Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Glass is Way More Than Half Full - A Visit to the Corning Museum of Glass

Last week my Mother-in-Law hosted us for a delightful weekend in our old stomping grounds of Rochester, NY. While there, we took a day trip to Corning, NY to visit the Corning Museum of Glass. Wow, what an amazing, world-class destination. It's equal parts art, history and science museum, with remarkable glass demonstrations thrown in for good measure.

We truly enjoyed our stroll through the contemporary gallery, with an eclectic set of works on display. My favorite piece was titled Forest Glass. At first glance it appears to be little more than a collection of glassware you'd expect to find at grandma's house. But walk to the end of the gallery, and the piece morphs into something altogether different. The 'forest' becomes visible. It's wickedly clever and a delight to take in.

Had our Corning adventure stopped there, I would have ranked it top notch. However, my Mother-in-Law had a special treat in store for us. She arranged for us to take part in some hands on glass experiences. Shira and Mom created pendants that involved melting glass to create a unique and gorgeous piece of jewelry. After that, all three of us made glass fusing creations, which involved arranging bits of glass on a base that's melted into a masterpiece. Shira made wind chimes, Mom and I made clocks.

The time flew by as I scrambled to make a meaningful creation. Ultimately, I'm happy with the outcome. Though, I'd jump at the chance to try this again, as I've already got ideas as to how I could improve on clock 2.0.

If you're ever in the neighborhood, I'd highly recommend a visit.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The MRE Aficionado - Lessons From a Ration Eating Guru

I found myself poking around YouTube for information about MRE's for practical reasons. I imagined it would be a source of inspiration for trail and travel meals. I was curious how large organizations (read: the militaries of various countries) choose to feed large groups of people under a variety of scenarios, many quite hostile. And of course there's a historic angle to this. By understanding what soldiers of a particular time ate, you get a unique appreciation for life during that time period.

I found all of this info and more on Steve1989's YouTube channel. Steve's jam is 'ration tasting.' He picks a particular MRE, unboxes it and analyzes it with the same care and zeal that a tech reviewer would reserve for the latest model iPhone. He single handily elevates eating pre-packaged meals to an art form.

As I'd hoped, a dive into MRE-land has given me fresh perspective on food and on the go meals. To some degree, the exercises has demystified MREs. Many MREs are little more than classic backpacking-style dehydrated food with olive-drab packaged extras. A trip to the food section at REI and a stroll through the grocery store would let you create most of what's in these packets. But there definitely innovate meals out there. I've found a number of 'survival' rations to be especially interesting. For example, the RAF Emergency Flying Ration and French Armed Forces Emergency Food Ration show densely packed nutrition in a minimal footprint.

Steve's historic examples are also impressive. His dedication shows in his review of a Boer War ration from 1899 where he attempts to eat some of the contents. Steve's got to have a stomach of steel.

Mostly I got a refresher in what a joy it is to watch people pursue hobbies they love. Who would have thought that MRE tasting was a thing? It is, and when done with the kind of discipline that Steve brings to the game, it's really impressive. So no matter how obscure your side hustle is, go for it!

Ultimately, Steve savors a 2016, Hungarian 24 Hour Combat Ration the same way a wine aficionado savors a 2016, Irsai Olivér vintage. His perfectly narrated trips through these meals are simply a delight. I find myself enjoying his soothing voice and upbeat attitude. Here are some classic vids, enjoy!

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Seen and Be Seen - Tools to Make Night Running Safer

Every year, as Daylight Saving Time ends, I find myself scrambling for ways to see and been seen while running at night.

On the seeing side of the equation, I've come to rely on the Nitcore TIP flashlight. It's tiny, super bright, USB rechargeable and has a clip that attaches to a baseball cap's brim to make a functional headlamp. The only shortcoming is that the brim-clip isn't especially robust, but it's working and mounts the light at the perfect angle to see the ground while running.

The be seen side of things has been trickier. Over the years I've bought various blinky lights, but I've yet to find one that I like as much as the TIP. I'm after a compact, easily mounted and most importantly USB rechargeable light. As the time for frequent night-running has approached, I purchased a few possibilities off of Amazon and believe I've found a winner in the ELCONTOR USB Rechargeable Safety Light.

For $10, I got two USB rechargeable red lights. They have a single button which cycles between on, slow blink, fast blink and off. The clip has aggressive plastic teeth on it, which give me the sense that the light will stay firmly attached to whatever I clip it to. It's also reasonably compact.

The lights aren't wildly bright, but I'm not using them to see terrain; I just need them to signal my presence. The relatively dim red light is actually an asset. I could imagine bringing one of these lights camping to use in a scenario where I want some light but I don't to blow out my night vision.

Here's a common setup I use: an orange running hat, the Nitecore TIP in front and the Elcontor attached to the back.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Jedediah Hotchkiss' Sketchbook | From Library of Congress image gallery to mobile friendly PDF

I believe that Jedediah Hotchkiss' Civil War sketchbook would make for interesting reading. While this work is publish on the Library of Congress's (LoC) website, at 224 pages I wanted a more convenient way of reading the document than looking through an online image gallery.

Here's how I arrived at a single PDF file that contained all 225 pages of Jed's personal sketchbook.

Step 1: I viewed the source of the LoC page and noted a rel="alterantive" link tag.

Step 2: curling this URL returned back a wealth of interesting information:

$ curl -s  '' | jq .
  "articles_and_essays": [
      "site": [
      "contributor": [
        "potter, abbey"
      "original-format": [
        "web page"
      "partof": [

Step 3: rather than reading the details of this JSON format, I poked around until I found this critical block:

    "resources": [
        "files": 117,
        "captions": "",
        "image": "",
        "url": ""

Step 4: between curl and my browser, I was able to write the following code which pulls down all 117 images associated with this LoC entry:


## Grab content from the library of congress
## For example:
##  locget '' 

usage() {
  echo "`basename $0` {gallery-url}"
  exit 1

if [ -z "$1" ]; then

captions_url=$(curl -s $resource_url | jq -r '.resources[0].captions')
image_url=$(curl -s $resource_url | jq -r '.resources[0].image')

path=$(dirname $image_url | sed -e 's|||' \
                              -e 's|/|:|g')

curl -s $captions_url | while read row ; do
  file=`echo $row | cut -f 3 -d ' '`
  if [ -n "$file" ] ; then
    curl -s "$path:$file/full/pct:100/0/default.jpg" > $file.jpg

Note the call to to pick up the image files. By setting pct:100, I'm able to request full size images. It's also possible provide a value like pct:50 to pick up images that are half size.

Step 5: with step 4 complete, I had a full set of images locally. However, each image contains both a left and right hand page. To split the pages into separate files, I used my good friend ImageMagick:

$ mkdir pages
$ cd pages
$ for f in ../*.jpg ; \
   do echo $f ; convert -crop 50%x100% +repage $f `basename $f` ; \

Step 6: Finally, I created a single (massive) PDF file by running the command:

$ convert *.jpg master.pdf

You can download the generated PDF here.

And here's a few screenshots of me scrolling throw Jed's sketchbooks on my Galaxy S9+:

The formatting isn't perfect, and the PDF file is massive. But still, I'm able to scroll through the pages with ease, and I can view detail by simply zooming in.

If I had a horse, I could peruse the content from the same perspective Jedediah created it. Though, even I admit that's probably excessive.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Same Signal Knob, Different View

Consider this drawing:

This scene took place on October 17th, 1864, just about 154 years to the day before Shira and I stood in the same location on Signal Knob. While Shira and I admired the tranquil views of the valley, Major General John B. Gordon and Jedediah Hotchkiss had an altogether different perspective. They were staring down at 34,000 enemy soldiers and pondering how a force less than half their size could defeat them.

Their assessment: we can take them. And so they did, two days later in the Battle of Cedar Creek.

After an audacious night march, Early’s troops forded the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and attacked the Yankees near Cedar Creek. The thick morning fog did much to aid the smaller Confederate force, concealing their numbers and causing confusion in the Federal ranks. The Southerners drove first one, then another, then a third Union Corps from their camps near Cedar Creek, across Belle Grove plantation, then north of Middletown. As the sun came up, it looked as if the Confederates had won an astounding victory.

It was a short won victory, however, lasting about 12 hours:

Meanwhile, word of the battle reached Sheridan, who was 20 miles away at Winchester. The diminutive Union chief saddled his prize horse, Rienzi, and rode furiously to the battlefield, rallying stragglers along the way. His arrival restored the spirits of his beleaguered troops who, Sheridan said, would be back in their camps by nightfall. Around 4:00 PM, the reorganized Federal host launched a savage counterattack for which Early’s men were ill-prepared and from which they could not recover. In the course of an afternoon, the Confederates were forced to yield the very ground they had captured scarcely twelve hours before. As the sun set over the Alleghenies, the Federals had not only regained the ground they lost, but had also extinguished any hope of further Confederate offensives in the Shenandoah Valley.

Still, what must it have been like to stand on Signal Knob, see a massive healthy force and see a tactical solution to defeating them?

The man in the drawing with the sketchbook is almost certainly Jedediah Hotchkiss. While Hotchkiss starts the war as a civilian teacher, he eventually becomes one of the Confederacy's most important weapons. His superpower: map making.

one of the Civil War’s most famous mapmakers, Jedediah Hotchkiss, was attached as topographical engineer on Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's staff, providing accurate maps that many historians believe played a central role in the success of Jackson's 1862 Valley Campaign.
There were very few maps for Hotchkiss to use as a base for his own work, and he usually rode out on horseback to survey the land himself. The Hotchkiss-Jackson collaboration bred success, for the general's lightning strikes depended heavily on making the most of the terrain. After Jackson’s death in 1863, Hotchkiss continued as a topographical engineer with the Confederate forces, frequently working personally for Gen. Robert E. Lee, but also traveling to Gettysburg with Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, and later serving under Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, where one of his maps enabled the surprise Confederate assault at Cedar Creek in October 1864.

The Library of Congress hosts many documents and maps from Hotchkiss. My favorite so far is his personal sketchbook. The sketchbook includes this note on the front:

This volume is my field sketch book that I used during the Civil War. Most of the sketches were made on horseback just as they now appear. The colored pencils used were kept in the places fixed on the outside of the other cover. These topographical sketches were often used in conferences with Generals Jackson, Ewell and Early. The cover of this book is a blank Federal commission found in Gen. Milroy's quarters at Winchester, Jed. Hotchkiss

The sketches and notes in the margin are delightful. Using little more than colored pencils (and perhaps a straight edge?), he's created an impressive array of field expedient maps. They're part data, part artist creation. They're sort of terse visual poems that tell a story in a novel way. Man I love a well used notebook.

Here's a smattering of examples:

And so I close out this post with a challenge: I want to flip through Hotchkiss's sketchbook, but the Library of Congress site is too cumbersome to browse the entire collection. It's great for looking at a page here or there, but I really want to experience this as Hotchkiss did, as a handheld volume. So what's the best way to do this? Stay tuned, and find out

Update: See the answer to this challenge here.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Signal Knob Hike | 10 Miles of views, secluded wilderness and mountain bikers

Yesterday, the stars aligned and we had the time and weather to tackle the 10 mile Signal Knob loop located near Front Royal, VA. At an hour and half away from DC, this is a wonderfully accessible back-country adventure.

Two years ago, we completed most of the Buzzard Rock hike that's in the same section of the George Washington National Forest. They start down the road from each other. I was impressed with the area then, and I remain impressed.

Leaving the car, the weather was still in the low 40°F's. But the climb to Buzzard Rock Overlook more than warmed us up. Sunshine throughout the day ensured that we were never chilly after that.

Autumn colors were out in force this trip. As a bonus, the fact that so many trees had lost their leaves improved the views, providing for yet another reason to tackle this hike in the fall.

Folks report rocky sections of trail, which is true and does cause you to slow down a bit. But overall, there was nothing technical about the route and it was very well marked and maintained.

Speaking of views, this is one of my favorites of any hike. If you click on the image below, you'll notice a radio tower in the distance.

That radio tower is sitting on Signal Knob and in another 45 minutes, we'll be standing at the base of it. You encounter this view about 3 miles into the hike, have a mile to go before you're at the tower, and still have 6 miles left on the hike as a whole. I found these numbers humbling, to say the least.

We saw a handful of hikers, a couple of groups of backpackers, and most surprisingly, about 10 different cyclists on the trail. Apparently, the last 4 miles of trail are popular among mountain bikers. An impressive feat, but one I'll leave to others. I'll stick to walking, geocaching and snapping pictures.

Overall, it was an amazing day on the trail on a route that I can't recommend highly enough.


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