Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Back to reality.

This past month, we traveled to Germany for a reunion of cousins and a visit to my only living aunt, my mother's younger sister, who is now 102 years old. She is living in a care home, still sharp of mind, uses a walker to get around, but has been totally deaf for over 40 years. Nonetheless, she speaks normally, but we "talk" to her by writing down whatever we want to say to her. Fortunately, one of her two daughters lives nearby and visits her every couple of days. We had a great time together.

The cousins' get-together was arranged as a boat trip in an area southeast of Berlin, called the "Spreewald". This is a marshy area, drained by channels and canals amounting to a total of a couple of thousand kilometers. These channels are very shallow, if you fall out of the boat, you can walk out (waist-deep). The boat trips are a major income source for the people who live there. Our boat was equipped with tables and shelves which held a variety of alcoholic beverages - food can be purchased at "roadside" establishments.

Cousins in the boat

After the boat trip, we all gathered at a local restaurant and spent a couple of hours there, talking about things which you talk about at a family reunion, the good things, the sad things, possible future visits, etc.

We spent almost a week in Berlin - it is one of the most dynamic cities in the world. Museums, exhibitions, art and science venues, world class shopping, unique local and international food... one can spend many weeks there and still not see all. My sister and her husband (who also live in the Vancouver area) also came to the reunion separately from us, and we met and stayed at the same hotel in the centre of Berlin. It was great fun for my sister and me (our spouses tagged along) to visit our childhood haunts, schools, and other places we were once at home in, and which we left 60 years ago. We also enjoyed going out to local restaurants for some fine, local food and beer. We don't often do that here in Vancouver, usually we get together in our homes.

Our travel to Germany involved a hitch. We had booked the flight including a day-long layover in Toronto. The new Airport rail line to downtown Toronto recently opened there, a la Vancouver's airport line, but the fare is more than $40 per trip per person - outrageous! Therefore, we decided to stay at our hotel, and had a pleasant evening, with a very good dinner and drinks at the bar.

Next morning, we checked our flight time from Toronto to Frankfurt, and, much to our dismay, found it cancelled. The Lufthansa pilots were on a one-day strike (long distance flights only)!

Naturally, we made efforts to get information regarding alternatives. Lufthansa phone lines were not answered, and our hotel desk had no information either. We took the shuttle from the hotel to the airport to try our luck there. At the airport, the Lufthansa counters were eventually served by one lonely lady, whose job it was to re-book and re-arrange the flights for the affected passengers. After a one-hour wait in line we finally got to that lady (for whom we felt immensely sorry), and found out that we had already been re-booked on Air Canada to Zurich, and from there on Swiss Air to Berlin. I guess that, having booked the whole trip on business class, we had received preferential treatment.

The Air Canada flight to Zurich was the best flight experiences we've ever had. The passenger pods were roomy and comfortable, the service was excellent, and the plane was brand-new (it was on its 5th flight, we were told). We had 40 minutes in Zurich to get through customs and onto the Swiss Air flight. It all worked smoothly, and, surprise, we (and our luggage!) arrived in Berlin 3 hours ahead of the original schedule. The unseen airline people who work in the background deserve great credit for how all this was handled.

After our family reunion, we spent a couple more weeks in other parts of Germany, visiting friends, who had planned something for us on every one of those days. We get together quite often in other parts of the world, so we had much to talk about and, of course, lubricated these occasions with the appropriate amount of food and drinks. These get-togethers have become more sedate over the last few years - we're all getting older, and several of our friends have died. None-the-less, a great time was had by all.

Our trip back went without a hitch. We arrived on time - tried out skytrain to get home. It works quite well, but we arrived at rush hour, so the trains were crowded. Traveling with luggage on skytrain is a bit of a hassle; there is no provision to store luggage.

It was a great vacation. We are now getting over our jet lag; back to reality!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A busy summer

Hard to believe that I last posted two months ago. Time flies.

This summer, considering the long dry spell and reasonably clear sky, I've been busy astronomically. The new Trottier observatory at SFU has taken some of my time, along with a number of public astronomy events organized by both SFU and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Vancouver centre. These events, for instance "Starry Night" at SFU, the Regional Parks' Perseid Meteor shower watch in Aldergrove, Deas Island Park, and other local activities all involved the RASC and it's various volunteers.

During the last couple of months, we set up our telescopes for the public to see objects such as the Moon, the planets Saturn, Venus, and Mars, open and globular star clusters, far-away galaxies, nebulae, and exploded stars. Many thousands of people took part in these activities. The Public has a deep interest in things astronomical. It is particularly gratifying to see so many young people show up at these gatherings. It is the first step to get involved in science, because astronomy involves many disciplines (physiscs, chemistry, biology, geology, for example).

Here is a link to an article, as it appeared on the website of the RASC (http://rasc-vancouver.com/) regarding the opening of Simon Fraser University’s Trottier Observatory and Science Courtyard. It describes the manifold purposes of this great addtion to the university and the co-operation between SFU and the RASC, written by professor Howard Trottier:


Many thanks are owed to the Trottier family, whose generous gift contributes so much to the scientific community.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Catch up

On June 20, the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus appeared in the evening sky as pictured. Venus has been chasing Earth since the beginning of the year and is slowly catching up. Jupiter has moved from the middle of the night into the evening sky (largely due to Earth's motion around the sun - it's an effect of perspective).

Venus is the closest planet to us and orbits the sun inside the Earth's orbit, and therefore moves faster. It is almost the same size  as Earth, but its surface is submerged in an atmosphere which is about 90 times denser then Earth's. It's surface temperature is about 450 degrees C (900 F). It's a true hell (lead melts).

Jupiter is our solar systems largest planet. You could put about 1500 planets of Venus size into Jupiter. That huge planet orbits 5 times as far from the sun as the Earth. In this image, Jupiter is positioned on the far side of its orbit, and will disappear behind the sun in a couple of months. At this point, it is about six-and-a-half times as far away from us as the sun.

In the spirit of catching up: On the third of May we commemorated the 4th anniversary of our son's death from colon cancer - always an occasion for some tears. 

On May 22nd, I turned 76. It's hard to believe, I still think that I'm in my prime. The little aches and pains accompanying old age say otherwise, however. So the truth is that I'm an old "fuddy-duddy". On May 29, I had a colonoscopy done, in view of our family history. Three polyps were found and removed. Fortunately, none of them showed any evidence of cancer.

Right now, both my wife and I are fighting a persistent cough; it makes sleeping restless. It's been making the rounds in our family - we're the last ones to "catch the bug".

At the moment, I'm involved in a process arranging the running of the new SFU astronomical observatory for it's portion of the Vancouver RASC's* time on the telescope. It's an observatory dedicated to both individual and public observing. More about this in a later post.

*Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Happy Travellers

This month, we spent three weeks in California, driving to see friends in various parts of the state. The main reason we went down was to celebrate our close friend Henry's eighty-fifth birthday in La Jolla. Over the years we have visited him and his wife, we've gotten to know many of their friends, and most of the family. We were one of four "international" couples; the others were from Sweden and Germany. There were about forty of us present. A great time was had by all - the festivity included a catered Mexican Lunch and a wonderful nine-person Mariachi band, which played for at least two hours.

Our fiftieth wedding anniversary occurred a week later. Seeing that so many of our friends had assembled, we arranged to celebrate that occasion after Henry's "big one". We had not announced this ahead of time, so it was a surprise to all. These anniversary celebrations took place in smaller groups at "Piatti's" Restaurant in La Jolla Shores, and at several "happy hours" at local friends' homes. Needless to say that the drinks flowed liberally, and food was equally plentiful (we have proof: our waistlines tell us so).

After about a week of this, we decided to wend our way home. We stayed with friends in Los Angeles and Chico and continued our anniversary entertainment in that fashion.

This car trip included (in chronological order) Medford, Oregon, and in Calfornia we stpped at Santa Nella, Solvang, La Jolla, Long Beach, Santa Nella again, Chico, Roseburg, Oregon, and Portland. We love travelling by car; you can be very flexible about your route. None of these stops were arranged in advance, we decided where to go while we were on the road.

It was a great trip.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A month later

Venus, Moon, Mars (faint dot at lower right of the Moon), Mar 21, 2015 evening

Moon, Mars (middle), Venus, on Feb 20, 2015 in the evening sky.

The top image shows Venus, Moon, and Mars yesterday evening. For comparison, the same three as they appeared exactly four weeks ago, shown above. The Moon has completed one orbit around the Earth, The Earth has moved about thirty degrees along its once-a-year orbit around the Sun. Venus, whose orbit is inside the Earths orbit and moves around the Sun more quickly, is starting to catch up to Earth. Mars, with its orbit outside the Earths orbit, moves more slowly than Earth. Mars, on the far side of its orbit (as seen from Earth) at this time, will disappear behind the Sun in a few weeks, and will then re-appear in the morning sky. This comparison is a good demonstration of the dynamic behaviour of the solar system.
Click on the images for a larger view, or use Zoom option.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

A matter of perspective

There was a nice combination of the Moon, Mars, and Venus visible in the West last evening. This picture was cropped from original, taken with 200mm lens, ASA 800, 1/20 sec, handheld. Moon, Mars, and Venus aligned in evening sky. The Moon (top) is closest (360,000km), Venus (bottom) is about 213 million km away, and Mars (middle) 330 Million km.

The relative positions of the planets in February 2015 are shown in the scanned image at the bottom. The Earth is shown in green. Imagine yourself looking from the Earth towards Venus and Mars. Yesterday (February 20 around 7:30 pm) you would have seen the two planets aligned as shown below, located far beyond the Moon (the little black dot labelled "Moon"). The orbits are not to scale. If the picture were drawn to scale, Venus would be about 3 meters and Mars 4.6 meters from the Earth.

Orbit schematic scanned from Sky and Telescope magazine.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Into the New Year

My wife and I hope that all of you had a great holiday season. We enjoyed our usual Christmas family get-together.  For once, the two of us had a "stay-at-home" New Year all by ourselves. After watching the New York time ball at 9pm, we raised a toast or two, reminisced about past riotous New Years' parties here at home, in California and Mexico, and family members and friends who have died, and went to bed around 10pm - getting old, I guess.

A number of astronomical events (including a relatively rare triple shadow transit on Jupiter) were rained/fogged out during this month. A clear sky break during last week made it possible for me to have a look at comet Lovejoy, though. This is a relatively bright comet, easily seen through binoculars. It's bright enough to be seen with the naked eye as a faint, fuzzy star, but not in the light-polluted Metro area.

The days are getting longer; we're looking forward to more sun.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas again

This year seems to have passed more quickly than ever - I think that's a sign of aging: every second, minute, hour, day represents a larger percentage of the rest of life, and somehow, our mind builds that into our perceptions.

My wife and I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas, an a Happy, Healthy, and Successful New Year.

This is the fourth Christmas since our son died - we live with the memories and are
thankful for having his wife and children live next door.

Monday, November 24, 2014

As time goes by...

Things have been busy lately. The RASC has been doing things astronomical - observing nights for the public and council and membership meetings, which always feature some interesting speakers. As usual, the weather ruled the success of the observing sessions; some had to be called off. The latest one of these was scheduled for the youngest group in the Boy Scouts (Beavers) in New Westminster today - but the weather gods do not agree, as you can see if you live in our area. If you are interested in astronomy, as I am, you get used to this.

Aside from my external activities, my wife and I have had some doctors' appointments - at our age, some issue or other always comes up. Well, "body and soul maintenance" is important at any age, it just becomes more necessary as time goes on.

Our daughter-in-law organized a very successful family get-together (17 people). We always have a great time and enjoy each others' company; there are none of the family frictions which seem to be the norm if you judge by the numerous TV shows which exploit that theme. We're lucky to be able to appreciate our individual traits.

Christmas is just around the corner - the year is quickly approaching its end. Something is tinkering with the speed at which time goes by, it seems to me.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Mushroom "Forest"

We have a couple of dozen or so mushrooms growing in our lawn again. This happens every year. I don't know whether they are edible (personally, I don't eat mushrooms). In any case, they are important or the well-being of the trees (they are a catalyst in the storage of nitrogen in the soil).

A made a reference to the "mushroom cycle" in May of last year:  http://penmachinedad.blogspot.ca/2013/05/the-fixer.html

I'm always astounded when these mushrooms appear quite suddenly, apparently "out of nowhere".

Nature is amazing.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Eclipse wipe-out

The Moon went through a total eclipse this morning (from 3:25 am to 4:24 am PDT). Before totality, as the the Moon moves into and out of the Earth's shadow, it goes through a number of stages.

The magazine "Sky and Telescope" published a very descriptive illustration of the process:

I had decided a couple of days earlier that I'd try to photograph this event. On our back porch, I set up a Canon 60Da camera with a 500mm telephoto lens on an iOptron SkyTracker mount (to compensate for the Earth's rotation during that event). The camera can be controlled via our home computer network; I'm a creature of comfort and did not want to sit out in the cool night. Instead, I watched the process on my desktop computer and took pictures as things progressed. All evening, the sky was covered with thin clouds, but the Moon was visible through them.

Here's what that looked like:

As the time for the eclipse approached, the clouds turned more variable, so camera exposure times had to vary with the varying transparency of the clouds. Alas, just as the time for the beginning of the "total" phase approached, the clouds got so thick that the Moon could not be seen and the sky stayed that way until late this afternoon.

The penumbra is apparent on the left edge.

Getting into the partial phase.

Almost into totality. The clouds are quite dense. This is a 4-second exposure.

The last trace of the Moon. A couple of minutes before totality. This is a 6-second exposure. The brown tint on the clouds is the wasted light from sodium vapour street lights which pollute the sky in the lower mainland.

Can you find the Moon in this picture?

Being into astronomy, the weather rules. It can be frustrating. I never got to see, or photograph any part of the remainder of this eclipse. There are many good pictures of all of the eclipse on the internet, taken in parts of the country which did not have cloud problems.

This was a really badly timed wipe-out.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The year goes on.

Looking at the rainy view outside our window, and considering the rapidly shortening days, I think that we've reached the end of summer. We'll probably have a few more sporadic nice days, but autumn is near. We've had some beautiful months, weatherwise, reminiscent of California, without the drought which people have to deal with there. We've also been lucky that there have been no floods here, devastating storms, or forest fires, events which were experienced by many people in other parts of this continent.

Winter fun is coming up - skiing in the local mountains, or at Whistler. We live in a beautiful part of the world here in Canada. Let's be thankful.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A nice summer

Last week, a good friend from California on a visit at our house and we spent a wonderful time with our friends in their spectacular home on Saltspring Island, as we did last year around this time: (http://penmachinedad.blogspot.ca/2013/07/a-close-paradise.html). We had a wonderful evening as a part of the "Puerto Vallarta" contingent, and had more than our accustomed number of glasses of wine (we calculated one-and-half bottles for each of us over the course of the afternoon and evening). The "P.V contingent" is a group of people who got to know each other over the years at our (now deceased) friends Ernie and Al's B&B there.

Later in the week, we had a fabulous evening dinner with about twenty of our hosts' friends and neighbours on the terrace which surrounds our friends' home. These people are an intelligent and fun group - it was a real pleasure to interact with them.

Just before our trip we got word that our very close family friend Erlyne had died quite suddenly. She fell when she missed the bottom step on some stairs, broke her hip, and never recovered. Erlyne was my wife's friend for fifty-seven years; they got to know each other when both of them worked as time and script controllers for CBC television in the days when every broadcast was live. Erlyne was also a bridesmaid at our wedding more than forty-nine years ago. We are saddened by her death.

It is obvious that we have reached the age at which one loses more and more family members and friends...

Monday, June 23, 2014

A trip south, happy and sad

For the last month, Hilkka and I have been in Southern California, visiting friends and many of the places we particularly like. This was a car trip, so, on the way, we stopped in Oregon, both coming and going. On the way back, we stayed for a day at Oregon's Crater Lake Lodge.

We have visited Crater Lake about a half dozen times over the various decades, several times with our son Derek. The lake is a water-filled caldera which is what is left from a huge explosion of a volcano now named Mt. Mazama. This time, we stayed at Crater Lake Lodge, as we have on several occasions in the past. It's a fairly expensive stay, with somewhat spartan "luxury" rooms, no TV, which is a good thing; you should get outside and take in the view from the various view points. There is internet access. The restaurant has improved considerably over the years; the food and service is first class. Scenery from the lakeside rooms is impressive.

In his blog of July 2007, Derek wrote about some of the places on Earth which he had visited, and which had a special connection to family and friends for him (http://www.penmachine.com/2007/07/my-favourite-places-and-when-to-take-me). This blog entry was written just before his first operation for the colon cancer to which he would succumb four years later.

This time, our visit to Crater Lake was sombre and sad. In the evening, we dispersed some of Derek's ashes from a promontory close to the Lodge (see pictures). The wind blew them down towards the lake, and we wept, thought of his wife Airdrie and his daughters Marina and Meredith, but felt a certain comfort in having fulfilled one part of the wishes Derek had expressed in his blog.

Next morning, the sun rose above the lake in what became a beautiful day; we take this as a sign about the bright future Derek wished for his own family. 

Here are the series of pictures taken at Crater Lake - an expanded set of the ones we posted on Facebook a few days ago: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mimiandpapa/sets/72157645217732272/ . Click on any of the pictures for a closer view and a related description. 

From now on, any trips we take to this beautiful area will be in memory of our son. Crater Lake is situated in southern Oregon, about two hours' drive east of interstate highway five, so we will likely stop there, even if it is for just a day visit. We quite often fly to California; Crater Lake is located on the flight path from Vancouver or Seattle. We'll have a moment of silence when we pass overhead.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Family is everything

Yesterday, it was the third anniversary of our son Derek's death. We miss him - we light a candle in his memory every day. This void in our family will never go away.

We maintain a perpetual memorial on-line here: http://www.legacy.com/guestbooks/vancouversun/derek-miller-condolences/150846264?#sthash.xPQfXgEU.dpbs . You may leave a comment there at any time.

A couple of weeks ago, Hilkka and I celebrated our 49th anniversary. We are both as much in love with each other as when we got married. Our daughter-in-law, Airdrie, invited us to an Easter dinner a couple of days later and we had a wonderful time with her, her parents, and our granddaughters.

Hilkka and I made an impromptu decision last night to invite Airdrie, and our granddaughters Marina and Meredith to breakfast at our place this morning (they live in the other half of our duplex home, so that's easy). We always enjoy their company; Derek would be so proud of the beautiful young ladies his daughters have become.

Family is everything.