Space Camp!

I couldn’t go to Maker Faire this weekend because I was at Space Camp. I’ve wanted to go since I was a kid, and they have adult programs so I finally got my act together and went. My friend Srini came too.

Because the description on the site was so vague, I was worried that it would be too “kiddie”, but it wasn’t, it was awesome! I guess the kiddiest thing we did was build model rockets, but that was fun!

Space Camp has a full-size shuttle simulator and a mission control. We did 3 missions over the course of the weekend, and people rotated between Mission Control, Orbiter Crew (Commander/Pilot), and Mission Specialist (EVA).

I got to do EVA on the first mission, which is exactly what I wanted. I was on the Canadarm and Srini was in a harness simulating free EVA. We had to lower a satellite into the cargo bay, repair it as mission control instructed us, replace some antennae, reactivate it, and release it. It was so much fun!

For the next mission I was Flight Director, which was kind of boring until things started going wrong. Then I had to find the solutions and communicate them to CAPCOM, who relayed to the orbiter crew. Still, it was interesting to see how Mission Control works.

For the final mission, I was the Commander on the shuttle and Srini was the Pilot. (Apparently astronauts don’t like to be called “co-pilot”, so the pilot is the “commander”, and the co-pilot is the “pilot”). We had lots of checklists to run through and many switches were flipped. I brought the shuttle in for a smooth landing at Kennedy.

Beside the missions, we visited the museum, rocket park, launched our rockets, and designed a mission patch. We went on the multi-axis trainer and the centrifuge. A nice bonus was that we had access to the museum during off-hours, so we could get right up to all the exhibits.

The whole experience was great. If you like space and rockets at all, you should consider going. There are also kid/parent camps (and of course straight-up kid space camp). The one thing I would suggest for adults staying at the Marriott across the street instead of in the dorm, which is pretty grody from generations of kids staying there.

September 20, 2011 | Posted in: True Stories | Comments Closed

New Workshop

So, I was complaining about how I was out of room on my workbench and had no real room to expand. Kathy’s response: why not rearrange this stuff like this, do this, and take over the whole other side of the basement instead? Woo hoo!

limberjack in progressThe last project I did before rearranging was a limberjack, an Appalachian dancing puppet. (You may recognize him from Mister Show if nothing else.)

I’ve been interested in wooden automata for a while, and the book Making Mad Toys & Mechanical Marvels in Wood has some great full-scale plans.

The first project in the book is a limberjack, so I thought I’d give it a shot. It turned out to be an excellent introduction to the whole process, from transferring the pattern, planning the cutting, and assembling.

limberjack complete Using the scroll saw, it took a loooong time to cut the pieces from such thick wood, even though it was just soft basswood. Although he’s a bit rough, I really like how he came out. I was especially proud of the joints. As soon as he was finished, I put on some good bluegrass and let him dance!

After that project, it took several months of weekends to get everything moved around the way I wanted, but it’s finally done. Instead of one workbench jammed in between the beer fridge and the electrical panel, I’ve got 2 workbenches and a sit-down worktable. That gives me enough room to get a couple power tools in and star doing a little more complicated work. Kathy got me a bandsaw for my birthday, and my dad is giving me his old table saw. We also had some additional outlets put in, and some overhead lighting so I can finally see what I’m doing.

It’s really exciting, and hopefully I can do justice to all this new potential. I want to start off with some simple wooden toys, and continue looking into automata. Now that I can use the bandsaw to rough stuff out, I hope to be able to get more done, quicker. I also want to learn more (well, anything) about electronics and do some simple projects, and, and, and…

the new workshop


Insert Cuckoo Clock Sound Effect Here

So I was walking to work from the subway this morning when a woman turned to me and said “Excuse me?” Thinking she was going to ask directions, I stopped.

In a Caribbean accent she said, “Did you know that Black people can use a wind… I’m not Black by the way,” she said gesturing to herself. She was most definitely Black. She started over: “Did you know that Black people… you know how Spanish people can turn into a snake? Black people can use a wind,” here she made an upward spiraling tornado gesture and repeated, “use a wind to take off the roof of a house.”

I was kind of stunned for a second. She didn’t look homeless or like a crazy person. I rubbed my chin, said “Hmm!” in what I hoped was an interested way, and moved on.

Satellite Sighting

Saturday night Srini and I were checking out Mars and Saturn. They were very close in the sky – but unfortunately not close enough to take a picture (the NexImage field of view is quite small, about the same as a 5mm eyepiece).

I decided to sketch what I saw instead, and look up the moon positions and star names later. I looked back and forth between my sketch and the eyepiece several times and suddenly saw something whiz by Saturn. I turned to my laptop, which was running Starry Night at the time, and wound it back to confirm what I thought – yep, it was a satellite.

If I’m reading the Heavens Above database correctly, it is the rocket body of Cosmos 1484, a Soviet satellite used for “Gathering regular information on the natural resources of the earth for use in various branches of the Soviet economy, and conducting further tests on new types of measuring apparatus and methods of remote sensing of the earth’s surface and atmosphere”.

It didn’t really look like anything since it went by so fast, but it is pretty damn cool that I was looking through the eyepiece right at the split-second it passed by (especially since I wasn’t expecting it).

If you have Starry Night, you can download this file to see what I saw. If you’re into astronomy and don’t have Starry Night, get it!

Frazetta Close Up

The BarbarianOn Saturday Jim and I drove out to East Stroudsburg PA to visit the Frank Frazetta museum.

Frazetta’s been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. I don’t remember when I first became aware of him, but I do vividly remember begging my mom to let me buy “The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta” when I was fairly young.

I never realized there was a Frazetta museum until a few months ago when I finally got around to watching Painting With Fire, the Frazetta documentary, which mentioned it in passing. I immediately said, “OK, I’m going!” The museum is curated and managed by Frank’s wife Ellie. Although we were disappointed not to meet the man himself, she took the time to meet each visitor personally and told some interesting and funny stories about some of the paintings.

Frank Frazetta MuseumThe museum is quite small (this image shows about 75% of it) but it’s an inspiring sight. To stand in front of a single Frazetta painting from only a foot away is fantastic, and to see them all at once is almost overwhelming. It was hard to keep from running all over the place going “There’s that one! Ooo there’s that one!” Although I have several books of his work, I was surprised to see how much detail is not reproduced in print. The makeup on the Egyptian Queen, the scars on Conan’s face, were so incredible.

As sort of a funny side note, seeing all these paintings in one place made me realize something: Frazetta doesn’t draw feet! I forget at what point it dawned on us, but as we moved from painting to painting we started to laugh, “Yep, no feet on that one either!” Of course there are some that have feet, and they are certainly well-rendered (so it’s not like he can’t draw feet obviously) but time after time the feet were hidden behind trees, under water, buried in snow, in stirrups, obscured by piles of bodies, etc. Take a look at a bunch of his paintings and you’ll see what I mean!

Anyhow, the museum is open Saturdays and Sundays. If you are a fan and in any way able to make it out there, take the trip and you won’t regret it.

Well, that sucked.

Today Kathy and I spent 6 hours on a train – 5 of those stuck in the tunnel between NJ and NYC. Apparently the entire Amtrak system from DC to Boston lost power. We were about 5 minutes from the city when it happened.

I don’t blame the conductors obviously, but NJ Transit / Amtrak / whoever was completely unprepared and the situation was a constant flow of misinformation. After several hours they told us that diesel trains were being used to tow the disabled trains out. There were 2 trains ahead of us. They announced that the first train had been towed. About an hour after that they told us the second train had been towed and a separate diesel was standing by to tow us as soon as the second train was cleared. Then…. nothing. For a loooooong time.

By now even the emergency lights had died so we were sitting there in pitch blackness. Still no announcements.

At this point it turned out that the power had been restored… but since our emergency battery was dead we could not re-raise the pantograph to the electric wires. The manual system failed. Yep, you need to have power to be able to reach the power.

No one ever told us what happend to the diesel that was supposed to tow us but it never arrived.

Eventually they pulled up another train behind us. At one point a very pregnant lady came through, breathing hard and attended by a doctor and a nurse. Some firefighters came through to ask if everyone was OK. Lots of time went by. We all walked back through the disabled train to the new train. Then we backed up to Secaucus station.

There, the train doors opened and they said something along the lines of “You can get off here but we don’t know what trains are running. Stay on the train if you want to go to New York.” At this point it was about 1:30 (we had gotten on the train at 7:18). While we were sitting there, a Trenton-bound train pulled up on the other side of the platform. I was looking at the NJ Transit website on my Treo and the latest news (from about 10 minutes earlier) said that Northeast Corridor train service was suspended. That was good enough for us – no point in continuing to the city just to get stuck there. We finally got home a little after 2pm.

Metal for Old Farts (Rob Zombie at the Nokia Theatre)

The tagline for the show was “VH1 Classic presents Rob Zombie”. VH1? Classic? How old is Rob Zombie? How old am I?!

This was my first time at the Nokia Theatre and I was really impressed. It’s a good medium-sized venue (holds about 2500 I think), with the front general admission standing and the back general admission seating. With cupholders! I would say the seats are a bit narrow so if you’re a bigger person you might not be comfortable in them. There’s plenty of bars, the bathrooms are huge and non-disgusting and the acoustics were very good. I would definitely see another show there.

The first opener was Bullet for My Valentine, from Wales. I had never heard them before but I liked them. They put a lot of energy into their short set even though the reaction they got from the crowd was mediocre. Both the instruments and the vocals were good. They had some nice “classic” metal touches like chorused guitars.

After that came Lacuna Coil, from Italy. It looked like they had a decent following in the crowd, but I thought they were awful. They seemed really phoney and staged. They did this “synchronized headbanging” thing where the entire band would stand at the front of the stage and bang their heads in perfect unison, and everything they did struck me that way. I felt like I could see the lead singer saying in his head “annnd fist in the air, and pound my chest, and christ pose, and bang.” Oh, and they covered “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode. I am not kidding. I don’t know what they were doing at this show. I feel like all the devil horns thrown their way were sadly misdirected.

Rob Zombie was up last. I have been waiting for him to tour solo again for years, since The Horrible Incident Wherein We Missed the Entire Show. His stage show was great, with tons of carnival-type props (fiberglass devil girls, clown heads, skulls that looked like they came from a cheap funhouse, a light-up 666) for background. While he played, a screen in the back flashed images of anime, porn, anime porn, Charles Manson, Russ Meyer movies, and so on. They played both stuff from the new album and some greatest hits.

The band was tight and entertaining. I think maybe Rob Zombie surrounds himself with doubles to prevent assassination attempts – his bassist and drummer were sporting very similar looks. The guitarist, J5, was really good and played a loooong solo during Thunderkiss 65 that quoted lots of famous solos including Eddie’s “Eruption” and Jimi’s “Star Spangled Banner” complete with teeth-picking. He teased the crowd with the opening riff to “Crazy Train” at one point but it didn’t materialize.

All in all (well except for Lacuna Coil) it was a great show. I heard all the songs I wanted to hear and I can finally cross “see a Rob Zombie show” off my list.

(Don’t) Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd

Kathy and I went to see the new production of Sweeney Todd. Bleh. Awful.

It was staged in a style I can only describe as Avant Tard.

There was no orchestra – the actors were also the musicians. Clever, right? I guess. But what that means is that every scene has a bunch of people milling around who aren’t really there. People who are having a conversation stand at opposite ends of the stage, both facing out into the audience, but we are to imagine that they are actually standing together facing each other. So if one of them hands something to the other, a third actor (whose character is not “really” there in the scene) takes it from one, walks across the stage, and hands it to the other.

The whole show takes place on a very minimalist set, so props are used over and over. Now this is a coffin, now it’s a table in a bar, now it’s the judge’s bench. Sweeney Todd’s shop is above Mrs. Lovett’s, but the stage is only one level. So there was a ladder that people would go up, to indicate that “now they are upstairs”. Sometimes. Sometimes they just go stand in a different spot on the stage.

The murder scene in the first act was incredibly lame – he holds his razor up, the lights all turn red, and Pirelli gets up out of the chair, walks across the stage and puts on a white coat with blood on it. I’m not kidding. Oh, and for some reason Pirelli is played by a woman (who plays the part as broadly as a birthday party clown).

We both hated it, and we left at intermission.

2 Thumbs Down.

Disclaimer: I can count the number of Broadway shows I’ve seen on one hand (and have a finger or two left over), so maybe I’m just not enough of a “theater person” to appreciate how “clever” it all was. I did like the old production of Sweeney Todd w/Angela Lansbury (saw it on VHS many years ago), and having seen how kick-ass the sets were in that version made this one so much worse.

Trek is Dead, Long Live Trek

A lot of Trekky things have happened in the past year… Enterprise was cancelled (woot!), Braga left Trek (WOOT!), and Beer Trek celebrated it’s 10th anniversary on the web (whoa).

Last year Jack and I had planned to turn over management of Beer Trek to a team of like-minded Scots. We knew that it had gotten pretty lame since we had not added new rules since about the second season of Voyager, and hoped some younger blood would give it a much-needed kick in the ass. Unfortunately it seems like this is not going to work out (although I do hope to post their most excellent Beer Trek boardgame at some point).

We call Beer Trek the Greatest Star Trek Drinking Game in the Universe, and once it was true. Hopefully it will be so again. Beer Trek cannot die. My new plan is to put the power in the hands of The People. I am going to make Beer Trek a dynamic, data-driven site, so the submission and approval of rules just involves filling in some forms and checking boxes instead of sifting through tons of emails and editing HTML I wrote 10 years ago. Hopefully this will keep the site fresh with minimal effort. This will also allow for searching and querying the rules, so you can see all the TNG rules, or all the Spock rules, etc.

I’m off to a good start – I’ve completed the table structure and loaded all the existing rules into a MySQL database. Next steps are to create the forms for submission and approval and hook them up to the database. Last is a redesign of the Beer Trek itself (done back when I thought yellow text on a black background looked really cool).

I had toyed with the idea of releasing the engine as sort of an open-source “run your own data-driven drinking game site” package but I don’t think I’m doing anything someone else couldn’t do better or faster.

Neither Art School Nor Confidential

Here’s what I’ve been drawing over the past week or so.

I started with a pencil sketch of a corner of my living room.

Then I tried to recreate the sketch in several different media. Note that I am not talking about just running it through the “watercolor” filter or whatever, which I hate. If you want to see some truly amazing(ly bad) examples of that, check out the customer images for this book.

After that I decided to face the fact that if you’re going to to learn to draw you’re going to have to draw some fruit. I did an apple by itself in charcoal and then two apples and a lemon in colored pencil.

I don’t have a definite goal in mind (as usual), but I’ve always felt like drawing is a foundation skill that I’ve been missing. I basically still draw like I’m 10 years old. I’m pretty pleased with the results so far. Now I just have to practice practice practice. I stumbled across a really good book that’s geared toward someone learning to draw using Photoshop and Painter, so my hopes are high.