Tuesday, April 27, 2010

GPS Tracks and Maps

Dave and I have been having some interesting discussions about handheld GPS units. I have become addicted to geocaching, as per my last couple of posts, and a few challenges from an old friend. Side question - is it mean to issue challenges to a compulsive personality?

Anyway, I spent $160 on a Garmin eTrex Venture HC bundle that included 100k topographic maps, which while not USGS hiker quality, are pretty good, and fun to play around with. This is a good solid (but relatively speaking low-end) unit that at this point does most of what I need it to do - point me at geocaches and record my trips. Dave did some digging around and came up with gpsvisualizer.com, a free website that will take a .gpx track file from a GPS and turn it into a track on a map.

The map below is the track of the geocaching trip that the girls and I took in Darlington Park this past weekend, and is immortalized below. Our track is the faint green line starting on Darlington Road, crossing under the railroad tracks, winding through the countryside, and returning. This is the functionality that makes Dave all tingly, and is possible with the out-of-the-box GPS and a few free websites and free software downloads. The below jpeg is the track overlaid over a USGS topo map.

The next pic is the same track overlaid over a black and white USGS aerial photo.

Note that in both maps, the majority of the track is in bright green, as we were at the lowest elevation along the creek. As the elevation increases, the color of the track changes through blue to purple. About halfway through the green track, you can see the minor detour off the trail we made to get the first cache, and later you can see the wrong trail we took before doubling back and going furthest to the right to get the last cache toward the top of the hill.

Unfortunately, the coolest overlay that you can do on the website (but not save as a jpeg) is to overlay the track on a Google satellite photo.

The application of this to a real hike, however modest, makes me drool. The GPS already records the distance travelled, the route and the elevation profile of the entire trip; these other free software downloads and websites turn that data into a trip map.

Amazing stuff...
[Updated 5/23/2010]: Now that I know how to make nicer maps, the below is a revised map of our hike with the two cache locations marked as black squares.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Geocaching again

Julia really enjoyed our geocaching last weekend, and has been asking me when we could do it again. With a nice forecast for today, and a lousy one for tomorrow, we had planned to go to another local park and see if we could find two or three of the six or seven that are in that area. I knew that this was going to be all that was possible, as the different sites were scattered over a wider area than these little legs could do. As it turns out, when Julia and I began talking about it this morning, Grace insisted on going too. I was thrilled. Julia was less thrilled, but was talked into it.

Our intrepid explorers, ready to set out on their great adventure. It was great to have both of my girls outdoors with me on a beautiful spring day, anxious to find some treasure. So, at about 10:30am, we are in the lot at Darlington Park, off Darlington Road just north of route 1.

Almost immediately after leaving the lot, where there were a few fishermen getting back into their cars, the trail comes upon the Chester Creek, which it will follow for almost all of our short day. Grace was overjoyed to see a few fish in the shallows, and this mother duck and her ducklings enjoying the sun.

After maybe 20 minutes of leisurely walking, we got to the area of the first cache (Middletown Trail: Darlington Daze), and had to go cross country for a couple hundred feet. Both girls thought it was great that we were off the trail and I was telling them it was ok to get a little muddy. Getting to the area where I knew the cache had to be, I checked the rock pile thoroughly for snakes, spotted the box, and then allowed Julia and Grace to search for it. Grace found it; her very first cache! In the picture, you can see the corner of the box nestled down in the rocks to her left. We signed the logbook, exchanged a couple of pokemon roller toys for a couple of dog toys, and took a commemorative picture.

During the course of our walk, the gurgling sound of Chester Creek was our constant companion. Birds were out in force, squirrels and chipmunks were all around, and the girls were thrilled to see hundreds and hundreds of tiny tadpoles in some of the stagnant water areas. The temperature was perfect (maybe 70), with a bit of a breeze, and bright sun. From time to time we saw small fish in the shallows, and minnows in some of the little feeder streams.

Perhaps 20 minutes after our first cache, we found another one. Julia and Grace stayed below, in sight of me, while I climbed a steep hill and poked around in the rocks until I found it. After getting our two, we wandered around for a bit, exploring somewhat aimlessly, and just enjoying the day. I knew there was a third cache nearby that I wanted to get, but it was at the top of a steep climb, and the girls had already been walking for the better part of an hour, which is a lot for short legs.

Not wanting to burn them out and make geocaching and/or walking in the woods an unpleasant thing, we packed it in for the day and headed back to the car. It was another beautiful day in the outdoors in a nice local park near my house, in another one of those areas where you manage to leave civilization behind almost immediately after leaving the car. When I got back to the house and downloaded the track data from the GPS unit to my computer, I was able to see that we had done 1.8 miles of walking in about an hour and a half. Certainly not a good hiker's pace, but a fine pace for a day in the woods with a couple of little girls.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Having read my blog postings about hiking, a friend of mine asked if I had ever tried geocaching, which I had not. She thought I should try it to see if I liked it. Geocaching, to oversimplify, is high tech treasure hunting using a handheld GPS unit. People hide little containers with knick knacks and others things in them in places all over, and log the information including gps coordinates on the geocaching.com website. You can go to that website, search for cache locations in any given area (there are currently over a million of them worldwide), download the information to your gps unit, and off you go to find them. There are 42 such locations within 3 miles of my house!

Having some interest in trying this, and wanting to get a gps for hiking anyway, I saw a good deal on a highly recommended Garmin unit that came bundled with the topographic map set that I wanted, so I bought it. I was able, with help, to get through the most basic functionality to get some local caches loaded onto it, and with Julia along to help, we went out yesterday in search of treasure.

It was a blast, and Julia loved it. For our first one, we went to the nearby Glen Eagle Square shopping center and found one near the Outback Steakhouse, which we have driven right past countless thousands of times! Then we went to Newlin Grist Mill park and found the three that were there. Julia was very excited. She decided that she wanted to go to the dollar store to buy little things that we could leave behind in exchange so that she could take a little souvenir from the ones we found. So we did that. Then we went home to wait for Dave, who would be joining us for a leisurely walk in the woods. He didn't know about the gps or the geocaching; we wanted to surprise him.

Dave did arrive late in the afternoon, we showed him what we had planned, which he thought was pretty cool, and off we went to Martin Park. This little gem of a park is just down the road from where we lived back in the 1990's, and I had never been there. After parking in the little lot, you are almost immediately back in the woods along Chester Creek, and out of sight of everything. Beautiful. The day was cool and breezy, but we had a nice 1.5 mile walk in the woods and found three more caches.

Getting back to the house, I showed Dave the little bit I knew about how to use some of the other features of the gps and the map software on the PC, including how to show the path of our hike on the map, with times, distances and complete elevation profile. Dave seemed suitably impressed and if I were a betting man I suspect he will own one of these soon (and he does have a birthday on the horizon).

Perhaps as importantly as anything, Julia loved it, had a wonderful day, and can't wait to do it again. So it was a victory across the board.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Introduction to Geocaching

Over the past few months I have been talking to a high school friend, Ellen, and the topic of geocaching has come up. This has been a hobby of hers for some time now, and discussing our various interests, she thinks that it might be something I would enjoy. She was driving back to Pennsylvania to visit with her parents for a few days, and we have planned to meet for lunch on Monday while she does a spa trip to Hershey. While she was driving by my area today though, we arranged to meet for a little while at a local park, Newlin's Mill, where she could spare a few minutes to show me how a gps works and find one or two of the three caches that are hidden in the park.

We were able to meet as planned (on Tax Day), did find two caches near the parking lot, and it seems like I would like geocaching very much. I wish we had more time to play around with it, but she was due at her parents' house and needed to get going. I will have to look into what a lower end gps unit would cost. I suspect I will be buying one soon!

It was also very nice, and kind of surreal in a way, to see someone that I had not seen in person in almost 25 years, and had not had any contact with prior to February. I am looking forward to lunch on Monday when we have more time to talk.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lasalle Rules - First Impressions

Having had a chance to push some figures around using these rules for the first time last Saturday evening, it makes sense to post some first impressions. So, without too much editing or structure, here are some random thoughts and comments.

First of all, it was an enjoyable evening, which to me is honestly the most important thing. It was a little bit frustrating not knowing the rules as well as I like to, but we got through it without too much trouble. And with some subsequent reviewing of the rules, we didn't mess things up too badly. Mostly minor things here and there.

Obvious point: it is a "buckets of dice" game. It was not uncommon to be rolling 10, 12 or even 15 dice at a time in combats. While I don't necessarily think this is the most elegant way to deal with probability ranges, it works well enough, and should be familiar to anyone used to Flames of War or any Games Workshop games. And at least every combat wasn't a sequential process of rolling buckets of dice several different times to get to the result.

I also want to go back and look at the time scales these rules are supposed to represent. I didn't have an issue with the way units degrade over time until you simply pick them up and remove them from the table, but given that a unit that loses a melee combat decisively breaks and is removed, we had a number of instances where a large fresh unit lost a melee and disappeared immediately. It felt odd at times. Also, in instances where the French were able to throw more than one attacking column at a British line, it was difficult for the British line to hold. Perhaps more difficult than it should have been. I would also like to take a few minutes at some point and work out the probability of this kind of attack winning decisively to see if the math matches up with our experiences.

Movement seemed reasonable. The way units recover hits, but cannot do so while close to the enemy felt right.

Once again, all in all a good first experience, and we will be coming back to these rules for more.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Lasalle Rules - First Playing

Well, as planned, Leo, Dave, Ryan and myself got together Saturday evening for our first stumbling attempts at Lasalle. I threw together a straight forward Peninsula game pitting 3 brigades of French infantry and one light cavalry brigade against a similar force of English composed of two British infantry brigades, one Portugese infantry brigade and a brigade of British light dragoons. We did fumble with the rules quite a bit, easy as they are, but had a good time. It was a promising beginning. I am still mulling over various things in my head, re-reading the rules in light of a session, and figuring out what I did and did not like.

First, a few pictures.

The action begins with a clash of light cavalry in the foreground. The British (me) push the issue early, charging the 12th light dragoons into the leading French chasseur a cheval regiment. The dice favor me (6 rolls of 5+ on 8 dice) winning decisively and vaporizing the chasseurs, killing their tactically superior brigade commander in the process. It turns out this would be the high point for the British cavalry, but we didn't know it yet.

Tide turns against the British in the cavalry clash. The remaining French hussar regiment would maul the two British light dragoon regiments in sequence, opening up the British right flank to a massed combined arms attack in later turns.

French infantry advances on a broad front. The Portugese brigade makes a wide sweeping move to the far flank, but ends up bottling itself in and not being particularly aggressive, effectively taking itself out of the fight.

French attack columns moving up the hill in the distance.

French attack columns stalling and coming back down the hill...
Observations to follow in the next post.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Day in the Life - April 2, 2010

Pictures from today. At one point, I realized that there were a lot of different things going on over the course of the day, so I thought I would document them. The result is a glimpse into how someone with the attention span of a flea attempts to juggle family, household chores, hobbies and other interests with varying degrees of success.

What better way to start the day than with a roller skating session in the driveway with Grace.

Of course, Grace needs to play with the camera too, so here's me.

One of the things I have been working on (but not finishing) was a paint rack for my new painting table set up in the basement. It has been almost complete for a week or so, but I was one 18-inch piece of wood short of finishing. When at Home Depot the other day, I remembered to grab what I needed, so 10 minutes with a compound miter saw and a hammer completed it. Dropping it into place and organizing my paints was a simple little chore, and now I have better use of the space, ready access to all the paints, and most importantly I can see which is which.

Last year we were given a bunch of day lily and iris bulbs by a friend of Amparo's. They have been dormant in pots over the winter but every single one of them is sprouting this year, so we need to get them into the ground somewhere. We didn't really have a place in existing beds where we wanted to put them, but thought new beds at the base of the stairs down off the deck would be a good place. Carving out this little bed was more work than it looks like, being only about three feet on a side, but digging out turf, turning the dirt and all that takes a bit of effort. Day lilies are in an mulched and looking good. Irises will go into another new bed on the other side of the stairs this weekend.

Spring = deck time

Game tomorrow. Leo, Dave and Ryan are coming over to have a first run-through of the Lasalle rules for tactical Napoleonics. We expect this to be a fumble-through, as I have read the rules but don't know them very well, Leo has played once, and the others are brand new to it. I will takes some pictures and post my impressions after the game. In the meantime, sometime between now and then, I need to turn at least half of this table from a mess into a game board with troops set up. Hmm, I wonder when that will happen in advance of 7pm Saturday? (maybe 6pm Saturday...). First things first, these hundreds of Hundred Years War figs need to go away, or at least out of the way. I suspect they will line up in back and watch the new game...

Spring in southeastern Pennsylvania. The maples bloom early.

Re-basing 15mm Napoleonics. In order to try to be more flexible with my Napoleonic figs and yet not need to invest a huge amount of money in buying more, I am re-basing what I have in a format that is flexible enough to be used for Lasalle, Napoleonic Warfare, or From Valmy to Waterloo. The old stands on the right are turning into the new stands on the left. This may be an interim solution until I do have more that can be put onto denser bases for better visual appeal, but I want to be able to use them now and I need more stands.

Lastly, at the end of a busy day, this is where I can often be found in the warmer months.