Archive for September, 2011


Darth Lumbergh

September 29, 2011

Um, yeah, I guess you’ll come in to work on Saturday, right?

“And I said, I don’t care if they lay me off either, because I told, I told Bill that if they move my desk one more time, then, then I’m, I’m quitting, I’m going to quit. And, and I told Don too, because they’ve moved my desk four times already this year, and I used to be over by the window, and I could see the squirrels, and they were married, but then, they switched from the Swingline to the Boston stapler, but I kept my Swingline stapler because it didn’t bind up as much, and I kept the staples for the Swingline stapler and it’s not okay because if they take my stapler then I’ll set the building on fire…”


This is how it starts…

September 28, 2011

I put a piece up on Keep Americans Free! about North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue’s recent comment about how perhaps we should postpone elections until the current economic crisis has passed. I think she’s just dumb enough to say what a lot of far leftists are thinking as the last-ditch plan. That puts us on the really greasy part of the slippery slope to totalitarianism. But she was just joking, right?


“Firefly” and free speech

September 27, 2011

Nathan Fillon owes me. Two posts about TV shows of his in two days! In this case, a theater professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout placed the following poster of Malcom Reynolds, captain of the Firefly-class spaceship “Serenity” from Joss Whedon’s extremely short-lived TV series from a decade ago:

Well, after all, this is the University of Wisconsin, no matter which branch, and that meant that the chief of (thought) police, Lisa Walter, didn’t like it and took it down. She felt it implied a threat of killing. The professor, James Miller, argued his First Amendment rights were violated. So, he put this up instead:

Yep, she took that one down, too. But she did return his first poster, and apparently apologized. But…

Now Miller has to meet with the campus “threat assessment team” and with the Interim Dean of his college. I can hear it: “Now, Jim, you know you shouldn’t have done that, I know, it’s free speech and all, but you don’t want to get them all riled up, right?” You know, that kind of crap. Intelligently, Miller got the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education involved. And both Nathan Fillon (now the star of “Castle”), who played Mal Reynolds, and Adam Baldwin (now a co-star on “Chuck”), who played Jayne on the show and is very conservative and very cool, have lit up Twitter about this incident. It even has a name: Brownshirts vs. Browncoats. (You have to know “Firefly,” sorry.)

Poor college police chief lady. She didn’t know the Browncoats were such a tight group of folks, all across the intertubes, even a decade after the show was over. Fillon can make an oblique reference to the show on “Castle” knowing people will get it, or at least the right people will. And these folks will stir the pot. For once the lib college folks have met their match.

If she had only seen the movie Serenity, she would have known you can’t stop the signal, Mal.

story here


Little stuff

September 26, 2011

Again, little bits of things I’ve thought of lately:

American Airlines – what’s the deal?

I flew to St. Louis over the weekend. I flew American Airlines. When I set up my flight there were three seats available, all inside seats in the groups of three on the old MD-80 they were using (2 seats on the left, 3 on the right). A day before I left, there were several window seats available – for an upcharge of $ 14.00! So, they were available all the time, but they were holding them back? What’s that about? On Sunday morning, when I came back, there was a first-class seat available for an upcharge of $ 45.00. It was in the front row, and I was having knee problems, so I went with it. It also meant I could check a bag (actually, 3) for free, so I did. I’m sure if I tried to get a first class ticket a month ahead it would have been a lot more – hell, if I had tried to do it a couple of days before it would have been really pricey! So what’s up with this? I guess that’s why I go with Southwest most of the time. Yeah, they aren’t as cheap or as easy to work with as they used to be, but they still don’t have scams quite like that.

“Heat Rises,” by Richard Castle

I just finished reading Heat Rises, the third book in the Nikki Heat series “written by Richard Castle” from the television show “Castle.” I don’t know who has really been writing them, but the first one was almost unreadable, the second was better, and this one is actually pretty good, with a few cute in-jokes along the way. It’s a short book, but it’s not a bad read. If you like the television show, you will like the book. I don’t know that I can recommend the first one to anybody but the most diehard Castle fans. This one ain’t James Patterson or Michael Connelly, but it’s better than most TV show tie-ins.

Terra Nova

I’m writing this while watching “Terra Nova.” I’m not sure about this one. I know it’s months late in getting on the air, and cost $ 20 million for the first two episodes, but I guess a lot of that is the town sets – apparently 250 sets were constructed overall. It’s pretty extensive. It took a long time to shoot in Australia, too. (Spielberg didn’t want it to look too much like Jurassic Park, so no filming in Hawaii.) The early part, in a seriously screwed-up 22nd century that looks like an uglier Blade Runner future, probably cost a pretty penny, too. But what about the dinosaurs?

Nope. Not so good. I mean, not SyFy Channel-cheap, but not ILM film quality either. Now, I’m not watching it on HD, but I can’t imagine the dinos look a lot better there. And, worst of all, when the pseudo-T-rex attacks, you can actually see its feet not match the ground level.

At $ 4 million an episode, they are only going to do 13, and blow them all by the end of December. At that point it will have cost over $ 60 million. I hope they will have something cool to show for it.

There’s a little subplot about dissidents out there in the bush, and another one about apparently some kind of ancient-astronaut deal or something – anyway, some kinds of geometric markings in the rock, but only the teenagers have seen them, and they ain’t tellin’ because they found them when the kids were outside of the fence without permission.

Brannon Braga is exec producing. Don’t get me started about that. Suffice it to say I don’t see that as a positive. On the other hand, Stephen Lang is a pretty good actor and is better in this part than in his hardass unreasonable crazy weasel character from Avatar. The rest of the cast is going to take some time to shake out.

Couldn’t we just have spent this $ 60 million on a couple of seasons more of “Firefly?



Finally, my thoughts on “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

September 26, 2011

I know, I’m the last person to see this movie. I was planning to see it in the summer, but got busy or something and never got to it. We finally saw it in Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago.  (At a very nice multiplex at the South Point Hotel and Casino, by the way. Good digital projection, good popcorn.)

This movie had a lot of good things going for it. The WETA CGI folks were outstanding…with poorer effects work it would have been completely silly. The plot point that James Franco’s character was driven to create the gene therapy to cure Altzheimer’s because his own father was suffering from it added just the right amount of human emotion. I’m not James Franco’s biggest fan, but he was adequate here, and John Lithgow was excellent as his father.

Andy Serkis and friend

I don’t pay a lot of attention to entertainment buzz, but I’ve seen that Andy Serkis gets a lot of credit for making Caesar such a great character. I don’t doubt that for a minute – he did a wonderful job as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, and that was not only because of his facial expressions, translated by WETA into the character, but his body language as well. The question is how to determine  what is Andy and what is WETA – I know there has been some talk about an Oscar nomination for him. That question is going to come up, and I wonder if some “members of the Academy” are going to be unhappy just because of the CGI component.

The sequences where Caesar is growing up and developing are delightful. He’s Curious George on speed. Absolutely beautifully done, and they makes you smile. Tom Felton is mean and you love to hate him…but I hope he doesn’t get typecast with such things. He’s great at being a punk. I wonder if he has more range. Most of the rest of the cast is OK, but doesn’t really stand out that much, even Freida Pinto, as Falco’s girlfriend. The apes are the best characters, really, and many of them stand out quite well.

Of course, humans treat them badly – it had to be that way, right? So they have good reason to retaliate. That turns out to have very far-ranging consequences, though. What I thought was interesting was that the plot was actually tied up during the credits of the film…that was unexpected. It also showed how the film reboots the franchise, and hopefully in a better way than the Mark Wahlberg 2001 Planet of the Apes film. I didn’t think it was as bad as people thought, except for the silly circular logic of the plot. the middle of it was pretty OK.

So, overall, it was a very satisfying movie. I thought it was well done, both technically and script-wise. The only really weak area is that most of the characters were kind of cardboard, but as I said, the apes are the real stars, so no big deal…the humans were what they needed to be. And, just maybe, that was part of the point.


SLS Cargo Version and selling space flight

September 23, 2011

This is an elusive little image. I had to do a lot of searching to find one of the proposed cargo variant of the Space Launch System heavy-lifter. It was pulled from a NASA CGI video clip that pans around it, then goes to the better-known manned version that looks so much like a Saturn V with SRBs, and uses the manned one for the launch video. This is a proposed vehicle, of course; I don’t know how much actual design has been done. It looks like it’s probably close to 400 feet tall, though! (I’ve not scaled it out.) The point of the SLS, of course, is to lift a whole lot of stuff into orbit, and this image certainly demonstrates that.

I know that most people are more interested in manned flight than how big a cargo something can lift, unless you fill the cargo compartment with school buses or something to give them a reference point. But the fact that the Orion capsule (I hate to call it that; it harkens back to Mercury for me) is significantly larger than Apollo is lost in the manned vehicle image. I think it’s hard to imagine that it’s bigger than the Saturn V because the Orion looks a lot like the Apollo in proportion to the launch vehicle.

I may just be blowing smoke here. It may not matter to anybody. Still, to get this thing paid for NASA will need congressional support, and that means the congresscritters need popular support, and that only happens if people thing spaceflight is cool. Sorry, but that’s about all there is to motivate the electorate. There’s no real motivation to “beat the Russians” or “beat the Chinese,” and we’re having a hard time selling American exceptionalism right now. (But that’s another story.)

I hope they get more CGI animations out, showing vehicles in orbit, building stuff, going to the moon, going to Mars. Can they spend a few bucks getting a heavy-duty Hollywood EFX house to do this so they look really good, and could be distributed on Blu-Ray? The Disney “Mission to Mars” film a few years back supposedly had some help from NASA, but it kind of veered off into the ancient aliens stuff. How can we make this exciting for people? They seem to love big-budget science fiction movies – can somebody like James Cameron do something without blue aliens or superheroes and make it sell?




Dang! Worf is a psychiatrist!

September 22, 2011

Just saw the season premiere of “Castle” – grittier than usual, with the followup on Kate’s shooting. But at the end, she goes back to see the police psychiatrist after she’s been cleared for duty, because she still has “issues” – and it’s Michael Dorn.

Tell your problems to the Klingon. That’s the way. Actually, with the way Kate Beckett usually acts on the show, as the hard as nails cop, maybe a Klingon is the best choice to tell your problems to…


More musings on the SLS

September 21, 2011

Follow-on Saturn V designs from the 1970s (click to enlarge)

Dr. Jerry Pournelle, whom I respect a lot (even when I disagree with him), has a well-argued criticism of the Space Launch System here. I recommend it to you. Jerry has been involved with, studied, and talked to those involved with the space program for over fifty years. Jerry makes some very good points, I think.

Why are all three stages liquid hydrogen/LOX fueled? As Jerry notes, hydrogen has great specific impulse but has come problems. First, it has to be kept at extremely low temperatures – it liquifies at -423 degrees F. Second, it’s not dense, making for very large storage tanks. In fact, liquid hydrogen required five times the tank volume than high-density kerosene; but hydrogen has three times the energy of kerosene, so if the structure can be kept light enough, maybe the weight cost isn’t so important.

That’s not why the Shuttle flew with liquid hydrogen, though. Remember the 1970s, folks. Like today, everything was supposed to be “green.” LOX/LH2 rockets create nothing but water. You might get some trace from burnoff of the engines and the areas around the engines, but that’s it.

The Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) are a different story. If you go back and study many of the original shuttle designs, from all the companies that studied it, most had flyback boosters. The idea of the external fuel tank, the main engines being attached to the orbiter, and then requiring solid boosters to get the thing off the ground were relatively recent additions.  Now, flyback boosters were a reach in 1975, true; but so was the shuttle itself. I don’t know if it could have been built or not. Lots of companies seemed to think so.

The solid boosters are in many ways giant fireworks rockets. The fuel is powdered aluminum and ammonium perchlorate is the oxidizer. Perchlorates are supposed to be bad stuff in water supplies, but ATK says theirs is crystallized and can’t get into water supplies. However, the -chlorate part means chlorine, and it combines with the products of the main engines to produce hydrochloric acid. It’s said there is not enough produced to be a big problem. OK. Still, NASA can say the vehicle mainly produces water and is therefore very “green.”

The Saturn V used kerosene in the first stage and LH2 in the two upper stages. It seemed to work fine. I just hate to have that much liquid hydrogen sitting around. It’s a lot more dangerous and difficult to handle than kerosene.

Jerry also points out that the solid boosters had to be built in Utah for political reasons – I don’t recall, he is probably right. But that meant they had to be built in pieces to be shipped to Florida. If they were built in Louisiana like the first stage of the Saturn, they could have been shipped by water and could have been built in one segment, or at least fewer; that would have required fewer joints, which means fewer potential places for problems. The Challenger crew would most likely still be with us. The SRBs for the new vehicle have been described as five-segment instead of the four-segment versions used with the shuttle. Isn’t that more of a problem instead of less?

It so could be a super-Saturn and do a very fine job. Apparently, instead, we have to not only use the technology we’ve developed over the last thirty years, but make the same mistakes as well.


Will the Space Launch System kill commercial space?

September 20, 2011

The really boringly-named Space Launch System, or Extreme Saturn

If you are one of those few folks who read these musings on a regular basis – and why by the Nine Billion Names of God don’t you have something better to do? – you know I have been a big advocate of commercial space endeavors. Well, most of ’em, anyway. I don’t like how it seems the recent NASA actions smack of crony capitalism to me, but I may be completely wrong about that. I’d love to have someone set me straight if that’s not the fact. But that’s a topic for another day.

Mark Whittington, of whom I have referred on numerous occasions, has a piece on Yahoo about the Space Launch System – the most boring name evah – and how it will most likely be competing for commercial space dollars. I think it would be easier to sell if it was called Son of Saturn, or better yet, Extreme Saturn, or maybe Zeus. Anyway, Mr. Whittington’s point is that every new NASA space initiative is attacked by the anti-space crowd, in Congress and outside of it, but in this case, the pro-commercial space interests may join with them. Strange bedfellows indeed!

See, NASA only gets so much money, especially now, when budget-cutting is the name of the game in Washington. (Whether it is for show or for real is another thing.) NASA retired the aging and expensive-to-fly Shuttle fleet and wants to turn ISS supply of passengers and cargo over to commercial space vendors. To help facilitate that, the COTS program provided some seed money to some companies that showed promise in getting hardware to fly soonest.

OK. So we have Dreamchaser, we have Blue Origin, we have Dragon, and some others. Then there’s this LockMart deal I referred to last week, Boeing is building their own vehicle, and even the Russians are dusting off an old design and trying to update it. NASA kind of cut some of these folks off at the knees by promoting ATK/Alligiant with the Liberty booster, but technically it’s still a commercial launcher, and is intended to be able to launch practically any of the abovementioned vehicles into LEO.

But NASA is still about exploration, or wants to be. Manned exploration. Originally as part of the Constellation program, there was the Ares I, the “Stick” launcher that was very much like the Liberty, and a larger, heavy-lift launch vehicle derived from Shuttle main engines and external tank technology. As we know, President Obama killed that and said we didn’t have to go back to the Moon because Buzz had already been there.

Ares V - which will never be...

So the SLS is a super-size version of the Ares V. Look at the image at the top of the post and the one above. Don’t worry about colors, I think the “artist’s conception” of the SLS is painted that way to suggest a Saturn V lineage (which it really doesn’t have). What’s the major difference?

Yes, Sparky, you win the biscuit! The SLS is depicted with some kind of manned Apollo-style capsule on top! Now things are getting sticky. The implication is sort of that we would use the SLS, with its 9 million pounds of thrust, to put a mission to Mars on its way. Problem is, you really can’t all the way to Mars cooped up in a Dragon, or any of the capsule-type vehicles currently being produced, prototyped, or on the drawing boards. For a number of reasons, not the least of which is it would drive you nuts! Oh, and solar flares.

It might be used once in a while with a manned vehicle on top of a stack of other cargo, but better to lift humans with a Liberty Stick (I think I like that name) and lift cargo with the SLS. Lifting cargo and humans on the same vehicle is problematic, as we’ve learned with the Shuttle. Besides, if we don’t have to man-rate the thing right away, we can start throwing lots of stuff into orbit with it in the meantime.

But the artist was most likely told to make the top look very Saturn V-like, so people would feel comfortable with the similarity, like with the color scheme. Remember that the Saturn was conceived from the ground up for one purpose only: to make a dash to the moon in one shot, all the hardware, supplies and personnel on top of one stack. In the early 1960s when the Paperclip Germans were working on the Saturn V, we didn’t know if we could even turn the Apollo around and dock successfully with the Lunar Module, let alone assemble things in space by going outside and putting them together. Now we have thousands of hours of experience working outside the Shuttle and the ISS, connecting stuff and doing repairs and maintenance. Robots are being tested to do the same kinds of things. We can build a pretty big ship from parts send up by only a few Saturn Extreme launches, including enough fuel to get us to Mars and back. (Although I’d rather get there and find a full tank waiting, Zubrin-style.)

The logical way to keep the commercial space folks from going to the Dark Side is to assure them they will still have contracts, but that’s tough for NASA to do: in two years the new Congress and probably a new Presidential Administration could decide anything. That’s why NASA has such a long timeline on the SLS. They know they will have limited funds for it. I just wish there was a way for the companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX to know there will be a market for their hardware once it is built. There will always be communications satellites and the like, but they need the NASA work, too. Those companies have a lot riding on a lot of fickle politicians. Oh, wait – don’t we all?


Tower of Power in Las Vegas

September 19, 2011

Sorry, i's just a sneaked iPhone photo!

We spent the weekend in Las Vegas and didn’t go to the Strip. We didn’t gamble at all, even though there is a full casino at the South Point, where we were staying. It’s just way, way south of the Strip, probably five miles south of the airport. It was originaly the South Coast, a part of the Coast family of hotel/casinos, then bought and run separately. It’s pretty new, and well-cared-for.

I was pleasantly surprised how consistently good the food was. Even the buffet, a Las Vegas hotel staple, was really pretty decent. We tried the Mexican-style restaurant, the Italian place, the 24-hour café, and a for-real Steak ‘n Shake inside the casino. All of the food was well-prepared, and most of the time the service was at least OK, and sometimes very good.

The pool was nice and the area was really well-done, but the water was cold! I was surprised – yes, the air temp was from 90 to 95, but the water had be around 70 to maybe 75 degrees.

We weren’t there to gamble or any of that. We were there to see Tower of Power, and we got tickets for all three nights. The concert venue was called a “showroom,” which meant it was multi-level seating with tables and booths around the outside. It looked like the tables are chairs could be removed so that the lower sections could be used as a dance floor.

We’ve been in venues like that before, and while they were pretty intimate, the seating was somewhat uncomfortable. What amazed me was that this one was well designed for space – we never felt crammed together – and the sound system was truly excellent.

I’ve complained about sound in some places we’ve heard Tower before, especially the House of Blues in Chicago. I don’t think HoB was really designed to project the subtleties of a band like Tower. The sound system there is designed to be felt, not heard, and it for certain does that!

This one was loud – even a touch louder in the very back than it needed to be – but it was clear as any I have every heard. I’ve never heard the individual horns as clearly as I did there. I also never heard the background vocals as well. That was the real treat, to hear the vocals. While these guys aren’t noted for being big vocalists, they do a nice job singing backup harmony. Emilio Castillo, who is the co-leader of the group for 44 years now, tends to sing the high lead backgrounds in a head voice. I can tell you that this weekend Mimi was in good voice and we were able to hear him, and the rest of the band, especially on things like the end of “You’re Still A Young Man.

The first night we sat over on stage right on the second level, about two-thirds of the way back. The second night, we were in the back, in a booth, next to the sound and light boards. The third night we were stage right again, about halfway back.

We’ve been seeing Tower for almost twenty years, all over the country. It’s been our one vice. We’ve seen them at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal, at the old Grant Park in Chicago, at the Venue at the Horseshoe Casino in Indiana, at Ravinia outdoors (in Highland Park), at an outdoor venue in San Diego, in an auditorium at Michigan State University, at two locations in Fort Wayne, Indiana (indoors and outdoors), on New Year’s Even at Universal Studios Citywalk in Orlando, at the Zoo in Portland, Oregon, and at three different venues now in Las Vegas.  And of course, House of Blues in Chicago. I have to say this was, by far, the best sound for the band I’ve ever heard, in what has to be at least twenty separate shows.

This is a problem. If they come back here again, we’re going to have to come back! This gets a little expensive. The rooms were affordable this time because my wife made the reservations early enough and the economy has made hotel rooms in Las Vegas more inexpensive. By now, the place was full with several conventions and such and getting a room in the last couple of weeks would have been impossible. I sure hope Southwest drops their rates soon!

And Tower? To me they sound as good as they ever have. I thought the band from about six or seven years ago, with Mike Bogart on lead trumpet and Jeff Tamelier on guitar, was the best band personnel mix they ever had. The new trumpet player, Sal Cracchiolo, and the guitarist, Jerry Cortez, are not only very competent in playing their parts but both are truly excellent soloists. Sal is much more of a jazz soloist than any lead trumpet they’ve had in years, maybe since Mic Gillette, and with Adolfo Acosta as the second trumpet, who has great solo chops and solid high range as well, the top end of the horns is in fine shape. Tommy Politzer just gets better and better as the solo tenor player, with a strong and agile altissimo register, and Roger Smith has been given more solo space as time goes on, especially on Hammond B3.

The “Old Guard” – the founders who are still there – David Garibaldi, drums; Francis “Rocco” Prestia, bass; and co-leaders Stephen “Doc” Kupka, bari sax; and Emilio Castillo, tenor sax; are just as solid as ever and seem still to be having a great time after 44 years.

The face of the band for the last ten years or so, the lead vocalist, Larry Braggs, has matured into an incredible showman as well as a gifted and inspiring singer. His singing just gets better all the time, and he’s getting more chances to show what he can do, like on tunes like the band’s cover of “Me and Mrs. Jones” from the “Great American Soulbook” album. The longer Larry’s been with the band the more the band has molded a bit to him and he to the band. Larry’s been with the band longer than any other lead singer now, and he was a great find. He’s able to sing practically everything from their 40-year repertoire, and do so convincingly. For these shows they pulled out an oldie, “Below Us, All The City Lights,” from the “Back to Oakland” album from 1974. The chord progression and melody sounds a lot like the tunes Doc Kupka wrote for his “Doc Goes Hollywood” record for his own Strokeland label.  It works, but it’s got to be tough to sing, hearing where the melody goes next. Larry handled it beautifully each night.

Okay, so what didn’t you like? Not much, and I suspect you can tell that. They never start at 7:30 on the dot, and a usual show for them is about an hour and twenty minutes, plus one encore (Saturday and Sunday they played two). This time apparently they were supposed to be out at 9:00 – there was another show in the venue at 10:00. Mimi said something about being overtime and still planning to play two encores on Saturday.

The big issue is that Tower is a stand up and clap and dance kind of group. You don’t sit down when they play. But in a room like this you have to, because the sight lines make it impossible for the people below you to see unless they are also standing. The tiers and right angles make that worse than some other venues.  The tables tend to pack people in close, too, which also makes it hard to move without sticking an elbow in somebody’s eye. Also, some of the front seats are reserved for high rollers as comps – so you get some folks down front who have no idea what the hell they got themselves into. Sometimes they make a hasty exit about ten minutes into the show. Nature of the casino beast, I guess. I really enjoy the places like Humphrey’s in San Diego that has a big enough pit area in front for the die-hard fans to come up and hand and carry on and everybody else can sit back and see. It’s an outdoor place, and the sound is just OK, but when I’m right underneath Doc’s bari I really don’t care!

All together, a great time, and a location I would highly recommend. I’m afraid it will be very hard to resist the temptation to go back if they play there again next year!