Friday, September 12, 2014

Football Season

It's getting toward Fall, and that means high school football (at least it does around here these days). Which I find somewhat surprising. My daughters aren't the biggest sports fans in the world, to put it mildly. But they sure do love going to our Garnet Valley football games.

For Grace, It is a chance to wander around and socialize with her friends. I don't think she ever pays the least bit of attention to the actual game. Julia loves going and seeing her friends (everyone seems to know her, and say hi), but she also surprises me by paying attention to the game itself.

I'm glad the kids are enjoying it. As much as I do like going to the games (and actually watching the football...), we wouldn't be going if the kids didn't want to. So I am glad that they have each found something that they like. It's gotten to be a routine over the last couple of years that if there is a home game and we don't have something else specific going on, we'll be there.
Upper Darby at Garnet Valley

The first game of the year was a loss at Unionville (which we didn't go to). Apparently, we scored a TD early, missed the extra point, and then didn't score again for the rest of the game, while Unionville kicked a pair of field goals and registered a safety. Ugh. We have a young team this year, having lost many important graduating seniors, and I'm not sure how good we will be (at least compared to last year's state playoff team).

Last week's game was a 34-20 home win over Upper Darby (which we went to). The game wasn't as close as the score.
Garnet Valley band

Tonight, to my great satisfaction (having watched my hometown Springfield team lose to them every single year growing up), we beat Ridley at home 21-14. We went up 14-0 before giving up a 92 yard kickoff return to make it 14-7. With about 3 minutes to go in the game, we broke off a 33 yard touchdown on 4th and 3 from the 33, making it seem that the game was over. Ridley added a TD in the closing minute to get within 7, but that's as close as it got. Nothing is quite as much fun as beating Ridley.

In addition to the football, the kids enjoy watching the marching band, which includes a few of our neighbors' kids. Last year's theme was Pirates of the Carribean. This year it's Harry Potter. Early on, it looks like a promising show, but they need some work...

Next week...another home game.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Daimler Ferret Scout Car

Having driven past this at least 100 times (on route 309 near Coopersburg), I'm glad I finally stopped and took some pictures. On the side of the road, not 10 feet from a major road, is an armored car of some sort. I've always wondered what it was, but have generally been in the middle of a long drive to or from work or family visits to north Jersey.
Daimler Ferret front/side

A link to a picture closely resembling this vehicle is here, where it is labeled a Daimler Ferret Mk 2/6 Scout Car. According to Wikipedia, there are a ton of minor variants of this vehicle, of which 4,409 were produced between 1952 and 1971. I have no idea what model this is. Nor does it matter...but there it is, and it looks cool.
Daimler Ferret rear

It took a decent bit of Googling to identify it. Given the general appearance, my first impression was that it was some sort of British WW2 light armored car. I was sort of close and sort of not. It is a lot more modern than I would have guessed, and so I spent time looking at WW2 armored cars of all nations to no avail. Eventually I stumbled on something that got me close, and then I found the picture linked above that got me to the right place.

I have no idea why it is sitting there rusting by the side of the road in Coopersburg, but at least I know what it is.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

First Day of School - 2014

Another summer is gone and the kids go back to school, or as parents everywhere put it, "it's the most wonderful time of the year".

The only commentary I could have is the same thing I say every year: another year? Already?

Our high school sophomore.
Grudgingly humoring Dad

And our 5th grade goofball.
Not bothering to humor Mom

Someday soon, maybe she'll grow into her backpack... Or not.
More backpack than student


Goofballs or not, I couldn't be more proud. Now if they would just slow down the whole growing up process just a little bit...

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Last of the Magoos

We were sitting and watching one of the Harry Potter movies with Grace, who plowed through all 4,000+ pages of the seven books in the last month (at age 10), when we noticed that she would only watch the movie sitting close to the TV. We asked why she did that, and the predictable answer was "because I can't see it clearly from back there lying on your bed."

And so after a quick visit to the eye doctor, the last member of the family now has glasses. She is to wear them for TV and blackboard at school - trying not to wear them for computer, reading or anything up close so she doesn't train her eyes to need them more than she already does.

When I had to get glasses for the same reason, somewhere back around 7th grade, I was devastated. She thought it was cool, and couldn't wait to pick out the frames. Good for her.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Late Summer Doldrums

Things have been busy enough. The kids are getting ready to go back to school (5th and 10th grades...I can't believe it), we have been re-doing both of their bedrooms, and there are no shortages of other things going on. But I just haven't felt much like blogging. Call it the summer doldrums I guess.

From a hobby perspective, I haven't touched a paint brush in over a month. Really the only thing I have been doing is reading through some of the new Dungeons & Dragons stuff that is being released (more on that later). And doing some work on getting ready to make an attempt at playing D&D for the first time since about 1990 (best guess).

I've assembled a bunch of IKEA "Hemnes" furniture (in white stain) for Grace's room. No more allen wrenches for a while please...

I've read some short stories out of various collections or out of Amp's New Yorker subscription.

I started a new novel, got about 10 pages in, and decided I didn't feel like reading a novel.

This holiday weekend is the end of summer, and it has been a good one. The kids are happy and healthy. They are bored and looking forward to school, which is good. Julia is already talking about the Fall school musical (Disney's The Little Mermaid) and about going to the football games, and Grace is hoping that her class will be one of the lucky ones that gets to try out the new iPad-based modules that only a few of the classes will get.

Perhaps someday soon a burst of creative energy will hit me. One can hope.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Yellowstone Under Canvas

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum...

My wife pointed out the following tidbit that she had seen somewhere and thought looked interesting: "glamping" in Yellowstone. Yellowstone Under Canvas. Glamping, which I won't bother to look up, is something along the lines of "glamour camping", or luxury pseudo-camping. Or as the website says - "camping as it should be". Which I guess means "camping if you don't really want to be camping but don't want to see Yellowstone from the window of a tour bus."

I have to admit that I find the idea intriguing...in the sense that I've always wondered what I could get away with in terms of trying to get the family into some sort of outdoors camping experience. I suspect that Grace would find it somewhat cool until she realized she had no internet connectivity. I can hear her little voice in my head saying "yes Daddy, this is very cool...can we go now?" But she might surprise me. Julia would be spooked by any and all kinds of night noises. And Amp would probably (certainly) prefer to be in a hotel.

But I would love to see Yellowstone someday, and not from the window of a tour bus. Maybe something like this could make that happen.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Avalon NJ 2014

For the second year in a row, we have spent part of a week at the Windrift Hotel in Avalon. Also once again, the kids have pronounced it "excellent", and have asked that we do more beach time in the future. I guess it is hard to say no to that.

We left Tuesday morning, drove through overcast and showers, and got there in time to spend some time at the pool in the afternoon, check out the beach, and get settled. Like last year, Amp's sister and her family are meeting us at the hotel and staying in a room across the hall. It's nice to spend time with family, and the kids get to spend time with their cousins at the pool and on the beach, which is good.

We love the Windrift. The rooms have been renovated fairly recently, and are pretty nice. The location is perfect - on the beach at 80th street, straddling the border between Avalon (to the north) and Stone Harbor (to the south). There is a nice pool with waitress service for food and drinks (gotta love that!), and it's right on the beach. So you can spend beach time in the morning or afternoon, and then head poolside for lunch or an afternoon snack. And a glass of wine. Or two. It is vacation after all...
Windrift Pool

The forecast wasn't very good for the first couple of days, but we ended up making out pretty well. It rained hard Tuesday night while we were having dinner at the restaurant in the hotel, and the rain continued into the morning, but by late morning on Wednesday we were on the beach enjoying the sunny if cool day.

The days went quickly, with beach, pool, eating, drinking, a Wildwood boardwalk side trip (complete with new fancy hair wrap for Grace at the same tattoo parlor she got it done at last year), and the usual terribly-played mini golf outing. None of us will be showing up on the professional golf tour any time soon.
Mini golf

Salt water taffy. The pancake place. Running into a few different friends while there. It was a very nice few days.

Last years' shore time was three days as a test run. This years' was four days. Knowing how much the kids like it, we'll shoot for a week(ish) next year. We made this years' reservations well in advance, and although I tried to extend us (on either end of the four days), there was no availability. We had intended to leave later on Friday and drive home, but the kids were having so much fun together that we decided to all head to our inlaws house in north Jersey and continue the vacation there through the end of the weekend. That went well too...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Appreciating Genius - Simon and Garfunkel

Time seems to catch up with some faster than others. And if you close your eyes, maybe some not so much at all.

From the performance at the 25th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert (2009):

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Blue Rocks Baseball - July 25, 2014

The kids have enjoyed going to Wilmington Blue Rocks baseball games, and last night was a beautiful summer evening with fireworks scheduled. We had nothing planned, so we hopped in the car and went down to see the game.
Blue Rocks win!

It was a nice relaxing evening as always, with better than expected fireworks, and one minor surprise. Throwing out the opening pitch, and staying to greet the fans and sign autographs, was old school professional wrestler Ted DiBiase, the "Million Dollar Man." I don't know anything about wrestling, nor do I care to, but there were a great many people at the game who obviously did. Our seats were behind third base, and DiBiase sat at a table on the concourse behind us for almost the entire game. The whole time he was there, a line of fans extended the length of the concourse.
The Million Dollar Man

Unusually for us, the Blue Rocks actually scored some runs and won the game. They aren't typically a bad team, but we tend to have bad luck and usually see losses where they only score a run or two.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Few Thoughts on D&D 5th Edition

I will preface all this by saying that I have no real substantive point of comparison for D&D 5th edition other than my recollections of playing 1st edition AD&D 25-30 years ago. And no current basis other than having read, pretty thoroughly, the Basic rules that are now downloadable from the Wizards of the Coast website. This means that the release of the 5th edition Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual are all out there in the future, being slated for staggered release over the remainder of 2014. So what 5th edition really is in some respects remains to be seen.

A few quick Google searches make it obvious that the web is overflowing with preliminary reviews of the new edition, along with lots and lots of opinions and fallout from the massive worldwide beta playtesting that has occurred since early 2012. Most of these are from D&D veterans who can comprehensively compare it to editions 2, 3, 3.5, 4, and the even earlier versions that many of us still remember. I can't do that. What I can do is give a few first impressions and comments on how this seems to me compared to what I know, or more accurately, what (little) I remember...

[Assume all of this is prefaced with: "compared to 30 years ago..."]

The first thing that strikes me on reading the first few short chapters on the basics and character creation is that there is a tremendous amount more flexibility than there was way back when. In 1st edition (1E), character classes were in many (or most) cases restricted to certain races. Now, any race can be any character class, although there are certain innate benefits to certain races that make them better suited to certain classes than others. 1E said things like "while there are dwarven clerics in the world, you can't be one...". 5E says "sure, you want to be a dwarven cleric, be a dwarven cleric". Dwarves might have racial tendencies toward higher strength and constitution (which are fighter attributes), whereas the primary attribute of clerics is wisdom, but there isn't a restriction. Moreover, while clerics may normally only be proficient in "simple weapons", i.e. the mace of old, the racial trait of dwarves being proficient in axes and warhammers trumps this, and so your dwarven cleric can march to war swinging his trusty battleaxe. I think this is absolutely great for a fantasy roleplaying game; be whatever you want to be.

There is also a ton of flexibility within the main character classes of how you choose to specialize as you advance. Fighters and rogues have "archetypes", clerics have "domains" and wizards have "arcane traditions". These can all be considered sub-classes, and strongly influence the bonuses and benefits you gain as you advance in levels, and allow for many paths of skill/spell specialization and character development. Wizards, for example, now have 7 or 8 different arcane traditions, allowing a focus on illusions, evocation (think "war magic" like fireballs and lightning bolts), conjuring, necromancy and a host of others. Very cool. Assuming that the Basic Rules that I have access to present the "plain vanilla" flavor out of all that will be available (and there are many hooks embedded in it that refer to the "real" books coming later), I am anxious to see what comes next. Whether or not I ever end up playing....

Cantrips and spells. The magic system also seems much more flexible than what I knew. Cantrips are a class of "level 0" spells which spellcasters know that do not count against the limited number of level 1+ spells that they can cast in a day. They are not insignificant spells. Take for example the clerical cantrip "Sacred Flame". This brings down "holy fire" on your enemies, and causes 1d8 damage, with a dexterity saving throw allowed, to one creature within range. It can be cast turn after turn. Wizards have similar. In the old days, once a low level cleric or wizard cast their few spells they were allowed per day, they were basically useless. Now the spells just keep on coming; not any more powerful than being able to keep swinging a sword each round, but better than firing off a couple of magic missiles and then spending the next 20 hours just hoping not to get killed. This is how it should be, I think, and will make playing lower level spellcasters much more appealing.

Damage, death and dying. In the old days, when you got to zero hit points, you died. At low levels, unless the Dungeon Master fudged things a lot (and we did), one good (bad) unlucky sneeze could kill you. Low level characters spent much of their time dying and undying. They have a much more elegant (and logical) way of dealing with this now. In short, unless taking catastrophic damage, when you reach zero hit points you become unconscious and "not stable." As long as you remain in this unconscious/unstable state, you make "death saving throws." If you pass three of these before you fail three of them, you become "stable", otherwise you really do die. There are rules for characters with the wisdom-based "medical" skill to apply first aid in the hope of circumventing the death saving throw process and stabilizing the knocked out character. Once stabilized, if no healing spells/scrolls/potions bring you back sooner, you will wake up with 1 hit point restored after 1-4 hours. I absolutely LOVE this. I have visions of hard fought, nail biting encounters where the outcome hangs in the balance. Characters begin to go down. By the end of the fight, several members of the party (or maybe even most) are down and out, but not dead. The victorious adventurers hold the field of battle, and tend to their wounded friends. You regroup, rest up, heal, and continue on, thankful that a few of you were able to hold on to see the battle through.

Rules for healing and restoring hit points, restoring spells and related things all seem more logical if also more player-friendly.

Levelling up. I saw an entry on a blog somewhere comparing the experience points needed to advance levels in various editions over the years. The end result of this comparison was the undeniable conclusion that the XP thresholds have been adjusted to make the lowest levels of characters advance much more quickly, but then to make the highest levels at the other end harder to attain. In other words, they want to get you into the mid-levels more quickly but then keep you there longer. I actually like this. I texted some of the usual suspects the other day with a simple "anyone wanna play some new edition D&D?" The response was (a little bit surprisingly) "sure, but maybe we don't have to start at level 1..." Given the new rules, I think we could start at level 1 but only be there for a couple of encounters. Perhaps the best of both worlds.

The end result of all this reading and blog surfing? I really want to try playing some D&D for the first time in 25+ years, and it seems like that might actually happen.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Memory Lane - Dungeons & Dragons

or, My Sidetrack gets Sidetracked.

I seem to have strayed pretty far, pretty fast, from my last substantial focus of gaming related activity. Even for me. In May and June, I spent a good amount of time working on WW2 miniatures in preparation for, and after playing, a Fireball Forward! game. That was productive time, having gotten a bunch of vehicles and a whole pack of US infantry painted up. Then I decided that I would spend a little time trying to finish the batch of medieval knights on the corner of my painting table. While doing that, I mulled over the idea of an ImagiNation for my medieval guys (as posted recently).

This ImagiNation idea had me stray down the path of mapping software, Hexographer, and playing around with sketching out the basic parameters of a medieval world. While playing in Hexographer, the abundance of terrain types and icons useful for a fantasy setting brought back a flood of memories of playing many hours of Dungeons and Dragons (primarily first edition ADnD...[blogger doesn't seem to like ampersands...]) back in and around my high school years. Me and several others spent a lot of hours around a card table in the corner of my bedroom at Ridge Lane, creating, imagining, rolling dice, and having a ton of fun. How cool would it have been to have a tool like Hexographer back then? Not coincidently, the first metal miniatures I ever painted were fantasy figures from Grenadier miniatures, a small company at that point which had the license to produce the official DnD miniatures, and which was miraculously located in the Lawrence Park Industrial Center about a 20 minute walk from our neighborhood. I have vague memories of buying some figures, unpackaged, right out the back door of where they were made.

Our DnD playing began with the original set of three tan covered books, first published in 1974. I probably got these in about 1976. I also had the blue and white book from the 1977 boxed set which pulled together all the material to date and cleaned things up. The big deal was the release of ADnD in 1977/1978. This is the version we played. And played. And played.
Adolescence in a Box

Beyond high school, and perhaps a little in college, we got older, moved on, and haven't played the game since, although every now and then in the later 1980's or early 1990's I would buy a book, dungeon adventure boxed set, or something else that might have struck my fancy. Reading these very occasional tidbits did the same thing then that they do now - bring back good memories.

Because of the special place these memories hold for my childhood and adolescence, I have a file box of DnD/ADnD stuff in the basement that I don't see myself ever getting rid of. It has:
  • The original 5 little books (the main three plus Greyhawk and Eldritch Wizardry)
  • The 3 hardbacks of 1st edition ADnD.
  • Surpisingly, the 3 hardbacks and the Monstrous Compendium loose leaf binder of ADnD 2nd edition (this came out in 1989, and although I obviously bought it, I know we never played this version).
  • About 20 or 25 dungeon modules, including such classics as Gygax's Tomb of Horrors, the 3-part Drow series, and the the 3-part Giants series.
  • Five or six boxed Forgotten Realms products plus many related source booklets and expansions (Campaign settings, huge dungeon map sets with guidebooks...). Forgotten Realms, by Ed Greenwood (originally) is one of the original DnD campaigns dating back to almost the very beginning, and became TSR's defacto "main campaign" in terms of supporting the game system with modules, books, novels etc. The depth of detail and creativity in this stuff is mind boggling.
  • A few things from Midkemia Press, a small company that did some nice little products.
  • Several Judges Guild products built around the City-State of the Invincible Overlord.
  • A few other published odds and ends.
  • A few notebooks and folders of things I created way back in the late '70's and early '80's. Bits of worlds. Dungeon levels. Background materials. Drawings of little towns and villages. Sketch maps. Wow. That seems like a lifetime ago!
Anyway, thoughts of maps led to fantasy maps which led to DnD memories which led to pulling out that box of stuff. It is a lot of fun to go back and skim through some of those old dungeon modules and sourcebooks.

I was aware that there were a whole series of editions of both the basic DnD games as well as the more complicated and comprehensive ADnD game, although until reading a history of DnD (here on Wikipedia), I was unaware as to how completely convoluted things had become. Apparently, after a while simpler DnD petered out and what is now called "Dungeons and Dragons" is what we would have called ADnD back in the day. The current version 4th edition, but a 5th edition is in the process of being rolled out between now and the end of this year. Trolling the Wizards of the Coast website (WotC bought out TSR in the late 1990's), a pdf of the 110-page basic 5th ed rulebook is available for free. I have downloaded it and am reading through it. The game has come a long way in 25 years, while seeming to maintain the same core of what we loved back then. There are a lot of things about these rules that seem really cool.

Hmm. You don't suppose anybody would be interested in...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

ImagiNation Speculation

So...If I am going to do this fictional medieval world thing, what are the basic goals and parameters of what I would be trying to accomplish?
Border troubles in the Duchy of Alten

Goals:
  1. Have a place to fight miniatures games in.
  2. Create a little piece of a world that has enough detail that the games seem to be grounded in some sort of (un)reality, in the sense that my fictional people are fighting these battles for a reason, and not in a vacuum. What has come before shapes the here-and-now, and what happens now affects the future.
  3. Have fun creating whatever I end up creating. In most of my hobby endeavors I have come to embrace the fact that for me it is almost entirely about the journey and only very marginally about the destination. There are those who can set a goal to do Project XYZ, and then buy, paint and focus on that project until it is done. I am the antithesis of that person.
  4. Use this as an excuse to paint more miniatures. With the leeway to create national colors, regional heraldry etc...
Considerations and Questions:
  • One of the main points of this is to play games. The structure of the world, first and foremost, must support gaming story lines.
  • The games will be played with the miniatures I have in my collection, or can buy and paint (c. 1350-1425AD). While some "generic" enough miniatures will serve a variety of uses, it is inevitable that some of the more ethnic types of miniatures be associated with certain fictional countries. For example, while I continue to work (slowly) on my historical Ottoman army, it is highly likely that there be a place on my map, called whatever, where my Ottomans will live and fight, but will not be "Ottomans". The very nice range of Old Glory Eastern Europeans from the Balkans, Hungary and Romania could also fill a space, or spaces, on my map. Or even the Mongols as stand-ins for "steppe people". Unless everyone is going to look uniformly vanilla Western European, this is pretty much unavoidable.
  • To differentiate the various areas and countries on the map, it is almost inevitable that I find myself thinking "this country will be France-ish, this area can be German-ish, and this country could be Northern Italy-ish". If nothing else, clustering place names into things that sound like the above helps create a distinction between different areas, which is useful. So there will likely be areas of English sounding names, and Germanic names, and Italian-esque names...
  • I find naming things to be the toughest part of this sort of thing. After all, once you start to build a story around certain names you are sort of stuck with your choices, and if you don't like what you are stuck with...well...
  • As I expect this to be a very off-and-on sort of endeavor, I am thinking I should spin this off to its own blog. That way, even if things progress in fits and starts (as I expect them to), they will all be contained in one place without a lot of family stuff and various other things taking up weeks or months of space in between.
Which brings us to...

The Basic Plan:
  1. Start another blog (linked to here of course).
  2. Work on my original "small border area" in sufficient detail to start playing games when the mood strikes.
  3. Continue fleshing out the larger world in very broad terms.
  4. Have fun with Hexographer.
  5. Add detail to different areas as the mood strikes.
Sounds simple enough I suppose.

Any comments from lurkers who might stumble on this would be welcome.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

An ImagiNation...with Scope Creep

Scope Creep: When a project of modest proportions (or any planned proportions, for that matter) takes on a life of its own and becomes bigger than planned...and bigger...and bigger.

But I am jumping ahead.

Most of my wargaming is a solo endeavor, but to keep things interesting, and to make for a better story when blogging about my solo games, I often try to frame those games in the context of some manufactured "campaign". These generally peter out after a few games because I lose interest in trying to fit what I am playing into a historical context, with proper map references, time lines, etc. I probably shouldn't get hung up over this stuff, but I do.

One of the things that has always intrigued me, and seems much more prevalent amongst our English wargaming brethren, is the idea of an ImagiNation; a fictional place, maybe or maybe not linked to reality in some way, but set in a specific time period from a technological standpoint. From browsing the web, ImagiNations set in "Europe-ish" during the Seven Years War period seem especially abundant. Seven Years War figures and rules are used, but the places and people are made up. Sometimes they are "near" Austria or Prussia, sometimes not. This gives great leeway in letting your creativity run as rampant as you want. So that's the intriguing part. I suppose liking this kind of idea is the same thing that made me always want to be the dungeon master when playing D&D back in the late 1970's and early '80's. Drawing maps. Imagining worlds. Writing history instead of reading it.

I have considered doing something along these lines for a while now, but finally decided that I would scribble down a few ideas on setting up a modest little imaginary world in which I could use my medieval armies from time to time.

Things began harmlessly enough. I would need a small kingdom, or part of a kingdom, which would need some neighboring areas to interact (and fight) with. My first sketch map of such a realm, on the back of a piece of scrap paper, was simple enough. A semicircle represented the edge of our new "home" kingdom. Adjacent to that border were a few different adjoining areas, exact content to be decided later. A few bits of terrain were sketched in. A basis of an initial storyline was imagined.

Having made a few simple sketches, I began to wonder what kind of mapping software (free if possible) might be out there for creating simple hex-based maps. Within moments of a first Google search, I was looking at a website for a product called Hexographer. It has a free version and a pay version, and the free version seemed to have all the functionality I was looking for, and the samples shown were nice looking "retro" style maps that would fit the bill perfectly.

Within minutes I had downloaded the free version, and in less than an hour, I had created the core of the little map below; a border area of two neighboring realms.
A small border area with two antagonists

But Hexographer was so easy to use, and so fun to play with, that over the course of another couple hours I had expanded a good bit beyond my original border area. After all, I couldn't help but wonder what the rest of those two kingdoms looked like, and who their other neighbors were. After all, they had to fit into the larger world somehow, right? So the map started to expand. And more of the world began to take very loose shape in my mind.
Two kingdoms take shape...

And that area had to fit into an even bigger picture, right? Where were their borders, and who could other antagonists be? Oceans needed to be somewhere. Which makes for coast lines. You need water. And some crude attempt at realistic geography should be attempted. And the geography in turn would dictate where rivers would run. And rivers and mountains and other terrain determine where the trade routes would be, and where cities would grow, and where borders might reasonably end up. Along with thoughts on who were enemies of who, and where the historical allies might be. And what the current situation might be on day one of this new land. Yikes.
...and the world grows some more

Which brings us back to scope creep. In maybe a half a dozen hours in little bits and pieces over the past week and a half, I have gone from a very simple pencil sketch doodle on the back of a sheet of scrap paper to a sketch outline of a much much larger world, one quarter (the northeast quadrant) of which is shown in the final map above. All because I found Hexographer, and had fun playing around with it. Once the creating started, it became very hard to stop. Not that I tried all that hard to stop.

What comes next? I don't know. Maybe I'll figure that out when I am done drawing more maps and writing more history in my head.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Book Review - A Land More Kind Than Home

Wednesday night, before heading back up to the in laws' house for the holiday weekend, I finished Wiley Cash's first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home (William Morrow, 2012, 306 pages). I read this on the strength of having read his second book earlier this year and having really liked it (This Dark Road to Mercy).

This is described as a literary thriller, and is the story of two brothers living in the North Carolina mountains. One brother is handicapped, and ends up dead following mysterious events at a secretive fundamentalist church, some of which are seen by Jess, the other brother. Events take their course as the sheriff tries to determine what happened, the pastor tries to hide it, and the family of the dead boy tries to understand and come to grips with the loss of their son.

Saying more than that little blurb would give away more than I would want to, and this is a book well worth reading. If anything, I found it to be perhaps slightly less polished than his second book, but it was still very good. And while the events unfold in a somewhat predictable manner, there was an inevitability to the way things built to their conclusion that made a lot of sense.

A solid 4 stars out of 5. I will definitely be on the lookout for whatever else Cash comes out with in the future.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Geocaching recap - 1st half of 2014

Every now and then I like to take a snapshot of where I am with some geocaching numbers, and now that I am actually doing a little of this again, it makes sense to take a status check ending the first half of 2014.
Geocaching vampire graves...

My modest achievements year to date:
  • I started the year with 1045 finds and have added 72 to get to 1117. This would put me on a similar pace to last year, when I had 120 finds.
  • 1 new state (West Virginia) to get to 23.
  • 6 new calendar dates to get to 285 out of 366.
  • 9 new counties to get to 87 different ones (5 PA, 2 VA and 2 WV). I like the new states and the new counties; in a way it means I am getting out and about and seeing new things.
  • 5 new counties in my home state of Pennsylvania, to get to a total of 26. Many more to go, but all in the central and western (farther) parts of the state.
  • My total cache-to-cache distance is nearing 28,000 miles, which is approximately 1.12 times the circumference of the Earth. So that's kind of cool. And those business trips to far off states help immensely.
...and geocaching tanks

As I have said before, I have no specific goals, but do want to make sure that as I go to new places and see different things, that I take the time to find a few caches here and there. Quality over quantity. From that perspective, so far so good in 2014.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Memory Lane - REO Speedwagon

Old vinyl
I was catching up on some of my blog reading earlier this evening and something that Brother Dave had mentioned in one of his posts sent me careening down memory lane. His fretboard blog had a link to a guitar lesson on how to play Time for Me to Fly, a terrific 1978 song (from the best-named album ever - You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish). The link to the guitar lesson for the song had links to all sorts of REO Speedwagon videos and concert footage. And so it began. Down the rathole I went. Thanks Dave (sort of...)!

I loved these guys back in the day. They had a burst of popularity in the early days of MTV, with concert footage of their late '70s and early '80s material along with the MTV-made-to-order music videos of their then-current early '80s stuff getting heavy play rotation. Take It on the Run. Time for Me to Fly. Roll with the Changes. Ridin' the Storm Out. Don't Let Him Go. Keep on Lovin' You. And then the rapid descent into the pop ballad days of Can't Fight This Feeling and One Lonely Night. Although I like melodic sappy music and have a high tolerance for schlock as long as it has a good melody and decent lyrics, they got to the point where they even lost me, but that's a different story... Between about 1976 and 1982, they made a lot of good music, much of which (to me) was centered on Gary Richrath's guitar playing.

To this day, when I think of Gibson Les Paul players, along with Jimmy Page and a host of more accomplished guitarists, Gary Richrath of REO Speedwagon always comes to mind for me. I wouldn't say that Richrath was a great guitar player, but his lyrical solos, fills, and crunchy power chords, were a trademark of the REO Speedwagon sound.

My understanding is that Richrath left the band sometime in the late 1980's over disagreements with lead singer Kevin Cronin as to the direction of the band. Wikipedia would indicate that this is substantially correct.

The band is currently cashing in on the ability of geezer bands to get people like me to pay good money to see them in concert and attempt to recapture, or at least re-live, a small portion of our youth. Apparently, at one benefit concert in 2013, Richrath even joined the band on stage for a song or two. In 2014 they are touring with Chicago (but not Richrath).

A few tidbits courtesy of YouTube:
  • Take It On the Run - Back near the height of their MTV-induced popularity (1980).
  • Time for Me to Fly - Denver CO in 1981.
  • Roll With the Changes - At Live Aid in Philadelphia (1985). I was in Budapest, Hungary, behind the Iron Curtain on this date... Check out members of the Beach Boys, Paul Shaffer from David Letterman's band, and the background shots of the long-gone Veteran's Memorial Stadium in this video.
  • Ridin' the Storm Out - Back in the day (again in Denver CO, 1981). Or even earlier (late '70s)....
  • Ridin' the Storm Out - Recent (December 2013), with Gary Richrath reunited to play with the band. Yikes. I think I wish I had never seen this... Or this... To be fair, as...unflattering...as my initial reaction to this may have been, watch the way Richrath works the left hand between about 2:00 and 2:30 on the first link, and then around the 3:30 minute mark...he can still play. Sometimes it's about tone and not about speed. Or how you look.
OK. Now memory lane is making me sad.

But...all of this does make me yearn for something on which to play those old vinyl LP's that were salvaged from Ridge Lane...

Monday, June 30, 2014

Reading Review - First Half 2014

It's been a literature reading year thus far, unlike last year which was mainly history. Funny how that works. Once I get on a roll and realize how many more good books there are to read, I gain a momentum that last months at a time, and sometimes a year or more. The first half of this year has been no exception to that pattern.

So here are the books read thus far this year (with new authors for me in italics), roughly in order of preference. Some ratings may have been slightly adjusted upon further review and to slot them more accurately with regards to other books read later in the year. By my arbitrary 5 star ratings:
  • 5 - The Painter (Peter Heller)
  • 4.5 - The Son (Philipp Meyer)
  • 4.5 - This Dark Road to Mercy (Wiley Cash)
  • 4 - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)
  • 4 - The Realm of Last Chances (Steve Yarbrough)
  • 4 - Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather [Stories] (Gao Xingjian)
  • 4 - St Burl's Obituary (Daniel Akst)
  • 3.5 - Netherland (Joseph O'Neill)
  • 3.5 - The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout)
  • 3.5 - Drown [Stories] (Junot Diaz)
  • 4.5 - The Vintage Caper (Peter Mayle, 2009, 223 pages) - I didn't review this book separately, as I wouldn't call it a work of literature by any means, and so even at 4.5 stars it is here at the bottom of the list. It's a very good book, but reads like a piece of candy. It is set in California and in Paris and Marseille, and is part halfhearted mystery, but mainly just a good book about food, wine, travel and likable enough characters. A very nice two-day read, but this is cotton candy among rib eye steaks. Loved it, but it is what it is. Everything else on this list is serious literature...this is a good book.
Total books - 11
Total pages - 3,260
Different authors - 10
New authors - 6

There really wasn't a bad book in this bunch, and not a single one that I wouldn't wholeheartedly recommend others to read.

I also read parts of the following story collections:
  • Fever (John Edgar Wideman) - Wasn't crazy about Wideman's style and probably won't finish this.
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (ZZ Packer) - Did like Packer's style and will finish this, in pieces, eventually.
As we move into the back half of the year, I am partway through Wiley Cash's first book (A Land More Kind Than Home, 2013) and have also started Tom Rachman's second novel (The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, 2014 - I was stuck out of town without a book and needed to buy something to read...). Both of these novels are keeping the quality level very high...

Next up in the (potential) on-deck circle are The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt), All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr) and In Paradise (Peter Matthiessen).

Book Review - The Painter

Ten books into the year, the best book so far is now The Painter by Peter Heller (2014, Aldred A Knopf, 364 pages). I finished this back in mid-May but never got around to writing my usual brief post about it.

This is another book by an author I was not familiar with but picked up solely on the strength of an Amazon "best books of the month" recommendation. I realize that I am willingly falling into the trap of buying what Amazon tells me to buy, but with very few exceptions I have been very pleased with their choices and see no reason to stop.

The book is the story of Jim Stegner, a commercially successful expressionist painter with a troubled personal life and a violent streak. Stegner leaves the Santa Fe/Taos New Mexico art community for the solitude of the Colorado mountains. Things happen. More things happen, and Stegner finds himself being pulled back into the kind of behavior that he was trying to leave behind.

This is a story of love, violence, vengeance, family, and a whole lot of other stuff, woven in and around art, the outdoors and fishing. This was a beautifully written page turner of a novel, not in the sense that you weren't sure what was going to happen next, but more in the sense that you thought you knew what was probably going to happen next but needed to see it unfold. In that regard it was reminiscent of James Lee Burke, James Crumley, John D. MacDonald and those few other authors who could write that top-tier of literary suspense/thrillers.

"I had fished the Rio de los Pinos before. It's the little creek that runs through the gorge. How those little streams make such a big impression. I had driven the long washboarded dirt road down off the plateau and parked at a little bridge. I had walked up into the walled canyon. I had fished with a peregrine gliding the wall just over my head, and later with the sun slanting down and backlighting the biggest hatch of mayflies I had ever seen, the light coming through a candescent mist of wings, and I caught more fish in an hour than I ever had before. ... Some creeks you simply loved, and seeing the railroad sign with the craggy gorge reminded me that we can proceed in our lives just as easily from love to love as from loss to loss. A good thing to remember in the middle of the night when you're not sure how you will get through the next three breaths." [p. 165]

"...I walked over to the edge of the pinions and a jackrabbit shot from under a saltbush and zagged off into the false twilight. Most of us are never seen, not clearly, and when we are we likely jump and run. Because being seen can be followed by the crack of a shot or the twang of an arrow. I took a leak in the flinty dirt. I didn't know what any of us wanted." [p. 277]

5 stars out of 5. Loved it. Best book of the year so far.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Trio of antitank guns

There unfortunately isn't anything to report from a painting table perspective, since we spent the weekend in North Jersey at our in laws' new house. We had fun at the pool, just hanging out in general, and I managed to sneak away for an hour this morning to grab nine easy geocaches nearby. So it was a good weekend, if a washout from a hobby progress perspective.

On the way home this afternoon, we stopped at a local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) post on route 206 not far from their house and took a few pictures. We have driven past this place at least a dozen times and I am not sure why I never bothered to stop. Today we did.

Now...I've seen lot of VFW posts over the years, and with them a great assortment of Korean War and Vietnam era U.S. tanks, cannons and howitzers. But I've never seen anything quite like this.

Tucked in conveniently next to the Wee Nee Wagon in front of the VFW post is a trio of German WW2 era antitank guns.
Pair of PaK38 50mm antitank guns

There are a pair of PaK38 50mm antitank guns. One is in pretty good condition, with the traverse and elevation controls and most if not all of the other mechanicals still present. The other is in worse condition, but still seems relatively complete. The tires are crumbling with age but seem original.
The better preserved PaK38 50mm with intact controls

Across the driveway is a PaK40 75mm gun. Standing next to it, this seems like a big gun, and while there certainly were larger bore and higher velocity pieces in the German arsenal, it is obvious to see why this was such a feared weapon. I could stick my arm down the muzzle.
Big brother - The PaK40 75mm antitank gun

The PaK40 seemed to be in rougher condition than the others, with controls missing, and a serious case of rust, but was still an impressive weapon nonetheless. I wouldn't want to be driving my tank down a country road and stumble on one of these hidden in the hedgerow...
PaK40 in rough condition

Regardless of condition, it was still pretty cool to see and touch these pieces of history.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

West Virginia 2014 - Summary and Recap

I am writing this the weekend after the trip, and am still basking in the afterglow of a very successful weekend. Frankly, the trip ended up being better than I expected. We crammed a lot of activity into a short time, and while the amount of driving for what amounted to a 2.5 day trip was a little excessive, I would say it was well worth it. Guidebooks and pictures never do justice to an area until you see it for yourself, and these mountains of West Virginia were very pretty. The hiking was terrific, and we chose hikes that didn't require you to be a mountain goat. Total hiking miles for the trip - 23.2. Not bad.
Hikers, rocks and trees

Car Lessons - At no point in the future, unless there are only three people going, will there be a rental of anything less than a full size minivan. We need the space. Period. Unless we strip the gear lists down to the bare minimum, leaving all creature comfort items at home (such as camp chairs, sleeping pads and air mattresses as well as various other gear), we just won't fit. The point of these trips isn't roughing it. So a big rental.
Seneca Rocks from SW (late afternoon)

Seneca Shadows campground - Excellent, and highly recommended. Not being able to reserve a single tent site was a fortunate break - the group tent site was huge and still cheap. In the future we should investigate this sort of thing as a possibility, as long as there aren't "minimum occupants" requirements that we cannot meet (or we could fib...). The campground itself was clean and well maintained. The shower/privy building was clean and had a great hot water shower. A woman came around in the evenings in a golf cart to check on things and see if we needed more firewood, which was a nice touch. The views from our site were first rate, and the location of the campground in general would make it a good jump off point for adventures anywhere in the area. There are also a couple of adequately stocked back-country general stores within a 10 minute drive to restock necessities like ice, drinks and basic foodstuffs.
Roughing it (not really...)

Gear - My gear is perfectly adequate for this kind of car camping, and there isn't anything I can think of that I really need, although picking up a good quality lightweight windbreaker is on the list of nice-to-haves. My hiking boots are holding up fine, but my low-top Merrills have so many miles on them that they could probably use replacing when I can catch a good sale somewhere. Dave and I have doubled up and slept in his two man tent on all of these trips. If there is one that he doesn't go on, I am either going to need to bum a spare space off a different roommate or buy a tent of my own. I have a one man ultralight backpacking tent, but that is basically a cocoon, and wouldn't be optimal for this sort of camping although it would certainly work in a pinch. So maybe I'll keep an eye out for a two man tent, or go trolling on eBay to see what I can find.
Dolly Sods Wilderness meadows

Camp Kitchen - I enjoy this part of camping and like being the chef, or at least involved in the food aspect, and the new Primus Profile stove seems like a good purchase so far. It really does open up a lot of possibilities for eating like kings in the future. I'm already jotting down ideas for future trips.
Dolly Sods Wilderness vista

Philadelphia Phillies baseball - While we were gone, Jimmy Rollins got a few hits and passed Mike Schmidt, one of my childhood sports heroes, and became the Phillies all time hits leader. That's OK...he won't ever catch him in home runs or RBIs...
Dolly Sods Wilderness mud

Hike - Spruce Knob Huckleberry trail - This was a very nice but not great hike. It was not particularly strenuous, given that we were on the ridge top the whole time, and was a long slow downgrade on the way out and a long gradual uphill on the way back. Most of the time we were hiking in forests with little visibility, and most forests in the Midatlantic and northeast look similar enough. But there was also a decent bit of time in mountain meadows and scrub land where the views were amazing. The view from Spruce Knob was terrific. And the fact that this is National Forest and not National Park land, and therefore geocaches can be placed, is also a plus for me. [I do understand that by staying on the ridge, we limited ourselves from a scenery standpoint, and did not take full advantage of the area.]
Dolly Sods - View to SE from Rocky Ridge trail

Hike - Dolly Sods Wilderness North Circuit - Awesome. Overused word, but this was really really cool. Again, not a killer from an elevation standpoint, which is a huge plus in my opinion, and with tremendously varied and beautiful scenery. The guidebook description of this being a "vistapalooza" was dead on. This was a great hike for putting in miles of great scenery without totally killing the legs and knees and had limitless great photo opportunities. The only thing that could have made this better was being in a season where the berries would have been in bloom. And although bald eagles and black bears live here, we didn't see either. I have seen bald eagles many times, but they are majestic creatures that are a treat to see. I have never seen a bear, and would love to. From a moderate distance preferably...
Dolly Sods Wilderness rocks

Hike - Seneca Rocks - Despite the 1,000 feet of elevation gain, this trail was so well groomed and maintained that it didn't seem bad at all, and could be done by children and families. I would give this high marks given the limited time commitment required (two hours) and the tremendous view from the observation platform at the top of the trail. It fit the bill perfectly for what we needed on Monday, a nice hike to finish off the trip that could be accomplished in about 3 hours or less.
Feeder stream near the Potomac River

Final Verdict - A great trip in a very nice area. Everyone was in agreement that we have barely scratched the surface of what is available here, and would like to return again at some point in the future. Seneca Shadows campground would be a great base camp again.