I ain’t no Oil Painting

I ain’t no Oil Painting

It’s often been said (quite often by myself, in fact), that I am no oil painting. I’m never quite sure how much of an insult that is. For instance, you don’t become more beautiful just because someone made a nice painting of you. And equally, just because you’ve been painted in oil on a sheet of canvas it doesn’t mean you’re beautiful, right? The artist might have done the equivalent of today’s Instagram filters by smoothing your skin. Although, relatively few oil paintings have bunny ears.

Anyway, that’s not really the point of this post.

Late last year I upgraded my iPad because I was starting to use Zwift for a bit of indoor cycling. Zwift works best if you have an iPad so you can see the virtual course you’re riding on. But somehow it felt like buying an iPad just to use Zwift wasn’t justified, so I’ve been looking for other things to do with the iPad.

I’m rarely in a lazy enough mood to vegetate in front of the TV, but I’m not always energetic enough to solve puzzle geocaches or write blog posts. So I started looking for something to fill the “twilight zone” just before bedtime. An extra hobby seemed a good idea, but something which doesn’t take ages to set up or pack away.

One obvious thing that jumps out is to try various drawing, colouring, or otherwise pseudo-creative activities with the iPad. By pseudo-creative I mean something relaxing and not requiring a great deal of existing skill, because I have never been an artist or musician, and I’m probably getting a bit late in life to start. So my first port of call was to look for a basic colouring app for the iPad.

The one I chose initially is just called Oil Painting. The app contains a series of “painting by numbers” pictures where you have to select a colour from a pre-defined palette and fill in all the instances of that colour. To be honest it’s not creative at all – it’s more of a puzzle because you (sometimes) have to search around for each block that the colour has to be used in. At least when you’ve finished with a colour it disappears from the palette though, so you can measure progress. So whilst it’s not creative, it is quite relaxing in a certain way. And there are literally hundreds of pictures available in the free version.

Each picture takes me about 30-60 minutes, and they can be shared elsewhere (like on here, for instance). A reasonable extra use-case to add to the iPad’s portfolio. The effect is quite relaxing on the eye.

You can see that I’ve mainly been doing landscapes and cityscapes, which suits my personal interests. I’m not a fan of fluffy kittens or bowls of fruit. As each picture is a place, I’m lead to the challenge of figuring out where itis. Naturally this leads into ticking off which ones I’ve been to. For that, Google image search and tineye.com are remarkably good. Most of the images are taken from stock photo sites, so tineye.com finds nearly all of them. Many I’ve done are major European cities like Amsterdam, Lisbon and Venice, and in a lot of cases, I’d not just been to the city concerned, I’d been to the actual subject of the picture.


Montana 700 Series

Montana 700 Series

I’ve had a couple of years of being a bit dispirited about geocaching. For most of 2020 I couldn’t go anyway, what with the global pandemic. However, I started 2021 with a renewed sense of optimism and enthusiasm. It’s a hobby I enjoy, so I’m going to try to get on with doing some of it. I’m now resigned to doing it on my own because the ladies of the house aren’t really interested. But it’s my hobby, so I’m going to maintain enthusiasm and look forward to better times. To support the enthusiasm, I treated myself to a new handheld GPS – a Garmin Montana 700.

The Backstory

Garmin Montana 700I’ve been thinking for some time that it’s about time I did something with my GPS. I’ve been using a handheld GPS instead of my phone since the end of 2013. I made 3,600 finds until one day I was out in Cambridgeshire and had an issue with the battery in my phone (see Ellington Expedition). At that point I splashed out on a dedicated handheld GPS unit. It was just before Christmas, and I’m lucky enough that my birthday is around this time too. A nice combined Christmas and birthday present.

I used the first Montana 650t for about 18 months until an unfortunate incident where I dropped it down a drain (see Letchworth Disaster). That meant the first Montana 650t lasted me for about 2,500 caches. They’re not cheap things, but thankfully my home insurance covered the cost of a new one. By the second week of June 2015 I had another and I’ve been using that one ever since. So far, I’ve made about 6,600 finds with it. I use the GPS all the time unless I’m doing an opportunistic few caches on a day when I wouldn’t normally be caching. When I’m out all day I like the resilience of a handheld and I like that it works without a phone signal.

About 2 years after I got the second Montana 650t I concluded that the battery was fried. I decided to replace it with a stack of rechargeable AA ones. These work OK apart from an irritating message about the voltage about an hour before they drain completely. They last about 6 hours, so I have to carry a couple of spare sets if I’m out all day. One advantage of the 650t though is that you actually can just put AA batteries in when you need.

Gripes

On a couple of occasions, I’ve noticed that I seem to have lost all my maps, and on detailed inspection it turns out that this happens when I disturb the cradle that holds the micro-SD card in the back. It’s inside the battery compartment, so every time I change the batteries there’s a risk that I’m going to dislodge the card. As soon as you bed it back in properly it works fine.

There were a few things on the 650t that I wasn’t over keen about, so I’ve spent some time hacking around to try to improve the way it looks (see Garmin Custom Icons and More Garmin Icons). Not blowing my own trumpet, because that’s not why I did it, but I seem to have become a bit of an expert in creating custom icons for the Montana (as well as for MemoryMap and Garmin BaseCamp). It’s not too difficult once you get the hang of it.

So fast-forward to New Year’s Day 2021. I set myself a challenge to try to get each one of the 366 totals days in a year up to at least 50 geocache finds. When I started that exercise I needed to find more caches on 264 different days, and find a minimum of 9,464 more caches. That’s a lot, and hence a challenge that isn’t going to be done in a single year.

Back at the plot, New Year’s Day was one day that needed a little attention. I needed 12 finds to bolster the day up to 50, and I headed over to the east side of Milton Keynes to attack a series running along the artifical ridge built between the new housing and the M1. Well, why not?

I realised halfway round that I’d knocked the micro-SD card loose and I had a bit of trouble getting it back in again, so when I got home I thought it might be time to get myself a new onboard battery, so I don’t have to keep opening the back. In the process of looking for that, my eyes were drawn to a whole new series of Garmin Montana devices that bring the technology into the modern era. I’m afraid to say it was too much for me to resist, so a new battery became a somewhat more costly new GPS device.

Deliverance (well, Delivery, to be accurate)

So I’m now the proud owner of a Montana 700. The 700 series comes in 3 variants – I bought the cheapest of the three. If you spend more money you get a) Garmin’s inReach emergency contact service, and b) a camera. I decided neither of those was really of any use.

The inReach service requires a subscription of at least £14 a month. And you have to dismiss a dialog about activating a subscription every time you switch it on. Bum to that. I always have my phone and I rarely go anywhere that I don’t have a signal. If I was going somewhere with no signal, I probably wouldn’t go alone anyway. Secondly, the camera on the Montana 750i might be a decent 8 megapixel, but it’s inadequate compared to the 16 megapixel camera on my phone, so it really wasn’t worth spending an extra £200 to get it.

The Garmin Montana 700 is the “basic” one of the series. By basic, I mean “pretty spectacular for geocaching” and “much more capable than the 650t”, but I don’t mean “makes the tea and splits the atom” – I deemed those to be unnecessary features.

So what does a Montana 700 do that a Montana 650 doesn’t?

Firstly, it’s part of the modern generation of Garmin doo-dahs that works with the Connect app on your phone. It can therefore exchange track information (and possibly upload caching logs) over bluetooth through my phone.

Secondly, it can connect to wi-fi and can be registered on your Geocaching.com account, allowing it to download caches directly using the Geocaching Live API whenever you are somewhere with a wi-fi signal. That presumably includes using your phone as a hotspot. Those are genuinely useful new additions.

Thirdly, it has a much bigger screen than the 650. The working area is notionally 5 inches across the diagonal and the screen resolution is 480×800 pixels. In practice that means that the maps look much better and the bigger screen makes it easier for me to see without glasses, which is important for me when I’m caching, as I only need glasses for reading, so don’t always carry them with me when caching as I can’t wear them whilst walking.

Fourthly, the screen interface is more like a small computer or phone than the old Montana, so it seems more intuitive to use.

Finally, the device supports use of Garmin Connect IQ apps. I wasn’t really sure what those were, so I had a look at the store and (at time of writing) there seem to be only two apps compatible with the Montana 700. One of those is an online tool for accessing the Hungarian local variant of geocaching and the other is something that mucks about with the camera (that I don’t have), so I guess at the moment that Connect IQ is a zero-value item for me.

Getting it going

It pretty much worked straight out of the box.

I managed to connect it to my home wi-fi, and to the Geocaching.com website, and to Garmin Connect on my phone, without having to reference the Owner’s Manual.

I bought a second battery pack – the onboard variety, but the 700 is also the only one of the three that supports use of battery pack that takes AA batteries too. That might be useful some time in the future. For now, I have two of the onboard batteries – these come in fully sealed packs and they clip in and out of the device without disturbing the micro-SD card bay. The battery fitted in the device came 20% charged and it filled up in an hour. The spare was completely flat and it also charged fully in an hour. That’s quicker than the old ones.

The next job was to see how my local customisations were going to fare. I decided to brave sticking the old micro-SD card straight into the new device. Aside from warning me that the BirdsEye map segments weren’t valid for this device (yeah, I know about that), everything else installed on the card worked fine – so I can verify that TalkyToaster UK maps and Freizeitkarte maps work fine on a Montana 700 series. They seem to load faster too.

Finally, I tried to load some caches and play around with my custom icons. Can I still only used the 12 icons, named by cache type? That seems to be the case. It’s not a major issue, but it might have been nice if they’d addressed that. At least I’ve already got some custom icons that work. They looked a little small on the bigger screen, so I’ve upscaled them to be 27px rather 21px. They are now nice and clear, and they’re roughly the same “actual” size displayed on the screen. The bigger screen means you can see more at a time.

Live Use

I tried downloading some caches using the Live API on the device. It works fairly quickly and it uses my custom icons, which is good. However, I suspect it won’t adapt to the peculiarities of how I set up custom icons in GSAK. So, for now I’m tied to the way I manipulate things in GSAK, which means always uploading from the PC. It’s not a major issue, but maybe an area of technology to look at in a few weeks.

What happens, for instance, if you use the live API to download caches in Seattle? How does the “HQ” cache display? It’s not one of the standard types that Garmin supports, so does it render as the catch-all “Geocache” icon? Does it just not show at all? Is there actually a broader collection of icons that can be used (if I can discover what their names are)? I ran a test. It renders the HQ cache as the generic “Geocache” icon.

On first impressions it looks like a stonker, and I can’t wait to get out and try to find some caches with it.


Mudfest

Mudfest

The words “Gordon” and “Bennett” spring to mind. In that order. Why? Mud. That’s why. Lots of mud. Shin-deep, squidgy, boot-sucking mud.

The Mudfest Walk

The Sketch

On a one to ten scale of tiring days, there’ve been days when I’ve walked further, found more caches, and got home in better shape. This day was hard going from start to finish. Really hard going.

The plan was to scoot around the European part of my old Flags of All Nations series. I adopted these out last year when I was struggling with mojo. I’d finally concluded that the mental burden of having to maintain them rather than finding new ones was too much. If I’m only going out 12 times a year I don’t want 4 of those to be maintenance runs. So I adopted them out, and they are now sitting on my map as solved but unfound caches. And they are (comparatively) close to home, and within the boundary of the “local area” that we’re supposed to stay in during Lockdown Tier 4. So solved, close by, and allowed to go there. Plus it was my last day before returning to work and a required grid filler for my Shifty-Fifty Challenge.

So all well-and-good with the concept, now on to the implementation.

Around Hazeley Wood

The European route is basically a couple of overlapping loops from Hazeley in the south up to Stony Stratford. They run along the western edge of Milton Keynes, but are still mainly in the countryside rather than urban.

There’s a car park near Hazeley School in Milton Keynes which works as a start point for this section, but it’s not a place I’m especially happy to leave my car all day. It’s become a bit of a rubbish dump and it’s not overlooked by any houses, so it’s not a great place. Kas kindly agreed to drop me off there early in the morning and fetch me back later, so I didn’t have to leave my own car. So at just before 8:30 am we were in that car park, and I was doing my usual pfaff-about trying to get everything into the right pocket (either in my coat or in the bag).

The first section takes you past Hazeley Wood and down onto the road running between Whaddon and Calverton. It then goes along that road up a fairly steep hill. This section was all quite fast going. I’d promised Pesh (the new owner) that I’d take a load of spares and do maintenance where needed. The first of these was before I reached the road. It was so wet that I didn’t even try to get the log out of the bag. I just signed a fresh one and put it in the box (having first drained the puddle out of it).

Across the Fields

Quite close to the road junction in Upper Weald, I headed back south again to follow the MK Boundary Walk. When I planned this section I set it up as several overlapping loops, but the downside of that is that there’s a bit of doubling back involved if you’re trying to do all of them in one go. The method of looping back is to take a path that I didn’t set caches along. On the day I was setting in this area the fields were all full of cows, and it wasn’t appealing to try to find good locations there. On reflection, if Pesh needs to move any this would be a decent place to look, as there’s easily room for three.

Once I got onto the MK Boundary Walk things started to become hard work. Until then it’d mainly been road or paved paths, but here it’s just the edges of agricultural fields. Whilst they still have grass on that is deceptive, because the rain we’d had in the previous three weeks meant it was like walking on a sponge all the way along. It was just exhausting. Wherever the grass was missing it was shin-deep in sludge.

Thankfully all of the caches were still there. I changed a couple of logs on this stretch but nothing serious.

Brief Encounter

As I was walking along the road in the section at Lower Weald I was passed by the good lady wife on her bike. She’d been out to turn her legs over while I was out walking. She’d talked about taking that route, but I never assumed she’d pass just at the point I was walking along there. A nice surprise. She was about 30 minutes from home. I wasn’t.

From here I was more or less heading back towards home, but the underfoot conditions were slowing me down. When I climbed back to the road at Middle Weald I had to cross a field which had maize in it last summer. It now has lots of mud in it. And the stumps of the crop. That was hard work. I was getting taller and heavier as I walked, if you know what I mean. This stretch took me back to the junction at Upper Weald.

From here it’s necessary to double back to complete the route. There are four caches that cut right across the middle of the loop. When I was setting them here I was running out of usable places. It is 700m across to find four caches, and hence 700m back uphill to get out again. And then a further 700m across road and field to get to the next cache. By this stage I’d found 50 of the 60 on the walk and though I was in good shape to get back in an hour, having so far spent about 5 hours.

Building Works

The final stretch runs along what used to be the North Bucks Way footpath/bridleway. It probably still is, to be honest. Anyway, I had completely forgotten that this stretch can have lots of mud even in the summer. At this point in the winter I was seriously in danger of losing a boot. I got wet socks several times. There wasn’t any long grass to wipe it all off and I was just getting dirtier and dirtier. I was still finding the caches (or in a couple of cases, replacing caches in the locations I originally set them), but it was slow going and my feet were hurting.

When I eventually made it to the last cache (and changed the log) I then gleefully phoned Kas and asked her to come and fetch me, but please, please, bring a change of shoes and a towel to put over the seats. She was there in under 10 minutes. That last stretch of 10 caches is under two miles long, but it took me a good hour and a half to walk it, and by the time I finished I was cold, wet and exhausted.

Still, I’ve now finished another day finished on the Shifty-Fifty Challenge. I found 60 more caches, and earned myself beer or two for walking 19 km in 7 hours. I enjoy it really, even though I moan a lot. If I didn’t enjoy it, I’d stop doing it.


Shifty Fifty Challenge

Shifty Fifty Challenge

A New Hope

As it’s the end of the year, or the start of a new one. At this time there’s always some chat on geocaching forums about who achieved what in the past year, and what plans you have in the coming year. I don’t normally go in for setting targets. I haven’t in the last couple of years because I’ve lost my caching mojo a little bit. In the case of 2020, you couldn’t really plan to do anything at all. So whilst I was sitting at home over the New Year I invented the Shifty Fifty Challenge.

As we enter 2021 we’re still in lockdown, so I can’t plan anything at all. Indeed I can’t even travel outside of our immediate area. That causes a bit of an issue because you’re more likely to do caches close to home than anywhere else. Right now I’m limited to caching in Milton Keynes until the world gets back on its feet a bit.

As a long-time cacher, you might expect I’ve got none at all to do near home, but you’d be wrong. In the past 3-4 years I’ve spent most of my caching days out by driving over to Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire to do big series. I’ve spent relatively little time finding caches locally, and really haven’t done any “odd ones and twos” at all. This meant I’d got a stock of 60-70 caches in town, plus maybe 200 more in the outlying villages. In addition, there’s a new series of about 40 around Olney. That’s enough for a while, I guess. Also, since Groundspeak started reviewing the world of Lab Caches, there’s loads of them around. There’ve been about eight groups of them set up in MK, of which I’ve only done three.

What’s the story?

So what about challenges and targets? I mean I’ve titled this post as if it’s about a challenge, haven’t I? Yes, I have.

The challenge I chose is to try to reach at least 50 total finds on each of the 366 days in the year. Not all in the one year – that would be impossible unless I was retired and divorced. I am neither of those and don’t plan to be. I may retire at some point, but there’s two children to fully educate first. So 50 total finds minimum on each of 366 days of the year. When I set the challenge, at the very beginning of 2021, that meant finding caches on 264 of 366 days. It also meant at least 9,464 finds. You can see it’s not a simple challenge for me. One of the days needing attention is February 29th, so I can’t finish before 2024. Another one is Christmas Day. Another is my kids’ birthday.

It’s taken me 10 years to make 12,736 finds so far, so it’s possible that a further 9,464 will take me another 7-8 years.

Having devised a challenge, I obviously needed a suitably bad name for it. So two words, something that rhymes with “fifty”, but can’t be “nifty” because that’s the name of a lottery. The Shifty Fifty Challenge it is, then.

Why choose this?

Why did I set such a challenge, one that’s simple in concept but time-consuming to achieve? Mainly because I don’t like challenges, or more specifically I don’t like feeling that I am obliged to go out caching. A few years back (2013, I think) I set myself a very aggressive target to fill each day with at least one cache. I had something like 160 days needing to be filled and it became a chore. There was a night in February when I couldn’t find the needed cache, and another day in June where I simply forgot to go.

After that year I no longer pay any attention to “streaks” of caching. Maybe that’s something for retired people who’ve moved to a new area. So to be honest, the Shifty Fifty isn’t not really a challenge. It’s just a review of the calendar to give some sort of priority when choosing days to go caching. I will prefer to stay at home on weekends when I already have 50 finds on each day, and I will prefer to go out on weekends when one or both days need a boost. It also helps me spot weekend days which only need a handful of finds (so can be done by driving and walking locally) and ones which need forty or more, and so need a “proper” trip out.

The scale of the problem

The picture below shows the size of the Shifty Fifty Challenge following my (successful) attempt to bring January 1st up to scratch.

Shifty Fifty Challenge Starting Grid

I sort of also set myself a target of trying to get 2,021 finds in 2021. This is totally dependent on the lockdown situation starting to ease no later than the start of February. Any later than that and I’ll be trying to pack in too many caches at the end of the year. I’ll most likely run out of places to go locally. January 2021 has nine weekend days that need attention, two require under 10 finds and the rest require over 30. If I complete 4 of those 9 days I’ll be happy.

So for now, I have maybe 300 caches available that I can access during lockdown, but relatively few of those are big series that can be used for days when over 30 finds are required.

All in all, I guess it’s more of a strategy than a plan. I am setting off with the best of intentions, but wary that I might be pushed back by forces outside my control. What a strange world we live in now, when a comment like that is true. The Shifty Fifty Challenge is born, and I very much hope it survives its infancy.