Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hey Dad, It Flies!

My brother and I briefly flirted with model rocketry back in 1986, several months after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and not too long after a visit to NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Dad bought us both a starter kit from Estes, consisting of an easy-to-assemble rocket, launch base, igniters and a couple of engines. The starter rocket came together easily at the kitchen table. The pre-made plastic tail assembly spared us from messing with glue and triangulating all three fins in their proper locations.

"Watch out for those o-rings," Mother said, referring to Challenger's fatal flaw.

For our launch area, we picked a field behind Raytown, Missouri's Robinson Elementary, home to a baseball diamond, a couple of soccer fields, and now, three amateur rocketeers. October Sky it wasn't. Neither was it the Fourth of July. These were no bottle rockets, which tend to explode on the pad just seconds after they're lit. Our launch devices each consisted of a guide rod on a tripod base wired to a battery-powered ignition button several feet away. A key-activated lamp signaled all systems were go. All we had to do was push and play.

Model rocket igniters are not up to NASA standards. You insert the engine into the rocket's tail, and then you carefully insert the igniter, which is connected with a pair of alligator clips. If all goes well, we have liftoff. But many times that igniter burns in half and it's back to the pad for troubleshooting. Still, it beats using a lighter and a punk.

We had success from the get-go: at least two successful launches after at least a couple of misfires. Then came recovery. Model rocket engines include an ejection charge in the top which pushes out a parachute (or sometimes just a plastic ribbon), and the challenge is to get under the spacecraft before it gets snagged in the trees.

I made my second launch of the day using a basic engine -- low altitude, no frills. It shot up high enough to satisfy my expectations, but then the wind caught hold of it. That first rocket drifted into the tree line and never dropped through it.

Dad observed the disaster. "I'll get you another one," he said without hesitation.

I went on to build at least two more rockets, even getting to launch one of them in Physical Science class during my freshman year at Raytown South High School. I earned some easy extra credit points for providing my own launcher. Thanks, Dad!

Model rockets, by the way, are very cheap to build. Ten bucks will get you something you can launch over and over. Forty dollars will set you up with a complete kit. That's about what a family spends for a movie night out, including refreshments and gas.

We never returned to the grassy fields of Robinson, and I never built another rocket after 9th Grade, but the legend, as people say, lives on.

And if you have a red-and-white model rocket you found by the ball field near Robinson School, may I have it back, please?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Those Darned Activist Judges

Last week, while wildfires and talk of one congressman's private parts dominated the news cycle, the Supreme Court issued an opinion [PDF] clarifying the Armed Career Criminal Act. The majority ruling says using a vehicle to flee from police counts as a "violent felony" under the act, which is targeted at curbing repeat offenders. I was struck, however, by Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent, which reads in part:
We face a Congress that puts forth an ever-increasing volume of laws in general, and of criminal laws in particular. It should be no surprise that as the volume increases, so do the number of imprecise laws. And no surprise that our indulgence of imprecisions that violate the Constitution encourages imprecisions that violate the Constitution. Fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts legislation is attractive to the Congressman who wants credit for addressing a national problem but does not have the time (or perhaps the votes) to grapple with the nitty-gritty. In the field of criminal law, at least, it is time to call a halt.
So here we have Justice Scalia calling out Congress for passing flawed laws that courts have to clean up later. The delicious irony is that this undercuts Conservative arias -- which Scalia and his right-wing brethren have sung many times before -- against judicial activism. Here, Justice Scalia says the problem seems to be Congressional activism, which is where it all begins in the first place.

So what's it gonna be? Either Congress passes more precise, Constitutionally-sound laws (and actually reading the full text of those laws would be a good start), or judges have no choice but to continue their custodial duties. Those folks in the black robes who have to deal with a stack of cases arising from flaws or omissions some lawmaker didn't have the time or stones to address don't deserve the scarlet "A" for "Activist."

(Tricorn tip to SCOTUSblog for alerting me to this.)

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Pirate Prom

And finally this week, I have to show you this clip, which answers the question, "Suppose a group of pirates held a prom?"

The Plundering Pirates of Paradise did, and they came up with a night of eclectic dancing that included salsa, disco, and a Virginia Reel.

I can't say we'll be doing the Electric Slide at the Buccaneer's Ball, but you can count on a jig... or maybe two.

Dance on!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Pirate Crashers

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, or so we're told. But then I came across this video snippet from a wedding reception at Treasure Island in Vegas (only they call it "TI" now). What follows is an anachronistic display of old circle dance to modern tunes. Furthermore, the YouTube uploader says the pirates weren't officially invited to the ceremony.

You were warned. Hit it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Jack Be Nimble?

If someone had staged Pirates Of The Caribbean as a contemporary ballet, perhaps it might have looked like this noble attempt, staged at the Mid Valley Mega Mall... wherever that is.

But I prefer the Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert & Sullivan's classic. This clip features Kevin Cline:

Eat your heart out, Jack Sparrow!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

New Kids On The Ship

Now in our celebration of piratical prancing preceding the Buccaneer's Ball venture to the Western Pacific, where we find some Korean buccaneers have created that new teen-heartthrob sensation: The Backwater Boys.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Boat Is Rockin', So Don't Bother Knockin'

You wouldn't think a bunch of mangy seafarers would have enough discipline to pull off an interpretive display of movement, would you?

I don't know the name of this group from Dover, but they defy the averages:

Ditto for this group, the Arts In Motion Irish Dance Class:

I'm sure we'll see some inspired jigs at the Buccaneer's Ball!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Do A Little Dance, Raid A Little Ship, Get Down Tonight

Ahoy! With the Buccaneer's Ball quickly approaching, it's time for another week of dance tributes to pirates.

We know that some of them were gentlemen, but many weren't. We also know that their fleetness of foot did not lend itself well to artistic purposes, beyond jigging and maybe a few reels.

But this bunch, the Oak Mountain Craftsmen, can really shake their booty!

And for an encore, have you ever seen a pirate break dance?

Oh to be on stage and be swooned at by a giddy group of young ladies... but that's off topic.

Reel To Reel: X-Men: First Class

Groovy powers, baby!

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Action violence, mild profanity, some mild sexuality

My admiration of the X-Men franchise comes not from its action but from its altruism. Its world of mutants vs. humans illuminates the nature of prejudice and xenophobia. It raises tough questions about terrorist threats versus individual liberties and gives the brain plenty to chew on.

This prequel delves into that somewhat, but its main fascination is tinkering with one of the scariest chapters in American history: the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which drove the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to the brink of nuclear war. X-Men: First Class retools it as a covert showdown involving maniacal mutants set on annihilating normal humanity so mutants can rule over it, uninhibited by prejudices, governments, or well, just about anything else.

The picture opens in the middle of another dark historical chapter: the roundup of Jews in Nazi Germany. A young Magneto, Erik (Fassbender), sees his mother being herded into a concentration camp and notices, in his anger, he can bend the gate that is closing behind her. The Nazis capitalize on his power and begin to refine it. Meanwhile in England, Young Professor X Charles Xavier (McAvoy) notices there's a stranger in the kitchen who looks like his mother. Only it's not his mother, it's the shape-shifting blue bombshell Raven (Lawrence). And Charles can tell just by reading her mind.

The young Xavier grows up to be a hip professor in 1960's London, authoring theses on mutation and cruising chicks in a way Austin Powers would love. This whole film at times reminded me of a mash-up between the Austin Powers movies and Mad Men, with a bit of The Avengers thrown in. A CIA operative comes to Xavier for help when she notices plans for world domination forming in the back room of a Las Vegas club. They involve a high-ranking U.S. officer and a devilish creature who can disappear into thin air in the blink of an eye. Erik is on his own mission, setting out to kill the Nazi doctor Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) who built up his metal-warping skills while killing his mother.

These two missions come together, and so do Charles and Erik in a tenuous friendship laced with questions about men versus mutants. Will mutants be ultimately feared or accepted? Will the be assimilated into society or exterminated? Along the way, we're introduced to several new mutants, including one who can evolve on the spot and an oversized dragonfly. They will team up with Charles to form a squad charged with saving the world. Not bad for a first assignment.

I liked the picture's 60's vibe, and I liked its balancing of ideology and action. It's not at the level of Batman Begins, but it's there, and it's palpable. The film leaves some more room for development down the line, and I'm sure we'll see another sequel or spin-off film. Hugh Jackman, by the way, makes a brief cameo as Wolverine. But don't expect much.

X-Men: First Class is satisfying in that it makes you want more. You know that these characters will grow up, grow older, and become more interesting over time. Then again, you've already seen the four other pictures and know what happened. Yet Hollywood can re-do established film series in a short time frame, as it did with Batman and will soon do with Spider-Man. Comic books truly do exist in a world of their own.