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A geocaching guest star - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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April 4th, 2010

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08:42 pm - A geocaching guest star
malachan is staying with us over the Easter weekend! He is in good health and it's always fun to see him. We like having guests come up and stay on our futon. (We turn it into a marshmallow bed by stacking extra duvets between the futon and the bedsheet.) Unfortunately my dear wife has been ill for two weeks or so; she had to work long hours when many of the local youths, and one of her co-workers, were affected by a cold that was going around; last week, the pilot light in the boiler heating her workplace went out and she had one particularly cold workday before they fixed it, with the result that a persistent sniffle has turned into a productive cold. Nobody wants to spend their Easter holiday coughing up phlegm; hopefully she will get much better very quickly.

Nevertheless, we've had a great deal of fun while R. has been here. We have spent time introducing R. to strange Northern supermarkets like Morrison's and ASDA, spent lots of time and money on purchasing and cooking exciting food. We have been having little salads daily, as starters to our main courses, and have been enjoying exciting pasta dishes. (Tonight there will be a filled hand-made pasta, mainly due to an exciting KitchenAid pasta-making attachment. Last night we had steak tips with all manner of vegetables, including some smashed potatoes laden with garlic butter.)

During the days, we have mostly been watching Doctor Who - repeats of the Ten era on Watch, the Four-to-Six era on Sci-Fi and the start of the Eleven era on, er, BBC 1. No spoilers, but we all greatly enjoyed the first episode - though M., who knows much more than I do about these things, recognised a great number of repeated themes from episodes written by our new Executive Producer. A second viewing confirms that it was very tightly written; I loved the gags about Patrick Moore, and wonder whether the writing of MΨTH on the back (and inside bottom) of a computer will prove significant. The weather here has recently mostly been grey, though generally dry.

This afternoon, I convinced R. to accompany me on my first ever trip geocaching. I don't know whether I need to explain geocaching as it's nothing new (I first mentioned it in passing here in October 2002, and was hardly on the cutting edge even then) but the concept is that members of the public have hidden small boxes around the world in interesting locations, then invited other members of the public to find these boxes by publicising the longitude and latitude of these boxes as observed by GPS receivers, so that other members of the public might attempt to replicate the quoted longitude and latitude on their own GPS device and thus find the hidden caches and enjoy the interesting locations in which they have been secreted.

We don't own a dedicated GPS unit, but M. got a (HTC Dream) T-Mobile G1 phone a little over a year ago, which includes such functionality. (As an aside, why has every phone since then, to our knowledge, had a worse keypad than the G1? All touch-screen keypads are inherently worse, and I can't remember seeing another fold-out keypad with its own little row of number keys, which is enough to make the difference.) I attempted to enable the GPS on the unit on the day she got the phone, causing it to generate some sort of testing/error screen which we have never seen again in practice ever since and causing me to lose "fiddle with my wife's phone" privileges. Not unreasonably, I grudgingly suppose.

Geocaching has never been particularly her cup of tea, as the weather in the UK seldom suits her outdoor walking requirements, and she does not have the "inconspicuous" privilege for vocal reasons. It also strikes me as something that's much more fun with two than with one, so - until I could talk R. into it - it's a concept that I've had to admire from afar. M. kindly let me borrow her G1 (not least because I guess her contract is up in a few months) and I installed the c:geo client thereon. Every couple of months or so, I've browsed the Geocaching.com web site to see what there is in the area: like most of the country, we're reasonably well-served, with a couple of dozen locations within a few miles of here. In fact, one of the descriptions was sufficiently complete that I could identify a nearby location without needing a GPS unit, though finding the cache at the location proved beyond me when I tried a month ago.

Accordingly, I decided that the first cache I would try to locate would be a "small" cache rather than a "micro" cache, with the difficulty and terrain requirements firmly on teddy-bear level: this one fit the bill adequately, not least because (again) I was familiar with the area already and because there were a couple of other caches nearby as well. Signing up with Geocaching.com was fairly quick, getting the c:geo application to talk to the web site took rather longer. I'd say I'm still learning to use c:geo properly; there are frequent pauses where it seems to take periods measured in minutes to search for location data. This may well be a problem with the T-Mobile reception in our area (we only had a first-generation mobile data connection with a baud rate comparable to that of a Sinclair Spectrum, though we can get 3G fairly reliably elsewhere), or it might be something as silly as the web site objecting to me having chosen one of my usual usernames that happens to contain an underscore.

To begin with, we were stuck at a screen which listed all the local caches and our distance from them, with an unchanging indication of direction. Accordingly R. and I attempted to find the cache at first simply by wandering in a variety of directions and seeing which direction reduced the distance most effectively, and we were able to stumble within low single digits of metres of our target location. We waited for a couple of dog-walking couples to pass and started shuffling around, following the hint, finding a camo-tape-wrapped pepper-cellar as described within the ground. Victory! The cache was there as described and contained just as many coins of all description as we might have hoped, from five different continents. We swapped a 50 Singaporean cent coin (sadly not a new country for the cache) for a 10 Euro cent coin; not a good rate of exchange, but we might have more use for the Euro-fraction. (Does 10 Euro-cents buy anything on its own in practice?)

Describing myself as a geocacher, I left a polite (and mostly acronymic) note in the log book, bundled things back up and we headed back off towards the car. About half-way along the track, we passed a certain feature in the ground which surely related to this cache; c:geo had suggested that we had passed within two or three metres of the cache at one point, but I had not wanted to stop and look for it as it was a microcache and thus might elude us. (I'd rather trek on to find a small cache than to stumble and miss a micro cache.) c:geo wasn't providing us with any sort of direction or distance at this point, so the technique I had to resort to was to look up the web page and read the description.

This did not pay dividends; we shuffled around for two or three minutes, admitted defeat (or, rather, a 50% hit rate) and set back off to the car. Further along the track we found another feature like the first and rooting around quickly revealed the microcache, ingeniously deployed! I was enjoying the "look with your hands" touchy-feely nature of the retrieval, and didn't mind a few gentle scrapes and abrasions. This one only had enough room for a tightly-rolled log book, to which we appended my name. Two-for-two!

Cheered further, I had noted a third cache within about a mile or so; we had worked out that the best way to get c:geo to play nicely was to follow a link on the geocaching.com web site and then use the provided prompt to use c:geo, rather than the web browser, to open the link. The delay in c:geo getting started was as long as ever (a good couple of minutes) but once it had done, we had a live distance from, and some sort of direction towards, our third target. Sadly we couldn't get the direction to manifest itself into any sort of arrow - though M. managed to get this to work by using a different part of the app, once - and charged off using the "try to drive in order to decrease the distance" technique rather than the "read the official - and very helpful - description of where the cache is and where to park" technique.

The third cache was listed as having slightly trickier terrain; it's probably not too much of a spoiler to reveal that the location was within very light woodland undergrowth, but the GPS signal never suggested that we got closer than six metres to the location, and the lack of a completely clear (tree-free) shot from the cache to the satellites was probably to blame. Once again, the clue revealed all. Do a large proportion of experienced cache-hunters habitually find caches without resorting to the hints? I imagine that once you know what you're looking for then it becomes rather easier, and some cache locations may be rather more specific than others. If you're not looking for a small cache, I can well imagine some terrain features screaming out "here's where to look".

I gave the honour of retrieving this third cache to R., but it turned out to be one where you had to get your hands dirty, even despite a past visitor carefully wrapping the cache box in a bag. It was full of toys and gewgaws; while the protocol is to take one and replace it with something else, having ended up visiting more caches than I had planned, I came unprepared. (There was a cute electronic nose toy which made snoring noises, but I have a suspicion that if I had brought it home, perhaps in exchange for a book of postage stamps, M. would have been amused by it once then defenestrated it second time...) In the argot, in the log book, I TNLN (took nothing, left nothing) but issued TFTC (thanks for the cache).

These three successful searches had taken over an hour and a half and the only other caches at all nearby were microcaches, so we declared it to be the end of a successful day's searching. The third cache was a bit tougher to retrieve than the first two, by virtue of the woods we had to crash through, so finding it felt like more of an accomplishment and the chase felt like more of an adventure. Now I can see why people would enjoy relatively hard geocaches among the simpler ones.

Thanks to R. for being a geocaching enabler, as well as a great house-guest! I hope we can make the chance for both to happen again before long.

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Current Location: find it yourself to the nearest thousandth of a minute!
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