Archive for the ‘travel’ Category


First Orion arrives at KSC

July 2, 2012

Last Thursday, when you were either deifying or damning Chief Justice John “The Dread Pirate” Roberts, Lockheed-Martin delivered the first flyable Orion to the Kennedy Space Center.

No, it’s not this Orion:

Fantastic Plastic’s kit of the Orion Nuclear-Powered Battleship, patterned by Scott Lowther ( and built by Allen Ury (see note below)

And it’s certainly not this Orion:

The original Robert McCall art for the posters for “2001: A Space Odyssey”

No, it’s this one:

Yeah. Kind of anticlimactic, isn’t it?

Of course, it’s not done. The plan at the moment is to launch it a year or so from now on a Delta, do two elliptical orbits to an apogee of 3600 miles, then drive it back into the atmosphere at about 20,000 mph to simulate the stress an Orion would take coming straight back from the Moon, Apollo-style. It would be unmanned. Then a year or two later the next one would be launched on the planned heavy lifter to do an Apollo 8-style circumlunar trip (I don’t know about lunar orbit, maybe more like Apollo 13, just swingin’ around and a free return) as an unmanned vehicle as well. Then finally, a year or so later, launch one with people on a lunar mission. That should make it about 2019 or so, I reckon, allowing for Congress to screw up the budget a couple more times.

Of course, when they get there they will have to decide if they are going to land near the Chinese colony or the privately-owned SpaceX lunar base.

Credits: Robert McCall, dean of the space artists; Fantastic Plastic; and Scott Lowther.


Oh. My. God. Time-lapse video of the earth from the ISS

March 9, 2012

You need to go to see this YouTube video of the earth as seen from the ISS. It is absolutely incredible. The mix and background music make it even better. And the green in the image above is the aurora borealis seen from above. I would so love to see this.


Garmin GPS…isn’t this thing supposed to help you find your way?

November 13, 2011

I bought a Garmin 1450 GPS from Amazon last week because it was a great deal. I used to have a Tom Tom device, years ago, and passed it to my daughter when I started using the Navigon software for the iPhone. The iPhone is just too small a screen for all the information available. Navigon was really slow on the iPhone 3G, but works much better on the iPhone 4.

So the Garmin 1450 has a 5 inch screen and a very nice display. We used it going from home in the western Chicago suburbs to Indianapolis and back to my daughter’s house in the northwest Chicago suburbs this weekend. Most of the time it was fine. I bought the Yoda voice and he got annoying after a while because he pops in with a comment every 10 miles or so. That would be good to keep me awake when driving alone, but you can’t turn it off and the number of fortune cookie-like comments he has is extremely limited. Otherwise, Yodaspeak is good for navigation: he tells you the direction first, and that’s helpful.

The problem is  I think even though I downloaded the most recent update before we left it has some serious problems. I-80/90 east of Chicago is perennially under construction, and a major rebuild of I-70 west of I-465 outside of Indy is just about finished. We got some odd choices in those places. We knew better and went through, but if we were really using it in unfamiliar territory we would have been in trouble around the I-65 and I-90 junction at Gary, Indiana. The roads listed weren’t there anymore! The first route it gave use took us off I-65 onto a surface street for a few miles, then back on to I-90…they connect beautifully and pretty much always have, except when the ramp was rebuilt. The update must be from that time. That was at least six months ago and it’s a very heavily-traveled road; I would expect it would be a pretty high priority for update.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy one. I like the interface on the Navigon better, and I could try it on the iPad, but the iPad is hard to position so you can read it while driving. I thought a dedicated unit would be better. We’ll see. I’m not convinced this thing is as useful as it should be, unfortunately.

Oh, and it has “lifetime traffic reports.” Nope. It has “ad-based traffic reports.” Little popup ads show up on the screen to pay for your use of the traffic service. It’s not really annoying yet, but we drove the Chicago on I-90 (all the way through and out to the Roselle Road exit) on a Saturday night, so traffic congestion was minimal. In real traffic the traffic data may be helpful enough that I don’t care about the popups. Right now I don’t like ’em.


“Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat..”

October 3, 2011

That’s what Bullwinkle Moose always said just before he pulled out the lion instead. The idea of remote-controlled landings of spacecraft and booster stages isn’t new, just damned difficult. I would expect that today it is made somewhat easier because of the accuracy of GPS, and the fact that today an astonishing amount of computing power can be compressed into a very small space. Then there is the use of carbon fiber and composites that lighten the airframe considerably. It looks really, really unstable to me, but I’m obviously no engineer. The second stage in particular is a trick, I think; it looks like it has a heat shield as well. Maybe they can pull it off.

What I really like is the landing of the Dragon capsule back at the Cape. Remember that these aren’t just some dinky little retrorockets. It uses the Launch Escape System, designed to boost the Dragon off the Falcon in case of an emergency. It looks pretty slick dropping right next to the shuttle landing strip. It would have been even cooler if a pilot stepped out afterwards!

This is part of the bigger plan that Elon Musk promoted on the video last spring. At the end, they use the Dragon to land on Mars.


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?



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!




Observations upon leaving Las Vegas

September 19, 2011

1. It’s a dry heat, but that only helps up to a point. Then it’s just dang hot.
2. There are more tattoos per capita there than anywhere I’ve been. And those are the visible ones!
3. When the zombie apocalypse comes, we will know them from the people playing the slots because the zombies are more aware and purposeful.
4. Apparently African-Americans do not frequent Las Vegas in large numbers. Why is that?
5. If you do impressions, or stage magic, go to Vegas. That’s the only place I know where you can get a steady job. There are a huge number of shows that feature one or the other. Really? Do people really go to those? I mean, Penn and Teller, sure. Criss Angel, I guess.  But there are about twenty!
6. Oh, and female impersonators, too. And a half-dozen shows based on Sinatra and the “Rat Pack.”
7. I didn’t spend much time in the casino, but once – once – was all I heard any cheering from anybody hitting big.  Them’s not good odds, in my book.
8. I like the low humidity. I think my sinuses would be happier there. But the place just ain’ green. Even the mountains are this dirty brown color.