Friday, October 21, 2016

Ups and Downs

HIGH STRUNG:  We spent a couple of hours this afternoon helping with an art installation. 

Annabelle, and dozens of other art class students, made three-dimensional hanging sculptures that tell stories about themselves. 

The problem was, how to hang them? 

The idea was to string a cable between the north and south walls of a stage, about 25 feet in all. The challenge was, the south wall that we had to get a fastener into was solid masonry, the north wall was a mystery.

Christian was prepared for the concrete wall, as we had anticipated that. That anchor went in no sweat. The north was was a bit different. We came to believe it has metal studs, and that's not what we were expecting, so we can only hope the anchor holds on that end. 

Christian did give the cable a mid-point support (a tension wire up to a concrete beam in the ceiling), so that will help. 

Once the cable was strung, it was time to hang the art - about 50 in all, I believe. 
We were relieved the cable held all the weight. We rearranged furniture on the stage 

REMAINS: We checked in on the European Space Agency's MIA Mars lander today. 

Turns out the poor thing took its 'lander' job a little too hard. The ESA believes it has found its craft, crash landed on the surface of the Red Planet. 

Take a look at 'before' and 'after' photos of one region of Mars' surface, Meridiani Planum, taken by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. First up, the 'before.'   (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)
 And here's the 'after.' See that black spot? It's likely lander. 
And the shiny spot in the frame is likely the parachute of the Schiaparelli lander. 

The 'good' news is the lander did land generally where it was supposed to (about 3.4 miles/5.4 kilometers west of its intended touchdown target, but well within the landing ellipse). Obviously, the bad news is it sure didn't land how it was supposed to. 

So far, the ESA says something went wrong to cause the craft, which is about the size of a baby grand piano, to go into free fall for the last 13,000 feet of its journey. Mission command had communication with the lander up until the very last minute of its descent. 

One potential trouble spot they're looking at early is the fact that Schiaparelli's data shows that the lander fired at least some of its braking rockets for three or four seconds. They should have fired for about 30 seconds. Having only one tenth of the required braking time would mean a rough landing, for sure. 

Though the black spot in the photo above looks tiny, it actually measures an area of about 50 by 130 feet. Clearly, that's much bigger than the lander itself; it's actually what's left of the lander and the scar it left in the landscape. 

In a statement Friday, the ESA said, “Estimates are that Schiaparelli dropped from a height of between 2 and 4 kilometers (6,500 to 13,000 feet), therefore impacting at a considerable speed, greater than 300 kilometers per hour (186 mph). The relatively large size of the feature would then arise from disturbed surface material. It is also possible that the lander exploded on impact, as its thruster propellant tanks were likely still full.”

Big bummer. 

As they say in the space exploration business, "Mars is hard."

The ESA has another Mars mission in the offing, "ExoMars." Set to launch in 2020, the mission calls for landing a rover on the Red Planet. No doubt the agency will be poring over data between now and then to try to ensure their next go has a soft landing. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Playing Around

NOT JUST BLACK AND WHITE: One of Annabelle's birthday presents this year was a fun spin on a traditional chess set. Same game, same pieces, different color, but so much fun. She *loved* it. Makes you wonder how many more young chess players you could attract if it weren't a black and white game. 

Speaking of games, another present of hers was an expansion pack for a family favorite, "Exploding Kittens." The original game was the biggest Kickstarter ever, the brainchild of Seattlite Matthew Imman of "The Oatmeal" comic fame. 

We've played "Exploding Kittens" lots, and knew we had to have the expansion pack. It comes with the brilliant addition of a human cone of shame for those who dare lose track of whose turn it was.

Poor Annabelle was the first to absent-mindedly ask whose turn it was. 
 And not too long after that, CJ didn't pay quite close enough attention. 
Bummer, Dude.

LUNCH FUN: We're trying to think of things to offer up at a Harvest Party event we'll be attending soon. During the lastest insomnia event, I remembered these fun hot dog 'monsters.'

We didn't have the right hot dogs to really do them justice (we should have short, fat hot dogs, not long, thin ones), but we decided to give them a go, anyway.
Above, we cut some 'legs' into the hot dogs, leaving a portion intact for the heads. We poked a couple of holes into the heads, hoping they'd turn into eyes. 

Then, it was into the boiling drink for a bit.
 On the other side, they looked like this. ... Not bad, and would look lots better with more legs!

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Political and Birthday Parties

DEBATABLE: Today's social studies lesson came via the third and final (hooray!) debate of this presidential election cycle.

To make it more interesting, we printed out debate 'bingo' cards we found on the Seattle Times' site. 

The cards kept the kids' attention, and they each got multiple bingos, but not quite a blackout.

12: Usually, in Seattle, when we're talking about 12, it has to do with the Seahawks and the 12th Man. Yesterday the big 12 was Annabelle, as in 12 years old now, as it was her birthday.

She had classes in the morning, a Dungeons and Dragons session at noon, and the rest of the afternoon was basically what she wanted to do. We headed to Gameworks, a two-story arcade downtown.  There, the bartender made her a Shirley Temple and gave her a couple of comp game cards - nice!
She and CJ had fun playing many of their favorites, including Dance, Dance Revolution and Tank, Tank, Tank.

For dinner, we hit Lunchbox Laboratory, which we all love. 
Bee and CeeJ each entered a coloring contest there, and got a coupon for a free kids' meal for their 'trouble.'

Dessert was a great ice cream cake from Ben & Jerry's. Annabelle picked out its ingredients: One layer was Phish food, another was chocolate chip cookie dough. She had tie dyed frosting and cookie crumbs somewhere in the mix.
It was a good day!

WIN SOME, LOSE SOME: On Sunday, we watched Ortbital ATK launch an Antares rocket with a Cygnus capsule atop it, the capsule loaded with cargo to resupply the ISS. 

It was a beautiful night launch.

It was an important flight for them, as it was their first since their launch pad disaster back in October of 2014, when their rocket exploded shortly after lift off, destroying the capsule, cargo and seriously damaging the launch pad.  
(Video of that disaster below - a few 'words' from the press pool as they watch it unfold.)

Today, we followed news of the European Space Agency's Mars lander, which separated from its Mars-orbiting spacecraft, with some unexpected results. The lander was set to touch down on the Red Planet today after a seven month journey. 

From the ESA, this artist's rendition shows the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter and its entry, descent and landing demonstrator module, Schiaparelli, approaching Mars. 
Sadly, shortly before landing time, the ESA lost contact with Schiaparelli, their landing craft. 

There's concern that it has been lost permanently, but of course the ESA continues to monitor and try to make contact. 

We'll continue to watch from afar, and hope for good news.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Treats, No Tricks

MEGA 'KINS: This afternoon, we made an annual trek up our hill to visit a neighbor's house. The local gentleman fills his front yard with massive pumpkins every year, and 2016 was no disappointment! 
 That's a lot of pumpkin!
Above, with a fake skull for scale. Below, some not-so-scary scarecrows.
We sure appreciate his display, and others do, too, based on the number of visitors his place gets. 

FEEDING TEENS: Saturday, we spent the whole day prepping food for the evening's activity.  We had signed up with other families from a social issues class CJ takes to provide dinner for a program serving teens and young adults. 

Called Teen Feed, the organization helps those in need in a number of ways, including by making sure homeless young people have access to a full, free meal every night of the year. 

The meal our group was preparing was being hosted in the basement of a church in the University District. We got there about 5 p.m., right when a large windstorm was supposed to hit Seattle. There was real concern that we'd lose power, so our dinner had to be something that required no electricity. Sub sandwiches it was! We'd done most of our prep at home, including shredding three heads of lettuce, slicing 5 pounds of cheese, cutting 30 tomatoes into slices and using a mandolin to slice three huge onions. We also brought two kinds of mustard, two kinds of mayo, ketchup and sriracha sauce. That way, diners could have options on their sandwiches.

We also made some desserts. I figured cookies and cupcakes are probably a staple for their meals and so we wanted to do something different. I realized I had four boxes of seasonal cereal in the basement, and there was my answer! We made different breakfast cereal bars by melting marshmallows with a little butter, and then stirring the cereal in, and then topping each different kind in a different way.

We decided to turn our Pumpkin Spice Cheerios into little pumpkin patches. We used buttercream and a special icing tip to make 'grass.'
 And then they were topped with little creme pumpkins!
 I thought they were pretty darn cute!
 We also made some Count Chocula bars. They were topped with Hershey's Hugs.
The strawberry flavored Frankenberry treats turned out to be the crowd favorite. Annabelle is pretty sure that's because of the Pinkie Pie ponies atop them. 
 We made little blue one-eyed monsters atop the Booberry bars.
CJ and Annabelle enjoyed running the dessert bar and seeing smiles on many faces!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Ancient History

"Map of the Salish Sea & Surrounding Basin, Stefan Freelan, WWU, 2009"
Per the Salish Sea Map was produced using a Geographic Information System (GIS) and publically available spatial datasets for elevation, bathymetry and hydrology. 

BACK IN THE DAY: This week we had the opportunity to learn about some ancient history of our region. Specifically, about Salish Sea geology and about some of the life forms that inhabited land and water in the area.

I'll let the kids tell you a bit more about it, Annabelle's up first ... 

Thursday, Oct. 13, we went to the Mukilteo historical society meeting to listen to a presentation given by our uncle Jim (Haggart). The presentation was about what the Salish Sea was like 75 million years ago, and the creatures that lived there, mainly ammonites. Ammonites were small marine creatures with a shell that has a swirl in it. In the swirled shell the ammonite has many small chambers to hold gas or water, allowing it to change its buoyancy. Ammonites had many different variants. Some ammonites had more spike-like shells, while others had tall spiraled ones. It was very interesting learning about what these creatures were like and where you can find the fossils. It’s certainly fun learning about how fossils are found and what we can make of them. Jim also touched on how we, as humans, will once day be a fossil layer too. Imagine, years in the future, the inhabitants or visitors of Earth will find fossilized cell phones and speculate about our society, just like we have with the dinosaurs and other fossils ourselves.

And here's CJ's report ...

My uncle, Jim Haggart, is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia. He has a Bachelor's degree in Biology from the University of California, Davis, and, according to his profile at UBC's website, is a specialist in Mesozoic stratigraphy and paleontology, having undertaken research on successions of western North America, northern Europe, and east Asia. On 10/13, we got to visit one of Uncle Jim's presentations at the Rosehill Community Center, which is up north in Mukilteo. Jim's presentation was about life in the Salish Sea (which includes Puget Sound) about 75 million years ago, which was a very interesting subject.
When I walked in the unfortunately tiny room (the maximum capacity was just 45!), some of the first things I noticed were some shell fossils (and one modern shell) that were on a table near one of the corners of the room. I got a chance to ask Jim what creatures had the shells, and he said that the swirled shell fossils belonged to creatures called Ammonites, and that the modern shell resembling the fossils belonged to their present-day counterpart, the Nautilus. I later got a chance to ask Jim what differentiated the Ammonites and the Nautilus. He said that the Ammonites actually split off from the Nautilus about 475 million years ago, during the Ordovician. However, apparently, the reason the Ammonites died off, while the Nautilus continued into the modern day is apparently due to reproductive differences. While the Nautilus would lay eggs to distribute their offspring, Ammonites would use plankton to reproduce. However, using plankton to reproduce proved to be problematic for Ammonites during the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction about 66 million years ago.
According to the presentation and Jim's profile at the UBC website, Uncle Jim primarily studies prehistoric molluscs, such as Ammonites and earlier Nautilus. A while later, Jim talked about how the atmosphere during the Cretaceous period was very, very different, and had about 20-30 times more CO2 in the atmosphere than in the present day. The sea level was also higher, and there were little to no icecaps either. According to Jim, fossils are key to learning what Earth and life on Earth was like during the Cretaceous period. Sometimes, even things like ancient dinosaur tracks, while they are not complete fossils, can give some insight into what life lived in any given area.
One fossil that Jim talked about was the Courtenay (spelled that way) Elasmosaur, named for the town it was discovered in, Courtenay, California. According to the Courtenay Paleontology Museum's website, a man actually found the fossil of the Courtenay Elasmosaur in 1988 with his then-12-year-old daughter. According to the CPM's website, after months of investigation and correspondence with scientists such as the late Dr. Betsy Nicholls at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in southern Alberta, their discovery proved to be the first Elasmosaur recorded in British Columbia — the first of its kind west of the Canadian Rockies.
One more thing I would like to tell you about is getting fossils out of rocks. According to Jim, getting a fossil from a rock on a mountain or in a canyon into a museum is no walk in the park. Apparently, retrieving a fossil from a rock can take anywhere from 5 short minutes to hundreds of hours, depending on the tools you use, where the fossil is in the rock, and how efficiently you are working. Regardless of how long you take, you get to spend every second of that time working hard with your tools, trying to retrieve the ancient remains of some long-extinct species.
If possible, I would like to see Uncle Jim give a speech about prehistoric life again, and I look forward to the next time that will happen.
Online sources:

Also that evening, near the beginning of the meeting, a member of the Mukilteo Historical Society gave a short history lesson about Mukilteo, such as talking about some of the city's earlier residents, and also brought up an old Abstract of Title, which grants somebody ownership over some land. For Example, Morris Frost and Jack Denny were both owners of a certain property in Mukilteo's past.

The map at the top of the post is from a Web page of Professor Stefan Freeland of Western Washington University. On the page, he also has a link to a number of other great resources, incuding a NOAA Salish Sea activity book.

WILD IS THE WIND: The Washington and Oregon coasts are being hammered by high winds for the past couple of days, as the remnants of typhoon Songda have hit our shores. Rain from the storm has been soaking Seattle and other Puget Sound area cities, and there have been some strong wind gusts, as well. Yesterday, I watched the transformer near our house arc and explode. It was pretty spectacular - and it left us without power for a couple of hours.

According to a Tweet from the National Weather Service ... 

has tallied two consecutive days of record rain totaling 3.11". That's over an inch more than July thru Sept totals combined.

The worst of the storm is supposed to hit this afternoon, at about 4 p.m. Winds are predicted in the 55 mph range. This evening also happens to be when we are scheduled to go help provide a meal for 45 homeless youth. We'll see how that goes. Here's hoping the power holds out!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Writing for the Empire

    Graphic from Web site:

STAR WARS FOREVER: Last year, we learned about the most excellent "Star Wars Reads" week that is an annual event each October for five years running. 

Here's a link to some activity pages for this year's celebration:

Last year, the kids each wrote an original Star Wars-inspired story for an Empire Writes Back challenge at The Museum of Flight. 

They decided to write stories again this year. 

Annabelle took her inspiration from the droid star of "The Force Awakens," BB-8. We talked about it, and figured there must have been several BBs before 8, and so she wrote a Seuss-inspired story about the droids who came before.
The BBs Before

BB-8 is a phenomenal robot,
courageous it is, and as fast as a shot.
As droids go, it isn’t much of a talker,
but it held the key to finding Luke Skywalker.
It trekked across planets, and zoomed through space,
aiding the Rebels, it held an important place.

It’s easy to work with the droid BB-8,
and all who have met it think it’s pretty great.
But you haven’t heard of the ones who came first,
the other BBs were certainly much worse.

Solid and sturdy was the first, BB-1,
but the noises it made were not very fun.
It crashed and it rattled as it rolled around.
Its owner hated that atrocious sound.

Noisy droids are no good when you’re sneaking about
on a rebel mission, and trying to scout.
Instead of quietly hiding, it went CLICK-CLACK,
and soon fell victim to Stormtrooper attack.

BB-2’s A.I. was less-than-stellar.
Its master asked questions, but it refused to tell her.
Even other droids thought BB-2 was rude.
They believed the small droid had a large attitude.

So they decided to jettison the bad bot.
It was floating in space, and believe it or not,
soon it was caught, flying just past a border,
Into the territory of the evil First Order.
An annoying droid fit right in their scheme.
The First Order recruited the small, mean machine.

BB-3 got a virus. It was no surprise,
when BB-3 wasn’t working, it visited sites.
On the web, BB-3 wasn’t careful enough.
(You should always check before you download stuff.)

It started to fidget, and sparks went flying.
Motherboards overloaded, its circuits were frying.
Trojans and malware all over its system,
it tried to debug, but always missed them.
First Order Spyware is what it downloaded.
The next day, like the Death Star, it went and exploded.

BB-4 was quite smart, but much too slow.
When asked a question, it failed to load.
In fact, one time it took so darn long,
by the time it answered, its friends were all gone.
BB tried to speak faster, but to no avail,
it had frozen on Hoth, and was stuck in the hail.

Preserved by the ice, it looked like brand new,
but when it thawed, water  had seeped in, too.
It started to stutter, and shiver and shudder,
BB-4 shut down, and now it’s just clutter.

The droid BB-5 was a fun friend to all.
It loved being played with; you’d always have a ball.
With cool things like gadgets and gizmos galore,
it was super snazzy rolling ‘round the floor.
The kids loved interacting with the small round robot,
They watched movies, played games, and had fun a whole lot!

It was swell to adventure with the spherical droid,
because when you were with it, your problems were void.
But one day his lights started flashing all wildly.
Nothing responded, to put it quite mildly.
Alas, 5’s motherboard had just up and died,
It would not turn back on, it was totally fried.

BB-6’s debut seemed a little too rushed,
and in the process, its gyroscope was crushed.
Poor BB-6 couldn’t even roll around.
You would always find it where you put it down.
A droid like a statue, and not a bit lighter,
is no good if you’re a roving rebel fighter.

Though not mobile, BB-6 gave good advice,
in fact, it was quite a nice little device.
But a mobile droid is simply a must,
so it was abandoned on Jakku, where it now collects dust.

BB-7 was great in so many ways,
but sadly, its tour of duty lasted only two days.
Cocky and brash, and a show off, too.
It was always crowing, “Look what I can do!”
One day 7 tried to make a big jump,
and ended up landing in a garbage dump!

It was salvaged for parts, only yielding a handful,
a kind of destruction that no droid could handle.
So 7 was replaced, and soon was forgot,
and that was the end of that boastful bot.

So that’s the tale of the first seven BBs,
the ones not good as 8, as you see.
But BB-8’s grateful for those who came first,
because even the best can learn from the worst.
Time and progress march on, and that’s just fine,
for someday, that means, we’ll get a cool BB-9!

CJ's story was inspired by how Stormtrooper Finn left left the Empire behind, casting off his armor and joining the Rebels.  
The Man Behind the Mask
by CJ

Here we go again. Just another day at the office, trapped in a tin can with an army of a hundred faceless soldiers headed to some desolate outpost. These villagers aren't even going to know what hit them. And why we hit them doesn't even matter. It's certainly not their fault. At the end of the day, we're all just pawns in the First Order's evil plot for galactic domination.

Hurtling through solar systems, stuck in this prison of a starship, my hatred for the First Order grows with every passing moment. But it's something I must silently seethe over. I dare never speak out about my true feelings - how much I despise them, and myself for that matter. There’s no room for dissension or questioning in these ranks. Independent thought would mean execution on the spot.

As I sit contemplating my reason for being here, I remember that my life has been taken from me by the First Order. With every day, I find new reasons to loathe my captors. At the moment, one thing that's bugging me is the way my body feels in this hellish suit of armor. This getup terrifies those who see it from the outside, but believe me, being on the inside is no picnic in a meadow on Naboo.

Every day, I am forced to encase myself inside these Clone War hand-me-downs. Oh sure, the supervisor tells us with a painted-on-smile, “An upgrade is coming soon!"  Well, that's what they told the Empire's Stormtroopers thirty years ago. We all know there’s no intent of fulfilling their hollow promise of better armor. They don’t actually give a tauntaun’s tail about any of the troops who give their lives for the First Order's dubious goals.

This putrid helmet is tight and sweaty to the point I become nauseated. The lenses in my helmet are just as black as the space surrounding our ship, or as my soul on a miserable day like this. And the lenses are a bad joke. They’ve been mercilessly pelted by the sand of countless desert planets, becoming thrashed in the process. The armor compresses my chest to the point where breathing normally is all-but-impossible. Forever lightheaded, I've come very close to passing out too many times to count. Wearing this armor for hours on end every day kinda makes it feel like having a hutt forever parked on your chest.

And this armor gets as hot as the inside of one of Mustafar's molten volcanoes. Every single mission, within seconds, sweat starts sliding from my head all the way down to the bottom of my boots. There, it drenches my woven wampa socks. By the end of the day, I don’t know who smells worse, me or some filthy Wookiee.
I can’t help but wonder how many other stricken souls have sweat in this suit, and I wonder, where they are now? Maybe they're peacefully living out their lives with their loving families, sitting by the campfire, swapping stories on a serene forest moon like Endor. Maybe they get to tell their kids and grandkids about their days under the control of the evil First Order and how they broke free from its tyrannical grip to become heroic freedom fighters.

Yeah, right. Who am I kidding? Now that I think about it, the armor was probably harvested from the bodies of soldiers left for dead on a forgettable battleground.

There is no honor in this army. We’re intergalactic laughingstocks. I’ve seen all the memes about Stormtroopers, the countless people making fun our shooting skills, and the claims that we’re all just hive-minded losers. They have no idea. This is not the life I chose. This is a fate that was forced upon me, at gunpoint, while still but a boy. ...

The familiar voice crackles over the ship’s speaker, barking orders about readying our blasters and serving the Supreme Leader. My squadmates begin mindlessly rushing towards to exit of the ship. I sit, with images of the past, present, and potential futures swirling in my mind.

Slowly, so slowly, I stand and disarm my blaster.

It’s time to twist fate, to take control. I’d rather die today with a sliver of dignity than slowly lose what’s left of my sorry soul over an eternity.

Now I’m running down the ramp, knowing it will be the last time. My last seconds as a Stormtrooper. I’m either going to die right here on this planet, or I’m going to escape to a new life entirely.

May the Force be with me.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Clowning Around

CREEPY CAKE: Another weekend, another birthday, another cake to make. This go 'round it was for Rick. He, like me, detests clowns. Therefore, it only made sense that we make him a clown cake. 

Here was our to-do list for Saturday, authored by Annabelle. (More on the bead thing later.)
The first thing we got to doing for the clown was making teeth and eyes out of gumpaste. That was fun and easy. 
Our clown was modeled after Pennywise, as played by Tim Curry in Stephen King's "It" back in 1990 in a TV miniseries. When Pennywise was in attack mode, he had yellow-ish irises. 
 We actually made the clown's head out of crispy rice treat, molded.
 It had to be crumb coated before being covered in fondant.
 The head sat atop a round cake, made with rainbow batter. 
Oh how I wish I had red cotton candy for the clown's hair. Instead, I had to make spun sugar. That's a little bit tricky. My first four batches were a big failure.
 By the fifth time, I hit my stride, fortunately. 
In the end, our clown cake had funny looking hair that was hard to attach. Bummer. 
He was ugly and creepy, though, so that's a plus.If I had it to do over again, I would use that super thin red licorice for hair if I couldn't get red cotton candy.
 Annabelle had another clown art project. She made a scary clown out of Perler beads
It turned out really well! I mean, creepy, but that was the desired effect.

VIRAL ASSIGNMENT: This math problem was popping up all over social media today. So, I made it the kids' math homework. 

CJ had no trouble with it. Likewise, 
JUST PASSING BY:  There are lots of opportunities for Seattle area people to enjoy watching International Space Station flyovers in the next couple of weeks. It gets dark so early now that it doesn't even require staying up late.