own high-speed charger network).

Even though Rivian was established about 10 years ago and raised billions to get going, it still feels a bit risky to buy such an expensive car from a company new to the game. But they’ve been great on customer support since they started taking pre-orders so I have some confidence they’ll support the launch edition versions of their vehicles, hopefully for the next 5-10 years and beyond into the future.

Another good sign from today’s test drive: I didn’t take any photos beyond a quick BeReal prompt just as I got in, because I was having too much fun driving around and testing everything out the whole time.

If you want to check out these cars, signing up for their newsletter will tip you off to test drive centers and test events in your area. For me it popped up as an option pictured here on my pre-order configuration page as of last week.

Belkin MagSafe monitor mount, Continuity Camera, and using your iPhone as your webcam

Last month I heard that Belkin was releasing MagSafe iPhone mounts for the MacBook and another version for Studio Displays (or any other monitor really). I bought the monitor-focused one and it showed up today. It’s pretty great! Here’s the best settings I could get with Center Stage and Portrait Mode and Studio light turned on.

This is pretty friggin’ good for a phone camera talking wirelessly to your Mac.

I’ve played with desktop webcams for the past 5+ years, using things like a Canon 5DMk3 with a nice f/1.8 lens. A couple years back I settled on using an older Sony A7II with the default lens, which gave almost as good of quality as the Canon with about half the size and a better auto-focus. I’ve played with phone apps like Camo in the past, but it was never quite as good as a dedicated camera.

In the last MacOS release they added “continuity camera” as a feature to turn your iPhone into a webcam any time you need it. There are two cool things about this over something like Camo, which is it’s all automatic and wireless, and MagSafe makes it dead simple to just plop your phone onto the magnet above your monitor.

It took me about 30min of tinkering with settings to find the best possible picture from the setup. Here are my suggestions.

How to get the best possible settings for your iPhone Continuity Camera

Step 1: Toss your Belkin MagSafe adapter on top of your monitor

Step 2: Attach your phone to it with the rear-facing camera looking at you, it has to be locked too (no need to unlock nor do you need to launch the camera app)

Step 3: Launch any Mac app that uses your camera, go to that app’s video settings and select your iPhone as your camera source, then wait 5-10sec for it to show up in your app as your camera (there is a bit of a delay where it seems like it’s not working then BAM! it works)

Step 4: Click the little switches in your menu bar and you will see Video Effects as an option to control the camera through MacOS

Step 5: Try out all three available options. I like the look of Portrait mode turned on. Try out the Studio Light option too, and Center Stage will zoom in on just your head if the wide angle is too much.

That’s it! Go back to Zoom or Skype or Slack or whatever and use your phone as your webcam. It’s pretty great. I also love that you can see your phone’s charge on the Video Effects panel and it’ll warn you to connect your phone to a charger when it gets low during a call.

Oh, one last bonus feature: there’s a tripod mount on the bottom of the Belkin mount, in case you want to use a tripod instead of the top of your monitor, which works great on any standard tripod.

Update: two months later

I still love this mount and use it all the time for video meetings, but I did want to add that since I first started testing it, the wireless camera connection has been pretty flaky, to the point that I don’t use it anymore and just wired up a lightning cable to my monitor so I can connect with a cable, which makes the camera available almost immediately.

Surprisingly good tech: The weBoost Drive Reach cell signal booster

A couple years ago, I started seeing ads for “cell phone booster” antennas for cars and trucks around the off-roading/4×4 world as a way to stay connected while out in the middle of nowhere, but I was deeply skeptical. How much better could your phone signal be after paying a few hundred bucks for a magic black box? Cell network poles are huge and often only found in cities so if you’re really out in the middle of nowhere, how can they possibly help?

Then an off-roader I follow on YouTube posted a cell signal booster testing video from his favorite mountain bike trails that have zero-to-one-bar of mobile phone coverage. I was immediately hooked because where I live in Oregon, pretty much every mountain bike trailhead I arrive at is at the limits of what an iPhone can connect to on the Verizon network (and Verizon has the most coverage of all in this state). This is a problem since mountain biking is fairly dangerous and if you did need to call for an ambulance, it would be nice if your phone could still connect from most trailheads.

After watching that video with its good results, I watched several more “real world” cell booster videos from RVers and off-roaders just to make sure the one video I liked wasn’t a secret paid post. Every reviewer seemed pleasantly surprised by the additional bandwidth and coverage. I looked around and decided to pull the trigger on the weBoost Drive Reach, which is their most powerful option for cars, and it cost me around $390 (currently $500 on amazon, cheaper on the weBoost website direct).

When it arrived, I put the small magnetic antenna at the rear end of the roof on my Lexus GX (per the instructions, it needs to be far away from your phone), and fished the wires inside to power it up and provide the small antenna near the dash to boost signals to nearby phones. If you can fish wires under carpets and door trim pieces you’ll be fine, but if you want a super clean install with no exposed cables, hire a stereo shop pro to fully hide it.

After a couple weeks of testing, I was impressed. I live in a city that despite having 1-3 bars of mobile network availability, frequently requires buffering on services like Apple Music and Spotify. Music streaming works flawlessly in every major city I travel to, but I live at the edge of the rural/suburban boundary, and things don’t always work great. With the booster installed and operating, I was seeing a boost of 2 to 3 bars of coverage wherever I go, and music buffering has become a thing of the past. 

My small weBoost antenna on the back of my SUV

An update from six months later

I originally wrote this and posted it on Twitter in the Summer of 2022. When Fall came around, I sold my Lexus GX (I kept my weBoost from it) and I bought a new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe plugin hybrid. The Jeep’s roof is mostly fiberglass so I knew the small magnetic antenna wouldn’t cut it, and I installed new bumpers front and rear with multiple mounting points for accessories. I decided to upgrade the antenna to the larger RV/Semi-truck unit that I bolted onto the rear of my spare tire carrier since it would fit better and also claims to extend the range. It was about $120 for the new antenna and I have it mounted on a spring to protect it if it ever contacts a low ceiling in a parking garage.

I’ve had this mounted for about a month and it is a bit more powerful than the last setup. I’m definitely getting about 3 bars more than usual in most places, and on one of my first test drives I went about 10 miles into the coastal mountains and had Spotify streaming music without buffering or silence the entire time in places there was normally no coverage at all.

These things are expensive at around $400-500, but it’s a good way to have much better access to cell networks in case anything ever goes wrong, plus it makes your everyday use faster and smoother. I honestly thought these were mostly snake oil until I got to use one in two different vehicles, and I’m planning to run one on any car I own that carries my mountain bikes or goes on 4×4 trails just due to the added safety aspects.

Ice Storm fun

Last night as I was driving home on a sheet of frozen rain I saw some teens hooning it up in some parking lots and woke up this morning to find every big parking lot in town has these perfect donut-shaped burnouts in them.

I had to pull over and stop to take this shot because it’s so perfect.

(also, oddly, this is good for teens to do since they quickly learn the handling/braking limits of their cars in bad conditions and it actually makes you a better well-rounded driver)

Google Docs gripe

(I posted this on Mastodon but I might as well share here in the off chance any Googlers still read blogs)

It’s utterly bonkers in the year 2022 you can’t embed a YouTube video directly in a Google Doc.

Each time I’m working on a draft blog post for a client I take a screenshot of a YouTube video, upload it into the draft as an image then add the YouTube URL as a comment for my editor to pick up. It’s an sloppy hack and a tedious waste of time for everyone involved.

Ideally you’d see a new YouTube embed as an option in Google Doc’s Insert menu. Then you’d simply paste in the YouTube URL, and it would appear in your document as a real YouTube video embed with playback/sound/etc controls and your editor could easily copy the URL you embedded into whatever content management system will ultimately be used to publish the final product.

Imagine if someone that worked at Google and used more than one product at the same time could streamline that, it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to deploy a feature like this.

An interesting Instagram business model

I love seeing how people do things on the edges of what is possible. In this case, how people make a living off being viral/popular on any social network. Most networks don’t have direct mechanisms to pay users, so instead people have to improvise all sorts of other ways to try and make a living within the confines and limits of a social network.

To date, most often you see accepting payment for posts that sell a product, but recently I stumbled across a street photographer with viral Reels where he randomly walks up to strangers and asks to take their portraits.

Here are just his reels if you want to see what I’m talking about.

The people he films are often hesitant, because it seems like he’s bothering them or hitting on them but then he shows them his Instagram feed (screenshots below, they are really good portraits!) and eventually they comply and you see him take a handful of shots quickly and he shows them what’s in the viewfinder. The kicker is the final, fully-developed image is impressively dark and moody and with enough bokeh that you know he’s using an extremely good/expensive lens with the f-stop slammed down. They’re professional-looking portraits that make ordinary people look extraordinary.

The interesting part is what follows. At the end of these, he’s actually selling photo filters to get the same moody, dark look in his portraits for anyone using a photo editing tool like Lightroom. And I assume it’s working since he’s in my Reels feed quite often and shows no signs of stopping.

There’s a whole world of ultra-viral TikTok and Reels out there of people drawing strangers on the street, or shooting photos, or singing to them or whatever, but it’s interesting this guy has taken the format and joined it to selling his own tools to help people get better/more interesting photos while also blending a bit of showing you how he frames a subject and takes a decent shot to begin with.

It’s an interesting mix of a popular viral format to make the viewer feel warm and fuzzy from watching but also throws in some photography lessons so the viewer feels like they learned something too and then the kicker at the end is you can buy a filter to make your photos look like his. It’s something I haven’t seen before done and it’s done well.