And The Oscar For Best Short Film Goes To…

I may have mentioned in a previous post that I entered a short movie into several film festivals. The movie, ‘Mosquito Love’, was selected for showing in the monthly Life Screening One Minute Film Festival and will be shown on December 3 at 4:15pm EST.

While this is great news, I’ll have to admit that the movie really isn’t much. It is just 1 minute long and the story is pretty basic, but the reason for creating it has a bit of weight.

Back when I was in Namibia I wanted teach people how to create movies using the technologies they had on hand. Nearly everyone there had a mobile phone, many of those phones could take video. Also, many Namibians had access to a computer even if it meant going to a local library. With these bits of basic tech and free software almost anyone can make movie.

But making a movie, especially one that someone else would want to watch, take more than just capturing video. To tell a story, however rudimentary that story might be, requires planning, scripting, and post processing. I believed I could teach that. 

Now that I’m here in the States the thought of teaching a basic movie making class has come back to me. But in order to feel confident enough to teach such a class I needed to go through the steps I would teach, produce a movie and have it accepted in a film festival. I chose the short, 1 minute format to show that a story can be told with as succinctly as possible and still be enjoyable.

Anyway, I did all of that and my little movie got accepted festival that shows 1 minute movies once a month. If you’re interested, here’s the link to the festival. It will occur on December 3, 2022 at 4:1PM EST.

https://www.facebook.com/LifeScreenings

Now that I have some movie making ‘credentials’ the next step is to dust off the syllabus I had put together in Namibia, rework the course for an American audience, and see whee I can offer it as a course.

Could be fun.

Stay tuned,

Vern

Seat of My Pants

When I was a kid I dreamt of piloting something, anything that flew. Jets, biplanes, rocket ships, if it provided a means of minimizing the affects of gravity, however temporary, I wanted to do it.

As home computers grew more powerful flight simulators programs (I called them, “Flight Stimulators”) began to appear. When I first loaded up Microsoft’s first flight simulator I was enthralled to be able to take off from LaGuardia and fly over Manhattan where all of the major landmarks were rendered in wireframe and updated every second. State of the art back then. 

On my Atari 2600 Game Console I could warp from sector to sector rescuing space stations under attack be a nefarious alien race in Star Raiders. With fairly simple graphics (especially by today’s standards) the game put you in the pilot’s seat and let you dogfight in space. Ahhh, those were the days!

Since that time I have flown on commercial and military transports, hang glided (tandem with the pilot/trainer was ready to take over in case I did something stupid), and took the controls of a Cessna 150 for about 10 minutes. The latter two I did with an enormous grin plastered on my face. I actually ‘flew’.

I’m not so much a thrillseeker, but I don’t back away from the prospect of an adrenaline rush either, and I will likely jump at a chance to take flight, in any manner. I guess I’m still a kid at heart.

Drones can allow one to scratch the flying itch, at least a little bit, so, I bought a drone, a DJI Mini 2. It’s a great little system that’s easy to control and allows me to shoot stellar video while not overtaxing my meager budget. Unfortunately, to keep the Mini under the 249 grams weight limit set by the FCC for drone to fly without being registered (I registered mine anyway), DJI left a lot of features off, like object avoidance. 

You can probably guess where I’m going with this, but let me give you the details.

Sample footage from my drone.

Another feature DJI did not include is the ability to automate a flight using waypoints (waypoints are places along a prescribed flight path where changes can be made to altitude, speed, direction, camera usage and so on). Luckily, DJI did open their drone control software to allow other companies to create such things and a company called VC Technologies did just that and created an app called Litchi. With Litchi, my DJI Mini 2 can follow a subject, fly a prescribed course with waypoints, and do all sorts of things the drone couldn’t before. Of course, I grabbed the software as soon as I learned of it.

Now, what comes to mind now is a quote from Spider-Man that goes something like, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Litchi imbued my drone with capabilities  once only available on drones costing thousands of dollars. I knew there was great power involved and I read and watch everything I could before deciding to try it out myself. 

Alas, there comes a time when reading and watching won’t suffice and one must take the controls. So, I packed up my drone, making sure I had plenty of battery power and storage for the movies I would create as a test, and set off for a local park. I picked a spot where there were few trees, programmed my drone flight with just 2 waypoints at a low altitude, and got everything ready.

Then the moment of truth. I initiated the flight. My drone rose like the obedient automaton it was, turned towards the first waypoint and took off like a banshee, straight into a tree. It was as if the drone knew the tree was there and wanted to commit suicide. It fell into a tangle of tree roots and blinked woefully. I ran to it and picked it up to examine the damage. Propellers were broken, the body was scratched and the drone’s single gimbaled eye dangled as if plucked from its socket by Edgar Allen Poe’s raven.

I gathered up the pieces of my robotic flight avatar and carried it home.

Ahhh, but my ordeal had only begun!

The broken gimbal, removed.

I examined my broken drone and determined that the gimbaled camera was, indeed, the worst of its injuries. DJI wisely provided extra propellers when I bought the device.

 I went online to see if I could fix the gimbal myself. There are lots of videos showing how it can be done, but doing so required opening up the drones and mucking around in its electronic innards, stuff I hadn’t done in years. And to add monetary insult to my technological injuries, a replacement gimbal cost $250! That’s half the cost of the drone! The old gimbal was beyond repair so I had little choice. I bought a replacement gimbal and waited for it to arrive.

While I waited I read and watched almost everything I could find on how to replace the gimbal, hoping there might be an easier way. There was no easier way. I would have to take the drone apart, disconnect tiny connectors, handle delicate circuit boards and more all while hoping my hands were still steady enough not to cause further damage.

The part arrived, so did the moment of truth; could I operate on my injured drone and bring it back to life?

The scene was reminiscent of an operating room. I had lights focused on the upturned drone lying listlessly on my table. Miniature screwdrivers, plastic pry tools, hot glue gun, small dishes to hold the screws and other parts I’d remove were all at the ready. I fired up a video the detailed every step then made the first incision, er…, unscrewed the first screw.

Minutes turned to hours as I gently dove deeper into the inner workings on the drone to get to the affected places. Finally, I had removed, disconnected, and detached everything associated with the broken gimbal. Now I had to reverse the process. More hours ticked by, but at last I screwed in the final screw. I installed a battery, pressed the power button and waited for the drone to take it first electronic breath. Lights flashed, beeps sounded, propellers twitched as if it was fresh out of the box. My drone was back!

New gimbal in. On the road to recovery!

It’s still convalescing, I need to run calibration software to get the camera aligned properly, but it will soon be back in the air and once again being my ‘eye in the sky’.

Stay tuned,

Vern

Planting Seeds

I enjoy writing though I’m not very good at it. My spelling is horrible. My sentence constructions can be bested my many 10 year olds, and my grammar hasn’t improved since junior high school. Yet I continue. Becoming a writer is what I dreamt of becoming when I was a kid. I’ve yet to realize that dream. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

Kids dream of all sorts of things they’d be when they become adults. While in Namibia, I had put together a series of lectures I would present to secondary and high school kids that exposed them to things I thought they just would not see otherwise. The lecture series was my way of addressing what I saw as a limit to the imagination natural to young minds. Whenever I asked a Namibian child what he or she wanted to be when they grew up I would get invariably the same answers: a nurse, a teacher, an engineer. All admirable careers, but the answers all lacked vision. What kind of nurse? Did they know they could specialize and become an emergency or operating room nurse? Did they know they could teach yoga, programming, or the art of sword making? Did they have any idea that nearly everything in our modern world requires specialized engineering? 

They did not. 

One of my early attempts at lecturing.

My lectures were supposed to expose these young minds to the vastness of human endeavor. I showed them how medicine and engineering produced prosthetics that allowed people to walk, pick up a can of soda, or see again. I showed them people who taught machines how to dance, open doors, and run on two legs like its creators. I showed them devices engineered to take people into the deepest, darkest, coldest places on earth and view, first hand, creatures never seen before by man.

Did it work? 

I don’t know. They were wowed when the watched a Boston Dynamics robot do a backflip and open a door without human assistance. They appeared mesmerized by men and women who seemed to possess comic book-like powers granting them superhuman speed, and strength through engineered prosthetics. They gasped when a diver surprised an octopus that had disguised itself as a rock. The students and teachers applauded loudly an asked for more, but did any of it mean anything?

I like to think that my lectures and presentations were more than hour-long distractions. I earnestly hope that hearing me talk and showing them video snippets of the world beyond their classrooms and auditoriums planted a seed in what I hope were minds still fertile and nourished with imagination and wonder. But I’m a realist, I know I will likely never know if anything I said or showed took root.

I left Namibia is 2020 as COVID became a pandemic. Some of those high schoolers may be freshman now in the University of Namibia or other institutes of higher eduction. Hopefully, by the time they are seniors, they will have decided of a career path and, hopefully, a few may remember the lectures and videos I showed and make a decision based on what they saw and heard.

I suppose what I’m wondering at the moment is what many teachers must wonder at some point in their career: did I make a difference? I am no teacher, but the sentiment is the same and I’ll likely never know if I made a difference, but I believed it was worth the effort. 

Maybe I should keep trying.

Stay tuned.

Vern 

Back It Up!

I know my way around computers.

When I was 16 my high school was donated a computer from one of the colleges or universities in the area. It had 128 little black rings with hairlike copper wires running through them, all visible through a plexiglass panel. I would soon learn that those little rings formed the memory of that computer, memory you could program by flipping a set of little switches located on the front of the device. Those little rings were called magnetic core memory and it was my first encounter with an actual computer.

Magnetic core memory (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

When I was in the Air Force I programmed computer controlled radar jamming equipment using tiny dip-switches. The memory for those jammers were little integrated circuits which functioned similarly to the magnetic core memory, but was scaled a lot smaller.

While in the Air Force I bought my first computer, a TRS-80 Model 1. It had 4K of RAM and a cassette tape player to load and save programs. I learned BASIC on that machine and wrote my first application; a computerized version of Yahtzee, complete with an image of dice that “rolled” when it was your turn. 

After the military I worked tuning satellite amplifiers using an Hewlett Packard 3582 Spectrum Analyzer. I taught a friend Basic and we wrote a game similar to Battleship on that spectrum analyzer,  at its core was a computer that understood a version of BASIC. The game we created was called Sub Hunt. It was set up on a 10×10 grid that was 5 levels deep. The sub moved in a line varying its depth through the five levels incrementally. The object was to locate the sub, drop depth charges and destroy it in as few moves as possible. It wasn’t very sophisticated, but it was fun to program.

I took software engineering courses in college. I seemed to have a knack for figuring out logic problems.

Since then I’ve learned several programming languages including C and C++, ADA, system languages for IBM mainframes and Series 1 computers. I’ve wrote parts of the ill-fated DisplayWriter Word Processor for the IBM PC, wrote and played games on a series of Atari computers, then moved to Apple Macs. I’ve worked in the IT field for over 30 years, so I’ve seen my share of system failures, lost data, failed networks, and more. One would think that I would be one of those folks who would never lose data because he has taken every precaution to secure it, right?

One would think that, but one would be wrong.

When I went to Namibia in 2017 I brought along with me a 4tb hard drive. I was big into photography then and I knew I’d have a lot of photos I needed to store. Unfortunately, 3 months into my 3 year stay I drop that hard drive and killed it. I was able to get some of the data off of it, but the drive never worked again. It became an expensive brick and lesson. I needed something more reliable than a delicate silvered plater spinning at 3200rpms in my rough and tumble world. Solid State Drives (SSD) was the only way to go.

SanDisk Extreme 2tb SSD

I bought a 2tb Sandisk Extreme SSD to replace the dead hard drive and used it the entire time I was in Africa. It had been so reliable, dependable and rugged that I bought 4 more, bringing the total of my portable storage to 6tb: 1tb for my writing, 1 tb for photos, 2tb for my new video interests, and 2 tb to back up my MacBook. I was happy with this arrangement. I did not have to depend of cloud storage and spotty access. My data was always available, and fast. It was a best possible situation for me, until it wasn’t.

About 3 weeks ago the 2tb drive stopped working. It would not show up on my MacBook or iPad regardless of how many times I rebooted, reset, or reconnected it. I dove deep enough into the problem to find that the drive was present on my computer’s USB bus, but it would not do anything more. It was as dead as the 4tb hard drive it replaced. Worse, it contained years of video, much of it taken while I was in Namibia. I tried different applications and called several companies about restoring data, I just couldn’t afford the extremely costly amount these companies wanted to resurrect my data. Sandisk only offered to replace the drive since it was still under warranty, but offered no help in reclaiming my data.

Three years of memories, gone.

My first impulse was to blame Sandisk for making a crappy product and not supporting it adequately. Their online support kept saying “…sorry for the inconvenience…”, which only pissed me off more. This wasn’t an inconvenience, an inconvenience is when my local market runs out of the brand of peanut butter that I like. This was pieces of my life that I had recorded and is now lost due to failed technology! Sandisk technology!

My mobile storage solution

But now, after a few days to think about it I realize that is is just as much my fault as it is Sandisk’s. I was lulled into a false sense of security thinking that SSDs were fail-proof. After all, these drives can be dropped, flung across a gravel parking lot, dunked in water, left in the sun or in the bitter cold and they continue to work. 

Here’s the thing, something a person with my background should know all too well: No technology is fail-proof. It will break. In may not be in the foreseeable future, but all tech breaks. The only thing you can do to protect the data that you care about is to replicate it and back it up. Often.

In my setup that would mean duplicating each drive and storing the duplicate somewhere. Back before I left for Africa I backed up my data of DVDs. Now I am backing everything up by copying everything on the drives I use daily onto drives only used for backup. I do it once ever 2 weeks for my writing, once a month for my photos, video, MacBook and phone.

If you take anything away from this sad tale it should be this: back up anything you want to keep. It will save you a lot of headache when your tech decides not to cooperate anymore.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Hurricane Ian

My son lives in Southern California. He loves it there and, when I visit him, I can easily see the attraction. Rolling hills are blanketed by morning fog that melts away as a kind, almost gentle sun rises and warms the land. Most of the year the daytime temperature seldom gets above 87f (30.5c) and nighttime temps hangs around a very comfortable 65f (18c). Beaches to the west, mountains and desert to the east, large urban areas to the north and south and everywhere you turn you feel that iconic California vibe. What’s not to love?

Earthquakes, that’s what.

The ground in SoCal shakes and shimmies so often it doesn’t even register with the locals. I ask my son how is it that he can sleep when the very earth rumbles like the world is siting on one of those hotel vibrating massage beds and someone just put in a quarter. He thinks nothing of it. It’s part of the environment, like the mild temps and the morning fog. The sun shines, the breezes blow, and the earth shakes; that life in Southern California.

Of course, scientists say that ‘The Big One’ is going to happen at some point and a large portion of Southern California, from San Francisco to Baja, will split off from the mainland and become a new island and the destruction and the number of lives lost will be incalculable. My son will counter saying that scientists have been saying that for so long that most folks just don’t care anymore. If it happens, it happens. Que sera sera! 

My son will then point to Central Florida, where I live, where midday summertime temps can easily hit 100f (38c) with humidity hovering near 95%. He points to how often we get drenching, bone shaking thunderstorms, tornadoes, waterspouts, rip tides, and, of course, hurricanes. It’s all true, but I mitigate it all by telling him how much I enjoy the thunderstorms (I actually do enjoy them), that tornadoes are relatively rare (compared to the Midwest, for instance), and waterspouts and riptides can occur anywhere. And because I live near Orlando, which is at least 60 miles or more from any coast, by the time most hurricanes reach us, most of the destructive power has been sapped from them and they become little more than an aggressive tropical storm. Something most Central Floridians sleep through. 

That was a great argument until Hurricane Ian hit this passed week. Ian was born in the Gulf of Mexico where the Gulf’s warm waters are the ideal nursery for such storms. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico is so nurturing that any storm that wanders into the area will find new strength. Hurricane Katrina, that devastated many Gulf States in 2005, was such a storm. It originated in the Atlantic and, after briefly brushing Florida as a weak Category 1 hurricane, it wandered into the Gulf where it was invigorated and became one of the most intense and damaging hurricanes to hit the US.  

A view from my house during the height of the storm

Even though Ian has long since left Florida, the damage it left behind is still being tabulated. That’s because Ian was a super-saturated storm. It pulled so much water out of the Gulf that water levels in Tampa Bay were drained ahead of the storm, leaving boats docked in the bay lying in mud. Ian, in turn, dumped all of that water in a huge swath across Central Florida, from Tampa in the west to Daytona Beach on the eastern coast. On average over a foot (30cm) of rain fell in a 24 hour period. I live in Winter Springs, which is just east of the center of Central FL, and we got more than 15 inches (38cm) of rain. Add to that the damage Category 4 hurricane winds (130-156mph (209-251kph)) can cause and you got a recipe for disaster on a biblical scale.

Another view from my window. Not much damage or debris. Other area were a lot worse.

Florida, especially Central Florida, is a big sand bar and sand can get saturated quickly. All of that rainfall quickly filled the thousands of lakes and ponds that dot the Florida landscape. Creeks became streams. Streams became rivers and rivers overflowed their banks, inundating places that normally are flood-free. 

I’m happy to report that my house and my immediate neighborhood escaped with minimal damage. I was fortunate. Many, many homes suffered damage so severe that rebuilding is questionable. Huge trees, some more than 100 years old, uprooted or had massive limbs sheared off. Some fell on houses and cars. Winds in advance of the storm wreaked havoc in marinas, piling boats on top of each other. Power outages affected hundreds of thousands and water and sewage systems were push far past their ability to cope, leaving residents without potable water or viable waste disposal. I was without power for almost two days, again, I’m lucky because there are still thousands without power. I was also without running water. The water is back on now, but local utilities advise us to minimize use of our sewage systems and boil any water from our spigots before consuming.

And there have been deaths caused, either directly or indirectly, by the storm. Such things one may not be able to prepare for and they are always sad when they occur.

I did prepare in advance of the storm, as many Floridians did. Though flooding is not an issue at my home, I gathered sandbags and positioned them in what I thought were vulnerable places, just in case. I bought water and ice and stocked up of nonperishable foods. I also helped friends prepare as much as I could.

The areas on either side of the road are sod fields. They are still underwater days later.

It turned out that my preparations were not needed. I and my friends all came through the storm ok.

As I sit and reflect on Hurricane Ian and the very real dangers that exist in a place where such storms can and do occur, I think about my son and what I perceived as his somewhat cavalier attitude towards the possibility of a devastating earthquake in SoCal. I realize now that his attitude is not so much cavalier as it is a simple matter of choice. He chooses to live there, understands the dangers, has prepared as much as he can for them, and now he lives his life without worrying about if or when The Big One will strike. If it does, it does and he will do what he can to survive it. 

I guess the same can be said for anyone who chooses to live in places in spite of known dangers. We don’t often get storms like Ian. Most hurricanes that hit Florida tend to be little more than annoyances, like snowfall in the northeast, or dust storms in the southwest deserts. On occasion an anomalous event will happen, such as Ian here, or a Nor’easter in the northeast. They happen, you prep for it then deal with it and the aftermath when they occur, and you move on if you can, however you can. Worrying about it beforehand only degrades the quality of life that is here and now.

And that, my friends, is what really matters.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Stories: Update

Many of you have downloaded and read ‘Carmen’ and ‘Fledglings: Part 1’. Thank you and I hope you’ve enjoyed them. If you haven’t had a chance, head over to my ‘Stories’ (https://gogzr.com/stories/) page and take a look.

Since posting them I’ve posted the rest of ‘Fledglings’, which can be had by paying one dollar. I think it’s obvious I’m not gonna get rich. The dollar will help me pay for the site and make other stories available.

I’ve also just finish recording Part 1 of Fledglings. I’ll start on Part 2 next week. The process of recording audiobooks is an interesting one. I’ve read these stories out loud as part of my editing routine, but when you record it takes on a whole new dimension.

In my first attempt I sounded stiff, wooden and boring. I think that was because that’s how I read it when I’m editing, I’m looking for mistakes. So, I took a second go at it and I think it sounds better. One thing I did find in both sessions is that my voice degrades over time, so I have to break it up and record over several days. My voice seems to last about an hour and a half before it starts crackling. I’m trying to figure out how to help that. After a recording session I’m almost hoarse. I know tea with honey helps, but I need something a bit more aggressive. 

I’m on the fence about releasing Part 1 alone and then charge (US$2.00) for the whole story in audio. I’m reviewing it now and should have it posted sometime next week if I’m going to. Otherwise I’ll wait until I’ve finished the whole story before posting.

Anyway, if you’ve read either or both stories, let me know what you think.

On a different note: Autumn is just around the corner and temps here in Florida will start to cool (I hope!). That means I can get back to producing camping videos! If you haven’t seen some of my earlier video, head on over to my YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2qLDlGAraLqQ2FfSkIRHxw) and check them out and subscribe. Actually, there’s a nice mix of videos on my channel, from Howtos to travel, and few other projects I’ve worked on. My videos are amateurish, but I enjoy making them. Hope you enjoy watching.

Also, please feel free to pass along the links to my sites to others you feel might be interested.

More to come so…

Stay Tuned.

Vern

Stories

I love a good story. 

When I was a kid I watched a lot of tv. I watched stuff that any kid my age watched back then; Saturday morning serials like Sky King, The Lone Ranger, and Rocky Jones: Space Ranger. The stories they told were pretty simplistic: bad guys did bad deeds and the good guys always won the day. You didn’t have to think too hard about it and the action, such as it was back then, was really why you watched.

I also watched adult shows and movies back then too. The stories they told were far more nuanced, there were reasons the bad guys (and girls) did bad things and it made you wonder if they were truly bad. And the good guys were just a likely to do bad in the name of good. Shows like Perry Mason, The Loretta Young Show, Dragnet and 12 0’Clock High. I was entranced by movies like The Glass Menagerie, Marnie, Rear Window, Lost Horizon, The World of Suzy Wong and more. Though they were in black and white those shows and movies showed me that life wasn’t that way but a zillion shades of grey, and good and evil were often matters of perspective.

The same was true with the books I read, which tended to be science fiction. Still, the best stories were those where the lines that delineated right from wrong and good from bad were ofter blurry, faint, or nonexistent.

Back then, when other kids dreamt of being cowboys, firemen or race car drivers, I fantasied about climbing mountains, diving into the ocean abyss, rocketing into the void of space, and writing about all of it. I tried several times to write out stories by hand when I was very young, but I never really got anywhere with it. I pretty much abandoned the dream of writing until computers made word processors available to the masses. During my late 20’s through to my early 40’s I wrote what must have been hundreds of stories. Most are lost now, but I recall several.

If I remember correctly the stories I wrote back then horribly written, but the premisses were good. Over the years I have found some of those stories and read them, and the same can be said for all of them: good ideas, bad execution.

Recently I met someone who I now consider a friend, her name is Danielle. She and her husband, Rich (also a friend), lives in Virginia. She is a woman of many talents and one of them is writing. We have swapped a few stories and she thinks I should try to publish some of my work. Let me reiterate: The stuff I’ve written in the past were poorly done. They are replete with grammar and spelling errors and other technical issues, but the premisses of many of them are sound. So, what I intend to do is rewrite some of them, fixing the technical issues and updating the language while adhering to the basic storyline.

Publishing my stories is another thing altogether. What I’ve written in the past are short stories, they range from 5,000 to 10,000 words. So, for my publishing efforts I’ll start with those. To generate interest I’m going to create a repository for the stories I publish. My goal is to get the stories out so people can read them, but I also would like the effort to be self-supporting. To that end, my plan is this: As I complete a story I will post ‘Part 1’ of it and make it publicly available. You’d read Part 1 for free, but would pay a dollar or two to read the rest of the story. I also intend to offer audio versions of the published stories. Once you’ve paid the stories will be downloadable and you can load it onto your Kindle or other e-reader or just read it from your browser. Audio versions will be MP3 files and will play on anything that plays MP3s.

I don’t intend to get rich doing this. I just don’t want to drain my meager bank account to do it. So, to get this ball rolling I will offer my first story for free. ‘Carmen’ is about a nerdy guy who encounters a mysterious woman. To some the story may seem incomplete, but I assure you, it is complete. It focuses on the experience of the protagonist who is inexperienced when it comes to dating.

The next story is ‘Fledglings’ and it’s about a guy who discovers something strange about himself. As I’ve mentioned before, Part 1 of Fledglings will be offered for free. To read the rest you simply click on the link and pay $1.00. You can then download a PDF or ePub version. I will offer the audio version of the full story later if there’s interest.  

So, please take a look at my Stories, read Carmen, and leave comments. I promise to answer.

Here’s the link: https://gogzr.com/stories/

Stay tuned.

Vern

WESTWARD HO! (AND BACK)

First, let me apologize for taking so long to update my blog. A lot has happened since I last posted. I’ve moved back into my house, I’ve done some video work, I’ve caught and got over a bout of Covid, I’ve started writing a book, started playing darts again, just one thing after another. Since moving back into my house about 2 months ago I’ve been able to focus a bit more. Things don’t feel so temporary. 

Getting good at darts

The book I’m writing is nearly finished. I’m writing it as an experiment to see if I actually can write a book. For those of you who have written books, you may relate to what I am dealing with. I’ve written short stories before (they were horrible, but some had good ideas), but the thought of writing a book seemed daunting. A friend of mine has been coaching me. While it still feels like a huge project I can actually see it happening and, more importantly, finishing. What I’m finding interesting about the process is that, like my short stories, the book is unfolding as I write it. I have a vague idea where it will end, but I don’t know how it will actually happen. The characters have taken on lives of their own, so I feel that they are in control of the process, not me. Weird, right?

As I said, this book is an experiment, it will likely never be published. Or I may self publish it on Amazon. It won’t be much good, it is based on a short story I wrote 10 years ago and the premise isn’t something that appeals to a broad audience. Anyway, I’m enjoying the process and I’m writing every day. That’s what counts.

Ok, let me tell you about my latest adventure. Here’s a 4 minute video about it too. Not my best effort, but it was fun.

In early June I finally took a trip out west to see my son (Toby and his sig-oth, Ellen), my daughter (Sarah) and my grandson (Bane). I hadn’t visited them since September, 2019 and I really wanted to see them. 

Several thing lined up that would have delayed this trip even more, not the least of which was the price of gas, which was more than double what it was in 2019. I had expected to pay more than US$5.00/gal on the road, but was pleasantly surprised to find that I paid on average about US$4.60/gal. Still more than twice the cost per gallon in 2019, but every little bit helps.

I covered 5,250 miles (8,450km) on this trip. Heading out I drove the first 18 hours of the estimated 32 hour drive from Winter Springs, FL to Sahuarita, AZ stopping only for gas and bathroom. I had set up my car, a 2014 Mazda CX-5, so that I could stretch out and take a nap in the back if I needed to. I brought along a camping sleep pad and my lightweight sleeping bag, pillow and a light blanket. 

While the idea was sound, the execution left a lot to be desired. First off it was far too hot. The first time I tried to take a nap it was around 9pm somewhere between Houston and San Antonio, Texas. The outside temp was 90 degrees F, way too hot and running the AC in my car would waste a lot of gas. So I drove until I was so tired sleep had to happen, found a rest stop and tried again to nap. This time it was about 87 degrees F. In anticipation of my nap, I ran the AC on high while I drove to the rest stop. There was enough residual cool air in the car to allow me to drop out, and I did, for 3 hours.

The sleep pad I used (ThermaRest Basecamp. I’m going to post a review of this sleep pad soon.) was comfortable, especially with the lightweight blanket between me and the pad. I slept soundly and woke refreshed. I drove the rest of the way to my daughter’s house on just one Red Bull to help me stay alert.

By the way, I should have bought stock in Red Bull. I don’t know what it is about it, but one 8.4 oz can can keep me sharp, help me focus, and not make me jittery. I probably drink more than I should given that each can is 110 calories, but the benefits, for me at least, far outweigh any imagined bad side effects.

As I came over the Galiuro Mountains in western New Mexico I noticed that the outside temperature was around 101 degrees F. The mountains are fairly steep and I saw car after car along the roadside with hoods open, likely because they overheated. As if to further warn me, along the road there were sign indicating were water for overheated radiators was located. I had my car serviced a few weeks before driving out, but my car is used to Florida weather. Yes, it gets hot, but it seldom gets THAT hot and never for that long.  

It’s cookie’ in New Mexico

As I climbed higher into the mountains, however, the outside temperature dropped to around 97 degree F. Tolerable. But as I came down the western side of the mountains I anxiously watched the thermometer climb: 101, 102, 103. There it stayed until I was about 50 miles from Tucson. 104, 105, 107. I pulled over thinking that my car was overheating, but I found the coolant reservoir at the proper level. It was just that hot outside.

I got back in my car, but didn’t run the AC hoping that the lighter load on the engine would keep it from getting too hot. 

Nope! 108, 109, 110!!

By the time I pulled into my daughter’s driveway the thermometer registered 112 degree F (44.5 degree C). That’s just plain nuts!

Anyway, once at my daughter’s I rested because I needed to head out again the next morning to Oceanside, CA to see my son, Toby, Ellen, and their fur-kid, Reggie. It was great to see my  girl again, and my grandson who has sprouted since I last saw him.

I left early to get ahead of the heat. Still, in the Algodones Dunes area, it was 101 degree F. 

The Algodones Dunes is an interesting area nearly white dunes similar to those you’d find in the Namib or Sahara Deserts. Though the southwest US is extremely arid and is a desert with scrub plants and cacti you don’t normally find dunes. These dunes start just west of the Arizona-California border on the western side of The Chocolate Mountains and extend westward to El Centro, CA and Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge and north towards Joshua Tree National Park. 

As I continued west on I-8 I started climbing the southern arm of the San Berdino Mountains. There the temperature dropped to a far more pleasant 94 degrees F. Coming out of the mountains the temps continued to drop and by the time I arrived at my son’s house in Oceanside, CA, it was a very reasonable 84 degrees F.

I spent 2 days with Toby and Ellen, Reggie and their 2 cats, Koa and Peanut Butter, who adopted me. Whenever I sat Reggie would come over and sit in front of me demanding that I pet him. The two cats would take up positions on either side of my chair and also demanded attention. Fun fur-kids.

Though my time with Toby and Ellen was short, it was full. Toby and Ellen both have started new jobs and couldn’t get time off to hang out except on the weekend. I was glad to have that time. Great food, great music, great family. I enjoyed every minute, but all too soon, I had to leave. 

Again, I left early to avoid the heat. I arrived back in Sahuarita around 2pm. I did stop at Painted Rock Mountains. An interesting area where Native American rock drawings have accumulated over the course of hundreds of years. It is surmised the area may have been a crossroads of sorts and traveling groups would leave markings for others to see, possibly passing on information. Or it could be Native American graffiti. Whenever the reason for the drawings, there are a lot of them.

Painted Rock Mountain in Arizona

I spent the following 4 days chillin’ with my grandson and my daughter. My grandson is becoming quite a programmer. He showed me a game he was developing. The kid is 11! Fascinating stuff. STEM development. He’s a huge gamer too, made quick work of me in any game I challenged him in (the smart little snot!)

Again, all too soon I had to leave. My daughter had recently taken on a new job as well, so she could only spend a limited amount of time with me. So, I started out early and drove, and drove, and drove through the heat. I was less concerned this time. My daughter had assure me that the heat was normal and a well maintained car shouldn’t overheat. (She’s so smart!)

The drive home was uneventful. I had originally planned to stop at several landmarks like Carlsbad Caverns, but with gas prices so high and a limited budget, I just couldn’t swing it this time. Next time though I’m gonna spend several weeks on the road and visit The Grand Canyon and other places like that. Maybe by then I’ll have a hybrid car. 

Stay Tuned

Vern

Silver Springs State Park

The Florida peninsula has an interesting geology. At its core it is porous limestone, a mineral that dissolves fairly easily in water. Given that the Florida peninsula is surrounded by sea water you might think that any water found in underground streams would be at least brackish, but that is not the case. Florida’s limestone core is riddled with fresh water streams that bubble up to the surface and form many of the fresh water rivers that web the state. There are over 1000 of these springs and they are typically created by rain water that percolate down through layers of sand and limestone to pool in underground aquifers. Florida and the surrounding states receive some of the highest amounts of rainfall in North America, well over 60 inches (1500 mm) on average per year. All of that water helps to create one of the most productive system of springs in the world discharging more than 10 billion gallons (38 billion liters) of fresh water every day!

One of the most productive springs is Central Florida’s Silver Springs, which discharges more that 65 million gallons (246 million liters) of water daily at a constant temperature of 72F (22c). The waters of the spring and the river it forms is clear for miles making it a perfect place to view wildlife both around and underwater. In fact, back in the 1950s, Silver Springs was the number one tourist attraction in Florida, visited by hundreds of thousands people from all over the world. Camping, hiking, diving, and swimming were the main activities. Glass-bottomed boats allowed visitors to marvel at alligators, river otters, manatees and an endless variety of fish. 

Today, Silver Springs still enjoys a steady stream of visitors who come to enjoy the clear green-tinted waters that gush forth from the springs.  In 2013 Silver Springs was taken over by the state of Florida and the springs was merged with the adjacent Silver River State Park to form Silver Springs State Park, a 4000 acre area of natural Florida beauty. The park provides camping, boating and hiking trails, and at the spring head visitors can rent kayaks and paddle boards or take a tour of the spring and river on one of the famous glass bottomed boats.

I had a chance to visit Silver Springs recently and produced a short video of the experience. If you visit Florida I encourage you to stop at Silver Springs. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

Stay tuned

Vern

Vern Goes Camping!

It might’ve started as a vague urge, like the scent of hotdogs roasting over an open fire, a scent that caught in the wind and was attenuated by distance from its source, faint but distinct.

Maybe it was an instinctual need, hunter/gatherer roots buried deep in my DNA that took 68 years to break through my urban upbringing and make itself known. 

Perhaps it was the result of spending so much COVID time indoors watching Netflix and getting  the COVID Chub, a sensory and physical rebellion that could only be quelled by spending an extended period outdoors.

Whatever the cause, I had a desire to commune with nature, to walk among the trees, to trade concrete for earth beneath my feet. I needed to go camping!

The problem is that I know very little about how to camp. It’s not like you can just find a plot of land, pitch a tent and start a fire, at least you can’t in Florida. There’s a lot to consider, buy and plan before you start applying insect repellent. That’s what I’d been studying for the past year and I’ve put together some videos of some of my discoveries, I’ve even gone camping once to see if I could do it, but that trip was a dry run. This one was the real deal.

About 2 months ago I logged into the Florida State Parks website and reserved a campsite at Wekiva Springs State Park, a drop dead gorgeous tract of tress, meadows, trails and bike path surrounding a natural fresh water spring.

Being a managed park sitting smack dab in the middle of Central Florida, there are rules a regulations you MUST follow to do just about anything. That might sound restrictive, but it’s not nearly so in practice. The rules and regs are there to keep idiots from burning down the place or trashing it out, ruining the experience for others looking to sate their need for nature. Rules include prohibiting open fires except in designated places and in provided fire pits. The reason for this rule is obvious. While Central Florida is a relatively wet area, getting about 50 inches ( about 1300mm) of rain per year, forest fires can and do occur. Often they are caused by lightning strikes, but a fair number are caused by stupid people doing stupid things. Wekiva Springs, being a managed park, often create controlled burns which consume underbrush before it  can become fuel for uncontrolled fires. If you take a walk through the park you’ll see trees that bear the charred markings of recent controlled burns.

Anyway, with some book knowledge and more desire than sense, I arrived at my campsite. Having practiced several times beforehand, I had my tent setup, air pad blown up and in place and my sleeping bag unrolled and laid out inside the tent in well under a half hour. It was late afternoon when I arrived so the sun was still fairly high and warm. When I was done with the tent I was soggy with sweat, but I wasn’t finished. I took a brief walk to cool down and check out my neighbors.

The camp area was divided in two, one side for tent, car and small vehicle campers and the other side for land yachts, those huge campers you’ve seen cruising down the highway, often pulling a car behind it. Regardless, each campsite has water, power and sewer hookups, a convenience for tent and car campers, a must for anything larger. 

As I walked I discovered that campers are a friendly lot. Unsolicited waves and greetings are common. It’s like people have somehow found their humanity out in the woods and were eager to show it off. Even the dogs were friendly!

Back at my site, I unpacked gear for cooking. I was getting kinda hungry, and curious. See, I’d thought about what I was gonna eat that evening. I’d considered a nice sub from a local market (purchased before I entered the park), or maybe some canned nourishment like beef stew or soups, but I had decided against those options when I found freeze dried food packs in a local Walmart. The variety! The ease! The mystery!! I mean, wouldn’t you want to know what freeze dried chicken fried rice tasted like? Or freeze dried biscuits and gravy??

I have a nice little compact gas camp stove and an ultra compact stainless steel cook set that’s ideal for boiling water. From my research, boiling water is one of THE things you must be able to do while out in the wilds. If you can boil water you can eat and drink without the fear of getting some sort of dreaded disease. AND, with these freeze dried food packs, you can enjoy a gourmet meal while communing with nature! How cool is that?

Setting up my camp stove was simple; screw the stove onto a can of gas. Done! I filled my pot with water (from the spigot on my campsite), lit the stove, and waited about 10 minutes for the water to boil. According to the package all I needed to do was add 12 ounces (about 355ml) of boiling water into the pack, stir, close the pack and wait 5 minutes, stir again and wait another 4 minutes. Stir once more and enjoy!

With the water in my pot bubbling away, I did as instructed, closed the pack and waited. Peering into the pack before I closed it did little to excite my senses. Freeze dried chicken fried rice doesn’t look like much even after you’ve poured the water in and stirred. I hoped it would look more appetizing when I opened the pack again in 5 minutes.

No, after 5 minutes and some vigorous stirring, what I saw in the pack looked more like something that had been eaten, but regurgitated. Still, I had faith in the packaging so I closed it again and waited another 5 minutes instead of the instructed 4 minutes, I figured an extra minute wouldn’t hurt.

This time what I saw when I opened the package was a bit more appealing. The rice, chicken and vegetables had absorbed the water and had taken on forms similar to their original. Similar, but not quite the same. Fresh fried rice is not mushy, but this wasn’t too far off. I dug a spoon in and took out a sample. Steam wafted from the heap of my reconstituted dinner, filling the air with a suggestion of one of my favorite asian meals. I saw chunks of chicken, bits of egg, and veggies mixed in the pile of rice on my spoon.

I took a bite.  Hmmmm! Not bad! Could use some soy sauce, but beyond that, not bad at all. I could certainly see it being devoured without complaint by a hungry backpacker after a day long trek.

The package said it held 2 servings. I was surprised to find that it was accurate, there was a lot of food in that pack once the water was added. I ate as much as I could and put the remains in my cooler in the car. ( Another rule is NEVER leave food out unattended. There are bears and other omnivores in these woods and they can get brave and raid your campsite.)  

I had chosen mid September to camp because that’s when the local temperature starts to get cooler at night. I was expecting low 70s, maybe upper 60s. I had bought wood and started a fire in the open pit provided in my campsite. Unfortunately the air temperature hovered in the upper 70s all night and the humidity stayed around 80% making for an uncomfortable sleep, even with my battery powered fan going full blast. Around 2am I couldn’t get any rest so I decided to take a shower. The campgrounds provide excellent restroom facilities including hot showers. The shower was refreshing, especially after I finished off with a blast of cold water, but the heat and humidity sucked away any comfort I might have felt and by the time I got back to my site I was just as uncomfortable as when I left for the shower. There was only one thing to do, abandon the tent and sleep in the car. 

That didn’t work out either. I tried the driver’s side but my feet kept hitting the pedals and I bumped the steering wheel whenever I turned to get comfortable, so I tried the passenger side. That didn’t work either. The front seats are designed for sitting, not sleeping. The back of my SUV was filled with stuff I thought I needed for camping and I wasn’t going to rearrange it to make a space for me to stretch out in the dark, so I tossed and turned in the passenger seat until sunrise.

With the sun came the prospect of making coffee, which requires boiling water. I know how to do that! I’d brought along a small French press, ideal for a single cup of joe. I was also hungry. I eyed the package of freeze dried biscuits and gravy and it just did not make my mouth water. Still, with my stomach demanding food, I boiled more water, tore open the package, mixed and stirred and waiting. If the chicken fried rice looked unappetizing after 5 minutes, the biscuits and  gravy looked downright repulsive! Still, the fried rice turned out ok, and I was curious and hungry in equal measure. After another 5 minutes and some stirring the contents in my package reminded me less of southern breakfast favorite and more of blob of day old oatmeal. However, it smelled enticingly familiar so I took the plunge. 

I’m being generous in my description here. Use grains of salt when viewing.

Nope! Nope! Nope!

The “gravy”, while hot, was flavorless. There was chucks of what I assume was the “biscuits” and what tasted like eggs, and there were nodules of “sausages” too. Again, if you’re backpacking and you need protein I’m sure the content of that package I had before me would do the trick, and it would likely taste ok. I guess I’m just too city-fied to make that culinary leap just yet.

So, there I was, tired, hungry and a bit irritable. I took a walk to see if there were any animals roaming about and I was rewarded with several deer and bird sightings. There was a light mist hanging in a glen, muted sunshine making a field of yellow flowers glow. I couldn’t help but smile and take in a lungful of pine scented air. That was why people go camping!

Deer, fearless of humans, ate breakfast not more than 20 feet from me!

My first real camping trip wasn’t a complete bust, I enjoyed the surrounding, the discovery, and the feeling of being “out” enough to want to do it again. Next time I’ll be even better prepared. 

Stay tuned.

Vern