Sunday, November 25, 2007

Dairy Products in Belgium

This weekend we decided to make one of our favorite meals - Chicken
fajitas! We were happy to find nearly all the ingredients that we
needed in our local supermarket - the "international" section carries
El Paso tortilla shells (both hard and soft), as well as salsa, chips, and Mexican seasonings. As it turns out, the two things that we had the most trouble with were very unexpected -- sour cream and cheddar cheese.

I know that in Canada, sour cream is translated as "creme sure", but I've read that in France it's known better as "creme aigre". We found neither of these in our Belgian supermarket, but we did see lots of "creme fraiche" and an extraordinary amount of yogurt. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to find sour cream in Belgium? Is it called something different here?
Our second hard-to-find dairy product was cheddar cheese. The most common cheese in our supermarket is "emmental", which is a Swiss cheese. It is very tasty, and I really like it, but Swiss
cheese doesn't exactly fit with fajitas. We can hardly complain with the wonderful assortment of
cheeses that we've found here, including my favorite,Boursin, and some Chimay cheeses made by the same Trappist
monks who make the famous beer, but we'll likely be making a trip to
London soon for some good cheddar. :) In the end, we chose the "gratin"
cheese mix, which tastes like fondue cheese, for our fajitas.

What I'm reading

Well, I finally made it through Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones. This was a hard one, even for me (in general, I like books that have more sadness in them than happiness). In the opening paragraph, we are introduced to Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who has just been murdered. She spends the book watching her family from heaven as they try to deal with her loss. I couldn't read this book on the plane to Europe because it was just too emotional, and even in the privacy of my own apartment there were parts where I just had to put the book down for a while and have a cup of tea. Alice Sebold has a new book out called The Almost Moon, in which a woman who has been caring for her elderly mother who is in the advanced stages of dementia finally snaps and kills her. The writing in The Lovely Bones really is wonderful, but it's not a light read at all, and it's not happy.

Last Book: Ann Patchett's novel, Run.

Up Next: I've started in on another book with a happy subject, The House of Meetings by Martin Amis. It's about two brothers in a Russian slave camp in the 1950's.

Our First Visitor!

Last weekend, we had our first visitor! Heather was my roommate on Rue Durocher while we were both going to McGill. I was a physics major; she was studying geography. Now Heather lives in Amsterdam and works for a bank. She has been spending most of her weekends in London, where her boyfriend Scott lives, but she will now be dividing her time between London and Brussels! Heather reluctantly agreed to test out the Haagen-Dazs chocolate fondue dessert extravaganza with us, and although she said afterwards that she thought she had consumed enough chocolate to last her a lifetime, we're sure that she will be back again soon for more!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Has it really been 3 weeks!

Wow, time has really cruised by. Can you believe it's been 3 weeks? It does not feel that long since we left Toronto for North Carolina, but low and behold it's almost December! So I put together some pictures of just a few of the places we have been since we got here. I hope you enjoy them, we sure did seeing them.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Beer and Chocolate Connection finally proved!

This week, an article
in the National Geographic news
discussed a new finding by a
team of researchers conducting archaeological excavation in the
Honduras. Evidence of traces of cocoa on some pieces of pottery that
they found leads the team to believe that chocolate was actually
discovered accidentally by beer makers trying to find a use for one of
the by-products of their brewing.

This article raises a couple
of interesting questions. First of all - if Central Americans were
making beer out of cocoa seeds 3,000 years ago, then why are we all
drinking Budweiser and Molson Canadian rather than chocolate beer?
Secondly, can it be that we have finally discovered the link between
chocolate and beer that explains why Belgium is so good at making them

Michael enjoys both chocolate and beer. :)

An Astronomy Ph.D. thesis in plain English - Part 2

Last Time: In the first post in this series I discussed the way in which stars get redder as dust and gas pass between us and the star, which is very similar to the effect that we see as we admire a red sunset. When the stars get redder, they usually get more faint as well, as you would expect if there is dust passing in front of them.

The next important property of the young stars that I was investigating is their polarization -- that is, the preferred direction of oscillation of the light waves being emitted from the star. A beam of light can be thought of as a combination of many individual light waves, and each wave can be thought of as having a "direction of oscillation". Think about all the different ways that you can shake a skipping rope held between two people, or a string on a guitar, or a clothesline fixed at both ends. You can shake it up and down, or side to side, or on any number of diagonals.

A light wave is a lot like these ropes and strings. The light travels from one end of the string to the other, and while it travels it is allowed to oscillate in any of the directions that you can think of to shake the string (the thing that is oscillating is actually two things - the electric and magnetic fields that are associated with the light). The normal, unpolarized light that we see all around us is composed of many different light waves, and all of them can be oscillating in their own direction: there is no preferred direction of oscillation (the first image of the yellow arrows). However, some processes in nature can produce a preferred direction of oscillation, or a polarization of the light (like the second yellow arrow, below).

Some of the most important mechanisms that cause a polarization of light are (1) the presence of a magnetic field where the light is being generated and (2) the reflection of light. In my thesis, I was mostly concerned with polarization that was caused by the reflection of light. Once again, this is something that happens all the time here on Earth. Sunlight that is reflected from a surface such as water on a lake or an ocean or snow on a ski slope tends to be polarized. Sunglass companies have capitalized on this fact by marketing sunglasses with a polarizing filter in them that cuts down on glare from the water or from the snow. The starlight that I was observing is not reflected by water or by snow, but it is reflected by the dusty rings surrounding the star, and the light that is reflected by the rings is more polarized than the light coming to us directly.

By watching the star and observing the times when the most polarized light is reaching us (and hence, the most light reflected off the dust), we can try to figure out the shape and size of the dust distribution, as well as the composition of the dust, and the density of the dust. All of these things will eventually help us to understand what the conditions for planet formation are, and how often these conditions arise in star systems outside of our own solar system.

Next Time: A curious "blueing" effect sometimes seen when the stars become very faint...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Now All We Need Are Guests

Today we went house hunting out and around Brussels. As things would have it we feel in love with the very 1st house we looked at. It is a very nice little place in an area just to the east of Brussels. For everyone that has Google Earth, Sterrebeek, Zaventem, Belgium is the official name of the commune. It is in a Flemish area but it is right on the cusp of both French and Flemish speaking areas, which is very common for Brussels. Our agent, Sarah, told us that the area has many Canadian as well as American Families living in the commune. Jane’s office is less than 2 miles from the house and can be reached by both bus and bike. We will be able to walk or bike to the store and all the local restaurants and bars. We are both very happy with the place which is an older home but has been remodeled in the style of IKEA. It has 2 bedrooms and 2 baths, a large garden and a modern kitchen. The 2nd bedroom will be great for all the visitors we are hoping to have. The garden is very nice which I am sure the kittens will love.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Wondering about Reality TV...

I've had this discussion more than once, but here it is again. Every time I watch reality TV (which is every day), I have a little voice in the back of my head wondering if all the drama is more of a creation by good editing than actual real-life drama. For the most part, I think that it's a little bit of both, but I always like to see evidence of good editing replacing "real drama". To see what I'm talking about, here is my very favorite example of tricky editing, from one of my favorite movies (this can also go under the category of framing, for those people out there who care about that kind of thing):

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Monday Molecule - Belgium Version

One of the features on my dad's blog, Sandwalk, is the Monday Molecule, where his readers have to guess the identity of a random molecule. This is the Beer with Chocolate Belgian-style Monday molecule! The game is that you not only have to identify this structure, but also the molecule from which it gets its shape.

To make it even easier, I'm posting multiple views of the structure.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

An Astronomy Ph.D. thesis in plain English - Part 1

Michael posted the abstract to my thesis a while ago, but for a while now I've been meaning to make a few posts that clarify what I did for all those of you who don't have an advanced degree in astronomy. The goal of my thesis work was to try to come up with a better understanding of what the regions around young stars look like. This is interesting to astronomers, because lately we've been finding more and more planets around stars other than our own. We would like to understand what the conditions for planetary formation are, and one really good way of doing that is to look at very young stars, that should be in the process of making planets.

The young stars that I was studying are actually between 3-8 million years old. This doesn't seem very young to humans, but in astronomical timescales it is a blink of an eye. Our own sun is 4.5 billion years old, and these young stars are only 0.1% as old as that. If we were to scale the age of the sun so that the sun was 100 years old, then the stars that I studied would only be a couple of months old - they are really "baby stars".

I was looking for several different effects when observing these stars, and the first one that I'm going to write about today is a "reddening" effect. This effect is very familiar to anyone who has seen a red sunset. The reason that sunsets are red is because red light has an easier time penetrating dust and gas and water vapour than blue light does. The blue light tends to bounce off the tiny particles in the air and never ends up reaching us. Sunsets can be particularly red when there are extra particles or smoke in the air: large volcanic eruptions are notorious for causing red sunsets all over the world; the recent California wildfires had the same effect.

When we observe distant stars, we can see them becoming more red as clumps of dust and gas pass between us and the star. This dust and gas will eventually start to clump together to form planets, comets, and asteroids, but in young stars all of this material takes the form of a disk or rings, much like the dusty rings that surround the planet Saturn. Usually, as the star gets redder, it also gets more faint, which is an additional indication that the star is being obscured by dust in its immediate surroundings.

Next time: How an additional property of light, its polarization, can help us to determine the shape of dusty structures around the star.

The Grand Place

The central square in the middle of downtown Brussels really deserves its own post, and here it is! The most spectacular building in the square is the Town Hall, seen here, but what makes this square so impressive is that when you step into it you are surrounded by fantastic architecture just like this on all sides. Of course, the square is always full of tourists taking pictures, and the little shops right around it cater to the tourists as well - but we're still "tourists in our own city", so we don't mind too much. Every other year in August, the square is filled with a carpet of flowers - and the next time the event will happen is August 2008. Mark your calendars!

Holidays in Brussels

This weekend, one of our goals was to really figure out the downtown area in Brussels. It is difficult to navigate for three reasons. First of all, no one street runs parallel to any other street in the downtown area. Secondly, there are roundabouts every couple of blocks, and the names of the streets leaving the roundabouts are never the same as the names of the streets going in. Finally, guideposts and street signs are very rare (although we did realize this weekend that the street names are on plaques on the buildings, rather than on posts near the road like in the US). The good news is that armed with a little hand-drawn map and a plan, we made some real progress in getting our bearings downtown - and not a moment too soon!

The holidays are coming up, and all the little Belgian chocolate shops are proudly displaying their seasonal chocolates in the windows, which makes the downtown walks really enjoyable. In Belgium, the most important gift-giving celebration is on Saint Nicholas day, December 6th, and chocolate figures of the Saint in his bishop's outfit are ubiquitous. We're also starting to make lists of the places that we'll take people when we start to get visitors! So far, the bar "Le Roi d'Espagne" (the King of Spain), is a high priority. At this bar, you can enjoy a raspberry beer while overlooking the "Grand Place" - the main central square where the Town Hall, Guild Houses and "Breadhouse" are all located. It is really a wonderful sight, but it's hard to compare it to windows full of Belgian chocolate.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A Beautiful Day in Belgium

Well today as you can see from the picture has been a great day. Well a great day if you like the cold and rain. So, being a little askew from normal I enjoy days like this.

Well we have been in town for over a week today and Jane is about to complete her 1st full work week. Last night I met a few of her coworkers, all of whom are very nice. They even tried to help me with my phone problem which I have all but given up on that front.

Another interesting discover was the Family Gaming Center Adventure, I didn’t take any pictures inside but believe me it has very little to do with family or adventure. The place is a local gambling center with 1 arm bandits and a OTB as well as a bookie.

Jane will be home from work soon and the weekend adventures will begin.