Just when I thought all the humor had been milked from Star Trek and Monty Python ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 3/26/2007 11:03:00 PM

... along comes this ...

Go SpaceX!

Written by Bob McCormick on 3/26/2007 10:50:00 PM

Last week, while I was supporting ISS operations from the console, I had the good fortune to see (via the web) the first semi-successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon I rocket from Kwajalein atoll in the South Pacific.

I call the the launch "semi-successful" because the payload failed to achieve orbit. The rocket, however, did manage to reach second stage and was about 1 minute away from achieving orbit when SpaceX lost telemetry. (You can see a replay of the entire ~5:30 of rocket ascent here). SpaceX is looking into the reasons why it failed to achieve orbit. Some folks are speculating that it is related to the first stage bumping the second stage bell after separation - you can see this more clearly from the images here.) Regardless of the failure, SpaceX's CEO, Elon Musk (developer of Paypal), has declared the launch a "90% success" and is confident that he can get his next two launches (with paying satellite customers) to orbit.

Why do I bother blogging about this? Why is this important?

Because ...

1. Falcon 1 launches are being touted as costing a fraction of what similar launches would cost
2. SpaceX is planning on developing a larger rocket (the Falcon 9) with similar cost-cutting approaches, and
3. NASA is attempting to procure SpaceX (and Rocketplane Kistler) unmanned launches to supply logistics (spare parts, water, food, etc.) to the ISS in the next several years.

If SpaceX and/or Rocketplane Kistler ultimately become successful, space launches may become significantly less expensive - and space operations costs will come down. The net result may be a significant increase in space operations.

I'd be a fool if I were against that!

Go SpaceX!

After this, I don't think I can watch Monty Python or Star Trek the same way again ...

Written by Bob McCormick on 3/21/2007 12:43:00 AM

See for yourself ...

(Hat Tip: Brian Dunbar)

Musical experiences - High School

Written by Bob McCormick on 3/18/2007 03:08:00 PM

This is part 3 of a series. The first two parts, "Pre-Junior High", and "Junior High" are here and here, respectively.

After all of my moving across country, I was fortunate enough to be in only one High School - Alief Hastings High School, in Houston, Texas. Alief Hastings was known as the "Fighting Bears" - not sure why they had to put the "Fighting" adjective in front ... whatever.

Actually, I call it as being in Houston, although it's in "Alief". Alief is actually a part of southwest Houston. It was an unincorporated area in Harris County, but was annexed by Houston in 1978 (I believe). The annexation of Alief by Houston is a blog entry to be developed later.

High School was definitely a musical step up. The musical environment is quite different in at least three different ways, and I could develop whole blogs about each way.

Marching Band

High School is the first level at which I was in a Marching Band, which we had developed to support the (American) football games our High School played in. Our Marching Band numbered anywhere from 100-150 people. We practiced during the summer, both indoors and outdoors. Most of the practice was for halftime performances, but we practiced songs for both halftime, performances in the stands, and parade performances. Marching band practice in Texas in the summer is no easy undertaking - because of the work, our school gave us Physical Education credit for it! I continued to play Bari Sax for the Alief Hastings Band - the "Goin' Band from Bear Country" - in Marching Band, Concert/Symphonic Band, and Stage Band.

My freshman (9th) grade year, we had to march in the Alief Chamber of Commerce Parade. In July. In our marching band uniforms (black & yellow wool outfits). In Texas. In the afternoon. Over seven miles. To this day, I have no idea how I did not have a heat stroke. Other memorable performances included the annual Foley's Thanksgiving parades, various UIL (University Interscholastic League - the organizing body for interschool competitions in Texas) Marching Band competitions, and a couple of NFL football halftime performances (one during a preseason game, another during a Monday Night Football game) at the Astrodome.

Marching band was "interesting". The High School football team was generally not that good, only managing .500 ball my last year (their best level), so high school playoff games didn't happen, but it didn't matter that much - a social event was guaranteed almost every Friday night football game.

Marching Band, as a musical venue, was not "natural" (as my high school buddy told me back then). And he's right - most High School (and College) Marching Bands have their inspiration in looking like Army infantry (complete with matching uniforms, straight rows & lines, etc.). The idea is to look "big" and "numerous". The musicianship, while important, is hard to keep completely clean outdoors and really isn't meant to be 100% "entertainment".

To make matters worse, woodwind instruments (due to physics) tend not to project as much out on the open field. Although Saxophones can get a bit more projection due to the instrument being mostly metal and tapering out to the bell, they're still significantly outnumbered by brass instrumentalists. As a result, most marching band formations tend to put the brass and percussion instruments front and center (near the 50 yard line) while the woodwind instrumentalists march somewhere around the 25 yard line.

Woo hoo. Good times.

Concert Band

At Hastings, we had two "Concert" Bands, which consisted of about 60 wind instruments (woodwind and brass) and percussion players. (We did not have a large enough music department to offer string players). The "Concert" Bands tended to play symphonic-style music (everything from baroque to classical to pops), without the violin/cello/bass sections. Our "Concert" bands were a "Symphonic" Band, made up of upperclassmen and those who earned the right to one of the Symphonic Band "chairs". The "Concert" Band was composed of everyone else (usually freshmen and sophomores who were not as proficient as the Symphonic Band players). As a result, the concert music was more difficult, as was the competition, which was no longer limited to people in my grade (in fact, almost all the competition was initially older).

I still was playing Baritone Saxophone as I had in Middle School, so the competition wasn't that numerous. However, there was a girl in the band who was two years my senior, and we competed for the one Bari Sax "seat" in Symphonic Band. She was admittedly a little bit better than I was, although the gap narrowed over time. As a result, I spent my freshman and sophomore year in Concert Band.

Much like Marching Band, Concert Band arrangements tend not to be written with a distinct Saxophone line in mind. Most Saxophone parts tend to "double" other parts (such as French Horn, Trombone, or Bass), so as a result, there's nothing very distinctive about Saxophone Concert Band arrangements.

Woo-hoo. More good times.

Stage Band

High School Stage Band was really modeled after Jazz "Big Bands" of the 30's/40's such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Benny Goodman, etc. A typical High School Stage Band consisted of about 20 people total - 5 Trumpets, 5 Trombones (wit at least one as a Bass Trombone), 5 Saxophones (2 Altos, 2 Tenors, and 1 Bari), and maybe 4 "others" (Drummer on a Drum Set, Piano/Organist, Bass Guitar, Lead Guitar, and Secondary Percussion - Bongos/Congas etc).

The net result was a musical blast, particularly for Saxophonists (and particularly relative to Marching and Concert bands). However, because it was 20 instrumentalists drawn from about 150 or so, there was more competition for the "chairs" - and I lost out to the more senior Bari player my first two years in High School. ( I was so bored with the progression that I even tried out for Track and Field my freshman year - anything to fill the time better!)

However, by my junior year, I was more than ready to make up for lost time. Unlike Marching or Concert Band music, Stage Band music is MOST DEFINITELY written with Saxes in mind. However, sometimes the music is not written for Saxes at all! Instead, the Sax section is really the woodwind section. The woodwind players have to know how to play Flute or Clarinet (or other woodwind instruments) if the music calls for it. This was a challenge for me, but I was able to pick up a little bit of the Flute playing, as the note fingerings are very similar. Of course, sometimes, the music itself is not written at all! Instead, the soloist has to improvise based on the chords being played.

The net result is that playing in a Stage Band is much more challenging - but also much more rewarding. Looking back on it all, I'd have to say that my time in Stage Band was probably the most musical "fun" I've ever had. I only wish I had been able to devote more time to learning the other instruments, and to being able to work in smaller groups.

Inter-school (state-wide) competitions

Just as with entire bands, UIL sponsored two types of individual (or mostly individual) instrumental competitions: Solo and Ensemble music, usually based on individual arrangements with piano accompaniement (for Solos) or Ensemble (Duet, Trio, Quartets) arrangements. The Solo and Ensemble "competitions" weren't competitions as much as they were graded performances of the arrangements on their own, with a "1" being the highest grade and a "5" being the lowest.

UIL also sponsored "All State" competitions where individual instrumentalists were pitted against each other in playing a particular piece or exercise, with judges grading their performance against each other. There were four levels of competition (for us): District, Region, Area, and State, with each level of competition identifying the top percentage of "chairs" to compete on into the next level of competition.

In these competitions, I would typically wind up with a "1" or "2" in Solo+Ensemble competition. The furthest I got in the All State competitions was to the Region level (which was the deciding factor in my lack of pursuing a music degree in college).

In my final year, Texas started an All State competition in Stage Band performances. Again, I did not advance further than District level.


Being in High School Band was a worthwhile experience. Socially, I have made friends in my High School Band that have lasted me over the last two decades & will continue onwards. The musical experience was interesting - it could have been better in some spots. I'll blog about what I mean by that when I summarize my musical experiences at the end of this series of "musical experience" blogs.