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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sleep Number

I spent my stimulus check. Well, a little more than it, actually.

The last camping type air mattress I bought in February had started losing air. It was the most expensive one I've got to figure out how to put in a warranty claim on it, see if I can't recover some money or get a replacement to use as an actual camping/guest bed mattress.

I'd already looked into conventional mattresses and discovered that by the time you get to something worth sleeping on, you're well on your way to a thousand bucks. A third of your lifetime and all that rationalization aside, my back isn't young enough or resilient enough for a crappy bed. I already max out my chiropractic benefits on my insurance, and that's to just keep the problems engaged, not entirely solved.

I had a queen sized box from a soft-side waterbed gone bad years ago. That's what my camping mattresses had been resting on. It saved me having to also pay out for a foundation when I went bed shopping.

One of the virtues of those camping mattresses: they're super comfy. So Sleep Number beds make sense to me. Because if I could get an air bed that wouldn't leak in a few months, I'd still use the camping mattresses just for comfort alone.

Still, I worried about leaks. But I've known several people to get these beds and never heard anyone complain of a problem. And it has a twenty year warranty, so they'd have to be built a little stouter, right?

Plus, waking up several times a night to reinflate my Aerobed to get me off the box was getting old, so I pulled the trigger.

The package came to me at work Friday. I had to sign for it, so I couldn't have it shipped to my house. The salesman checked the dimensions of the box and assured me it would fit easily in the back seat of a Honda Accord.

Dude wasn't going to blow his sale, right?

In truth, I had to unpack the larger box and arrange the items in it throughout the car.

Em was excited to help me assemble it. They should label it 'So simple, a 12-year-old can do it.' Because, basically, a 12-year-old did most of it. Places where the instructions puzzled me, she saw the solution right away.

When I was still married to her mother, we'd buy something like an entertainment center, and I'd try to set it up. I might make it ten minutes or an hour, but I never got very far with the actual project. Then my wife would take over and it would be done.

Em apparently got that instruction-reading gene from her Ma.

The verdict? It's a super comfortable bed, but the right side chamber lost pressure in the night and I had to reinflate it. Today I re-fastened the air hose for it. If that doesn't work, there's a plug I'm supposed to try. Then it's call Customer Service and tell them to send me a new bladder, I guess. It sure as hell should still be under warranty, right?

Oh, and that whole 'what's your sleep number?' thing. 70 seems pretty good.


I got to thinking while I love the Smiths, they're far from the most significant band in my musical life.

I like a broad range of music. Heavy metal, bluegrass, classical, folk, novelty, etc. But jazz: jazz has a special place. Twenty years ago, I couldn't imagine a career choice besides eking out an existence as a jazz guitarist. I wasn't particularly talented, but I was obsessed.

In fact, I enrolled at North Texas State the year it became the University of North Texas. But my senior year in high school, I battled all kinds of problems with my left arm. The diagnosis at the time was tendonitis, but in 1988, there was practically no other repetitive motion injury diagnosis being made. I think they might have told me it was tendonitis if I was complaining of a sore throat.

Therapy for tendonitis did little good. Rest worked, but every time I'd get back to playing I'd aggravate things. Physical therapy, drugs, it all worked short term but my arm just wouldn't play nice.

I withdrew from North Texas when it became clear that I'd be coming home by October if I went. By dropping in August, I got my big out-of-state tuition check back.

Ten years later, I finally got an accurate diagnosis: thoracic outlet syndrome. And by adjusting some techniques to avoid pinching that nerve in my shoulder, I found I could play indefinitely without symptoms.

Of course, by then I was a family guy, with a full time-plus job and other hobbies on top of it all. So playing indefinitely isn't really on the menu, but I can play.

Plus, by then I'd learned that there are some elements that make up someone who can make a living as a jazz guitarist that I lack. A willingness to live in grad-student type poverty on a permanent basis, for instance. A good sense of time, for another.

Still, I love the music. Of the thousand-or-so CDs I've accumulated in my life, at least three fourths are jazz titles.

And as I say, I got thinking, how is it I have Floyd (my 18oz pink monster), Hatful of Hollow, basically a Smiths tribute rocket, and yet none of my rockets really relates to the musical genre I consider to be the apogee of artistic achievement.

To remedy this deficit, I give you BeBop. BeBop is an Estes Big Daddy kit, and for some reason I thought of Dexter Gordon, Daddy Plays the Horn.

I painted him metallic copper, and toyed with trying to make him appear to have saxophone keys. In the end, I neglected to include Dexter Gordon in the photos I put on his fins.

Present on the fins are: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Wilbur Ware, Ron Carter, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Garrison, Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, and Art Pepper.

The musical notes you see on the body and nose are the heads for Donna Lee (a Charlie Parker tune) and Daahoud (Clifford Brown) scanned from the Real Book.

As always, I modified the Estes kit a bit. They gave me a motor tube I felt was too short, and I added a longer 24mm tube to give me some room to work. Then found when I went to fly him that the nose cone sat so close to the end of that center tube that there was no room for the parachute. I removed some of the elastic shock chord and went to a smaller 'chute and squeaked by. I'm going to have to Dremel that tube down a bit.

For Crying Out Loud

Something I can't figure.

Of course, I'm a 'plague on both your houses' libertarian when it comes to both Republican and Democratic political types, so it's hard for me to understand why anyone would think the world could be improved by putting, say Hillary Clinton or John McCain or Barack Obama in the White House. They're all just slightly different flavors of the same incomprehensible disaster. One of those three will win and you'll be worse off for it, I guarantee it.

I've seen where Barrack Obama has indicated high gas prices would be a good thing. Like $7 a gallon high. The usual liberal bullshit theory that it's so awesome that Italians or Swiss or Swedish motorists pay so much for gasoline. Wouldn't we all be a lot more efficient if we had to pay that much?

If the theory were true, we should hope for $30 a gallon gasoline. It's a theory based on the notion that using energy is a bad thing in and of itself without regard to the benefits that use provides.

Anyway, the thing I can't figure out. I got gas today, and it was just shy of $50. And I drive a Honda Accord. This hurts, but I don't drive all that many optional miles, so there's nothing to be done but to pay. And I thought, How can Obama be winning?

I know Hillary is a pretty repulsive person, and I can see Obama is a charismatic guy. But how is being in favor of $7 gas not just flat-out lethal to his campaign? Personally, being in favor of $7 gas, or even the $4 gas I bought today, is like being in favor of child pornography or animal cruelty.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hangin' @ Bucher's Joint

I first met Bucher (pronounced 'booker') when I stumbled on the KCAR launching out at Shawnee Mission Park about a year ago. He told me he was from California, but somehow I already knew that. Something about the way he combined a pony tail, tank top and hard hat.

And something about his mannerisms of speech.

But the guy has forgotten more about rocketry than I'm likely to ever know. Coming off as half-hippie/half-construction worker (because both these are basically accurate impressions), there's a third half that understand the math and science of propulsion engineering. And a brain that picks up details about sounding rockets and various things that have been tried in high powered rocketry like a massive magnet finding iron filings.

But this evening I made my first visit to the Bucher abode. Which is kind of like going to the Playboy mansion if you substituted handmade musical instruments and model rockets for lovely twenty-somethings.

Bucher is a skilled luthier, specializing in guitars and Celtic mandolins. But he's also done a few dobros and whatnot. And as with rocketry, his knowledge of luthierie, who's doing what and how, is both encyclopedic and catholic.

Me and Lee were not the first KCAR members to hit the house today, but we were the first who weren't retired. Bucher's kind of retired himself these days: congestive heart failure has his heart functioning at 15%. He's not all that much older than me, but just standing for a few minutes can tire him these days. His feet are seemingly permanently semi-bruised with broken vessels. What fits of activity his body will still support tends to funnel into his modeling.

I have too many pictures. The idea was to get pictures of the club trailer. But it's still pretty skeletal. You can tell it's a trailer but it doesn't look like a rocket club's trailer.

And how to fit these things together: what's the chance you'll be interested in rockets and luthierie? I mean, Bucher is the only other guy I know who thinks both of those are interesting.

Bucher's house is literally littered with rockets. There are so many partially built scale models and whatnot, it seems impossible he's ever gotten anything finished enough to fly. Yet every club launch I've been to, he's got interesting things to lob up to the atmosphere.

Then there's the eye-opening factor. When the talk got around to music, and music got around to Phillip Glass, I allowed that he was the collaborator in the worst movie ever made IMHO.

Koyaanisqatsi was torture. I spent the first hour or so waiting for the opening credits to be over before realizing there were no opening credits, this was the film.

But I fell asleep before the Atlas rocket launch and CATO near the end of the film. Which Bucher showed, and which proves that Koyaanisqatsi is not the worst film ever made. That honor now goes to Congo, which was almost bad enough to be camp, but not quite. And unlike Kubrick's exercise in mass hypnosis, Congo was meant to be a plot-driven thriller.

Boucher showed me the launch scene, and it is fascinating.

Maybe not as fascinating as a 98mm reloadable L motor like this one, granted. Bear in mind, most of what I've ever launched are on motors smaller than my ring finger. Some smaller than my pinkie. A few a bit bigger than my thumb.

Here's a motor that's not longer than a baby's arm, it's bigger than the damn baby.

Anyway, a good time was had by all. I still want to learn fiberglass and polyurethane lay ups from Bucher. And he's already steered me towards things I can make myself cheaper than I'm presently buying them.

Plus, he has the Holy RPG of Antioch. Inspired by the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python's Holy Grail.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Getting it Right

A fellow KCAR member said to me awhile back, 'Estes does just enough things right to keep from being completely useless.'

This is a common sentiment among long-time rocket geeks. There's a reason: Estes' business model is focused on 13-year-olds who will buy four or five kits before they're done. There's millions such kids, where there's only a few thousand of us 38-year-old kids who might build a hundred rockets.

Not very many kits into it, I discovered I could scratch-build rockets for a fraction of the price of a kit. It's just gloss-coated kraft paper tubing, a plastic or balsa nose cone, some card stock or carbon fiber centering rings, balsa fins. Bulk buys, such as Apogee's 'Tubes O'Plenty' could outfit me with the makings of a dozen rockets for the price of two or three kits.

Plus, I learned some tricks to making better rockets. Basswood fins are tougher than balsa, and while they're heavier, they're doable. Kevlar shock chord mounts don't separate as often, especially if you go with 200 to 400 lb line. Nylon parachutes are worth the extra money (they're reliable), and you can use swivel hooks to use the same parachute for multiple rockets.

Plus, some of Estes' kits are frustratingly poor designs. The Porta-Pot Shot, for instance: they sell this as a B & C motor rocket, but it should be a D & E because it has obscene amounts of drag. And even when I modified it to support a larger motor and parachute, I still wound up with the parachute getting caught up and the rocket was ruined on its maiden voyage.

Kits like that, you can see why those 13-year-olds give it up after four or five kits.

Some of Estes' kits are neat, though. The Skywriter, for instance. I'm presently building the fifth Scribble in the Midwest Rock Lobster Fleet's history. It's a smallish rocket, easily lost and damaged, but it's cute.

And I say it's smallish, but I remember when I built our first one, I thought it was a real clydesdale. The nose cone of this rocket would fit the motor tube of Bebop, the Estes Big Daddy kit I've also got underway.

But, as Arlo Guthrie might say, that's not what I came to talk about. I came to talk about the D-Region Tomahawk.

This was an impulse buy nestled in an impulse buy: I was buying a couple of composite motors from a discount rocketry vendor and I saw they had the D-Region Tomahawk kit priced to move. Ten bucks less than the local hobby shops.

And it was a kit I'd been intrigued by.

This is no ordinary Estes rocket. I thought it was a BT-70 tube, but it's a weird size, something between an BT60 and BT70. Usually, scale models take a standard tube size and base the length on the diameter.

It's also a much more engineered kit. A very sophisticated tail section includes plastic bulkheads to secure the stuffer tube, and a first-rate motor retention system. The fins aren't secured to the motor mount (that would be even better), but they have built-in fillets and tabs to fit molded fins slots. In addition to the launch lugs required for launching on a 3/16" launch rod, the kit includes a scale launch rail button to be more like the real sounding rocket.

Some things are wonky: the tip of the nose cone is a tiny, incomprehensibly separate piece. The shock chord is both an easily melted rubber band and it comes with Estes' trademark built-to-break mount. On a rocket this size, a wad of paper glued to the wall with a rubber band in it is a recipe for separation. I used 400 lb kevlar tied around the forward stuffer tube bulkhead.

Just as most places they suggest wood glue or plastic cement, I used epoxy.

Despite my modifications, I have to hand it to Estes for producing a decent scale model kit. They even include a nylon parachute, which is both all but unheard of with them and something that by itself can retail for almost half the price of the kit. I'm sure it cost them all of 50¢ from their Chinese supplier, but it's a high value added sort of thing.

Painting the rocket accurately will be a challenge. Probably not going to happen if I'm flying it this weekend.

I guess my question for Estes is why they can't make more stuff like this? That, and why they can't find room in their production schedule to make 0-delay booster motors in all impulse levels (they used to, now they're down to C6-0 and D12-0). Their excuse is they would only sell a few thousand such motors, but to that I say, 'Great, then it'll only take you one shift to make the year's supply.'

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Well, instead of Wednesday, I had the girls Tuesday this week. My ex's hubbie (there ought to be a term for that. Step-brother-in-law?) was having fun with kidney stones, and it wasn't going to be a fun time for the girls to hang out in the ER waiting for their step-dad to pee rocks.

I know, I'm no doubt in for the same visit sooner or later, all the soda and booze I drink. And I'm a total baby about pain. Em describes her step-father, a former Marine, as 'tougher than a burnt chocolate chip cookie,' a description I doubt will ever be attributed to me.

Anyway, we hit Hobby Lobby. 30% off on rocket kits through May. Picked up a Skywriter (the Scribble V) and a Big Daddy (the first 3" diameter rocket for us).

As we were leaving the Hobby Lobby, a woman pulled her car up by me and told me 'I was watching you in there, and I wanted to commend you. You are such a patient father.' I thanked her, and when she said, 'It takes a lot,' I confessed that it sometimes takes more than I've got. Still, what a sweet compliment.

Thing is, it was really a very easy trip through Hobby Lobby. At the end, after Em talked me into buying her fabric for a doll dress, Mo wanted modeling clay and I agreed. Then she wanted Silly Putty. Then a candy bar. She had to choose, and she changed her mind about ten times. It wasn't stressful, I just wouldn't let her have more than one, and like all of us, she wanted to have her cake and eat it too.

I was worried she'd eat the modeling clay, and told her if I saw it go to her mouth even once it'd be gone forever. This seemed to make the Kit-Kat look better for a minute or two.

Then to the Purple Park at Mo's request. Kites, not rockets, it was way too windy for rockets. It also clouded up quite a bit, and I wondered if we'd pull a Ben Franklin, but there was no sign of lightning so I decided not to sweat it.

I got the seven-footer up and let it out to the limit of the 500 foot line. Blistered my thumb with the friction as a matter of fact. Couple that with the tick bite on my ass I got the other day and kites are looking pretty dangerous.

I put new streamers on the airfoil kite, too. Rainbow ribbon from Hobby Lobby to replace the cheap-ass easily tangled plastic streamers it came with.

I try to keep Mo from eating her sidewalk chalk, but she likes the way it colors more densely when wet, so she licks it more than I'd like.

Back home, Mo asked for her modeling clay and proceeded to make 18 smiley faces. And not once did she try to eat the clay (I know this shouldn't seem impressive, but it is).

While she was doing that, I started debating about what to do with this Big Daddy kit. I have a design for the decals in mind: a jazz theme this time. I think I'll scan Daahoud from the Real Book and run the head of that over the rocket. Maybe spiral it, maybe just wrap it around.

I might work up some photos of the pantheon: Bird, Sonny Rollins, Miles, Coltrane, etc. The rocket's name will be Bebop, and the base coat of paint will be metallic copper.

The kit comes with laser-cut fins, but they're balsa fins and I prefer basswood. Basswood is heavier, but much, much stronger. I worried, though, that such a short rocket could easily become tail-heavy and unstable in flight. Plus, I had these laser cut fins ready to sand and bevel, complete with through-the-wall tabs to the motor mount.

So then I think maybe I'll fiberglass them. But you're rapidly back to making the ass end of the rocket heavy: if the center of gravity is behind the center of pressure, it's like a car fish-tailing. I think I'll brush a thin coat of epoxy onto the fins and let it go at that.

The kit instructions tell you to tie the rubber-band type shock chord they give you through a slit in the forward centering tube, but be serious. Rubber bands melt easily. I tied 400lb test Kevlar line around a carbon fiber BT50-60 centering ring and reinforced that with another carbon fiber ring ahead of it. I also subbed out the motor mount Estes provides for one that gave me more room. I ditched the engine hook in favor of friction/tape as motor retention, and I wanted the motor tube to protrude further than it could without shrinking the fin tabs substantially on the provided fins.

I'll also substitute the parachute. Estes provides a 24" parachute, but it's a plastic dude and I have rip-stop nylon 'chutes that are much more reliable.

I also haven't decided whether to do epoxy-clay fillets. They add strength but also weight. And coating the fin tabs with epoxy and then sliding them into the fin slot builds a pretty nice fillet of straight epoxy.

I figure if the balsa fins turn out to be the liability, I can order some 3" tubing from Balsa Machining and make something to go with that monster nose cone.