I returned to southern Arizona in February to once again take advantage of the dark skies at my friend’s beautiful observatory. I flew to Tucson, stayed at my friend’s place for a week, and spent a few more days in southern Arizona exploring. I had planned to drive up to Sedona and possibly the Grand Canyon, however the horrible weather in those areas kept me near Tucson for the few days before I returned home. I rented a Tesla Model S from Turo, which worked out great. I really enjoyed touring southern Arizona in style, although the expense put the Tesla rental in the “splurge” category! I’m very happy with the photo of the Angel Nebula which I captured using my friend’s observatory, and our group had fun touring around the area when we weren’t looking up at the night sky. Photo gallery
In April I joined a tour group in Los Angeles bound for Malaysia, Indonesia & Brunei. Our destination was the island of Borneo, where we experienced lots of interesting locations and people in Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak. It was a fascinating tour offered by Michele Burgess from Infocus Travel, and her group were a terrific bunch of experienced travellers and dedicated photographers.
We had some wonderful opportunities to observe wildlife in remote Borneo, including Orangutans, Proboscis monkeys, Sun bears, and other fascinating birds and animals, many which are only found in remote areas or preserves. We also experienced the cultures of the diverse people in the area, making several visits to villages to interact with the indigenous people. Michele always maximizes photographic experiences and keeps the pace of travel manageable, so we had time to enjoy ourselves along the way. Photo gallery
I attended the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s General Assembly in Calgary, and made the trip into a 2-week road trip through southern British Columbia and Alberta in late June and early July. RASC Calgary offered some terrific local excursions to sample the fascinating geology all the way from the Rockies to the prairie plains and valleys, and we got up close to the fossilized dinosaurs in the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller. On the return trip, I reconnected with an old school friend in the Okanagan Valley, and continued with my trip’s astronomy theme by visiting a nearby radio observatory. My last night was spent in Vancouver, where I visited with my cousin before returning home the next day.
My new 2017 Tesla Model S performed very well: the Auto Pilot feature allowed me to relax a bit while driving, and Tesla’s Superchargers kept the car ready to go with no hassles. I took my time by taking three days/two nights to get to Calgary, and taking five days/four nights to return home – slow travel at it’s best, and a very low carbon footprint thanks to my electric vehicle! Photo gallery
A bit later in the summer, I didn’t have to travel very far to participate in the Island Star Party held in the beautiful Cowichan Valley, about an hour’s drive from home on Vancouver Island. By this time the wildfire smoke was well-established over Vancouver Island, so observing conditions were not optimal, however that didn’t stop me from enjoying myself.
I stayed at a lovely B&B in nearby Duncan, my childhood home town. During the day, I had a great time flying my drone over the Kinsol Trestle, Dougan’s Lake, the BC Forest Discovery Centre, and Somenos Lake. The star party had some very good presentations in the early evening, and I had fun with my astronomy buddies as we observed the Milky Way and a smoke-filtered Mars from the observing field.
Kinsol Trestle from JoeTourist on Vimeo.
My last trip of 2018 will be to the Caribbean for three weeks in December aboard the Royal Clipper, Star Clippers largest sailing ship, and also the largest 5-masted passenger sailing ship in the world! I’m traveling with friends, spending 11 nights aboard the ship while she island-hops from Jamaica to Barbados. I spend a couple of nights in Montego Bay, Jamaica before boarding, and stay four nights in Barbados after disembarking before returning home just before Christmas.
I’m flying WestJet from Victoria to Calgary to Toronto to Montego Bay, so I am avoiding all USA airlines and airports for this trip. Star Clippers made this booking particularly sweet, since they waived the single supplement, reducing my cost significantly. This generosity will prompt me to seriously consider another booking with them in the near future – they sail in the Mediterranean and SE Asia!
I’m planning to return to southern Arizona in March 2019 to once again take advantage of the dark skies at my friend’s observatory on the Dragoon Mountain Ranch. I fly to Phoenix instead of Tucson this time, since airfares are cheaper to Phoenix and it only adds a couple of hours driving time to my friend’s place near Benson. Several of my astronomy buddies from Victoria will join me to spend a week observing under the dark skies of southern Arizona.
I’m very much looking forward to using all the fancy gear in the observatory, and no doubt we will also experience the many interesting sights in the area. Since the weather conspired against me last year for a road trip to Sedona and Grand Canyon, I will try again this year to visit these spectacular areas before returning to Phoenix and home. This year I will rent another Tesla through Turo – a Model 3 this time. It will give me two weeks to gain some experience driving Tesla’s newest and less expensive electric sedan.
My travel plans for the rest of 2019 and beyond are still open. I want to take a Mediterranean cruise, and perhaps I’ll combine it with some travel in Spain. Australia, India and the Silk Road still beckon to me. Looking ahead to the 2024 North American Total Solar Eclipse, I’m planning to be on the west coast of Mexico near Mazatlan to stand in the shadow of the Moon once more.
We were treated to a snowfall on Christmas Day in 2017 – a rarity for Victoria! The dogs and I got out in it, going for several walks before it melted a couple of days later – so typical for Victoria.
We have been pleased with the new heat pump system installed in 2017, however we found in the colder months that the system wasn’t keeping the rooms on the north side of the house warm enough. I contacted our heating and cooling contractor and had them install a second outside unit, and two more inside wall units. Now every corner of the house is toasty in winter and cool in summer, just the way we like it! This did increase our operating costs a bit, but the original heat pump is now not working as hard. Being comfortable is not something we want to compromise on.
On the personal front, under doctor’s supervision I’m now taking a mega-dose (3,000 mg) of Niacin to keep my cholesterol count within the normal range. Combined with Ezetrol cholesterol inhibiter, the Niacin is a good alternative to the statins (Crestor) I was taking previously and suffering serious side effects from. I have maintained my lower body weight achieved last year by making some lifestyle changes. We now have vegetarian lunches, I’ve reduced meat portions at dinner, kept the use of fats and sweets under control, and maintain a good activity level.
After having better-than-normal vision for the first 65 years of my life, I finally had to get corrective glasses to improve my deteriorating visual acuity. Correcting my astigmatism has reduced the eye fatigue that I was experiencing using a computer screen for many hours each day, and when driving, I can now read the road signs a block or two away again! Wearing glasses is a big adjustment for me, but I’m determined to make it work.
We renovated our kitchen back in 2011, and have been well-pleased with all the modern conveniences it brought. The renovation also included replacing all of our appliances, and all of them continue to work well but one. The freezer defrost stopped working in the Maytag 3-door refrigerator after the first year, forcing us to soak up water from the bottom of the compartment every day. This is a documented manufacturing flaw with this model, but unfortunately we didn’t get it fixed within the warranty period. Once the ice-maker also stopped working this year, we decided to shop for a new refrigerator, rather than spending huge amounts of money on repairs. A very nice LG 3-door refrigerator came on sale at Home Depot this year: it fit our needs perfectly, looks great in the kitchen, makes lots of ice, and we no longer have to mop up water!
Our cat Mello had two encounters with the veterinary this year: having an abscessed dew claw dealt with, and dental surgery to have a couple of teeth removed along with dental cleaning. Our other cat Coda scooted out the front door again during the summer. He defied our best efforts to lure or capture him for nearly a month, until Kirk finally grabbed him while he was feeding near our front door.
The two cats are once again best buddies, claiming the living room sofa for their own. They allow the dogs on the sofa only if they behave themselves, otherwise they are chased off! I must confess, I understand dogs better than cats. Our Jack Russells Rolly and Tanner are my best buddies, and we are a pack as we walk the neighbourhood and local parks, exploring, meeting other dogs and their people, and of course cuddling on the bed for afternoon naps…a dog’s life indeed.
My 5-year old Saeco Giro Plus super-automatic espresso machine had to go in for service recently when it stopped working. Since it always takes several weeks for the local shop to repair and service these machines, I decided to purchase a backup espresso machine, since good coffee is such a big part of my daily routine! Best Buy had a good price on the Breville Barista Express semi-automatic espresso machine, and my local store had stock, so I purchased this machine and resumed my cappuccino habit. In fact, I like the espresso this machine makes so much, even after picking up my repaired Saeco, I decided to keep it as a backup and now used the Breville as my main machine in the kitchen. It makes richer-tasting coffee, and much-improved steamed milk over my old machine.
Astronomy – I must confess my astronomical observing has declined in 2018. Although I still enjoy getting out there and observing the night sky, I’m finding the cold prevents me from observing as frequently as in past years. The annual trip to southern Arizona is a great opportunity for me to observe and photograph celestial objects, and the months where the temperatures are milder give me my astronomy fix which has to last for the rest of the year.
I am a Life Member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and I participate in many of Victoria Centre’s activities throughout the year, so the social aspects of astronomy are now becoming more important to me. I enjoy helping to run our Centre’s local observatory, but rarely setup my own equipment anymore. Photographing the night sky is still a passion of mine, so I make good use of the Centre’s superb equipment, as well as my friend’s observatory in southern Arizona.
Photography – I have about 100,000 photos and about 12,000 videos in my digital collection. Those figures only include the best of my film-based photos and videos, since digitizing old media takes a lot of time and effort. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t take photos and/or video – I worked it out to be an average of 5 photos/videos for every day of my life starting at age 8! So why bore you with these stats? The fact is that photography and (lately) videography is a big part of my life experience. Photography gives me great pleasure; it helps me relate to people, animals and our environment; it ensures I have a place in society, however modest that might be.
Automobiles – My fully-electric Tesla Model S brings a smile to my face every time I drive it…even four years later. The power and handling, the good-looking design, the technology, and the knowledge that I’m not poisoning the air we breath when I drive – all thrilling concepts embodied in this marvellous vehicle! The featured image used as the banner above this Christmas Letter is the speedometer screen in my Tesla. The techies at Tesla Motors coded a hidden feature that turns the speedo into a depiction of Santa and his reindeer flying down a snowy road in front of the vehicle – such joy and rapture!
The self-driving features for my car continue to improve through over-the-air updates that install every few weeks. It’s a thrill to be part of this transformation and to witness the inevitable disruption of the automobile industry – I’m looking forward to the evolution of personal transportation into something new and exciting, safer and cheaper, more convenient, and a whole lot cleaner for our environment. It can’t happen soon enough!
WARNING – for you non-techies, you might want to skip past this last part of my news for this year!
I have found with cable and cellular providers, it always pays to call them up every couple of years to see what they will offer to retain me as a customer. It was Shaw Cable’s turn this year, so on New Year’s Day I contacted them to enquire about their new BlueSky TV service. Although I don’t watch much TV, my partner Kirk’s main entertainment comes through the cable – movies, sports, news, variety, you name it. I was keenly interested in Shaw’s new high speed Internet service – 150Mb/sec, since I spend a lot of time online, and often transfer huge video files. Shaw offered to switch us over to the new service at no charge, provide three service drops in the house, include the fast Internet service, along with more cable TV and movie channels, throw in Netflix at no cost for the first six months, and include our home phone service all for less than we were paying monthly under our old plan. Shaw just announced they are doubling the speed of my already-fast Internet service with them from 150Mb/s to 300Mb/s at no additional charge.
Since I’m shooting much more video now than I ever have, and much of it is high definition, I was finding it difficult to edit the video on one 4k 27″ monitor. I needed more screen real estate, so I purchased a Samsung 40″ 4k TV from Walmart at a great price. My Mac Pro fully supports the monitor, and my high definition video looks gorgeous on it. I also connect the new Shaw BlueSky TV service to this TV, so I can watch any channel or streaming service I wish to. It’s a great setup!
I have an old Windows personal computer sitting under my desk which I rarely turn on, since I now use a Mac Pro as my desktop computer for daily tasks. Despite being mostly converted to Apple computers, I still use Windows software to process my astronomical images. I can run Windows 10 under a virtual machine on my Macs, but for best performance and user experience, it runs better on a real Windows machine, so I decided to purchase a Dell Inspiron laptop computer. I’m very pleased with this high spec machine. Between the fast 512Gb SSD storage, the 4-core Kaby Lake i7 CPU, and the NVIDIA GPU, this laptop out-performs most computers. It has a gorgeous 4k touch screen, all the ports anyone could need, great battery life, superb chassis build quality, it benchmarks faster than any of the Macs I have, and is half the price of an equivalent MacBook. Perhaps one day I’ll return to Windows PCs, but in the mean time I’m enjoying using this new beast!
Shooting more high definition video has a price. My trusty 4Tb media drive which stores all my photos and videos was filling up fast, so I shopped around for an upgrade. It’s not hard to find 8Tb external drives, but getting fast performance drives can be expensive. I found the LaCie 8Tb 2big Dock Thunderbolt 3 external drive on Amazon, which fit the bill. Since it uses a fast Thunderbolt 3 or USB-3 interface, and two fast 7,200 rpm drives configured as Raid-0, it easily out-performs my previous 4Tb drive, and there is now lots of room to store all of my high definition videos and photos for several years to come.
I have been hosting my websites and email on a hosting service based in Toronto since 2012, when I stopped running my own web server. They offered good service and bargain prices, at least until this year, when I was contacted by one of their reps, who proceeded to tell me I would have to switch to one of their business plans. The excuse was given that I was using too many resources, which after I analyzed my usage, proved to be incorrect. The rep was insistent that I switch plans and pay a lot more. I was having none of this, so I decided to take my business elsewhere. I found a local service provider in the Fraser Valley that essentially offered the same service at my previous price level, and also offered to migrate my content from my old service provider and take care of all the configuration changes. The new service provider has worked out great…and I am so pleased to be supporting a local, small business.
As many of you know, I’m an Apple fanboy. I like to keep my iPhone up-to-date, so when Apple debuted their new XS, I placed an early order so I could upgrade from my previous iPhone 6S Plus. The new iPhone XS is a beauty: it has great performance, a gorgeous screen, and offers lots of new features. I wasn’t done though…I also ordered a new Apple Watch Series 4, which offered a nice upgrade from my original Series 1 model I. These two personal devices work so well together – the geek in me is very pleased!