Saturday, June 30, 2007

Midyear Barbecue Preparations

Preparation for the 2007 Midyear Barbecue continued on Friday.

After breakfast I got a barbecue tank filled, got the remaining pork, and got sausages. This year, we went with turkey sausages in order to try and accommodate some people who have dietary restrictions with pork. Unfortunately, the pure turkey sausages use a pork casing. Note to self -- read the fine print **first**.

Michael stopped by and helped with returning the collection of empty beer bottles and with doing the last major grocery run. Over the last few weeks, Jill had done a lot of work to get us to this point.

We tried out out the turkey sausages for supper with Michael and Lorna. The sausages were determined to be suitable for serving to midyear guests.

This year's marinade recipe went as follows:

8 jars of Lee Kum Kee Char Siu Sauce (available from fine grocery stores in many urban centres)
1 jar of Lee Kum Kee Hoisin Sauce
1 jar of minced garlic

All 10 jars of ingredients were combined in a large pot with very low heat. One of the Char Siu Sauce jars was set aside for measuring one jar of water which was added to the pot. The same jar was used to measure out one jar full of Heinz tomato ketchup, again added to the pot. A small shot (equivalent to two or three tablespoons) of Yeo's Sweet Chili Sauce was added.

There was enough to marinade 52 pieces of pork, with four jars set aside for use during the actual barbecuing process on Saturday.

There are some other preparations of note.

My neighbour's cherry tree overhangs our yard, and he has always encouraged us to pick and eat the fruit. This year, there are so many cherries on the tree that the branches are hanging low. Jill is going to set out a basin so that people can pick and wash and eat right at the tree.

Earlier in the week, we heard from Bob and Elaine up in the Ottawa Valley -- three blueberry pies had been created for the barbecue. However, due to local circumstances, one of those pies became unavailable, although the other two are thought to be likely to arrive on Saturday.

The countdown is on...

Friday, June 29, 2007

Brianne Arrives!

Our goddaughter Brianne arrived on Thursday. Her departure point in Texas had been experiencing heavy rain and generally bad weather, so her flight was delayed. One consequence of the flight delay was that her luggage didn't make it.

But Brianne herself is here safe -- bright, cheerful, and ever so much more poised and confident than she was last year.

We got the traditional arrival night pizza, picked up a toothbrush, and headed on home. Corwin, who has been looking forward to this visit for months, was very happy.

After spending some time on hold with the airline, I learned that the lost luggage would likely make it to Toronto on Friday afternoon. The luggage contained some critical items -- an iPod charging cable, and a power adapter for Bri's Nintendo DS. We learned that the NDS can be charged by a Gameboy charger, something which my NDS Lite can't do.

On checking again late in the afternoon, I learned that the suitcase had indeed arrived in Toronto, and was to be picked up at 6PM by the delivery service. Delivery would be within six hours, or would occur the next day.

Since it is now midnight with no sign of Bri's suitcase, I am going to assume that it will be the next day. Luckily, we got that toothbrush, the NDS works, and Bri fits Jill's t-shirts.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Dinosaur Adventures

Way back there in the dim mists of time, sometime in the late Jurassic when I was still in high school, I had a couple of classmates and a number of teachers who were deeply committed Christian fundamentalists. These acquaintances believed, among other things, in the idea that that the evolutionary view of the world was wrong and that the biblical view of creation as recounted in the book of Genesis in the Christian Bible was literally true and correct.

Even as a teenager, I had a problem with this.

This YouTube video, a mini-documentary posted by Dave and Karen, two of the Usual Suspects, brings back fond(?) memories of creationism debates. Their topic is Dinosaur Adventure Land, a small theme park built by a man named Kent Hovind in Florida.

Kent Hovind is currently serving some jail time now for various criminal offenses. However, a lavish new Creation Museum has opened in Kentucky. In my view, this is another manifestation of the same creationist belief culture that produced the Presidentially-appointed NASA PR flack who was anxious to reshape the outward message of the space agency to conform to a political agenda driven by the religious right.

When I see the representations of humans and dinosaurs together, that being one of the central premises of the beliefs of Hovind and his Creation Museum compatriots, I am struck but how similar their vision is to the imagery of the Flintstones. But unlike the cheerful buffoonery of Fred and Barney and their friends, the creationist vision serves a darker purpose, whose aim is to keep its adherents tractable through ignorance of the truth.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

STS 117 Flight Videos

I have discovered how to embed video in my blog, and so like any right thinking geek with a new toy, I am using it immediately to excess. There are many YouTube videos that relate to the last shuttle mission and what I am attempting in this post is to provide some highlights of the mission. This is very cool, because with my schedule and general disinterest in television, I very rarely get to see any launch or operational footage of a space shuttle mission, so this compendium probably represents the most video that I have seen of any flight with the exceptions of STS 107 and STS 51L.

The rollout of shuttle Atlantis to Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center took place on May 15, after repairs to the hail damage to the External Tank back in February. This damage had delayed the launch from the original date of March 15.

NASA's weekly video summary for the first full week in June when the launch countdown for Atlantis was in progress is very optimistic about launching on time. They were justified -- STS 117 launches very close to the target launch time.

The following video shows astronaut preparations, launch, and on-orbit activity on June 8.

Because of the hail damage to the External Tank, and because of the role that insulation from the External Tank played in the loss of shuttle Columbia on flight STS 107, a lot of attention was focussed on the condition of the tank after separation.

This video is a repeat of the launch, showing the perspective from cameras mounted on the port and starboard sides of the tank, monitoring the shuttle's wings for impacts from foam insulation. The final part shows the rendezvous with the ISS, and shows from a camera viewpoint on the ISS, the shuttle doing the back flip maneuver first performed by Eileen Collins on mission STS 114. This full rotation allows the ISS crew to do a visual inspection of all sides of the shuttle to check for damage.

This video provides another view of Atlantis approaching the space station.

Atlantis docked with the ISS on June 10. This video shows the actual docking.

The Atlantis astronauts performed a series of spacewalks to install new solar panel components for the ISS. This video is an interview with a NASA official regarding the last space walk.

One issue which was discovered during the damage inspection early in the flight was that a thermal blanket, a heat shield component, had come loose on one of the OMS pods. The OMS pods are the housings for the Orbital Maneuvering System -- fuel tanks and rocket engines for thrusters which allow the shuttle to do course corrections and perform maneuvers while in orbital flight. A final spacewalk was done to repair the thermal blanket. One of the astronauts used a medical stapler to refasten the blanket.

Undocking of Atlantis from the ISS took place on June 19. Atlantis left without Clayton Anderson, who remained behind as the newest member of ISS Expedition 15. However, Sunita Williams joined the Atlantis crew for the return to Earth.

Due to bad weather in Florida, the June 21 landing opportunities were missed. On June 22, the facilities of Edwards Air Force Base in California were made available in addition to the facilities at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Due to continuing bad weather in Florida, Atlantis concluded the STS 117 mission by landing at Edwards on June 22. Had Atlantis not been able to return on the 22nd, then additional landing facilities at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico would have been activated on the 23rd.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Space News Update - June 2007

Since the last Space News roundup last year, there have been a lot of developments.

Space tourists Anousheh Ansari and Charles Simonyi completed trips to the International Space Station. In both cases they launched on Soyuz flights from Baikonur -- Ansari in September 2006 and Simonyi in April 2007.

In January 2007, a NASA astronaut who had flown on the July 2006 flight of Discovery to the International Space Station had a very public career-ending breakdown involving a love triangle and an alleged assault on a perceived rival. As a result of this incident, however, NASA has begun studies on the psychological dynamics of crews who will be isolated for 30 to 36 months on a Mars mission.

A year earlier, on January 19,2006, NASA launched the New Horizons space probe from Cape Canaveral -- the rocket was a Delta V, with a Centaur second stage and a STAR 48B solid rocket third stage, all of which served to accelerate New Horizons to very high speed. About nine hours after launch, New Horizons crossed the orbit of the Moon, outward bound for a gravity assist from Jupiter on February 28, 2007 to send it on its way to Pluto. The encounter was a success -- shortly, the spacecraft will be put into interplanetary cruise mode, with Pluto encounter set for July, 2015.

During the Jupiter encounter, flight controllers at JPL and the science team used the opportunity to calibrate the probe's cameras and science instruments. Close-up photos of Jupiter and its moon system haven't been available since the Galileo mission ended in 2003. The following is a view of an eruption of the volcano Tvashtar on Io, one of Jupiter's moons.

Image Credit: Release date: May 14, 2007 -- NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute.

On March 20, SpaceX, a privately owned corporation, successfully launched their Falcon 1 booster, which achieved every important test objective except actually making it into orbit. A problem with the second stage -- fuel sloshing in the tank causing the vehicle to oscillate and creating conditions for an early engine shutdown -- resulted in the rocket not achieving orbit. However, SpaceX were confident enough in their results to move their launch program to full operational status -- their next Falcon 1 launch in September will be the US Navy's TacSat, followed by a communications satellite launch for the government of Malaysia.

In May, the head of NASA, Dr. Michael Griffin, took some heat for stating that he was unsure that global warming trends were "...a problem we must wrestle with. To assume that it is a problem is to assume that the state of Earth's climate today is the optimal climate, the best climate that we could have or ever have had and that we need to take steps to make sure that it doesn't change." These remarks were interpreted as NASA toeing the American government's ideological line on climate change and on science in general. The thought of science being subject to ideology makes my head hurt, and it concerns me that the Americans didn't learn this from observing the Soviet Union and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

There were earlier incidents involving a 24 year old presidential appointee in NASA's Public Affairs Office pursuing a religious and political agenda, and these have reflected badly on NASA. In these incidents, a web designer was told to add the word "theory" after every mention of the Big Bang and there was an attempt to limit media access to a senior climate researcher -- effectively to muzzle him.

Earlier this month, on June 5, the MESSENGER probe successfully made its second encounter with Venus, shaping its orbit for the first of 3 flybys of Mercury in 2008 and 2009, to be followed by entry into orbit around Mercury in 2011.

In a mission delayed by hailstorm damage to the fuel tank, NASA launched the shuttle Atlantis (mission STS 117) to the International Space Station on June 8. In a series of spacewalks, the Atlantis astronauts installed a new set of solar panels for the station, getting it prepared to handle the power demands of the Japanese and European laboratories that will be added later. After installation of the additional solar panel unit, Russian control computers crashed, apparently due to power issues. The computer problem was subsequently corrected over a period of several days.

Image Credit: NASA -- STS117 Mission -- S117-E-08003 (19 June 2007) -- Backdropped by the blackness of space and Earth's horizon, the International Space Station moves away from the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Earlier the STS-117 and Expedition 15 crews concluded about eight days of cooperative work onboard the shuttle and station. Undocking of the two spacecraft occurred at 9:42 a.m. (CDT) on June 19, 2007. Astronaut Lee Archambault, STS-117 pilot, was at the controls for the departure and fly-around, which gave Atlantis' crew a look at the station's new expanded configuration.

Atlantis also brought Clayton Anderson to the ISS, a replacement for Flight Engineer Sunita Williams, who had been aboard the ISS for the previous six months. Williams holds 3 records for female space travellers -- when Atlantis returned safely to Earth at Edwards Air Force Base on June 22, she set the duration record for 195 days in space. She has also been on 4 spacewalks totalling over 29 hours. The previous duration record for a female astronaut had been held by Dr. Shannon Lucid at 188 days, 179 of which were spent on the Mir space station.

Next month (target July 7), NASA will launch the Dawn mission -- an ion-drive powered space probe which will travel to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres to conduct close-up reconnaissance of the asteroid belt. here is a brief video narrated by Leonard Nimoy (Spock!) which provides an overview of the Dawn mission.

Last Day of School 2007

Friday June 22 was Number One Son's last day at school. Grade Two is over.

The last week of school was filled with rehearsal for the Spring gala, the Spring Gala itself, and winding up the year. A couple of days earlier, Corwin was heard to say "If today is the twentieth, then it means there are only eight more days until Brie arrives!"

The actual last day of school was a day of treats and fun -- all the year's work completed. According to his report card, Corwin is reading at about a Grade 6 level -- so I guess the house filled with books has had some effect :-)

Here is Corwin with Miss Cheung, who was also his Grade One teacher the previous year.

After we packed all of his books into the car, Corwin took us down the trail into the park in the ravine behind the school.

This is a pretty significant ravine -- there is a little stream and a bridge. A paved bicycle trail leads (I assume) off to Leslie Street toward the West and Don Mills Road to the East. The ravine is bounded by the 401 to the north. We didn't see it, but there is an old log cabin.

The stream shows every indication that there are certain times of year when it is a lot deeper and faster. This is like a little bit of controlled wilderness in the city.

We found a set of log steps leading off the main paved path. Following the steps led us to a series of odd mounds whose origin and purpose were unknown. Kids playing? Shelters built by homeless people? Something else? Further expeditions over the summer will reveal more.

After our Friday night visit downtown to see and have dinner with my mother, we stopped at Demetre's on the Danforth to celebrate the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer in a truly happy way.

Mind Controlling Fiends From Hell

They're here. They've been here for a while. Only some of us are immune to their mind bending powers.


When I dropped my mother off at her home after our dinner with my cousin Tak and his parents a month ago, I took a few minutes to drive along Bloor Street and to venture south along Yonge Street -- things which I almost never do because traffic along those streets is usually so dense.

Given the lateness of the hour, I had thought that perhaps Bloor would be little more passable. I was wrong -- the traffic inched along just before Avenue Road/Queen's Park, and the reason was because this was also the day that the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) opened.

The Crystal is the latest addition to the ROM, a striking piece of architecture as the following image from Wikipedia shows:

On the evening of May 28, the traffic was slow in front of the Crystal, with construction barriers still up and workmen still doing things. This is very reminiscent of the end of a software project, where the users and managers are congratulating themselves on a job well done, oblivious to the developers who still labour behind the scenes to hold things together and make the launch a reality rather than wishful thinking.

I had lots of time to take some shots out my car window, after first shutting off the flash on my camera. Traffic was never stopped for more than a few seconds, although movement was only a bit more than walking speed. I juggled the camera and steering wheel, managed not to get in a car accident and shot a series of frames, one being of my knee as I was fumbling with the camera.

I haven't been to the ROM in years, but I will probably try to get there again. It would be interesting to be inside the Crystal.

The Crystal itself has been controversial, with both proponents and detractors. Sometime that week, I had been listening to Lynn Slotkin, a local theatre critic, on an afternoon CBC Radio broadcast. Slotkin made it clear that she was a detractor -- referring to the Crystal as a "Carbuncle" several times. Slotkin appears weekly on the CBC, and I remembered her for her dislike of the play "What Lies Before Us" that my cousin Wayne had appeared in back in February.

The Crystal was designed by Daniel Liebeskind, an American architect also noted for planning the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site in Manhattan.

I don't claim any great knowledge or appreciation of architecture, but I like the Crystal. My first sight of the Crystal made me think of an immense golden jewel looming over the street. I like the fact that it looks like the future resting on the shoulders of the past. I like the symbolism that this vision of the future was built from a donation by an immigrant -- someone who did not inherit his position in the financial and cultural elite, but who joined it.

Turning the corner onto Avenue Road and heading south, the Museum was much as I remembered it. The planetarium, once a favourite spot, hasn't been open for years -- one of many ill-considered moves by the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris in the 1990s.

Away from the construction around the museum, traffic was much lighter and I was able to get downtown without much additional delay. I parked on Elm Street and walked over to Yonge to photograph the other landmark that I wanted to capture. Earlier that day, it had been announced that Sam the Record Man was to close at the end of June.

I discovered Sam's soon after I arrived in Toronto. There are a stack of three-decade old vinyl LPs gathering dust in my mother's basement that come from there, and a substantial fraction of my CD collection as well. My music interests are odd, eccentric, and narrow. Sam's was a place where I could find and fuel whatever new musical interest that came to me. I am sad to see it go.

I walked a block south on Yonge to Edward Street -- home of the World's Biggest Bookstore, a store now part of the Chapters/Indigo chain and closed by the time I got there. However, Funland, a video arcade remembered from my teens was still there and still open. The smoky haze of my teens was gone, removed by anti-smoking legislation from the 90s. In the back, ancient pinball machines were still available for a quarter a play, as well as video games from the 70s and 80s.

Looking south on Yonge Street from the corner of Edward, there were workmen at the corner of Dundas and Yonge, a corner brighter and taller than I would have imagined when I saw it for the first time in the early 70s. In front of me, on the south side of Edward was the mall and office tower where Lichee Garden had its last incarnation.

On this Wednesday night, Yonge Street was not very busy. I found myself wondering whether that had always been so? Had there only ever been crowds during daylight and on the weekends? Or had the crowds at night gone away as the street changed? I didn't remember -- and it was time to go home.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Visit With My Cousin

My cousin Tak visited for a week with his parents. They were here last week, having started out on Saturday of the American Memorial day weekend, and taking two days to drive up from Tampa. Tak had used to find inexpensive accommodations, and between his internet skills and his GPS, he and his parents managed to do quite well getting around in the city.

Tak and I are related in that his great grandfather was the elder brother of my great grandfather -- the man whose adopted son became my grandfather.

When my mother left China in the 1950s, she spent three months with Tak's parents in their flat in Hong Kong.

One of the first activities that Tak and his parents embarked on last Monday was to take my mother to lunch. Although we had corresponded, and spoken on the phone, I had never met Tak. This changed on Monday night when Tak arrived at our house. We spent the evening getting acquainted and talking about family history.

Later in the week, on Wednesday, May 28, Corwin and I took my mother, Tak, and Tak's parents to dinner. Jill, who was down with a severe cold, had to miss the dinner, which was at the North York branch of Asian Legend. [Thumbnail review -- excellent food, good prices, recommended]

On Thursday evening, Tak dropped by, and we again spent the evening talking.

Their drive back to Tampa started on Saturday morning, with the plan to take three days rather than two, to make it an easier drive. That being the case, they got home today (or are about to get home).

This week was a great opportunity to talk face to face with my cousin Tak, to visit with his parents, and to gain further insight into our joint family history.

Tak and his parents in our back yard:

Tak and me -- photo taken by Corwin:

Tak's parents, Corwin, and my mother. The young techno dude is engrossed in playing with a Gameboy.

UPDATE: Got an e-mail from Tak this morning - despite being caught by Tropical Storm Barry in Virginia, they made it home safely late Monday night.