blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Triumph and Disaster

(This is an abridged version of the Special Edition of the Rockcliffe Flying Club's newsletter, Crosswinds, which I produced this week. You can read the original version on the club's website. Click on RFC Crosswinds - Special April Edition to download the pdf, if you're interested.)

While club members and guests were cheerfully celebrating a record number of flying awards at our “Centenary of Flight” Wings Dinner, held at the Canada Aviation Museum on the evening of April 25th, 2009, disaster struck. A freak wind blew in, tearing across the airport just as we were being served the first course of our supper, mutilating more than twenty aircraft parked there, some irreparably, with wheels and tails sheared off, wings crumpled, some having cart-wheeled and landed on their backs, wheels in the air. We were so well sheltered inside the museum that everyone was oblivious of the wreckage until the end of the ceremonies, three hours later. There's some irony in that, but it was fortunate that because of the indoor celebrations no one had run the risk of being injured.

The Aviation Museum where our dining tables had been set out was very spacious and quiet inside and thoroughly insulated from the elements. We were sitting a long way from any windows and from the entrance so that we noticed neither the 10 cars damaged in the car park, nor the revolving entrance doors spinning round uncontrolled in the wind (as the door man later reported). At one point a faint banging noise could be heard from some part of the building, but it didn't register as anything important.

The whole region had been hit, with roofs torn off houses both sides of the Ottawa River and big trees torn up by the roots or simply snapped in half. In each place affected, the 100 km/h squall, tornado, microburst or whatever it was, only lasted a couple of minutes. There had been a similar incident on a July afternoon in 1999 when one of the parked aircraft at Rockcliffe had been flipped over during a storm, but this time more than twenty aircraft parked at CYRO were harmed, over half of these completely written off: five ultra-lights and a Cessna-172 belonging to the club, GWZA, among them. The Piper Cherokee Six, whose tumbling flight wrecked GWZA, ended up with its tail smashed through the window of another of our club ’planes, GPHV. For anyone who’s a member of Facebook, by the way, a new group has been formed: I once flew in GWZA. If you're feeling bereaved you can share your memories and photographs there.

Ten club members' cars were damaged in the museum parking lot as well that evening.

Another especially sad loss to the club was the old willow tree that fell onto the western end of the clubhouse; by 11a.m. the following morning it had been sawn into pieces. Some members have planted willow twigs along the fence in the hope that the tree might resurrect itself in some sense. It will be a long time before we have another one as large and as shady, but it's certain that the willow and the swing that hung from its branches will continue to live in our own and our children's memories. Tony's barbecue equipment was also smashed in the storm and owing to the fall of the willow tree the shed he used for catering is no longer usable.

Club members spent half the night and all of the next day tidying up. The club's staff and supporters hurried round. Chris let the police into the clubhouse while Simon, Don and Laurie, working literally in the dark, did a great job of putting an emergency response team into action. Many of the helpers that night worked till after 2 in the morning, still dressed in their party clothes, rather flimsy in some cases; the female contingent learned that there's not a lot you can usefully do on a muddy field at midnight while still wearing your high heeled party shoes. Simon contacted the insurance companies. Don, Elva and their assistants made as thorough an inventory as possible in the dark of the damage that had been sustained. Marie-Eve, Brenda and Laura didn't flinch from the challenging task of phoning all those owners whose planes had been wrecked. René, Marek and Gary checked the state of the runway, taxi-ways, and clubhouse. Ian took the necessary photographs.

Next day, Sunday, in response to an emailed appeal for help from the CFI, about eighty volunteers turned up to assist with clean-up operations. Some felled the remainder of the tree with chain saws, others shifted the broken aircraft off the taxi-ways and everyone worked at clearing away the debris left by the storm. Michael Brown delegated each volunteer to a specific part of the field, working parties being spontaneously formed in this manner. Throughout the day, people continued to turn up, including press and TV reporters. Rozy, a Safety Management professional, voluntarily assisted with the plan of campaign and took notes, so that in the event of another such catastrophe there'll be an improved response plan in place. Nothing like experience itself for honing one's emergency preparedness!

By Monday afternoon the airport was effectively back to normal, due to a tremendous amount of outside help. Two mechanics from Vintage Wings of Canada (based at Gatineau Airport) had came across the river to offer their services and a couple of mechanics who specialise in metal work had also arrived to help with the repairs. The other two Ottawa clubs had offered spare aeroplanes so that flight training operations at Rockcliffe could continue without a hitch. Belinda, the Insurance Company representative, had arrived from Toronto and the chopped pieces of the willow tree were being removed from the field by a club member who had organised the pick-up on his own initiative.

The team spirit had turned out to be as phenomenal as the weather.

...If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same...

(Rudyard Kipling)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Chocolate museum in the townships

While we were walking around Bromont we imagined what it would be like to live there. The Eastern Townships of Quebec are in an attractive area, but the range of attractions if you don't ski is limited, especially at this time of year. Were we to move into one of the new houses popping up like mushrooms all around Bromont, we'd be certain to take any visitors of ours to the Musée du Chocolat on rue Shefford.

Shefford is a very English sounding name, and there are places with names like Stukely and Farnham close by. (Stukely, England, is where my father-in-law was born, and my own father lived near Farnham, England.) This part of Quebec was originally settled by British Empire Loyalists forced north of the border after the American War of Independence. In other words, by homesick Brits. Nowadays though, you'll hardly hear a word of English spoken in these parts.

Anyhow, we visited the museum last Saturday, and once you've walked through the Confiserie or Chocolate Shop, the first thing you see in the museum itself is a sculpture, inspired by Rodin's Le Vase des Titans, carved in 1994 from 100kg of chocolate by the artist Catherine Gagnon. The notes said that it symbolised the enslavement of workers on a cocoa farm in the Antilles:

Elle évoque l'époque du colonialisme espagnol dans les Antilles. Les trois noirs enchevêtrés aux racines du cacaoyer symbolisent une facette de l'histoire de l'esclavage.

Above their heads, bowed under its weight like three versions of Atlas, was a bowl of cocoa beans. Catherine Gagnon and other artists had also created paintings from chocolate, landscapes mainly, but one by Louise Cadère was a lavish version of Gauguin's Nave Nave Moe in tinted chocolate (2006).

The museum smelt of chocolate. There was a coy reference to Casanova and his preference for chocolate as an aphrodisiac:

Casanova déclarait qu'il avait abandonné le champagne au profit du chocolat bien plus efficace!

On one wall was a world map of chocolate consumption with the Swiss heading the list at 12000kg per annum. On the opposite wall we could learn about the history of chocolate starting with Christopher Columbus' arrival in what is now Honduras, in 1502, and being given some cocoa to taste. The Mayans and the Aztecs had been enjoying cocoa for centuries and some of their native tools for crushing the beans, such as a "stone rammer," were exhibited along with more sophisticated equipment.

Bars of chocolate as we know them weren't invented until 1847 by the Quaker family Fry and Sons. Other famous chocolate manufacturers were listed in the History, of course, not least Mr Mars who first brought out the Kit-Kat bar in 1932, and chocolate boxes and tins old and new were on display advertising Cadbury's, Suchard, Laura Secord, Côte d'Or, Hershey and Chocolat Menier with photos taken on the premises of their chocolate factories in 1869 and 1908.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bouncing to Bromont and back

Easter Sunday, 2009. We're home from a night at the foot of Mont Brome in the Cantons de l'Est, Quebec. These first three pictures are of views from our outbound flight, of the muddy melt water of the Ottawa River merging with the St. Lawrence at Montreal, of the Rivière Richelieu flowing north from Lake Champlain and, as we turned finals at CYBM, of the long runway at Bromont with Mont Shefford on the horizon. A northwest tail wind blowing across the hills north of the Ottawa River took a few minutes off our estimated time en route; combined with the sunny day thermals it made for a bumpy ride... which I enjoyed all the same.

Laurie and Elva were just ahead of us. Don and Carol in their Rockwell Commander had us in view as we touched down and came in close behind; we had to "land long" before pulling off the runway, so as to give Don enough time for his landing. Francine and Robert arrived in their Cherokee as we were attaching our tie-down ropes. We all walked across to "sign in" at the office in the terminal and repaired to the Transit Resto-Bar overlooking the apron, where I shared Francine's poutine, and very bad for us it was, too.

We had some difficulty ordering a taxi as the dispatcher seemed to assume we wanted to go to an airport, not leave from one, nor was it easy to explain which airport we were talking about. Language problem. The waitress helped us out and a minivan eventually rolled up to transport the four women ahead of our husbands; we checked into four rooms at the Auberge du Château Bromont overlooking the golfcourse which is a somewhat cheaper version of the ("Sublime Confort") Château Bromont, up the hill.

Bromont is a nice little town with a central street (rue Shefford) of clapboard shops, bistro style restaurants, churches (one of them no longer used as such) and a Chocolate Museum, near the Rivière Yamaska that meanders towards isolated Mont Yamaska in the north. Closer at hand is Mont Shefford, the pretty wooded hill that Chris and I could see from our bedroom windows at the Auberge. We'd chosen the most inexpensive rate ($125 including a well cooked breakfast) despite the warning that this room would overlook a parking lot rather than "la montagne". In fact, with hardly any cars parked, we thought our view more attractive than the view from the other side of the building. Mont Brome with the ski-slopes gouged out of the hillside and brightly lit at night, looks less than natural. I know they're fun, but ski runs disfigure mountains in my opinion.

During our self-guided tour of Bromont, Carol firmly in the lead with a street map more suited to motorists than pedestrians, we all visited its Chocolate Museum, interesting enough for me to write about it in a separate blog post.

Where to eat supper was a problem requiring much discussion and research, because two of the restaurants the local people recommended were fully booked for large family gatherings, a Quebec tradition at Easter time, and if Robert hadn't taken prompt action and used his cell phone to book us a table for eight at the Restaurant beside the river, L'Étrier, I don't think they'd have had room for us there, either. Chris and I liked our three course meal there very much, with slices of foie de veau very tenderly cooked, although Robert and Francine thought the Cassoulet de canard du Lac Brome had too many baked beans in it. Everyone enjoyed our pichets de bière blanche, no question, and ignoring Laurie's suggestion that we should find our way back to the hotel by following in reverse the exact route we had taken to reach this place (three hours of meandering explorations with many detours and repetitions) we staggered straight back up the hill and I think we were all in bed before 10!

Today being more bracing and less sunny, we only spent the morning at Bromont, walking to the mountain and back to observe the skiers in action and to find out what it was like inside the Château. Then the plan was to take off through the snow showers back to Ottawa, the forecast 37kph gusts of crosswind notwithstanding. Chilled oil delayed PTN's departure by an hour or so, and XBU's crew (Elva and Laurie) kindly stayed behind with us during the warm-up time to make sure our plane would start at the next attempt. Which it did, and we bounced our way back to Rockcliffe, the first third of the flight under low clouds showering us with snow, but with marvellous view of Montreal's downtown skyscrapers and international airport as we came into clearer weather, followed by cloud shadows over our local terrain and bright views to the windswept north. The landing at Rockcliffe was an eyes-shut one (for Elva and me); by means of slipping over the runway threshold without flaps and landing right wheels first, our husbands got us safely down though. That's the main thing.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Show and tell

One way to encourage conversation in any language is to ask women to show one other objects so precious they'd never throw them away; this is what we did in our Spanish group this morning. There were only half a dozen of us there, but we came from four different continents, and we talked about ...

  • an Indonesian wedding photo
  • a ceramic dish brought to Canada from Portugal
  • a copper bell bought in a remote Peruvian market, probably meant to hang around the neck of a llama
  • a one-inch-to-the-mile Ordnance Survey map of the North York Moors
  • a Taiwanese teapot acquired by a Polish family who'd done business in Taipei

Guess which my contribution was.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Fred and the BigBlueButton

As of tonight, Chris is no longer a Nortel employee. He was "terminated" (a nasty way of putting it) at 10 o'clock this morning and was home shortly after 11 in a very happy mood, despite the fact that there's still no severance pay in the offing, no more of the company-paid health insurance or life insurance, no promise of a decent pension, etc., etc. The sun was shining on the deck that's now clear of snow (I shovelled the last of it aside after breakfast) and having brought the deck chair up from the basement I'd put it out there with a symbolic cushion for him to recline upon. Instead of which, he drove me straight up the road to Wakefield to buy sandwiches made from Wakefield Bakery's best, multigrain loaves, which we ate side by side on a bench by the Gatineau River, before walking beside the mill stream to watch the melt water tumbling under the bridge. Not a bad way to begin his years of retirement, we felt.

Only I don't think there is going to be all that much retiring from the flow. Apart from all the work he's doing setting up his own Aviation Training company with his fellow groundschool instructors and friends Michael and Jean, Chris has now also been offered new employment with a startup associated with Carleton University. Last Monday afternoon I was at the university where people were meeting to exchange ideas about a related project known as the BigBlueButton: an open-source, real-time voice conferencing, video conferencing, document sharing, group chat, and audio archiving system. I quote.

Fred Dixon, CEO of Blindside Networks, took charge of the project supporters, software engineering graduates and undergraduates present. Each of us had to introduce ourselves and say what we were doing at the conference, which was a bit embarrassing when it came to me, but Chris pre-empted a hiatus by announcing he'd brought his wife along simply to meet everybody.

What an enthusiastic bunch they were! Almost every progress report was greeted by the exclamation, "Cool!" Fred told us that the contributers, developers, companies and users working together on this development, whom I've got to learn to refer to as an ECOSYSTEM, formed a "meritocritous environment"—I assumed he meant the university (although Chris says I misunderstood this). Anyhow he went on to say that he hoped other universities would want to adopt this technology too.

As the meeting proceeded, I learned about soft phones and smart boards, Google counters, hybrid classes and Virtual Machines. I was none too sure what was meant by cascading mixers or fibernetics or the Moodle Appliance, but I dare say I'll find out soon enough, once Chris gets involved in this kind of thing. Someone spoke of "the possibility of Dynamic Blogs". I'm not at all sure I'd want that for my blog. It's bad enough keeping the comments under control without having other people interfere with the content as well, which is what I suppose this implies. Still, everyone to his own taste.

"It's often impossible" to set up an on-line conference in some institutions because the infrastructure of webcams, microphones and the like just isn't there, but for conference participants using the BigBlueButton it's much simpler. No on-site installation is required; all that's needed is your laptop or notebook computer. An instructor "can kick a participant by the click of a button," or so I heard, and by double clicking on the mute button he or she can shut someone up. In fact all participants are muted by default. Seems a pity that can't be done in conventional meetings like Prime Minister's Question Time, doesn't it? It might be difficult to join a university seminar from, say, an Internet café where there could be 65 decibels of background noise, but this interference can also be cut out. What else can be done to enhance the flow of information to students at remote locations? The developers are talking about a low cost white board facility using Wii mode.

The BBB project is still in its early stages, though they have already consulted Volunteer Ottawa to see whether such a non profit organisation would find it beneficial. "Usability was an issue," apparently, for people relatively unfamiliar with computers. So now the developers have come up with a simpler user interface (using an embedded Google calendar) that automatically generates invitations by email once you've chosen your date and time, saying: "Please join me for a conference to discuss [insert topic] on Friday 11th..."

A Chinese presenter called Bo stood up and talked about a collaboration scheme for developers (I think) that he called Cloud Together (rather than Crowd Together) and I was still befuddled when he went on to mention node-based scalability and a cloud on top of a virtual host cluster. He explained that this was to do with SOA based, customized, hybrid node polymorphism, which had them all nodding their heads in appreciation, and customized collaboration mash up. Bo gave a striking example of how the new technology might be used in China, where there's a demand for modern language and music classes for up to 500 participants at a time!

A bright young man called Adam then came to the front and described how he and the Blindside people had been developing a screen sharing or desk-top sharing device, the first version of which had crashed after 10 minutes' use. He'd decided that Flash-Player would have to be reverse engineered for it to work properly and to judge by his excitement he was now making great headway but (in answer to a point raised by my husband which didn't seem to worry him too much) he had "so far slacked off on documentation and testing." He mentioned Emotional Hudson, ant builds and green balls; though I made a note of the terminology, I wouldn't like to be more precise about where they come in.

Next up was an Industrial Design student who'd been studying how to equip remote and local students to participate in BigBlueButton conferences. He gave us an interesting slide show (one that I could actually follow, I mean) analysing the video conference environment with its webcams on tripods, multiple speakers, cables taped to the floor for safety and so on, and told us he had come up with a less cumbersome solution for the requisite equipment—netbook, webcam, wireless speaker-phone and wireless microphone—all mounted into one small box or case for portability. The early prototypes of this integrated carry case were indeed cardboard boxes, looking decidedly amateur and ungainly; only more recently he'd created a more sophisticated model in plastic for a total cost of $1.50 a piece. Unfortunately when he lifted it up to show us, the handle fell off, but it's the principle of the thing that matters.

The last person to address the meeting, before Fred brought it to a conclusion, was Richard of Blindside Networks who gave us a "record-and-playback demo" for a remote conference facility of the sort they are developing. The server on the host computer, having recorded the "click to raise your hand" instances and all other such "events" at a conference, stores this information and can then play it back in real time for the benefit of anyone who was prevented from attending in the first place. There was talk of speeding up the playback so that you could fast-forward over the boring bits. I got the impression they weren't yet ready to offer this, but what a useful feature it would be! Chris, of course, is keen to try out all the BigBlueButton technology during the aviation training sessions that will be offered by his new company.

Fred Dixon' wants his team to keep the user interface simple enough for a developer to be able to set up a server in less than five minutes. His intention is to offer the BigBlueButton facility at no cost, so that "people get hooked on the free service... and then they'll need commercial support," in other words, management tools.