The joys of Geocaching

Greg Marler introduces us to the joys of getting out and about with a GPS receiver

GPS, or Global Positioning System, is the technology behind 'SatNav' that we are now familiar with seeing - not only directing dirt-free urban 4x4s to the nearest car wash but also in modest family cars guiding owners to a new holiday destination or the fastest route to granny's house.

GPS works with the 24 satellites orbiting this globe(Earth), each constantly sending out electronic messages. A GPS receiver is a small computer device that looks for and listens to these messages, from which it can use trilateration(similar to triangulation) to work out where the receiver is relative to all the satellites.
GPS needs a line of sight with at least 4 satellites to get enough messages to identify a location. Providing you aren't standing under dense tree cover or in a canyon there will always be 4 satellites visible to a receiver but normally 7-8 to give good accuracy, and even your altitude. GPS receivers only receive the messages from which they work out your location, they don't send messages so you are not actually being tracked or spied on when you use GPS.

Add onto a GPS receiver a nice screen, some maps and directions software, plus the voice of a calm woman telling you to “make a U-turn at the next opportunity” when you get spontaneous, and the result of the mix is SatNav.

GPS has been around since 1978 for military guidance and navigation anywhere in the world, and it's been available for public use for some time, but only in the last 2-3 years have we seen SatNav really take off. It will be to no surprise to me to see lots of nominations in the New Media Awards this year that make use of GPS in ways other than SatNav. Because GPS can give your precise location in a few seconds, it can be used to report something for someone else to find at the same place, or to record information about an area. There are also leisure time uses for GPS, such as geocaching.

Geocaching started days after the GPS satellite messages were first made available for public use in 2000. A small box, or 'cache', is hidden in a public place and the co-ordinates noted down from the hiders GPS receiver. The co-ordinates are then passed onto other people who can use their GPS devices to get to the hiding place and discover the cache. At their simplest a cache just contains a log book where each finder records their visit with a message. Other caches are small boxes containing items such as key rings and small toys, finders being allowed to add something then take something. Certain rules apply such as no food, weapons, etc. and nothing damaging to animals/people that may find it.

So this weekend I decided to go out geocaching with my friend Emily who has heard my stories but never experienced all the fun. First off was to check a Geocache listings site, the most well-known being Geocaching.com where you can type in your postcode or location to be presented with a listing of caches and its rough distance away. The Geocaching.com database currently lists around 390 thousand caches in the world, and over 17 thousand of them in the U.K. that are hidden in public places undiscovered by those not in the know.

And what luck, a new geocache had been hidden that was a nice walk from home. So I printed off the cache's page which includes the longitude and latitude co-ordinates of the cache, a description, and logs posted by other users who found it or not.

The description told us that the cache was by one of the entrances to a walled garden that I pass fairly often but haven't seen for about 10 years, it also told me there is now a museum which I didn't know of. I met up with Emily and we turned on the GPS device that gave our location, knowing where the walled garden was we walked across the park to be on the outside of one of the corners. My PDA showed us the longitude and latitude values, which didn't quite match the printed sheet so we walked to the nearest gate to see if that was right.

Longitude was spot on, meaning on a north/south aspect we were in the right place. The latitude number was more west than the print out so we needed to head through the garden and directly east. Being a formal walled garden we walked straight down a path, round a fountain, and there was another side gate directly opposite the one we came in.

Now our current location according to the GPS matched the ones on the printed cache description. An additional clue helped us out by saying the cache was under a fallen tree. We spotted the tree, but I will admit we were helped by the trampled grass that seemed to be a recent mark of others searching for this new cache. We started peeping into the ivy wondering how much we will have to rummage, then I walked round the side to see before me a big litre plastic box marked 'geocaching' on the lid. I walked back round to Emily with her ankles now attacked by stinging nettles. This is my 7th successful geocache find, and definitely the biggest one yet, we signed the log book together but didn't take anything out.

Geocaching is a great activity not least because it inspires you to get out of your car for an enjoyable walk during which you can learn something you wouldn't otherwise have known. One geocache taught me about London coal posts as I had to see and use the numerical date written on one to get co-ordinates for the actual cache. While visiting Brighton I went to a cache on the pier and signed a log book hidden next to hundreds of un-suspecting passer-bys. Geocaching is also being used to promote cleaning up rubbish and increasing awareness of diabetes, for more information you can read this pdf explanation or the Geocaching.com website

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder