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Stargazing at Camping Griffon

Gino Audet is an amateur astronomer and astro-photographer from Matane, Quebec. He visited Camping Griffon, my wife’s family campground, on July 6 to host an evening of stargazing.

Although it was low season, 25 people of all ages showed up. To keep warm in the cool Gaspé evening we drank hot chocolate, and in keeping with the space theme we enjoyed rocket candies.

Our luck that night was good – it was cloudy all day but cleared up just as we started at around 8 pm EST, then when we were wrapping up our observations at midnight the clouds rolled back in.

We had some amazing observations – using Gino’s very large Celestron 14″ Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope we observed Mars and its moons, Saturn, some of its moons, and its famous rings. We observed Jupiter and several of its largest moons, as well as the red swirls of its atmosphere.

Gino also pointed out dwarf stars, galaxies, and constellations and showed us some of his astrophotography results. He is a great guide to the night sky – very knowledgeable, patient, and enthusiastic.

Hopefully Gino will come back to help us observe the Perseid Meteors showers. NASA says they will be extra awesome this year!

MIT’s “IOTx Internet of Things” Online Course: First Impressions

MIT has created the Professional Education Digital Programs, to provide online video courses to professionals who are interested in self-paced online learning opportunities.

As they say on their website:

[The program] aims to deliver timely, relevant programs to a global audience of scientists, engineers, technicians, managers, consultants, and others from industry, government, the military, non-profit, and academia.

The moment I heard about the new Internet of Things (IoT) course, called “IOTx Internet of Things: Roadmap to a Connected World”, I signed up. I wanted to hear from academic world experts on this topic which is going to shake up the world we live in, even more than the internet did.

The definition of what is IoT is very broad, but overall it is about how physical objects are connected to each other and to the internet, to sense, analyze, and control the world around us. IoT covers a vast and growing range of products and technologies including smart home products like Nest thermostats, connected cars like the Tesla, wearables like Fitbits and Google Glasses, as well as many uses in the industrial manufacturing and other industries.

The course started on April 12 and these are my early impressions from the first week.

Course Syllabus

The course syllabus is outlined here. It covers several main topics, which are then divided into subtopics. Each subtopic contains a number of easily consumable videos which usually range in length from five to twelve minutes.

The video lengths are well chosen to allow for easy streaming and self pacing. The audience taking this course is presumably not able to give it full attention for long periods of time – it is probably being fitted in after work, perhaps viewed from home, and therefore learning in this manner is prone to frequent interruptions. So, it is convenient to be able to quickly consume a video or two, when there is a free moment.

At the end of a topic there is a dedicated discussion area, and an assessment quiz which is marked to gain a “passing grade” to be awarded a course certificate. There is a progress page that helps you identify how you are tracking relative to the expected pace, and identify any problem areas (based on the assessment quizzes). I find that approach helpful to indicate relative level of understanding as otherwise this would be hard to assess.

Transcripts

Each video contains a full transcript, which scrolls down in sync as the video progresses. I really love this transcript feature. I can easily refresh my understanding of a video I have seen by clicking on the transcript next to it, in order to jump back and forth in the video, or I can do the same by using the fast forward and back buttons, or clicking on the video timeline.

As this is the first offering of the course, there are a few typos in the transcripts which I’m sure will soon be fixed.

One feature that would be nice to have would be to download all PowerPoint and transcript files as a single zip file, rather than have to assemble them individually, video by video (since there are scores of those).

The Professors

Just as with a regular university, the key to the success of an online course is the quality of the professors.

Luckily, the professors are renowned subject matter experts, which becomes clear when listening to them discuss the topic – it is obvious because of the extreme breadth and clarity of what they discuss. I have gained a lot of insights already in a very short space of time.

Sanjay Sarma is the Dean of Digital Learning at MIT and introduces the course, as well as speaking about his firsthand experience developing the RFID protocol.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, speaks about the Web of Things, (which is the level of applications that operates “above” the Internet of Things, sort of the way mobile applications operate “above” the internet technologies).

Another great professor is David Clark, Senior Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. He gives what I feel is a particularly insightful series on the lessons learned from the architecture of the internet – in fact I found his discussion on the design flaws of the internet to be like a kind of therapy, explaining the root of all the pain we have encountered while building websites and applications for the last twenty years🙂

I’m perhaps a third of the way through the course and I’m hopeful that the other professors will be just as insightful and articulate as these first ones (not that I doubt it).

Discussion Forums

The forum platform doesn’t allow search (it’s apparently part of the edX platform but disabled). The ability to search across discussions would be helpful. [Updated 2016-04-20 at 3 pm EST] Search does work in forums – my error! Khaled Gharaibeh mentioned that if you check the small text box near the “All discussions” filter it works. Also having the ability to quickly view information on who posted (right now it just shows username). So forums are functional but fairly rudimentary.

The teaching assistants (TAs) are very active and helpful in the discussion forums, but it doesn’t appear that the professors themselves are posting. Hopefully at least some of them will participate in the forum discussions at some point.

There are a few other discussions happening via the course’s official LinkedIn and Facebook groups. It is not clear which of those will continue after the course, in case participants want to keep in touch or continue the conversation.

So Far So Good

Since this is an online-only format, regular high-speed internet is vital. I am currently “on the road” and had intermittent internet issues recently, and of course couldn’t watch the videos or participate in the discussions while this was underway. However my internet woes apart, overall I find the course videos to be smooth and the platform very stable.

The course costs about $500 USD, which due to the unfortunate Canadian to US dollar exchange rate meant I paid about 50% more. The bill including exchange rate was a bit high for online videos and discussion forums, but overall I still feel that I am getting my money’s worth because this is a level of material, deep insight, and discussion that I have struggled to find elsewhere.

I therefore highly recommend this course to anyone interested in taking a deep dive and learning more about the huge changes the Internet of Things will bring to our world.

Note: The Featured Image is a drawing uploaded on WikiPedia page IoT entry and created by Wilgengebroed on Flickrhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/wilgengebroed/8249565455/ and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic terms.

 

Falcon Sticks Landing on Of Course I Still Love You

“Falcon Sticks Landing on Of Course I Still Love You” sounds like gibberish – but it is an amazing technological advancement by SpaceX.

Falcon 9 Drop landing

Of Course I still Love You is the name of the remote autonomous floating ship on which a Falcon 9 rocket stage just landed.

It’s also a pop culture reference to Iain M. Banks’s Culture series of sci-fi novels, in which advanced starships had cheeky names such as Irregular Apocalypse, Congenital Optimist, and Youthful Indiscretion.

The last time SpaceX tried to land the Falcon 1st stage on the ocean-going droneship, the ship was called Just Read The Instructions. It was the most recent of multiple failed attempts.

The Falcon 9 rocket is powerful enough to leave Earth’s orbit. In order to drive down launch costs SpaceX is attempting to land the first stage of the rocket for subsequent reuse. They have already managed this on land, but for an even harder trick, they are trying to do this autonomously on a small floating droneship in the ocean.

Today, without being deterred by multiple failures, they reached that astonishing milestone.

Congratulations!

Of course I still love you

 

Onwards and upwards.

Dog Sitting in Isla Mujeres

The start of our Mexico jaunt is a two-week dog-sitting gig on beautiful Isla Mujeres, an island that is reached by an easy twenty minute ferry ride from bustling Cancun.

Our charge is a beautiful golden retriever named Sophie. She is well known around the island and everyone comes up to her and wants to pet her, which she loves. Someone we met joked that she is so good with people that anyone walking her could run for mayor! Probably true, if the local Taxi Union also supported them.

Each day’s routine is mostly up in the air but always starts with an early morning walk along the south part of the island, which is less populated and quieter. There’s usually a golf cart ride somewhere downtown to meet some friends my wife has on the island, or visit a beach (or both). Evenings are spent watching the sunset on the beach, followed by a dinner downtown in the more touristy-area in the north, or in one of the middle sections of the island which are called the Colonias and are where most of the locals live.

 

IMG_0174

 

Isla Mujeres is a very attractive location with an interesting year-round mix of expatriate Canadians and Americans, international tourists (lots of Israelis), and Mexicans, who are from the island but also many other parts of the country.

Visitors often end up returning year after year – it is not uncommon to meet people who first arrived 25 or 30 years ago and are brought back by the warm climate, relaxed lifestyle, friendly people, excellent and diverse food, local culture, and great beaches.

Living on the island is not paradise and it has problems like everywhere else, but it is certainly a safe travel destination in close proximity to a major tourist hub, and is therefore a good option for families (we have brought our own, with small children, on multiple occasions).

My wife has been here over a dozen times, this is my fifth trip, and it won’t be our last.

Que te vaya bien!

2016-04-05 15.38.24

 

A Farewell to StoneShare

This is a very difficult post to write, because it marks the end of a major chapter in my life.

I have left StoneShare.

In just a few short years our company became one of the fastest growing in Ottawa and Canada, delivered some amazing websites and intranets, and even helped a client win an international design award. I’m extremely proud of those accomplishments, and so many others. My time at StoneShare was an amazing experience which I will always treasure- it was a roller coaster of ups and downs, grueling hours and stresses, and stretched me – personally and professionally – in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. It was an incredible boot camp for running a business.

I will always be grateful I had the privilege to work with such talented people at StoneShare. My colleagues are a creative world-class team of SharePoint experts that never hesitates to pitch in and help out on a project, and I was lucky to work alongside and learn from them.

My future plans? I am keen to create a startup, but my immediate focus is on travel and spending more time with my wife, family, and friends. I would especially like to thank my wonderful and patient wife without whose support I could not have dedicated so much of my time and energy to the company.

I wish StoneShare, and my colleagues and friends, every success.

Take care,

Nick

“Good Morning, Pluto!” on SlideShare

“Making Space Happen”: Journey to Mars on SlideShare

Onwards and Upwards – “Making Space Happen”: Journey to Mars from Nick Kellett

Bytown By Biplane

Every day above Ottawa a biplane loops, slides and slips the summer skies.

What better way to see the city?

Ottawa Biplane over Gatineau

Ottawa biplane over the Gatineau Hills

Bytown

Bytown is the original settlement that became Ottawa, Canada’s capital.

The Algonquin people populated the area for thousands of years because the location is confluence of many rivers. In fact, “Ottawa” means “to trade” in their language.

The British Government chose military engineer Colonel John By to create a canal which would link the Ottawa river with Lake Ontario, providing a secure route to transfer supplies in the event of war with the Americans (a frequent event at the time). By 1826 Colonel By had started construction of what would become an engineering wonder of the world and future UNESCO World Heritage site. He and his soldiers, engineers, masons, lumberjacks, and Irish and French Canadian labourers founded Bytown, a bustling but unplanned town which formed around the construction site.

Colonel John By

Colonel John By, surveying his work

The city of Ottawa was incorporated on the former site of Bytown on January 1, 1855, and in 1857 was chosen by Queen Victoria to be the capital of the new country of Canada (mostly because it was midway between rivals Toronto and Montreal, and was inland and defensible).

By the turn of the 20th century Ottawa was a bustling, non-stop lumber and government town that became notorious for its rioting and recreational violence (not much trace of that today, except at hockey games).

Biplane Tours

My wife and I thought it would be fun to explore the city by air.

Central Aviation runs biplane tours multiple times a day during the Spring, Summer, and Fall.

The tours take place in a 1939 Waco UPF-7 Biplane, which was built in Troy Ohio by the Waco Aircraft company. The biplane’s wingspan is 30 feet, it can hit a top speed of 125 m/h, cruise at 95 m/h at 1,000′, at 220 horsepower.

The pilot sits in the back cockpit and up to two tourists can sit in the front. The flight is a fairly comfortable one but it’s a plane made of wooden struts and canvas so there aren’t any amenities.

We chose to take the Eco-tour, which flies from Rockcliffe Airport over the Gatineau hills, then back over downtown Ottawa and the Parliament Buildings, before returning to the airport. The flight time is approximately 35 to 40 minutes and the friendly and experienced pilot Greg can do some gentle stunts if you request it.

Biplane over Parliament

Biplane over Parliament and Ottawa downtown

You can find out more about Ottawa’s history, or visit Central Aviation’s website to book a biplane tour.

Biplane over downtown Ottawa

Biplane over downtown Ottawa

One Small Step, Of Many

Mere days ago, NASA and John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory took another step in our long journey to the stars.

They fired a spacecraft an impossibly long distance – five billion kilometers – at forty times the speed of a bullet, on a journey of almost ten years, to zip between Pluto and its moon Charon, arriving within seconds of its scheduled time. It is traveling so fast that it is now 7.5 million kilometers further away, and counting, on its way out of our solar system.

In performing this astonishing act, the NASA/JHAPL team demonstrated the same drive, ingenuity, vision, mathematical and scientific nous, patience, and courage that the Apollo astronauts and mission teams showed so many years ago.

46 years ago today, Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins, took one famous small step, when they explored the Moon.

They left behind a plaque that simply says:

Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all Mankind.

Moon Landing / c. NASA

Moon Landing /
c. NASA

Every day in the news we hear about ourselves at our worst.

NASA’s accomplishments are a humbling and inspiring reminder to look up, and aspire to be at our best.

Good Morning, Pluto!

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

Carl Sagan

Something incredible is five billion kilometers away from Earth, and today the waiting ends!

In just a few short minutes, and after more than nine years of travel, the inspirational New Horizons spacecraft darts past Pluto, coming closer than we have ever been to the planet and its moons.

“We’re trying to hit a very small box, relatively speaking,” says Mark Holdridge, the encounter mission manager. “It’s 60 by 90 miles, and we’re going 30,000 mph, and we’re trying to hit that box within a plus or minus 100 seconds.”

(Source: Marcia Dunn, AP, “It’s showtime for Pluto; prepare to be amazed by NASA flyby

The next few days and weeks will see a rush of scientific data start to arrive from vast distances as the fastest spacecraft we’ve ever launched sends us back photos of a world we’ve never seen. Pluto system is so far away that it appears as a pixelated blob on our best telescopes, and communication signals take over four hours to travel one-way between New Horizons and flight controllers in Maryland.

The lead investigator Alan Stern says: “We’re not planning to rewrite any textbooks. We’re planning to write them from scratch.” Professor Stern also contributed to the Rosetta comet-landing mission.

Since New Horizons launched, the Hubble Space Telescope has helped us image all of Pluto’s five moons, which are called Charon, Hydra, Kerberos, Styx and Nix.

Now, new discoveries are arriving rapidly – as of yesterday scientists had already confirmed an icy polar cap made of methane and nitrogen, made a surprisingly early detection of nitrogen in the atmosphere, and determined Pluto’s radius, which at 1185 km makes it the largest known body in the Kuiper Belt.

Comparative Sizes of Pluto Charon Earth and Moon

Comparative Sizes of Pluto Charon Earth and Moon c. NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The Search for Planet X

Percival Lowell was an American businessman and amateur astronomer who achieved fame describing the (sadly mythical) Canals of Mars. In the final years of his life he conducted an exhaustive search for what he called “Planet X”, a hypothetical planet beyond Neptune. Although in 1915 his observatory photographed Pluto near Planet X’s predicted location, he did not realize it, and he died without proving his theory.

On February 18, 1930, a researcher named Clyde Tombaugh who was working at the Observatory made the historic discovery of Pluto. He noticed a wandering object when comparing stars on two photographic plates (stars would always be stationary).

Pluto Discovery by  Lowell Observatory

Pluto Discovery at Lowell Observatory – “Planets are wanderers”

Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto's discoverer

Clyde Tombaugh

Today Clyde Tombaugh will arrive at the planet he discovered, in a fitting tribute:

“…There was one concession to poetry. New Horizons is carrying some of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes. After all, he found the dot. Not only will he fly by his netherworldly discovery…he will become the first human being to have his remains carried beyond the solar system.”

(Source: Charles Krauthammer, “With New Horizons, Pluto Gets Some Respect, for a Change“)

What’s In a Name?

Is Pluto a planet?

In August 2006, just after New Horizons launched, scientists at the International Astronomical Union’s general assembly voted to “demote” Pluto from its status as a “major planet” to that of “dwarf planet.” The controversial vote was met with disdain by the public and planetary scientists alike. It made Pluto the underdog and a planetary cult hero.

(Source: Miriam Kramer, “With NASA’s New Horizons, it’s finally Pluto’s time to shine“)

There are hundreds of Pluto-sized bodies in the Kuiper Belt and part of the reasoning behind the demotion was to limit the number of planets to the “classics”.

Professor Stern has been vocally critical of the IAU label – stating that “It’s an awful definition; it’s sloppy science and it would never pass peer review”, and the New Horizons mission would not recognize the definition.

To further complicate things, Pluto might actually be a binary planet, because it shares an orbit around a centre of mass that is mid-point between it and the biggest of its five moons, Charon.

In my opinion, we should modify our definitions to encompass the reality of our solar system and the observable universe, even if it challenges our world view. If that means the definition of “planet” can also include one small body orbiting another, and our solar system map expands to contains hundreds of the things, so be it.

And speaking of names – here’s mine. It was stored a decade ago on a CD with 430,000 others. New Horizons has carried it along with Clyde Tombaugh for almost five billion kilometers to Pluto!

New Horizons Certificate

New Horizons Certificate – My name in space!

Fun stuff🙂

It’s (Not) Lonely Here In Space

Once again social media has been used extensively to raise public attention to the mission  – New Horizons mission has a twitter account and so the fantastically distance spacecraft never seems far away from us. The same trick was pulled for the Rosetta and Philae comet landing mission, with great success.

These missions are expensive, slowly-unfolding and risky. By anthropomorphizing the spacecraft, NASA, ESA and other space exploration agencies benefit by engaging the public’s imagination and helping to shape public opinion to appreciate their value and importance.

This helps them raise funds for mission extensions, and new exploration. It’s vital because the mission to Pluto was put on ice multiple times due to budget cuts.

New Horizons Twitter Profile

New Horizons Twitter Profile

With 75,000 twitter followers and innumerable web and blog posts, New Horizon and Pluto have a lot of fans.

Flyby Timetable

Here’s today’s timetable for this historic event:

7:30 to 8 am EST – Arrival at Pluto! Countdown program on NASA TV

The moment of closest approach will be marked during a live NASA TV broadcast that includes a countdown and discussion of what’s expected next as New Horizons makes its way past Pluto and potentially dangerous debris.

8 to 9 am EST – Media briefing, image release on NASA TV

(Source: http://www.universetoday.com/121317/plutos-time-to-shine-just-hours-away-a-guide-and-timetable/)

Visions of Exploration

Finally, check out these inspirational videos while we wait for our flyby photos!

New Horizons

NEW HORIZONS [Extended Version] from Erik Wernquist on Vimeo.

Wanderers

Wanderers – a short film by Erik Wernquist from Erik Wernquist on Vimeo.

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