Archive for December, 2011


Happy Gnu Ears!

December 31, 2011

I hope y’all have a great 2012!


In Memoriam: Robert Murray

December 30, 2011

Bob Murray was band director at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, Illinois, for thirty years, retiring in 2007. Bob was my “next door neighbor,” the band director at the high school immediately to the east of my own, for over twenty years. A better neighbor I could not have had. Bob passed away last Thursday evening, and last night a beautiful memorial service was held for him in LaGrange.

Bob and I had a lot in common; involvement in Boy Scouting; a love of the trumpet, jazz in general and Maynard Ferguson in particular; and a deep connection with family. Bob was one of the most influential mentors I ever had, and I took his counsel with no reservations. Bob “got it,” as Steve Melillo says, and was a truly outstanding teacher, musician, and husband and father.

He could be intimidating when you didn’t know him. Bob didn’t “suffer fools gladly,” adult fools at least. Early in my years in Illinois my wife and I took our son and his Cub Scout den to a summer day camp in the forest preserve in Palos. I was surprised to see that Bob and his wife Kathy were handling registration at the camp. I knew he and his son Bob Jr. had been involved in scouting, but the younger was in high school at that time. Apparently, knowing that I had an interest in scouting made a difference with Bob. Somehow he decided I was OK, and we got along beautifully. Last night a group of Boy Scouts of the Order of the Arrow held the Broken Arrow service at the memorial. I was proud to be one of the members of OA who was able to join them at the front of the church sanctuary for the service. There were over two dozen OA members in attendance, from high school age to men in  their sixties.

I learned a lot about teaching, working within the Illinois Music Educators Association, and just about being a good person from Bob. I always thought I was a better teacher after I became a father, and Bob demonstrated every day how that was true – he was more of a father to his band students than a “regular teacher.”

He was no saint. He could be angry and frustrated when teaching kids as much as anyone. He challenged his students and was unwilling to accept less than their best. But he also was willing to give a kid a chance who might not otherwise have had one. A couple of the speakers last night spoke about that – his faith in kids who had not proven themselves yet. He gave them the chance to do that, and they succeeded partly because they didn’t want to let Bob down.

Bob could be gruff and cranky, but he was incredibly generous. He served on the school board for one of the elementary districts that fed into LTHS for quite a few years. He somehow balanced family and job, and did so very well. He waited to retire from teaching until his youngest, his daughter Kari, graduated from LT. His kids went through the same school where he taught, as did mine with me, and I know he had just as much fun doing it as I did.

No one knows why God takes us when he does. Bob left us all too soon, at the time when he was enjoying retirement and family. Apparently God’s big band needed a new trumpet player. Maybe He needed a director to sub on the days when He Himself couldn’t be there. (Don’t ask me how to reconcile that with an omnipresent God; I said I don’t know. Maybe he needed someone to direct for Maynard. He’s there too, you know, in the Canadian part of Heaven!) All I know is that Bob is gone, and I miss him, as do thousands of students of his and dozens of colleagues like myself who got to know him over the years. My prayers are with Kathy, his wife, and Bob’s family. I just felt I needed to put down, somewhere, some thoughts about a a great teacher. He was my mentor and my friend. Godspeed, Bob Murray.


Sarah Palin in the race? And other things…

December 21, 2011

Burger King doesn't help you wear the cat suit, ScarJo...

Scarlett Johansson says she loves cheeseburgers from Burger King:
“Johansson admitted a fast food fetish to the website Skinny Vs. Curvy. ‘I love pizza with anything except pineapple or anchovies on the top,’ she said. ‘I do like Burger King cheeseburger meals as well because I like the chargrilled taste, and I like the toy that comes with it.” —Xfinity Entertainment Programmers”

Right. The last part tells you the tale. She’s not had one since she was a kid. I mean, come on. At least Mariah Carey is honest about not being allowed to eat pizza (quoted in the same slideshow). Nice touch in trying to be one of the common people, though.

Just between us, kids...

Mark Whittington ponders whether Sarah may decide to enter the Presidential race at the last minute. I wonder if this wasn’t her plan all along. The whole debate cycle from the last few months has done very little to help clarify the decision one might make about the best Presidential candidate. The only things we’ve really learned are”

Mitt is rich, not really very conservative, and looks good on TV.

Newt is smart, thinking way ahead of the pack, but doesn’t look so good on TV.

Michelle Bachmann may have great ideas but nobody knows because of the crazy eyes.

Ron Paul shouldn’t be on the stage with the serious candidates. It just shows how fed up a goodly percentage of the electorate is with high taxes and size of government. Unfortunately, he is completely clueless about foreign affairs.

Rick Santorum is a good guy, but nobody cares.

John Huntsman is sort of a Romney close, but with closer ties to Obama.

Oh, and Herman Cain, whatthehell was up with that?

None of these things are thoughts one couldn’t have had six months ago. In the meantime, the media (and the conservative media, too) have been picking apart every line the candidates have uttered. All that does right now is lower our confidence levels in all the candidates.

Palin has been raked over the coals enough already. There is nothing that could have been said post-debate to eliminate the attacks on her. And she has found that she can get her message out with less distortion on Facebook and through Fox News. She’s not been silent.

So if Romney shows that he can only really pull about 30% of the primary voters, that may translate into a lackluster performance in the general election. Conservatives may just decide to stay home, like many did in 2008. She will be poised to jump in after some of these primaries, but before the convention, and then do her own tour while the little candidates squabble among themselves for things like the Iowa caucus. (Has it ever generated the successful candidate, running away?)

Apparently Jeb Bush is thinking about running. I don’t recommend it. There are people who respected 43 for his response to 9/11 and his prosecution of the terrorist war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but his spending during that last year in office turned them off.  Jeb might be really good, but the name is going to work against him. Palin/Bush? Maybe.

Newt speaking at one of the Hannity Freedom Concerts

So maybe Gingrich is for real. I don’t buy everything he promotes, but he has thought it through. He’s the only one of the candidates who seems to be able to go on at length about any subject. Successful candidates often are trained to just remember the sound bites and catch-phrases. Every political handler knows that a candidate asked to think on his feet is dangerous to his own candidacy. Newt doesn’t seem to be like that. Remember, Reagan spent years before the 1980 election thinking about his beliefs and potential policies – and put them out there in a series of radio speeches. If you heard those, you knew he had been working this through ahead of time…and you would have pretty much seen his platform before the election. Gingrich has been speaking, writing books, and researching stuff for years and years. Nobody knows the issues better than Newt. That doesn’t mean he’s the guy for the job, but he has been preparing himself to be President  – not to be a candidate. Who else in this bunch has done this?

The debate bit between Newt and Mitt about lunar mining actually tells more than people seem to think. Newt is looking not just to inspire youth, but he’s thinking that far ahead for the country. Mitt is not thinking long-term, and only inside his little centrist box.

Don't stop thinking about us!

The research into quantum physics and cosmology – the two go hand in hand – that I have been doing for a novel have only really demonstrated two things to me: at the most fundamental level, reality is based on, well, we don’t know. Even calling them “strings” or “superstrings” doesn’t help because at that level, what are the strings made of? The other thing is that there is no reason why the universe should have occurred in the way it did, so that matter – and by inference, life – should even exist. Was this the first time it all worked out? And what was cranking to start the beginning of the universe as we know it?

Personally, I think of strings as intentions in the mind of God. That makes as much sense as anything else I’ve read. And the fact that the universe worked out so we could exist?  I paraphrase Robert Heinlein: “I don’t know who’s cranking. I just pray He doesn’t stop.”




If you build it, they will come…

December 16, 2011

SpaceX flying model (1:288 scale) of the Falcon 9/Dragon

It would be interesting to know how many of the folks who work at SpaceX flew model rockets when they were kids. I did, but that was in the heyday of model rocketry, in the 1960s and early 1970s. My son did, with me, when he was in elementary and middle school.

However it worked back then, the folks at SpaceX have a 1:288 flying model of the Falcon 9/Dragon that will be available soon from Amazon. (The image above is of the prototype; the production model will have clear plastic fins that are removable for display. This is a brilliant move, if not in marketing, certainly for inspiration of America’s youth. They also understand the short attention span of kids today. No painting is required on the model and it looks like assembly should be quick. This is the time of short assembly flying models, and they understood that. (Today you can buy a remote-controlled airplane or helicopter for under $ 30 that is almost ready to fly right out of the box. Thanks to our Chinese overlords for that bit of manufacturing savvy.)

In February, should everything go well, there should be a flurry of news reports about the first commercial spacecraft to dock at the ISS. That will generate a lot of free publicity for SpaceX. The time is right for kids to be reminded that going into space isn’t just something from an old history book, or from an EFX-laden movie. Real people are building real hardware to go into space. Even Newt gets it – more on that in a later post!

Of course, if the Dragon flight to the ISS is a dismal failure, things could be different. I admire the courage and confidence of Elon Musk and the SpaceX team to roll two test flights into one and go for it. That’s something that NASA almost always did not do, even in the Gemini and Apollo days.

The real deal, getting ready for launch in February

So I applaud SpaceX for promoting space exploration with the flying model. I’ve not flown one in a decade, though I still have all mine and a stock of Estes rocket motors, which may or may not be good anymore. I may have to drag them out and see if I can still get one stuck in a tree as reliably as I used to do!


It pays to think big!

December 14, 2011


While NASA is fooling around with their latest stimulus program – oops, I mean their heavy lifter expendable booster – others are going ahead and finding smarter ways to get into orbit than what Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called “disintegrating totem poles.”

This monstrosity, the brainchild of Burt Rutan and Paul Allen, looks at first glance to be something to show up on the cover of Popular Science and then vanish into obscurity as something too outrageous to actually be practical. There’s just a couple of problems with that.

First, Paul Allen (yep, billionaire Paul Allen from Microsoft) has the ambition AND the money to make it happen.

Second, Scaled Composites is building the plane. This is Burt Rutan’s company (that he sold to Northrop Grumman) that built the SpaceShipOne for the X-Prize and is building the follow-on versions for Virgin Galactic.

The actual orbital vehicle is to be built by SpaceX, based on the Dragon capsule and technology from the Falcon launch vehicle, which has already proven itself in several launches. In fact, the first real test of the Dragon in orbit should occur in February, flying one by remote to the ISS.

SpaceX Dragon vehicle berthed at the ISS (NASA image)

The new company, Stratolaunch Systems, is headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama. In addition to Scaled Composites and SpaceX, they have chosen a company called Dynetics of Huntsville to build the mating device that attaches the rocket vehicle to the plane.

The company has some heavy hitters: former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin is on the board, and the CEO and President is Gary Wentz, a former chief engineer at NASA.

The plane will be the largest in the world: a wingspan of 380 feet, gross takeoff weight of 1.2 million pounds, and it will require six jet engines that were designed for the Boeing 747 to power it. It can’t fly from just anywhere; it takes a runway at least 12,000 feet long. It will be built at the Mojave Space Port in a new hangar that will be constructed just for the plane.

The other day, I mentioned that the USAF was planning to use a reusable flyback booster of a design similar to those that have been planned for decades. There’s nothing wrong with that – people have devoted thousands of hours to designs for a flyback of this type and it should be an excellent intermediate step.

This plane is the next step. Build a fully reusable first stage for a launch vehicle – in this case, an aircraft instead of a rocket-powered first stage. Give it excellent abort characteristics. You have just eliminated the lion’s share of the launch vehicle weight by flying the rocket to a reasonable altitude and speed. Something goes wrong and you either abort and fly the whole package home, or drop the rocket and let the Dragon use its abort rocket system. Oh, and it means the crew – and yes, eventually this plane is designed to fly crewed Dragons – won’t be sitting on a gigantic stack of thin metal balloons filled with explosives. (That is, after all, what a rocket-powered launch vehicle is.)

This is the most encouraging news I’ve heard in a long time about a permanent space presence. If someone else had proposed it, I probably would have dismissed it as another great idea with no follow-through. These guys have a proven track record, and the funding to make it happen.

And it will be damned impressive to see in the air, won’t it?


“Everything Old Is New Again…”

December 8, 2011

It's been around for a while...

Now don’t be thinkin’ this is about politics or something. It’s about the announcement today that the US Air Force has thrown some money – $ 2 million – at Lockheed Martin to begin to develop a reusable flyback space booster.

This is not a new idea. Most ideas being studied in the space business have been around for a while. Mostly what they take is money to actually build prototypes and test them and then fix the bugs and build some more, unlike our current way of building space vehicles: build one and BY GOD NOTHING BETTER GO WRONG OR WE’LL NEVER GIVE YOU ANOTHER DAMN DIME YOU LAZY ROCKET SCIENTISTS! (That’s not me, that’s Congress and the Administration; pick a political party in power. Both have looked at it the same way. We can spend millions of extra money trying to get the bugs out of the F-35, which should probably never work right, but not one more penny for extra space vehicles. In fact, NASA is hoarding the last of the Shuttle Main Engines to use for the heavy lifter.

But back to LockMart’s new RSB Pathfinder. RBS is for…wait for it…Reusable Booster System. It will be proof-of-concept, not operational. What a concept? Boeing quietly built those X-37Bs for the USAF and nobody really knew much about them, and now one has been in orbit, doing God knows what, for over six months.

Flyback boosters have been designed since the 1950s. There is a great deal of information on many of these designs available in Aerospace Projects Review, an e-journal Scott Lowther has helmed for years. I highly recommend it for anybody who is interested in the history of space and aircraft projects that never flew. Nobody does research on this stuff like Scott! His regular site, with a lot of drawings of historical aerospace projects, is here.

One of the most important of the flyback booster designs was presented about a decade ago by a company called Starcraft Boosters, headed by moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.

Buzz's Starbooster

Aldrin’s company came up with a whole family of reusable flyback vehicles:

It was a great idea. Buzz even presented it in a science fiction novel called The Return, co-authored with John Barnes. One version was based on an Atlas 5 launcher with wings and jet engines. All of them would be remotely controlled.

So maybe this is the time. The Air Force is not as fickle as NASA, and can afford not to be. Two million bucks isn’t much to start with, but it will show the brass some pretty computer graphics and some PowerPoints. Eventually they will have to throw in some more money.

However, like the X-37, which started out as a NASA project that never got past drop tests, the Air Force actually intends to buy stuff that works. You see, they have reasons to buy stuff. NASA still does a good job setting missions for unmanned planetary probes. Well, actually, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and some universities set some good missions and companies like Orbital Sciences build some good hardware. But the Air Force can think in the long term, and can resist the pull of Congresscritters better than NASA. Maybe what we needed to do, way back in the 1950s, was to turn the whole space program over to the Navy. (There was this retired Annapolis graduate, invalided out because of tuberculosis with a rank of only lieutenant j.g., who probably should have been in charge of it. Although Admiral Heinlein of the U.S. Space Navy sounds better, doesn’t it?)  I think this is a topic for another day.

Although maybe it’s already been going on


Waiting for Captain America

December 7, 2011

Over on Keep Americans Free I did a piece today on why we need to quit talking about the sexual indiscretions of Presidential candidates and get back to what they want to do to make America better. It relates to an article by Ann Coulter talking about David Axelrod and how he helps destroy candidates. You may want to check it out.


Another new planet…here in our solar system.

December 6, 2011

Vesta - asteroid, or baby planet?

Maybe we aren’t traveling to these places in person – not yet, anyway – but the robot explorers are doing incredible stuff. Nobody expected the second-largest asteroid in the Belt to look like these images. What caused these parallel grooves?


The NASA Dawn spacecraft, powered by an ion drive like something out of science fiction, is orbiting Vesta and has taken 500 photos so far. The asteroid/planetoid is about 330 miles in diameter. It’s currently 117 million miles from Earth, and Dawn is about 1700 miles away, moving in until it will come as close as 100 miles from the surface. After a year studying Vesta, Dawn moves on to Ceres, the “big enchilada” of the Belt. It should arrive there in 2015.

Dawn spacecraft

With a low-thrust but long-duration ion engine and hardware validated on other spacecraft and satellites, the craft cost about $ 350 million not including the launch vehicle. The ion engine uses electricity from the solar panels to accelerate ionized xenon gas to very high speeds. The spacecraft has less than a thousand pounds of xenon fuel to take it from Earth, past Mars, to Vesta, and onward to Ceres over a period of nine years.

In 2009 Dawn did a close pass of Mars to use the planet as a gravity assist. Without it the spacecraft couldn’t go to both Vesta and Ceres for lack of fuel.

Callibration image of Mars made by Dawn on its closest approach in 2009

It may not be planet-sized, but it’s pretty big. Asteroids may be the space outposts of the future. Using one reduces the amount of structure, and perhaps water and fuel, to be hauled up from Earth.The main Dawn JPL/NASA page.



OMG Marie Osmond?

December 5, 2011

Before and after - she looks like Terri Hatcher now!

I understand the temptation toward plastic surgery for those in the “entertainment” business, especially women. There is more than a little ageism in that industry. But some people take well to it, and have doctors who are real artists, and some…well, some end up just damned scary.

Marie Osmond was blessed with being “cute.” (Valerie Bertinelli was also one of those perpetually cute celebrities, for example.) Apparently the pull of celebrity life was too much for Marie.

I don’t know what they do to lips to make them look like that. It looks like whatever they did to Marg Helgenberger. I know, I’m just some middle-aged guy, what do I know. But geeze, people. Spend all that money, pain and effort, and get…well, you know.

I am once again glad I’m not a celebrity. And in this case, that I am neither a little bit country or a little bit rock and roll. You thought I could leave it alone, didn’t you? Nope. Too easy.)


Wikipedia scares me.

December 4, 2011

No, it’s not the pictures of scary-looking folk they’ve been putting on top of the pages lately. I used to tell kids when I was teaching that the internet was a vast resource but not an accurate one, or words to that effect. I told them that I could set up a site with totally erroneous information and fairly soon somebody would quote it.

It happened, sort of. En route to looking up something else, I found a reference in Wikipedia to this very blog! Sadly, the author of the entry quoted something I had said somewhat out of context. I was reminiscing about a colleague in the music profession who had recently passed, and related an anecdote I had heard second-hand. I can’t verify the anecdote…I heard it several decades ago. I found that anecdote referenced in Wikipedia, implied as fact.

It did reference the blog post, but when you look something up on Wikipedia, how many times do you check the sources? First, to see if the author of the article interpreted the source correctly and attributed the information correctly, and second, to see if the original source seemed reliable? Yeah, me neither.

So, folks, a word to the wise: Don’t trust Wikipedia as a source. It even uses me as primary source material – and as we all know, I’m not to be trusted!