Happy Christmas!

Christmas is almost over, even as holiday lights cast a properly cheerful air in the neighborhood. “Proper” is the operative term; after all this is a neighborhood that takes comfort in conformity when it comes to exterior paint colors. Bright colors, especially yellows, easily cause an Orwellian fit among many neighbors, leading them to summon the colors police in order to make sure the bright colors you have in mind stay in your mind.

Okay, I can’t spoil the season with my colors issue. After all, the generosity of the homeowners association’s Architectural Committee has allowed us to paint a “sundried tomato” trim on a golden brown palette that’s subdued enough to pass their  harmony test. The house actually looks delightful now, especially with the holiday decor of purple, red, and cobalt blue spheres we hung on our porch.

Kids made our Christmas merry today, even if  they seemed to have had only a flitting interest in the presents we had wrapped for them. They had more fun playing with the Roomba than with the toys they got.  The three year old was a hard taskmaster. “Clean up!” he ordered the vacuum cleaner that obliged to be a toy for a day.

The adults got by without imposing on anyone their sense of generosity. It was liberating to limit carbon footprint to kids this season, even making the store-bought turkey meal taste better than usual. Cleaning up  after all guests had left was still a chore, but hey, having some momentary tidiness after the party is over is reward enough.

My nieces called, thanking me profusely for their Nooks. The other day, the nine year old  also announced that her dad would have a “real job” after the New Year. She had not been comfortable telling her friends that she had a “stay-at-home dad”.  Neither was she so enthused about the fact that her dad’s long awaited job will mean that they will miss him during weekdays. However, she understands at her tender age that compromises and adaptation are key to survival. My niece has a more realistic worldview compared to what many members of the current U.S. Congress have, judging from their reckless stubbornness to stick to their partisan scripts.

I must say I had a beautiful Christmas, filled with hope for an economic and political turnaround where leaders make decisions like sensible adults. There’s optimism that they will focus on win-win solutions, keeping in mind the best interest of their constituents.  I hope you had a great holiday too.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Celebrating Marine Affairs in Halifax

Going Haligonian

All things Halifax fascinated me – its rituals, its farmers’ market, its tree-lined and generous sidewalks and walkable streets, its well-preserved wooden homes and Victorian buildings, its abundant seafood, and its pleasantly genteel people. I would soon proclaim myself a Haligonian. The 25th Anniversary celebration for the Marine Affairs Program (MAP) brought me home.

Learning Marine Affairs

At Dalhousie University, beloved for “inspiring minds,” we MAPers dared to dream. We trained to become “marine managers” that pursue sustainability of the world’s coasts and oceans. Like Halifax, the MAP community continues to stride with a sense of purpose, recognizing that much work remains to be done.

As a professional and interdisciplinary degree program, the Marine Affairs Program demands full academic engagement. However, it abounds with opportunities for intellectually stimulating social interactions among the students through group projects, late night study sessions, and memorable potlucks.


At a MAP forum with former students

Through funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, students from various developing countries were able to participate in the program from 1992 to 2005. CIDA support enabled capacity building in developing countries towards implementing the commitments their respective states made at the 1982 United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea and the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development.

Budgetary constraints and change in priorities at CIDA have made recent MAP classes relatively less diverse than those in the previous years. However, MAP’s research initiatives remain noteworthy for their interdisciplinary, transboundary, and international perspectives. Its Piracy Project, for example takes a look into the “impacts and costs of piracy on seafarers, coastal states, and communities where piracy has become a major industry, ” says Lucia Fanning, the current Program Director.

MAP’s study on piracy issues brings to mind the privateering industry which, as local historians would have it, was a significant aspect of the history of Halifax and the rest of Nova Scotia. However, where piracy was/is illegal, privateering consisted of pirates doing legitimate business – essentially a public-private partnership, where governments outsourced their naval pursuits. Whether or not the privateering industry enhanced the sociocultural development of Halifax is a question that may be worth pursuing.

Halifax Today

The Halifax of today with about 300,000 people may be more crowded and hectic, compared to the city that captivated me years ago. However, it has retained much of its charm and character.



At the mass for heroes

My visit to the St. Mary’s Cathedral on Barrington Street and Spring Garden Road did not disappoint. The Basilica, a grand neo-Gothic style structure that the Irish Catholics built in 1820 with the help of the Mi’kmaq people, devoted its 10:30 A.M. mass that day in remembrance of peace officers all over Canada who died in line of duty. How many Sunday masses do you attend in your lifetime that start with a bagpipe concert performed by men in full kilt regalia?


Free hugs at Occupy Nova Scotia

Walking further up Barrington Street and towards George Street, I found myself in the midst of the globalizing “Occupy” movement. The “Occupy Nova Scotia” participants were on their second day of their occupation at the historic Grand Parade Square.



A Pipa meal

Then it was time for lunch. On Argyle Street I found Pipa, a nice, homey restaurant offering Brazilian and Portuguese cuisine. My meal of grilled sardines was fresh and just as nourishing as I expected. Finishing off with the warm, chewy cassava and cheese rolls (Pao de Queijo), and a bottle of Stutz, a Nova Scotia hard cider, I would soon declare myself satiated. It was a meal made more memorable by the warm attention from the amiable lady owner, and by the touches of quaint art pieces and architectural details in the décor.


BeaverTails - this sugared nostalgia costs a lot.

The hilly walk towards the Halifax Harbour switched on my sugar craving. Beaver tails had to be it, a Canadian fried pastry that used to return me to Halifax wherever I’d savor it. This time, however, this piece of nostalgia cost me three Loonies more than what it used to cost me during my student days. I promised to just make these pastries at home next time.

On my walk back to the hotel, after the sun had set, I decided to cap my day with a lobster dinner. The one I had at the MAP Anniversary dinner the previous night was juicy and as ocean-y as I wanted it to be. I thought I could use another lobster meal before I would head back to the Rocky Mountains the next day. The one I had at Bluenoose II was rather dry and disappointing.

I must also warn that looking for a decent breakfast on a Sunday morning in downtown Halifax is a futile exercise. Most restaurants do not open until 4:00 P.M., and those that do will have a long queue. Brunch at the Lord Nelson Hotel’s Victory Arms Restaurant may fill you up with a good dose of old world charm, but the pork crepe I had was unremarkable. Don’t get me wrong, though. I always enjoy my stay at the Lord Nelson.

One of my missions on this Halifax trip was to get 10 kilograms of pickled mackerel. I like this mackerel fried, and savored with steamed rice. This meal never fails to take me back to my coastal roots. Unfortunately, the only store selling it did not have the pickled mackerel in stock. I had to settle for a few packages of smoked mackerel that I found at Sobeys.



Farmers' Market at the Brewery - a Saturday treat for over two centuries now.

At 15%, the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) in Nova Scotia takes the fun out of shopping.  Items on sale could give a shopper sticker shock. I limited my retail therapy at the Dalhousie Student Union for a beer mug, and at the Seaport Farmers’ Market for a print of the Brewery Farmers’ Market painting by artist Jin Chen. I didn’t have a chance to visit this old farmers market, which is the longest-running farmers’ market in North America, now on its 261st year of operation.


Brewery Farmers' Market Mural

Touring on Foot

Walking around Halifax is always a joy. The sidewalks are wide, the places I want to go to are not more than 30 minutes apart, and when my feet get tired, taxi rides are just a call away. Taxi drivers are very pleasant; they would tell you their stories without much prodding. And when you lose your way, trust a true Haligonian to put you back on track.

HMC Planner 2005 8.qxd

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Catching a NASA Live Launch – a GRAIL Weekend

The GRAIL is launched! Photo taken by Peter Noerdlinger, 9/10/2011

It sounded pretty straightforward – get an invitation or buy a Kennedy Space Center launch ticket, show up, and watch a spectacular liftoff. Actually, it’s a bit more exciting than that: one needs sustained enthusiasm, optimism, and tolerance for uncertainties and … mosquitoes.

Our GRAIL liftoff watch took three days of waking up at around a 5:00 A.M. and driving to KSC to catch a bus, that would then take us to the NASA Causeway viewing site.

Day 1: Upper level winds caused the launch on September 8 to be postponed, initially to the next day, and finally to September 10.  It turns out that rocket engineers have yet to make weather-proof  rockets and spacecraft.

Day 2:  After driving through torrential rains without any major incident, we were resigned to leaving Cape Canaveral without the live launch experience. We told ourselves that we had a wonderful trip: the KSC tour was great, we had dinner with our dear friends in the area, and MIT Professor Maria Zuber, the mission’s principal investigator, had answered our questions.

Day 3: The 60% chance of favorable weather conditions encouraged us to head back to the launch site. There was a festive air and a much smaller crowd, which was no less enthusiastic and interesting than the crowd two days ago. A British gentleman read off from his Kindle a minute by minute update of the launch status; A NASA employee went around with a moon rock we could touch; a young couple, with whom we shared a picnic table while shooting the breeze, gave an inspiring account of their graduate school life in Germany  and of many other stories and ideas.

Finally, at 9:08 EDT, the Delta II 7920-10 rocket launched GRAIL from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Mission managers allocated 42 days from September 8 to October 19, 2011 for the launch period. Interestingly, the distance travelled by GRAIL from launch to the lunar orbit insertion will have been considerably shorter by ~ 0.6 billion kilometers had the liftoff occurred in October 19, 2011.

GRAIL or  Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory consists of a twin spacecraft – GRAIL-A and GRAIL-B, each the size and shape of a washing machine. GRAIL-A is expected to reach the Moon’s orbit on December 31, 2011 – a day before GRAIL-B reaches lunar orbit on New Year’s day. Through its capabilities to create a highly precise gravitational map of the Moon,  GRAIL will allow scientists to deduce the structure of the lunar interior from crust to core, as well as gain better understanding of the thermal evolution of the Moon. (See MIT website and launch press kit. ) With an enhanced understanding of the Moon’s gravity, scientists expect to gain better knowledge of the evolution of the other rocky planets in the inner solar system – i.e. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Engineers are also expected to benefit from the mission, particularly in creating better navigational aids for future lunar spacecraft.

Fifth to 8th grade students in the U.S. have the chance to participate in lunar exploration activities of GRAIL through MoonKam as part of the mission’s education and public outreach. This exciting interactive web-based feature will be available by February 2012 for ~80 days of MoonKam mission.

The GRAIL mission has a lifecycle price tag of $496.2 M . This budget covers spacecraft development, science instruments, launch services, mission operations, and science processing and relay support. Over 300 scientists, engineers, and other experienced professionals from various disciplines participate in this program. In addition to Dr. Maria Zuber of MIT, other major players of GRAIL include Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Colorado, Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, United Launch Alliance, and Sally Ride Science.

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