Christmas Letter 2019

Travel

Pre-dawn Sagittarius area of the Milky Way with Venus, Saturn and Jupiter over the Dragoon Mountains in southern Arizona
Pre-dawn Sagittarius area of the Milky Way with Venus, Saturn and Jupiter over the Dragoon Mountains in southern Arizona

For the third year in a row, I traveled to southern Arizona for astronomy in March (2019) instead of February (previous years). Our host wanted to try for better weather so the date was changed, and it certainly worked out better for my little group of dedicated astronomers.

My friends and I flew to Phoenix and I rented a Tesla Model 3 from Turo (a peer-to-peer rental agency) which gave me an opportunity to drive this newly-released model of Tesla for a week or so, and compare it to my Tesla Model S (which is a bigger sedan). As mentioned, we had improved weather, giving us several good nights for observing celestial objects in the spectacular dark skies at Dragoon Mountain Ranch (southeast of Tucson). Several of us took some very nice astrophotos using our friend’s superb observatory equipment. Unfortunately, I contracted a nasty sinus infection, so cut my trip short and returned home after only being away for a week, however I still enjoyed myself.

Aerial of Cowichan Bay village and docks with the deep sea dock and Mt. Tzouhalem across the bay
Aerial of Cowichan Bay village and docks with the deep sea dock and Mt. Tzouhalem across the bay

Keeping with the astronomy travel theme, I attended the Island Star Party this summer. This 2-day event is held at the beautiful Bright Angel Regional Park in the Cowichan Valley on southern Vancouver Island, which is only an hour’s drive from home. As in previous years, I stayed at a very nice guesthouse located at Cowichan Bay – a short 10-minute drive from the star party site on the Koksilah River. Although we were clear of any wildfires this year, the skies were cloudy, so observing was confined to finding a few sucker holes in the clouds to observe through with binoculars. Photographing the night sky was out of the question! Nonetheless, I enjoyed visiting with my fellow astronomers, and since I was raised in the Cowichan Valley, I was happy to reconnect with some old school friends and experience a few of the natural wonders of the valley. I flew my drone over Cowichan Bay, capturing some interesting perspectives of the village and boating community.

Pebbles Beach with cruise ships docked at the terminal in the distance - Aquatic Gap, Bridgetown, Barbados
Pebbles Beach with cruise ships docked at the terminal in the distance – Aquatic Gap, Bridgetown, Barbados

In December 2018, I took a 3-week trip to the Caribbean, flying to Montego Bay, Jamaica aboard WestJet through Calgary and Toronto and meeting some friends there. We stayed a couple of days in Jamaica before boarding the Royal Clipper 5-masted sailing ship to spend the next 11 days cruising the Caribbean, ending up in Bridgetown. Since Barbados is my favourite Caribbean Island, I spent an additional four days enjoying some down time soaking up the tropical warmth before returning home to the cold, grey skies of Victoria, and (warm) Christmas celebrations with family and friends. Slideshow of the whole trip.

Sunset lighting the Royal Clipper's sails as she leaves Santo Domingo harbour - link to whole trip slideshow.
Sunset lighting the Royal Clipper’s sails as she leaves Santo Domingo harbour – whole trip slideshow

Sailing on the Royal Clipper is a special experience which I enjoyed immensely, and was enriched by having some friends aboard as well. On one of the sea days, I climbed the mast to the crows nest (video), went snorkelling several times, rode a horse on St. Lucia and a Seguay on Antigua, and had a wild speedboat ride around Bequia! The ship only had about 200 guests aboard, so it offered a wonderful counterpoint to the cruises I’ve taken in the past on larger ships, and yet was quite inexpensive. The crew were first-rate, the meals were delicious, and the bridge officers ensure everything went as planned. Star Clippers is JoeTourist recommended!

2020 South America Cruise route map
2020 South America Cruise route map

South America, Inca & Panama Canal Discovery cruise – My next big trip will happen in the spring of 2020, where a friend and I will sail from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Uruguay and the Falkland Islands, around Cape Horn, up the west coast of South America, through the Panama Canal and the Caribbean to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This 30-day cruise aboard Holland America’s Zaandam will be a grand adventure!

Travel flashback – A few months ago, I composed a travel flashback of my family’s trip to Montreal to see the Expo 67 World’s Fair. It was fun to look back to 1967 – our family’s first big trip: flying in a jet aircraft for the first time, and travelling back across Canada from Montreal to home on the west coast by bus! I created an online video capturing the 8mm original movies of this trip.

Family & friends

My cousin Bob Carr died on March 5th, after he decided earlier to end treatment for malignant melanoma. He was 89 years old, the last of his generation on my father’s side of the family and my last paternal cousin. Both he and his wife Jean were such a wonderful support for my parents in their later years when they moved to Nanaimo. For health reasons, I was unable to attend his memorial service, but I visited with Jean later so we could reminisce and catch up a bit. Robert William Carr (1930-2019) – the online memorial I’m hosting on behalf of the family.

Kirk and I have both had the same family physician over the last few years, but our doctor decided to change his practice to focus on patients who are in care facilities, so he closed his office and general practice. This meant we both had to find a new doctor, which is not an easy task when GPs in our area are retiring in record numbers. I decided to go with a walk-in clinic near our home, which means I won’t necessarily see the same physician with every visit, but on the plus side, they are open 7-days a week. I found the experience wasn’t too bad, and I like the physicians I’ve dealt with so far at the clinic. Kirk decided to choose the same clinic, and is satisfied as well.

After being referred to a lipid specialist to treat my hereditary high cholesterol levels (Mixed dyslipidemia) two years ago, I’m glad to say that with some innovative approaches (including a megadose of Niacin), my test results have never been better (well within the “normal” range), so I’m feeling pretty good about that!

Around Home

Acu-Rite 5-in-1 weather station mounted on the chimney
Acu-Rite 5-in-1 weather station mounted on the chimney

Being a bit of a weather geek, I have a weather station up on the roof of our home, which includes a thermometer, hydrometer (humidity), and anemometer (wind speed & direction). After several years of operation, it finally decided to quit working, so I replaced it with a new unit in January. I’m part of an amateur-based weather network, so click if you’re interested in seeing all the data in real time.

Rolly
Rolly

Rolly and Tanner, our Jack Russell Terriers are now eight years old, but still act like puppies. After their annual veterinary check up, Rolly had to return for dental surgery to have 5 extractions, since he had three abscessed teeth and 2 with cavities. He only lost two large teeth, the other three were those tiny teeth that dogs have. Thankfully, Tanner was in the clear (medically). Of course, the cats continue to boss the dogs (and us) around when they think they can get away with it.

Last year we replaced our refrigerator after only six years of use because of leaks. This year it was a leaking washer/dryer, however our old Kenmore unit did last 11 years with only one major repair a few years ago. There was water all over the floor, and despite hiring a plumber and an appliance repairman to find the problem, we ended up cutting our losses and buying a new Frigidaire washer/dryer from BestBuy. We are still adapting to the new technology, since the old unit had a big agitator that basically beat the clothes until they were clean. The new high efficiency unit “stirs” the clothes, but they seem to come out clean and it uses less water and energy. Of course, there are a whole set of new mechanical noises we have to get used to…but, onward and upward.

Coffee

Cliff Hanger Espresso
Cliff Hanger Espresso

As mentioned in last year’s Christmas Letter, I serve my coffee habit using a new espresso machine: the Breville Barista Express. Unfortunately, a water system seal failed on the new machine after only a few months of use, resulting in yet more leaks to clean up at our house! I contacted the warranty repair depot, and they cross-shipped me a new unit so I wouldn’t have any down time. The new machine is working great…fingers crossed!

I have found a new source for my espresso coffee beans this year. Previously, I purchased my beans from a local roaster, but the price kept increasing, to the point I started seeking a new source for my coffee beans. I found Kicking Horse Coffee Company who are based in Invermere, British Columbia, in the Canadian Rockies. I love the flavour of their Cliff Hanger espresso beans, and their coffee costs me about a third of the price of my former source of beans when their 454 gram (1 lb) bags go on sale on Amazon.ca or my local Thrifty Food stores. They are organic, fair trade, freshly-roasted, and reasonably local.

Astronomy

Total Lunar Eclipse composite
Total Lunar Eclipse composite

My astronomical observing started out well this year with a Total Lunar Eclipse occurring on Jan 20th. My astronomy buddies and I were pleased to have clear skies from start to finish! Unlike a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse happens slowly, so everyone had several hours to enjoy this apparition observing through binoculars, as well as take photographs. Lunar eclipse 2019 photos taken by myself and others.

Monkey Head Nebula observed from Dragoon Mountain Ranch, Arizona -  March 5, 2019
Monkey Head Nebula observed from Dragoon Mountain Ranch, Arizona – March 5, 2019

As mentioned above, my astronomy travel included the Island Star Party in the Summer and a trip to southern Arizona in March to experience dark skies from my friend’s ranch. I observe the night sky every chance I get throughout the year. I keep a log of my observations, and often take photos as well. You can browse my personal Astronomy web page if you want to see more of these details.

WARNING – for you non-techies, you might want to stop reading here – skipping the last part of my news (below) for this year!

I use specialized software to process my astronomical images, and since 2003 when I first started pointing my camera skyward, I have used ImagesPlus for this work. It has served me well. I know how to perform basic tasks with it and it is easy to use, but unfortunately, it appears the author is no longer actively supporting the software. Reluctantly, I started seeking an alternative software package to perform this specialized processing.

Warren Keller’s book Inside PixInsight

The current standard is PixInsight, but it is a complex system which comes with a steep learning curve. Several of my astronomy buddies are using PixInsight, so I decided to take the plunge and switch. I ended up coordinating a 2-day workshop in Victoria, so we could all get a good start on learning some of the intricacies of this very capable app. The experts who lead the workshop were terrific – I think everyone who attended benefited from the teaching skills of Ron Brecher and Warren Keller. I know I am now more confident using PixInsight than I was previously. It’s also good for an older guy like me to welcome intellectual challenges, and not get stuck in ruts.

PixInsight runs on multiple platforms, so I run it on my Mac Pro desktop and MacBook Pro notebook, but for best performance I run it on my high spec’d Dell Inspiron notebook under Windows 10. I purchased a Sandisk 1Tb external SSD drive to store the astronomical images I am currently working on, since this drive can be used by either Mac or Windows computers, and it is exceedingly fast and reliable.

Photography & video

I must confess I went a bit crazy acquiring new cameras, lenses and other photography gear this year. Actually, it all started just before the new year, when I purchased a Sony a7 III mirrorless camera in late December 2018. I also purchased Sigma’s MC-11 adapter, which allows me to use all of my existing Canon lenses on the Sony camera. This was a radical brand departure for me, since I have used Canon dSLRs since 2003, when the first digital Rebel was released. I didn’t sell my Canon gear, since I wanted a fall-back if my decision to go with Sony didn’t meet my expectations (it did).

New camera gear purchased in the last 12 months:

  • Sony a7 III mirrorless camera
  • Sony 24-105mm zoom lens
  • Sony 70-300mm telephoto zoom lens
  • Sigma MC-11 (Canon) EOS to (Sony) e-Mount adapter
  • Sigma Contemporary 150-600mm long telephoto zoom lens (Canon EOS mount)
  • Sigma Art 14mm super wide prime lens (Sony e-Mount)
  • Canon EOS R mirrorless camera
Sony a7 III and Canon EOS R mirrorless cameras, both with 24-105 zoom lenses
Sony a7 III and Canon EOS R mirrorless cameras, both with 24-105 zoom lenses

It took me most of the year, but I finally warmed up to the Canon EOS R, which is Canon’s first serious mirrorless camera. In November, I traded in my trusty Canon 6D dSLR on the Canon EOS R mirrorless – a replacement rather than an outright purchase. The EOS R has a new lens mount, but Canon supplies an adapter, so I can continue to use my existing high-quality Canon EOS L-series lenses without any loss of features.

Some may look at the above list and wonder why I would purchase two mirrorless cameras – one made by Sony and the other made by Canon. In the past, I have often have more than one brand or camera model in my arsenal at the same time. Cameras have specific features or strengths that I value, so having two main camera bodies means I can choose the specific gear that will be best for the task at hand…or sometimes carry both, so I have redundancy!

In addition to the above list, I also have other photography gear. Check out for details if you wish.

ACDSee Photo Studio logo

I have completed my migration from Adobe software. I objected to Adobe’s insistence that I pay a monthly Creative Cloud subscription to use Lightroom and Photoshop, so over the past year or so I have planned a migration path to a new set of photo processing apps. This migration had to be done carefully, since I have amassed a huge media holding of photos and video. In June of this year I was finally ready, so I let my Adobe CC licensing lapse, and transitioned to ACDSee replacing Lightroom for managing my photos (a Canadian company). Luminar replaced Photoshop for advanced photo editing. I already use Apple’s Final Cut Pro for video editing, which I’m very happy with.

Joe's drone pilot certificate
Joe’s drone pilot certificate

Transport Canada announced last year that all drone pilots in Canada would need to write a knowledge test to obtain a Pilot Certificate, and also register their drones. I wasn’t too thrilled with the prospect of taking exams just to fly recreationally, but eventually I decided to study the air regulations and take the test in April of this year. I am quite pleased that I passed with a score of 88% (pass is 65%), probably thanks to my previous private pilot training from way back in the 1970s. I don’t fly my drone much, but I’m really happy with the photos and video I can capture from the air. Below, you can see an aerial video of my neighbourhood and a panorama of the beautiful City of Victoria taken this past summer.

Technology

Telus Optik TV
Telus Optik TV

In April, some Telus sales reps knocked on the door to offer us their Optik TV fibre optic service, including Internet and telephone service for a terrific promotional price (less than half of Shaw’s charges), so I agreed to switch. A few days later their installer activated the fibre optic service to our house, installed the terminal equipment, and configured the Internet, TV set-top boxes and telephone. It all looked good, offering an equivalent to our Shaw services…until we tried to find some TV, movie or music programming. Their program guide menu system was so convoluted, we finally gave up on it after struggling for a couple of days. I called Shaw to reinstall our previous service, and in the process Shaw lowered our monthly charges. Lesson learned, but it was pretty disruptive for about a week!

Shaw Bit & Bud
Shaw Bit & Bud

In early December, we upgraded our Shaw cable modem/router to their latest Blue Curve technology, since our previous cable box failed and they didn’t want to replace out-dated equipment. Other than using a coaxial cable from the street to the cable modem, the three set top boxes now use Wi-fi (or Ethernet cable) to connect to programming, which is much easier to (self) install, more reliable, and consumes much less power since they are just small network devices with a video output. Time-shifting programs is now supported by Shaw’s servers, so there are no longer any PVR boxes in the house. Our Internet service runs at 300 Mbps download, whether I am using Wi-fi or hardwired Ethernet cable. As an older geek, I find this high speed so amazing, since I started out with a 300 bps connection over the telephone line several decades ago with my first computer. Now I have a connection that is a thousand times faster!

Please accept our heartfelt wishes for a joyous holiday season for you and your family. May the coming New Year bring you happiness and prosperity!

Joe and Kirk (the humans), Coda and Mello (the cats), and Rolly and Tanner (the Jack Russell Terriers).

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