This was my first attempt to send up the quadcopter in winter. It’s challenging to take good photos of a snowy landscape anyway. Add to that the fact that the camera is flying, and it’s cold, which is hard on batteries and motors. I was rather amazed at how well it did!
Sometimes you see something that takes your breath away, maybe even makes your eyes moist. That happened when I saw this photo one morning:
Photography has been one of my hobbies since I was a child, and I’ve enjoyed it all these years. Recently I was inspired by the growing ease of aerial photography using model aircraft, and now can fly two short-range RC quadcopters. That photo came from the first one, and despite being a low-res 1280×720 camera, tha image of our home in the yellow glow of sunrise brought a deep feeling a beauty and peace.
Somehow seeing our home surrounded by the beauty of the immense wheat fields and green pastures drives home how small we all are in comparison to the vastness of the earth, and how lucky we are to inhabit this beautiful planet.
As the sun starts to come up over the pasture, the only way you can tell the height of the grass at 300ft is to see the shadow it makes on the mowed pathway Laura and I use to get down to the creek.
This is a view of our church in a small town nearby — the church itself is right in the center of the photo. Off to the right, you see the grain elevators that can be seen for miles across the Kansas prairie, and of course the fields are never all that far off in the background.
Here you can see the quadcopter taking off from the driveway:
And here it is flying over my home church out in the country:
That’s the country church, at the corner of two gravel roads – with its lighted cross facing east that can be seen from a mile away at night. To the right is the church park, and the green area along the road farther back is the church cemetery.
Sometimes we get in debates about environmental regulations, politics, religion, whatever. We hear stories of missiles, guns, and destruction. It is sad, this damage we humans inflict on ourselves and our earth. Our earth — our home — is worth saving. Its stunning beauty from all its continents is evidence enough of that. To me, this photo of a small corner of flat Kansas is proof enough that the home we all share deserves to be treated well, and saved so that generations to come can also get damp eyes viewing its beauty from a new perspective.
It’s been a hot year in Kansas this year. Really hot. Our average high for July was 101F / 38C. It’s also been extremely dry. So we haven’t had too many pleasant opportunities to enjoy a bit of an upcycling project I had with the boys.
When we renovated our old farmhouse, we had two chimneys removed. The bricks were saved in a large pile out back, and we haven’t really touched them in the last 5 years.
I got the idea at some point that it would be nice to have a fire ring on our yard. The boys love campfire-style cooking, and enjoy helping gather kindling and watching the fire grow. I had looked at fire rings in stores, but just couldn’t bring myself to pay $60 or $100 or even more for what was really a piece of round metal. I decided we would find a way to build our own fire ring.
So the idea of chimney bricks seemed perfect. Some of these bricks still have mortar on them, so the result is imperfect, but it is functional. More importantly, the boys helped. They picked out bricks one at a time, set them in the wheelbarrow (or even carried a few themselves, as Jacob insisted on doing sometimes.) Then we’d dump them out on the ground, and I’d make some attempt at making the thing round, while the boys would put them on the pile.
We did this over the course of several evenings, with me filling in on some of it after they lost interest. When we got it done, they of course loved cooking outside. I made sure that we placed it in a place that will be in the shade every summer evening so we’d be comfortable. I made no attempt to mortar it in; this way, it’s easy to move or resize. And it’s safer for the boys than a metal one, since the outer edge never even gets warm to the touch.
Anyhow, it finally got a little cooler last week, so we cooked out there for dinner two days in a row. One day, after eating, the boys came back out to help put out the fire with the hose. After that, Jacob and I went out there to eat dessert. He sat on the grass, and I sat down next to him. He scooted over a bit to be closer to me. Pretty soon, Oliver came running out too, and sat on my lap. The three of us just sat there on the grass, eating our desserts and enjoying the evening. It’s the kind of moment that makes a dad happy.
The other evening, they again helped me put out the fire with a hose. They’d been active that day, so after I finished hosing down the fire ring, I gave them each a small spray with the hose. After a brief flicker of indecision, they both decided this was hilarious. Jacob took off running, yelling “You’ll never catch me!” (And clearly hoping I would.) Oliver copied him, and so I proceeded to chase them around the yard with a hose for quite awhile. There was much laughter from them, and they wound up totally soaked and happy. Another good evening. You never know what will happen outdoors, but so often it is very good.
I’m back from one of the best experiences a father can have – a whole day with two happy boys.
I took Jacob (5) and Oliver (2) camping with me out by our creek. This was the first time we’d camped there, and also the first time I’d taken the boys camping without Terah along. So there were some unknowns, but it worked out great.
When we got out there, I started to get the tents set up. The boys were interested, but pretty soon invented some games. A large nearby tree with plenty of low branches on its trunk became their locomotive, and certain sticks made the “train” go forward or backward, whistle, or ding its bell. This was good for quite some entertainment. Another nearby tree, near the bank of the creek, had some erosion near it. Combined with its roots, this made some natural steps. Jacob named some the “enter steps” and others the “exit steps”, and I sure heard about it if I walked the wrong way on the exit steps.
We then gathered up sticks and the things we needed to build a campfire. We cooked up brats and zucchini. Although it was later than usual for supper, they loved it just the same.
After that, we made smores for dessert – another thing they loved. Then, one of the big highlights: sleeping in tents and sleeping bags. I had showed them the sleeping bags earlier, and they were excited to try them out.
Morning was beautiful – when the sun came out, it was shining right on the heavy dew on the ground, making the grass shine brightly.
It’s not every day that they get to start their morning slowly waking up by a warm fire. They were content to sit for quite awhile while I got things going for breakfast.
It was chilly outside, so I helped them change clothes by the fire where. I then cooked them some scrambled eggs – which, despite the lack of salt and pepper, seemed so much better than normal to the boys – and then we went exploring. I took them to some areas with erosion, which Jacob called “the big holes in the ground.” It’s really quite beautiful in spring, which this cellphone photo completely fails to capture.
The boys loved climbing up and down these areas, some of which were quite tall. They discovered different kinds of rock on the way up and down, and with my help avoided discovering too much of the mud at the bottom.
We hiked back to our camping spot through grass almost as tall as Oliver — much to his delight — and then after warming up by the fire for a bit, went off in the other direction. There is a grove of trees by the creek over there, which — surprise — became another train. Here are the boys explaining how it works.
They helped pack things back up, too. Actually, it took some convincing to get Jacob to not pull up all the stakes for the tent before I was ready for them.
Things didn’t go perfectly, but then, they never do, and that was OK with everyone. Camping is an adventure, and it wouldn’t be an adventure if you knew every detail beforehand.
It is rare in life to be able to think that I have enough time to do anything the boys might want to do. Spend half an hour pretending a tree is a train — sure, no problem.
Today Oliver asked to go camping again, and was a bit disappointed when I didn’t agree to go camping again right this minute, today. Jacob said, “we had an EXCELLENT time” and gave me hugs thinking about it.
I have a lot of happy memories about the creek. We camped at the same spot where I went fishing or camped as a child. There have been family gatherings and even a birthday party out there. The boys and I have enjoyed a hike or a wagon ride to the area, but as I learned, nothing could possibly match the excitement of camping there.
It is wonderful to add another happy memory of a time at the creek. And it’s even better to see another generation of Goerzens discover that there’s a lot of fun to be had down by the creek.
I recently posted here about bicycling in the mud and rain, and got some good suggestions (and also on the icebike mailing list). I eventually decided to replace my current bike (Trek 7.3FX) with a Specialized Tricross Sport Triple. As I mentioned in the bike store, “it seems odd to spend this kind of money on a bike only to ride it through mud and sand.” Another customer overheard and said, “It sure does — but don’t worry, it’ll be fine!”
But on the other hand, I figure that it is probably realistic for me to ride it around 3600 miles (5793 km) per year. At that rate, it will pay for itself in reduced car costs in about a year.
I picked it up last Friday, and on Saturday moved my accessories (headlight mount, tail light, water bottle cage, etc.) to it. The Bontrager Back Rack I from the 7.3FX did not fit well, so I ordered the Specialized Tricross Rack Set, which did fit well (I’m not using the front rack though).
This has been a wet week. I rode Thursday when it had stopped raining about 20 minutes before I left in the morning, and we got more rain in the afternoon. Although both the Tricross and the 7.3FX have 700x32C tires, even the factory tires on the Tricross performed far better in mud than the 7.3FX ever did — and I can still go much more wide if I feel it necessary. Actually, somewhat to my surprise, I didn’t really have a problem with kicking up mud; my enemy turned out to be kicking up sand. It didn’t really damage anything, and I had to try not to cringe as I saw the sand hitting the chain, etc. I rinse it off when I get to my destination, and clean/lubricate the chain frequently in these conditions.
I haven’t yet been on the bike during an active rain, but from what I’ve done so far, I think it will be fine. So at this point, there’s very little that will prevent me from riding.
I’ve owned two different GPSs in the past: a Garmin GPS III, and the Garmin eMap. Both are based on similar underlying firmware.
This week, I did some research on more modern GPS units and decided to buy a Garmin nuvi 500. Here’s my review.
The Garmin nuvi 500 is one of only two models in the nuvi line that are waterproof. The nuvi 500 and 550 are both designed as hybrid units: useful both in the car and outdoors. The 500 includes street-level maps (they appear to be the same quality as Google) for the entire United States, detailed topographical maps for the entire United States, and a global basemap. It also includes a microSD slot (or is it miniSD – I forget) for additional maps that you can buy — anything from marine maps to other countries.
It also includes a default POI (points of interest) database containing over 5 million points: restaurants, gas stations, parks, hospitals, you name it. Most contain an address and a phone number in additional to the coordinates. Unlike GPS units that you find built in to some cell phones, this is all stored on flash memory on the unit: no Internet connection required. The nuvi 500 is a portable yellow pages, topographical map, and incredibly detailed street atlas all in one.
The nuvi 500 comes with a car charger and suction cup windshield mount in the box. (It doesn’t come with an AC charger, but it can charge over USB.) It also comes with — yay — a user-replaceable battery. The windshield mount is very sturdy and I am happy to have one that isn’t permanent.
In the car, the device performs admirably. I have read some other reviewers that have compared its routing to other GPSs and found that the nuvi generally picks the same route as Google, and almost always a better route than other GPSs. If you deviate from the selected route, it automatically re-calculates a new route for you. It will show you the next turn coming up, and has either 3D or flat map displays.
There’s a one-touch “where am I” feature. It displays your current coordinates, some sort of street address suitable to read to someone (“1234 S. Main” or “I-95 exit 43” type of thing), along with buttons to show you the nearest police stations and hospitals.
The unit also features multi-stop routing. You can either tell it where all you’re going in a defined order, or tell it all your stops and let it create an optimal route. This feature works, but it your stops are close by (and involve some of the same roads), it may wind up skipping some stops thinking you’ve made your first one.
The speaker announces upcoming maneuvers, though it doesn’t have a synthesizer for street names. It’s also supposed to work with Bluetooth headsets, though I haven’t tested that feature.
I found the map quality to be excellent. It seems to be on par with Google (in fact, I think both use data from Navteq). I was surprised with how many country dirt roads and side roads it knows about — and of course, regular city streets are all on there, with one-way indications and the whole lot. In fact, the quality of coverage was so good that I was surprised when it missed roads or got things wrong. Out in rural areas, or small towns, this happens from time to time: it thought that an abandoned railbed was an unnamed road and wanted me to drive on it (it was clearly not drivable), and in some other cases also thought some abandoned roads were still drivable. I don’t think this is a device issue though; it’s an underlying data issue, and everyone else probably has the same problem.
Its arrival time estimates are quite accurate, and its interface is smooth and easy.
It has some optional accessories I haven’t tried, such as real-time traffic reports from wireless sources, boating mode, etc.
Outdoor and Geocaching Mode
Our other main use for the device is outdoor hiking and geocaching. It really shines here. It has special support for the GPX files from geocaching.com. The device supports “paperless caching”. Not only can it put caches on the map, but if you download the GPX file for your caches, you’ll also get the full description, hint (behind a separate button, of course), most recent 5 logs, and the like right there on your screen. You can also log your finds on the device, and upload a file from it to geocaching.com later to log them on the site. This is an incredible time saver over my old method: printing out a bunch of maps, downloading waypoints to the eMap, taking notes, then logging things later.
I found outdoor mode not quite as refined as the auto mode, however. It kept forgetting that I wanted to use an arrow as my current position indicator (the default hiking boots for walking mode didn’t provide an accurate enough direction indication for my tastes). Finally realized that saying “don’t ask me about the configuration” was the key to getting it to remember the configuration. It sometimes took a surprisingly long time to realize we weren’t standing still any longer.
On the other hand, the quality of the GPS receiver was amazing. It even got a strong signal in my house. And I wasn’t even sitting at a window. The topographical maps are a nice addition, and the breadcrumb mode is always helpful when geocaching and hiking, too.
My natural way of holding it meant that I accidentally turned it off a few times, because I had a finger holding it right over the power button. But it powers back up and re-obtains the signal quite rapidly.
The different modes (automobile, outdoor, bicycle, and scooter) are mainly different collections of settings: 3D map or flat, what indicator to use, to navigate off-road or along roadways, to ignore one-way indications or heed them, etc.
The nuvi 500 has a USB port. Plug it into the PC, and you see its internal flash drive, vfat formatted. You can upload and download GPX files there, store photos if you like. Be careful what you mess with though, because its built-in maps and system data are also on that drive. If you have the SD card inserted, that will also be presented to your computer when you plug the device in. Garmin has some Windows software to make it easier to upload/download stuff, but I haven’t tried it.
As you can tell, I really like this GPS, but there are a few things about it that annoy me.
The #1 thing that annoys me isn’t actually the GPS itself, but Garmin’s website. I went to register the device online, but it wouldn’t let me because I don’t have the Windows-only browser plugin on my Linux machine, and it wanted to talk to the GPS for some reason. I went to send them a support request about that, only to discover — after I had typed in the request — that their “email us” form is broken in Firefox on all platforms. Bad show, Garmin.
The on-screen keyboard (it’s a touch-screen device with only one hard button for power) isn’t QWERTY layout; it’s alphabetical layout, and it makes me inefficient when entering data. I found myself logging my finds on the unit, but taking notes about them on paper because that was faster. Garmin has a feature listed on their website for a toggle between QWERTY and alphabetical layout, which they apparently offer on only their more expensive GPSs. What? There is no reason to not but that in all your firmware.
The device lacks a few features I was used to on my GPS III and eMap. It doesn’t support any kind of real-time position indication to the PC; all communications is just accessing stored data on the internal flash drive. I used to think that was a nice feature, but in reality, I haven’t used it in years. It also lacks the display of the exact location of each GPS satellite, though the incredible quality of its receiver means that I don’t really care any more. (I used to use that information to help figure out which window to put it by if in a car/train or something.)
It also lacks the level of configuration that was present in the settings screens on the older units. There’s no “battery saver” mode (sample every 5 seconds when going at a constant velocity instead of every 1) like the older units had. The sun and moon screen likewise is gone, but added is awareness of timezones; the Nuvi 500 can show you the local time at your present position synced up with the GPS satellites.
The compass is not the most helpful screen, though after some practice, it is functional. The documentation about it is confusing, but really the thing that was more confusing was this: in walking mode, the arrow that indicates what direction you’re walking in updates faster than the arrow that indicates what direction you should be walking in. Once I realized what was going on there, it was easier to use.
The compass does tell you what your bearing is, in degrees, but only when you are not seeking a destination. It will not tell you the bearing to the destination, though you can estimate it from the simulated compass face on the display. When seeking a specific point, especially through terrain with obstacles such as trees, it is useful to be able to use a compass for the final approach because a GPS unit can’t tell you which direction it’s pointed — only which direction it’s moving, so when you’re not moving or moving slowly, it’s not helpful.
I did some experimentation today with the compass screen, as well as my real compass, and was able to navigate to my destination rather precisely using the combination of them. That said, a more functional compass screen would still be better.
Overall, I’m very happy with the nuvi 500. It’s not the same as a top-of-the-line device in either the outdoor or automotive category, but on the other hand, it’s cheaper and more convenient than buying two devices with similar features. The geocaching features are excellent, the build quality is excellent as well. The system is stable and performs well. (Some other reviews worried about whether the case is solid enough; it seems quite solid to me.) I wish there were a faster way to toggle between 3D and flat map views, and forgetting about my walking mode icon is annoying, but other than that I have very little to complain about. Garmin’s geocaching features (found on this unit and several other in their lineup) is great.
Some of you might recall that I’ve been bicycling to work, about 10 miles each way.
Over the last two weeks, I haven’t been able to ride much because it’s been too muddy. Today I rode to work.
It was about 25F-30F out there, so this was my first below-freezing bicycle ride. It went OK, though I was somewhat on the cool side — I’ll add more layers next time.
Today, I wore wool socks, bicycling shorts, tights over that, my short sleeve shirt, a long-sleeve shirt over it, full gloves, and a balaclava. I should have worn probably one more layer everywhere, but I survived and I’m not frozen.
You may now commence speculation about whether or not I am crazy.
I’ve been telling people that I plan to keep bicycling into the winter. I think about half the people I’ve told to don’t really believe it. And the last two weeks, I haven’t been able to ride to work due to muddy roads and scheduling conflicts. But today I did.
I left while it was still dark and 45 degrees outside (7C for the Fahrenheit-impaired). I think that’s the coldest bike ride for me yet. I wore my regular shorts, shoes, and socks. I had my regular shirt on, plus a long-sleeve thicker shirt on above it.
It was cold the first few minutes, but this was pretty much the right outfit. Once I got going and got some heat built up, I was doing fine. In fact, I had to unzip my outer layer because I was getting hot.
So. I figure that if I can do 45 with shorts, then I ought to be able to take on 20 with proper winter gear.
Either that, or I’ve now dug myself a nice big hole if I wimp out.
Wednesday I rode my bike to work.
So, logically, Wednesday saw me riding my bike home from work.
That was not the most pleasant task.
I rode directly into some really strong winds — I figure about 40MPH — for 2.5 miles, and for the other 8, they were crosswinds. I checked the weather about 30-60 minutes after I got home, after it had calmed down a bit, and they were saying gusts to 35. So I figure 40 or more when it was really going is about right. I was using the lowest possible gear on my 24-speed bike for a good part of that, for the first time ever.
The weather also indicated this was due to remnants from Gustav.
So now I can — almost — say I rode my bike through a hurricane.
I had to chuckle a bit today when I read a different bike blog — someone who has been doing this a lot longer than me — say he chickened out and took the bus because of 15MPH winds.
Out here in Kansas farm country, there isn’t a bus. If I ride the bike to work in the morning, that’s the only way I’m getting back home.
Kinda character-building, I guess.
Or crazy, depending on your view. I’m getting some strange looks lately as I’ve been mentioning that it’s about time for me to prepare for bicycling in the winter.
Oh, and did I mention that 15MPH is a breeze out here?
Back in May, I wrote about starting to bicycle to work. My plan was to do that 3 days a week. My ride is 10 miles each way, with the first 2.3 miles on dirt, gravel, and sand roads.
It’s been going well. Yesterday was the first day that the ride really felt easy. It’s been getting more and more fun, too.
And I’ve been getting faster. My worst time lately was 49 minutes, also yesterday morning. I really was riding slower than I felt normal, just taking it easy. But I had a headwind, and when I started my normal time in calm conditions was 60 minutes or more. That’s almost a 20% improvement already.
Due to vacations, holidays, and weather, I haven’t been able to average 3 days a week. When it’s raining, or has rained recently, our roads get muddy and pretty much impassible on bicycle. Though some days, my ride is 2 miles longer because the short route is too muddy but the long route isn’t.
So, overall, I’ve been enjoying bicycling, and plan to keep doing it.