Monday, December 31, 2007

Armchair astronomy and space travel

This is the time of year in our part of the world at which clouds cover the sky almost continuously. It frustrates the astronomer in me. For instance, there are a couple of comets visible in binoculars at night right now, Mars and Saturn are at their best for this year, the winter constellations are coming up - but I can't get to see them. So, I resort to my past pictures, and also the internet.

To the left, there are some pictures I took of the Moon over a year ago. I suppose that you would have a similar view from a spaceship heading there - this is as close as I'll ever come to space travel.

You can certainly see many more (and better) pictures like that on the internet. Here's a new "location" for lunar images, for the most part provided by "earthbound" people who, like me, have an interest in astronomy.

I you're interested in the missions which NASA sends to the planets and their moons here are a couple of links:, Enjoy the views!

Below is the New Year's greeting from the Cassini-Huygens team at NASA - these folks are the ones who sent the Cassini probe to Saturn. That probe (along with the Mars rovers) is part of what I consider to be the most successful and productive "robotic" space undertakings ever:

Our family wishes you the same!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Happy New Year

We wish everyone who reads this blog, and those you hold dear, a successful, prosperous, and (most of all) healthy 2008.

Christmas has come and gone, the kids got lots of presents, and we, as parents and grandparents, even received some practical and useful ones - among them books, which my wife and I always enjoy. Reading is one of our favourite pastimes.

In some respects, of course, 2007 has not been the best of years for us. But Derek and we've made it through - one learns quickly how important family and friends are in our lives. Thank you all.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

More from the old-fashioned kitchen

Our venerable kitchen has produced another crop of old-fashioned Christmas food - shortbread cookies. Our granddaughters lent a helping hand. Here are some pictures:

Getting the ingredients

a "little" butter

obviously this is "diet" food (you go on a diet afterwards)

cutting the shortbread cookies

onto the pan

the final goodies

making the "big cookie"


all done.

It's nice to see the traditions being taken up by the granddaughters. Perhaps they'll remember their grandmother "Mimi" at future Christmas celebrations when they have grown and have their own families, just as we remember our parents and grandparents at times like these.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The school festivities

The other day I mentioned the Christmas recitals and school functions in which our granddaughters are participating. Here are a few pictures of the school performances:
The kids and their teachers all did a wonderful job.
Merry Christmas!!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A busy time

It's been a number of days since my last post.

I'm sure that I'm not alone at being busy during this time of year. My "busyness" comes mostly from running a home-based, one-person business. My wife does all the shopping and baking (2nd Pulla installment today - see previous post). I don't like shopping - she loves it. Whatever few presents I buy usually come via the internet. Throughout the year, my wife is always looking out for gifts to give on various occasions, so we usually have our Christmas gifts assembled well before the shopping season starts.

As it is, our social calendar is also full until the end of the year, what with family and friends hosting little get-togethers, the grandchildrens' school and recital performances, etc. It is a joyful time. tempered to some degree by Derek's illness.

My wife and I wish all who read this blog a Very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year, and, especially, Good Health.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Kitchen in Action

Some time ago, I wrote about our "old-fashioned" kitchen, which produces much of the food we eat when the family gets together. With the festive season coming up, we'll have another occasion to enjoy each other's company - and food, of course, will be a major part of that.

Over the many years we have developed some "family traditions". One of them is that my wife's expertise in cooking and baking has made her the "authority" to bake "Pulla" - a Finnish bread. It's meant to be served with afternoon coffee or tea, but it goes very well with our dinners, too. My wife learned the recipe from her mother. She makes some of it for most of our get-togethers, and so she did again.

Here are some pictures of the process of making it:

This is just the first "installment" - these loaves are gifts to other family members. There will be more (yummy, yummy!). It's a lot of work, and a labour of love. The Pulla is especially appreciated by our family members who have an issue with diabetes - they are slightly sweetened with "Splenda" (an artificial sweetener). The recipe calls for some sugar instead, but this tastes just as wonderful.

My wife knows what goes into the Pulla - and it's not preservatives or other "shelf-life-enhancing" ingredients. To preserve them, we freeze them until they are served. I don't think that you could buy these at any of the commercial bakeries or food stores.

This whole process is perhaps a bit "old-fashioned", but that's what you get out of an old-fashioned kitchen.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pineapple Express.

As mentioned previously, the Pineapple Express arrived, and melted all the snow in about a day. The snowman is but a couple of snowblobs left on the grass Here are the effects:

The ghost of the snowman.

The pineapple express works fast - all the snow is gone.
Right now, it looks like we're nearing the end of the current pineapple express, with a break after all the rain.

Here's a break between systems rolling in from the Pacific:

fire in the sky

sunset on the clouds

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The snow

"Collecting" the parts

It's a "biggy"

Taking shape

And... here's the snowman

Well, all the snow in the last couple of days has put our family into the "holiday" mood. The granddaughters decided to build a snowman - and help with the other activity which my wife decided was to take place: setting up the Christmas tree. So the kids did their thing (see above), and (below) you see the results of the "indoor" effort. Of course, as I anticipated, I had to shovel enough snow to allow for safe pedestrian passage near our house.

We'll enjoy the scenery outside today, because tomorrow the "pineapple express" is slated to arrive all the way from Hawaii, with temperatures going up to 13 degrees Centigrade. We expect up to 50mm of rain here. It'll be a mess, and with all the melting snow blocking the drains and adding to the rain, some flooding is expected in the low areas. But, that's normal around here - we don't often get a "white Christmas".

Here's the tree - it'll be here to enjoy for the next several weeks.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

It's arrived

In good old European tradition, my wife put up the "Advent Calendars", each with 24 little presents attached - for our granddaughters. Each granddaughter will open one present per day, until the 24th of December, at which time we have our family Christmas celebration, with dinner and the giving of Christmas presents. So today, being the first day of December, both opened their first-day present.

The advent calendars themselves are needle-point, made especially for our granddaughters by a very good friend who lives in California. The calendars will always remind us of her - what a wonderful effort to make for "the kids".

Well, the snow which was predicted, and which announced its coming a couple of days ago, has arrived. Some time ago I speculated that the birds would be very happy with the "yellow apples" hanging on our neighbours' tree. Today, that came true.

Here's the snow

...and the birds are having a feast.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A sign of winter

On clear autumn days, we get an excellent indication of how close winter is by looking out our window and taking notice of the snow line on our local mountains. Right now, the line is "descending" and is not too far above the elevation at which our house is located. This likely means that I'll be shovelling snow in a few days.

Of course, the snow line will have its "ups and downs" . In our area, being located more-or-less on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, weather patterns often bring a surge of warm and moist air from as far away as Hawaii, or even the South Pacific - which usually means rain. So this line is likely to move up and down in the coming weeks. Of course, as spring approaches, the line will "ascend" in a similar manner.

Well, regardless of what is heralded, it's just "plain beautiful" (is this an oxymoron?)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lucky Moonrise

Every now-and-then, you happen to "catch" a fleeting moment of something natural going on, which makes you exclaim "wow - come and have a look at this!" This is what I said to my wife at approximately 5:30 pm, when I happened to look out of our living room window (actually looking for the Moon, because I knew that it should be visible in the northeast at that time). The Moon was just coming up behind our local mountains, and at the time it was still partially obscured. This is an enlargement of the moon in the picture below.

It only takes a couple of minutes for the Moon to "clear" the mountains, so I caught it just in time. This is the original image, taken with a 200mm zoom lens on a Canon XT camera.

Sometimes you get lucky.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Faster today

The new portable internet modem which I talked about yesterday seems to be running faster today. I've found a location in my office which makes 4 of the LED's come on, which, as I still think, means a stronger wireless signal. There may also be a more complete routing table for me in the system, and, of course, cashing of visited pages also contributes.

All in all, things seem to be working pretty well. More impressions about this when I've had more use of the new system.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Well, ok, it works

I've had some consistency problems with Shaw's cable internet service, which Derek and I share via a wireless router. Lately, the service has been unavailable about half of the time. I've become frustrated enough to set up a "portable internet" account with Rogers. To this end, I purchased a wireless modem (this one made by Motorola) which is the central component necessary to connect to Rogers portable internet services.

The company which actually sold this modem to me is one of three or four in the Metrotown mall which are Rogers representatives. They appeared to be the only ones who had this modem in stock. They went through the routines to set up and activate my new account right on the premises. I took the modem home, unwrapped it, and plugged it into the wall, and connected the included RJ45 connecting cable to my wireless router. You can also connect your wireless modem directly to your computer if you're not running a network.

Astonishingly, there were no setup instructions or manuals included. I'm tech-savvy, and got the internet connection going after experimenting for about an hour. The reason for experimenting (aside from the lack of instructions) was that there is no information regarding how this modem handles IP addressing - DHCP or static addressing, which exact addresses, defaults, etc. - all necessary for successful internet communication. I can't see how anyone unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of computer communications can easily get this going. An easy installation is claimed on the wrapper of the box in which the modem was packaged (see picture).

the wrapper

the wirelss modem (indicator lights at the top)

In order to use Outlook Express for email (email is one of the "killer apps" for which many people get involved with the internet in the first place) you need certain information, such as mail server names, port usage, etc., none of which was included with the package. This information is "Rogers-specific" in this case, because I'm using Rogers as an Internet Service Supplier (ISP - see image above). The modem wrapper bears Rogers' label but that information was not immediately at hand.

Today, I dug a little deeper into setting up Outlook Express (OE). Since a number of parameters in OE need to be set up for email, and since these parameters depend to some considerable degree on the "characteristics" of the ISP, this information needed to come from Rogers. So, I phoned their technical support, and, after going through an automated response system (using voice phrase recognition) I talked to a real person. This person (I think his name is Dave) supplied all the necessary information, as well as the requisite expertise, to get the email setup up and running. He spent 31 minutes with me making sure that things were working according to how I wanted my system to work. Dave is the kind of technical support person seldom available nowadays. Many companies get a bad press for poor customer service, but this is an instance which illustrates what customer service should be. Kudos to Rogers for this one.

Well, what's the bottom line? The system works, but it's not a fast as the ads want you to believe. Now, a fair number of external factors affect the performance of your internet experience - number of users online, bandwidth available, your own computer, etc. In my case, I think that signal strength (like that of a radio station) may be an issue.

The wireless modem has five unlabelled indicator lights (see image above). I have yet to find out what they indicate, but I theorize that they indicate signal strength. Only one light on may indicate low strength, five on may mean maximum strength. After moving the modem to various spots in my office, I could only come up with a maximum of three indicator lights turning on. So perhaps this means a kind of "medium strength" signal, which might have an effect on performance. I must emphasize that this is my theory only - I stand to be corrected.

The nice thing about this whole approach is that you're independent of the "hard-wired" (phone lines or cable) systems. If some car runs into a pole, or some thief steals some copper cable, you're still in operation. A big point is the fact that this system is portable - if you really want to have complete internet connectivity elsewhere (in your car, say) and you want to use your current computer and its files, and the wireless modem, you don't need to change any settings, and you can just carry on as though you are in your office (for this to work, you've got to take the wireless modem with you into the car). Of course you could always buy a Blackberry, or the new iPod Touch.

I wonder what my long-term feelings about this system will be - I'll let you know in time.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Ode to our kitchen

We subscribe to both the Vancouver Sun and to the weekend edition of the Globe and Mail newspapers. The VS spplies us with topical, local news - the GaM has an interesting editorial page and also three commentators who we both like equally (I've always wondered about that word: should it not be commentors ? We don't "commentate", we comment) - Margaret Wente, Jeffrey Simpson, and Rex Murphy. Of these, I'm making a special reference to Margaret Wente here.

The image shows Margaret Wente's article, as scanned from the Globe and Mail - click on it to read.

In this weekend's edition, she writes about designer kitchens and refers to her own cluttered and old-fashioned one, much like our own kitchen here (see below). Her point is that many of the designer kitchens are "showpieces" only, they are often not used for the kind of family cooking which we all enjoy and have the privilege to have access to.

Our own kitchen - it is as old as our house. The electrical appliances are newer, but were bought to match the needs of such a "working" kitchen. Many times, it has fed all of us when we had family gatherings at our house (see below).

I have had a number of occasions to see working kitchens in houses where really good cooks do their thing; they all look like ours. As you know from my previous post, I have a wife who really does know how to cook - this kitchen is her domain. I stay out of it - my cooking prowess is limited to toasting bread and boiling eggs. I will fix any of the appliances if they break down, and will also repair whatever plumbing needs work, though.

Here's some of the crowd which is often fed by my wife's cooking, produced in our "old-fashioned" kitchen. Our family dinners are sumptuous, with additional contributions from our son and daughter-in-law, my sister and sister-in-law, brothers-in-law, extended family and family friends., all of whom produce their food in kitchens just like ours.

Let's hear it for the "working kitchen"!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

It's for the birds

Today, as forecast, has turned into one of those dreary, dark, and grey Pacific Northwest rainy days. So, any deviation from the dark greens and grays surrounding us falls readily into one's eye.

Our neighbours have tree in their yard which has lost all its leaves (naturally, it's November), but is hanging on to its fruits, as it does every year. My wife says that they are yellow apples - I wouldn't know; my botanical knowledge is very limited. My impression leans more towards Japanese oranges. In any case, they are very distinct (see the left picture, above, taken with a 300mm lens through our living room window). If you take a closer look at the centre of that image, you'll notice one of them with it's innards hollowed out (enlarged image on the right). I'm sure its the work of the local bird population.

We do have a number of resident species which are not deterred by our (usually quite mild) winters - crows, seagulls, pidgeons, sparrows, etc. I'm sure they appreciate the availability of food sources like that during this time of year.

So, because our neighbour usually leaves these fruits on the tree, he's doing something for the environment - it's for the birds.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Side effects

Derek's having a less than stellar day today. He is in the middle of his third chemo treatment. Airdrie says that he's just beat, and has spent the day in bed.

We saw him yesterday, after he came home from the hospital from his bi-weekly infusions there. He was feeling ok at that time. Today and tomorrow he is still connected to the "take-home" drip, I suppose that's what's causing his discomfort right now. I always think of chemotherapy as "controlled poisoning" - it's really a course way to attack cancer cells. It's the only reliable method we know of, though. Much research is under way to be able to "fine tune" these treatments - looking for the magic bullet, if you like.

The B.C. Cancer Agency is in the forefront of this research. It needs all the support it can get.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A number of happenings

Sometimes a lot of things happen in a short period.

On the weekend, my wife and I drove to Seattle to meet a cousin whom I hadn't seen in 52 years. She was visiting one of her daughters, who had recently moved there. Other than exchanging a few emails in the last year, we hadn't really connected in a meaningful way.

The last time we met face-to-face was when we were both in our early teens, before I emigrated to Canada from Berlin. Later, she married an American in the armed services, became an American citizen many years ago, and moved to Texas.

In any case, we reconnected on Sunday, caught up on family history, took some pictures, and promised to visit each other more often.

It was a significant, and happy day for both of us.

On Monday, my wife decided that it would be nice to have an intimate dinner with Derek, Airdrie, Marina and Lauren. Since they all live next door, it is easy to get together. We had one of my wife's specialties (rouladen) and various greens, rice, pudding. My wife is a wonderful cook (I married her for her cooking and her money - well, and because I love her, too). This recipe she learned from my mother; my mother always said that my wife made it better than she herself.

So, we had a nice evening.

Yesterday, I finally managed to take a short peek at comet Holmes; a short peek because I saw it through holes in the clouds only. It is very bright, and easily seen with the naked eye as a fuzzy star. It looks magnificent in binoculars, if a little unusual - I did not see a tail; it appears like a big, fuzzy ball. It's a shame that our sky is covered in clouds, and predictions are for more of the same, and lots of rain. Well, this is the Pacific Northwest - what would you expect at this time of year?


This morning we had some sad news. My wife has three close friends, two of whom she has known since they all were kids, another "joined the club" more than fifty years ago. They all live in the city, and the four of them get together often; they celebrate their birthdays, and find many other reasons to have "a night out" with each other. They've gone through the ups and downs in their lives more-or-less together; two of them are widowed. I have known all four of them since before my wife and I got married (nearly 43 years ago). They all were bridesmaids at our wedding. The four of them are part of our family, and join in and contribute to most of our family get-togethers.

One of them, Sonia, whom my wife has known since they were both children, died this morning. We are all very sad. Her health had not been the best in the last years; none-the-less she travelled often, enjoyed her food, and was always "open" to life. It's a great loss to us all. Derek has written an eloquent note about her.

So, life has its happy and sad moments.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Surprise comet

(click on the picture to see a larger version)

Figure 1 (from "Sky and Telescope" magazine.)

Photographer AnnMarie Jones
Location Aberllefenni, Wales, UK
Date 5th Nov '07 - pm
Equipment Canon 20D 100-400L @ 400mm Celestron CG5 mount

(click on the picture for a larger version)

Figure 3

These sequential pictures taken by Gary Seronik (RASC)

We have an unanticipated visitor in the night sky right now. I'm talking about the periodic comet Holmes. That comet orbits between Mars and Jupiter (right in the asteroid belt) and is normally very faint - too faint for many telescopes and certainly binoculars. Its orbit is tilted with respect to the plane of the orbits of the major planets and the average plane of the asteroid belt. As a consequence, the comet encounters the asteroid belt twice - once on the way "up" from "below", and again on the way "down" from "above" the planetary plane.

In the last couple of weeks, it has become very bright (relatively speaking), so that it can now be seen with the naked eye, and is certainly quite easy in binoculars. Some people have estimated its brightness at 2nd magnitude, whereas it is normally at 17th magnitude.

In astronomy the magnitude of an object refers to its brightness; each magnitude is approximately 2.5 times brighter than the next. A bright star, for instance, can be of magnitude 1, with larger numbers actually denoting lower brightness. So a star of magnitude 1 is 2.5 times brighter than one of magnitude 2, which in turn is 2.5 times brighter than a star of magnitude 3, etc. You can therefore get a pretty good idea of how much the comet's brightness has increased if you consider that its brightness has increased by about 15 magnitudes (that's 2.5 raised to the 15th power) which comes to approximately a million times. For a more precise explanation, see an article by Nick Strobel.

This brightness increase is unexplained at the moment. My hunch is that the comet collided with some asteroid or a large meteoroid. Something very similar was done artificially by deliberately crashing the "Deep Impact" probe into the comet Tempel 1.

You can find comet Holmes on a clear evening if you look to the northeast at around 8 pm (and it'll be visible all night long, as the sky turns through the hours, slowly making its way to the overhead, and later, northwest position). Make reference to figure 1 to find it in the sky. The comet is in a position in it's orbit which will keep it in the area of the Perseus constellation until about March 2008. Perhaps it'll keep up its brightness - comets are notoriously unpredictable in that regard. Use your binoculars to enhance the view. You'll probably see a fuzzy blob, quite distinct from the nearby stars.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Practical uses

As most of you know, I'm sure, there are a number of satellites orbiting the Earth with astronomical purposes as their primary or only function. The most famous of these is the Hubble Space Telescope; who hasn't seen at least some of spectacular images that telescope has produced over the years? Above you see Hubble images of the planet Jupiter and the inside of a gaseous nebula known as M17 (In binoculars, visible as a small "blob" - both it, and Jupiter and its four big moons are easily seen from your back yard with binoculars, especially if they are attached to a photo tripod or similar support.)

There are a number of other artificial satellites making astronomical observations at electromagnetic wavelengths that do not penetrate our atmosphere (infra-red, ultraviolet, certain radio frequencies, etc...). A couple of these, the Spitzer and the Chandra space telescopes, were recently in the news with regards to "missing black holes".

Space telescopes provide data for basic research, and their resulting data sets have less direct application to everyday life, though some the published pictures resulting from their activities are aesthetically pleasing, and grace the walls of planetariums (planetaria?) and museums (musea?), and probably quite a few private residences the world over. They also have scientific value; so one can say that there is perhaps some direct effect.

There is another class of Earth satellites which very directly affect our lives - the "weather satellites". There are several which provide up-to-date weather information and make today's weather forecasts so much more accurate. For instance, here is an image picturing some pertinent current conditions relayed by one of those satellites. The International Space Station and NASA's space shuttle also have a role in this regard, many important weather pictures have been taken by people occupying these vehicles.

Information such as this helps people prepare for these occurrences, and saves many lives. While this is not astronomy activity in the strict sense, the technologies developed for astronomical purposes certainly have important applications in this field of meteorology (this name itself shows the connection, meteors are certainly considered to be astronomical phenomena).

Practical uses of science, for sure.