Thursday, May 26, 2011

Riding the Stacks

Want to see the coolest 36:49 video you've ever watched?

They call it "Riding the Stacks" when you go up on a shuttle because of the way the solid rocket boosters are assembled. Like stacking one soda can on top of another on top of another on top of another, until you have a long cylinder. (no ends on the cans of course.) Riding the Stacks.

When you watch , they usually show you the view from a camera mounted on one of the SRBs, pointing back toward the earth. Once they reach the point where the SRBs separate, they usually go to a ground tracking station and give you the telescopic camera view until the shuttle is too faint to see. Then it's back to the camera mounted on the external fuel tank, and they usually stay with that until the EFT is jettisoned, and the shuttle is in low orbit. End of show.

Well, this video gives you a somewhat different perspective. If you can stay patient during the 30 seconds or so after SRB separation, what you get is absolutely awesome, and get multiple angles.

Gabby Giffords was at the Cape to see her husband Mark Kelly ride the stacks of Endeavour. Here's the view from the stacks.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Wanderlust + a fear of flying= Road trips.

And that's good thing because I love driving, and I love seeing my country from down here on the ground.

For the last 2 years, in December, I've driven to the Grand Canyon. I'm already making my plans for this year. Yesterday morning I was looking at my Rand McNally 2011 Road Atlas, which now bears the tell-tale blue fine point Sharpie lines of my most recent trip. It's a duplicate of the route I took in '09, and will take again this winter. It's a great trip, and there's something about driving 3500 miles in the week between Christmas and New Years that just strikes one of those chords inside me.

Traffic is light leaving Chicago on Christmas Eve, which allows me to cover all of Illinois and Missouri. Oklahoma and Texas are a breeze on Christmas Day, and Tucumcari, NM to Flagstaff,AZ on the 26th has become one of my favorite 550 mile runs. Absolutely breathtaking. The reverse commute, believe it or not, feels somewhat different. It's the same damn roads, the same towns, and yet when traveling east it just feels different. Maybe it just because I'm heading for home.

US 55 leads to St. Louis. There, you grab US 44 and cut diagonally across Missouri, northeast to southwest. Then comes the stretch from Tulsa to OKC, where you catch US 40, and you head straight west. That road will take you to LA if you stay on long enough. As you make your way west, you are repeatedly reminded of the history of our country by the "Route 66" signs that pop up on the frontage roads that run alongside the modern interstate. Prior to the Eisenhower Interstate System, Rte 66 was the only way to travel from Chicago to LA. Well, there were other ways you could go, but 66 was the route of choice. The Mother Road.

For the last 2 years, my layover on Christmas Eve and on New Years Eve for the return has been Joplin, MO.

US 44, Range Line Road exit, gas station at the bottom of the ramp to top off for tomorrow morning, liquor store on the left, next to a Macs, my hotel 3 blocks west just short of the Rte 66 Historic Business District. Fred & Red's is a landmark, as is Dale's Historic 66 Barber Shop.

Bonnie & Clyde hid in Joplin in 1933 for a few weeks until the locals tipped the cops. After a gunfight that left 2 cops dead, Bonnie & Clyde escaped. But, they left their camera behind and the Joplin Globe published the pictures it contained, some of the most recognizable pictures of the crime duo ever taken.Joplin was booming at the turn of the 20th century. Railroads and mining. In the early 1900s, Joplin was a metropolis compared to other towns along 66. That changed when the Ike Interstate System replaced 66. Time she marches, eh?

The place has this heartland vibe happening that is impossible to describe. You take one look at Joplin and you just know there's a Dairy Queen somewhere with a bunch of Joplin High School kids hanging out there on hot summer nights. I love Joplin, and I've only spent 4 nights of my life there. Christmas Eve twice, New Years Eve twice.

Knuckle Tattoos checked me into my hotel again this year. His name is Rob, but Knuckle Tattoos just fits better. Last year I was a little taken back by the guy working the front desk, but appearances can be deceiving and that's certainly the case with Knuckle Tattoos.They can't be from prison. There's no way that guy has done time. So why the hell would anybody pound ink into their knuckles? Oh well, to each their own.

"Hi, I'm here to check in. I have a reservation. Name's Kenney."

"Welcome back Mr. Kenney. I see you've requested a ground floor room, smoking, with internet access."


"You're on the west side of the hotel, and you might be able to pick up the signal from the coffee shop. It's a hot spot."

"Oh, well thanks Rob. How about we try that first, and if I need the card I'll come back."

"Good plan."

"Liquor store across the street open on Christmas Eve?"

"Open on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day until 5."

"I'll be gone in the morning. Heading for the Grand Canyon. 1200 miles to go."

"That's a beautiful drive. You should have light traffic too because of the holidays."

"That's the plan my friend."

"Good plan. Want to leave a wake-up?"

"No thanks, I travel with a clock."

"Well you have a good night Mr. Kenney, and a Merry Christmas."

"Thanks Rob."

I don't know why exactly, but there's something about physically visiting a place, even briefly, that makes it part of the mosaic. It becomes a part of my life. That's the deal with Joplin and me. Can't say I really know anyone there, but the mere mention of the town, all 50,000 residents, evokes a feeling of familiarity. Feel like I've come to know the place and the people.

As I was watching the Bulls game last night, with Twitter up on the netbook, I saw the NYT break a story that broke my heart. "Tornado rips through Joplin, MO. 12 confirmed dead."  Oh fuck. I thought of Rob Knuckles.

And this morning, I scoured the internet for updates. 89 people killed, and that number may rise. Jesus Christ. An article from HuffPo caught my eye. Randy Turner, English teacher from Joplin High School. High school gone. Hospital trashed. Between 50-75% of the entire town damaged. A swath of destruction 6 miles long and almost a mile wide. That pretty much covers the town. The photos are gruesome, and I'm sure that as the stories start emerging from the rubble, I'm going to feel like someone stabbed me in the throat again, like I did last night and again this morning.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Friend Richard Feynman

"You can always recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity."- Richard P Feynman

Stanford's Leonard Susskind works on things like string theory, quantum mechanics and cosmology, field theory,...ya know, the easy As. The blow-off classes you took to complete your Bachelor of Science degree.

Here's Susskind talking about his friend Richard Feynman for TED.

Friday, May 06, 2011


So I take a contract to work on this house, Ronghild's house, on the northwest side. Referral from the neighbor across the street. Signed the deal 3 weeks ago, and finished the work yesterday afternoon. My guy calls me and tells me the customer can't find her checkbook.

$2000 balance due.

Can't find her checkbook.
Tearing the house apart,...still can't find her checkbook.

Two beautiful new fiberglass doors, stained light oak inside to match Ronghild's floors, and white outside to match her windows. Sweet ODL nickel caming in her insulated glass units (tempered glass by law), and really nice Schlage satin nickel hardware.

So I tell my guy to call it a day, and to tell Ronghild that I'll stop by this morning to grab a check.

Did I mention she's 96 years old?

Yeah, Ronghild's 96 and so the misplaced checkbook didn't trigger the usual alarms that go off when some underwater douchebag tries to get me to fix up his McMansion on a deferred payment plan to be worked out by the fuckin' bankruptcy court. The old timers always pay their bills. Always.

And being 96, I guess "tearing the house apart" might be a bit strong. Carefully, methodically, slowly going through every drawer in the house is more like it. Ronghild's hearing isn't so good either, which is why she didn't know the smoke detector battery needed to be replaced the day I sat down to talk business with her.

It's not that the PEEP it was bothering me so much as PEEP I wanted to make sure that PEEP Ronghild had a functioning smoke alarm PEEP in her house. 

So while I'm swapping the battery out of her smoke detector, and selling her these two doors, we get to talking about her name. It's Norwegian. And I tell her that she's the 2nd Ronghild I've ever known of, and the other is Keith Colburn's wife on the Wizard. (crab boat on Deadliest Catch) Ronghild, "call me Ronnie" tells me she watches Deadliest Catch all the time because she knows a lot of the guys on the fleet are Norwegian.

She watches with the volume on her TV turned way up of course, and so I'm sitting there picturing this 96 year old Norwegian lady tuned in to Discovery and cranking the volume up as Bon Jovi's Dead or Alive starts blasting and I kinda got a case of the giggles. I had to step outside under the excuse that I needed to go to my car, and got it out of my system.

Ronghild also watches Ice Road Truckers and Gold Rush Alaska.

Great story, and the kind that reminds me of why I like what I do for a living. Imagine a 96 year old woman dropping 3K on some doors, just because she wants new doors. She came to America  in 1927, which I guess made her 12 years old or so. Spent her entire life in that same house and watched as the city grew up around her. A seamstress. The old timers are an absolute treasure trove of cool trivia about the neighborhoods, the politicians, the local businesses that have long since moved on. She can't drive now so she takes the bus everywhere. She told me about taking the bus to go see her tax guy a few days before I met her.

96 year old people shouldn't have to do that. The IRS should come to her house, pick her up, and drive her to the tax guy, wait, and then take her back home. She was pissed off that they moved down to Addison and whatever when they used to be right down the street next to the "grocer." 

I love the old timers...they use words like grocer.

So I waited until about 9 before calling Ronghild this morning. No answer. And no answer again a half hour later. I think I started to get a little worried around 10. I called the neighbors across the street, the ones who'd referred me to Ronghild, to ask them if they'd check in on her. Make sure she's OK.

For about 10 minutes I sat at my desk thinking bad things. Bad thoughts. Unwanted, but immutable. What if she's...ya know...dead? That's when business guy had an argument with human being guy. Actually, human being guy was doing most of the talking. It's not about the 2K, is it? You like the old broad, just admit it. You're worried. So shut the fuck up about your stupid money and...

The neighbor calls. Ronghild's fine, she's sitting in the kitchen doing her crossword puzzle. Waiting for me to call. C'mon down and get the check, she found her checkbook two minutes after the guys left, and would I give her an estimate for some Leaf Guard gutters for the house and garage?

Just got back to the office, with another contract for her gutters. She loves her new doors.

Oh and, she didn't hear the phone ringing because sometimes she doesn't hear the phone ringing.