Tuesday, January 27, 2009


This week, NASA will be remember three very dark days.

Six years ago, I wrote this -- something I had to do at the time.


Virgil, Ed & Roger - Apollo 1
January 27, 1967

I am a space-eyed 9-year-old. I come home after a tough day in school (it takes a lot of effort to terrorize a seasoned 4th grade teacher). My sister tells me of the tragic fire in Florida. Three astronauts of Apollo 1 have died. America may not get to the moon by the end of the decade. This 9-year-old, who at first doesn’t believe his sister (older sisters do those kinds of things, you know), wanders out to the front porch. My first thoughts – perhaps I can still see the smoke from the fire. Then it will be real to my mind. But Cape Kennedy is over 3,000 miles away. (I did know enough geography to look to the southeast!) I get to watch the moving funerals, which remind me of President Kennedy’s just over 3 years earlier. Walter Cronkite is fatherly, supportive, calm, and tells us that yes, we will make it to the moon. My faith in the space program is renewed. I still don’t trust my sister (wink).

Francis, Michael, Judy, Ellison, Ron, Greg & Christa – Challenger STS51L
January 28, 1986

Nearly two full decades have passed. Americans landed on the moon. The “Successful Failure” of Apollo 13 showed the world that space can be beaten. I am still very much space-eyed, but now 28 and searching for a career. Home for the day, I have to hunt for a live picture of the launch, finally finding it on cable TV’s CNN. I curl up under a blanket to watch a teacher lift off into space. (While I wouldn’t start college for another year yet, the idea of teaching as a career was just beginning to percolate in my consciousness.) I felt a small bit of camaraderie with the folks at Kennedy. It was a bitter cold day there, too. (This was a Southern Californian's "bitter cold" day, probably about 55° F) America has become complacent with the space program. The sight of fragile humans, strapped atop millions of pounds of high explosive in a barely controlled series of explosions, is as commonplace as the night’s basketball scores. As the image of that compellingly beautiful but monstrously hideous white “Y” formed in the brilliant blue Florida sky unfolds before me, I’m stunned. The solid rocket boosters skittering out of control makes me think of pictures of the earliest days of the American space program. They called them “Puffniks”. We couldn’t do anything right. The Russian Bear was master of the Cosmos. It was depressing. The words “obviously a major malfunction” came over the speaker. A huge understatement that would haunt the nation as TV news finally awoke. This day would be compared with December 7, 1941 and November 22, 1963. We later learned that that national malaise, spread even to our brilliant Rocket Scientists, was in part to blame for the destruction of Challenger. The rush to make spaceflight a profit-making, rather then a knowledge-growing endeavor would cost noble lives. In 1998 I achieved a long-anticipated dream, and got to visit Kennedy Space Center. The Astronaut Memorial left me speechless. The sight of Pad 39A, the huge, flag-bedecked Vertical Assembly Building and familiar countdown clock brought back a flood of memories. I mourned and rejoiced at the same time.

Rick, Willie, David, Michael, Laurel, Kalpana, & Ilan – Columbia STS107
February 1, 2003

The wonder hasn’t left my eyes, or my heart. I’m now a teacher, following Christa McAuliffe’s pledge to “touch the future”. Just three days ago, I spent valuable class time to recount to my students the feelings I experienced those 17 years earlier. I fear that my story, with images as fresh to me as yesterday, must have seemed like tales of Camelot, or even dinosaurs, to my charges. Then came Saturday morning. I woke early, with a full day of housekeeping and school paperwork ahead of me. I was watching a rerun of M*A*S*H, finishing off my breakfast when a curious message scrolled across the bottom of the screen. “For breaking news on the Space Shuttle Columbia, tune to FOX News”. I knew the shuttle would be landing this morning. It was another historic flight. 16 days – longer than most shuttle flights, and full of science. No visit to the International Space Station, the recent routine for shuttle flights of late. The presence of an Israeli astronaut was noteworthy. His devotion evident by his bringing a Holocaust treasure (a tiny Torah smuggled into a death camp) into space with him. Like the rest of the world, I anticipated a smooth landing. But the first sight that I comprehended, before I was conscious of the words being spoken, was of white contrails, streaming down in ever spreading lines. The Shuttle doesn’t do that. That 9-year-old’s naïveté had long ago given way to the harshness of mature reality. Columbia had broken up. Astronauts had died again. As with many others, after the global mindset-changing events of September 11, 2001, I thought of the Israeli astronaut. What a coup for those devilish fanatics. But as the details trickled in, I quickly realized that this was no terrorist action. It was another “major malfunction.” As the day wore on, we could see the flotsam that was once a magnificent orbiter spread across the Texas countryside. The investigation began, data gathered, questions asked and theories floated (Cronkite, your soothing voice is sorely missed). I finally pulled myself away to complete some mundane weekend tasks – unexpectedly becoming a much needed tonic rather than mere chores. Writing is a catharsis. Time, and knowledge, will be the treatment.

17 stars touch the Face of God
In time, we will learn why. We will learn how. We will return to space.
The 17 will be joined by others. We will return once again.
We will grow. We will survive. We will reach the stars, together.
We will not forget the 17

Friday, January 23, 2009

Cat Crazies

Here he is.


The Cat Who Plays Fetch.

His favorite toy is simple - an old LIVESTRONG wrist band tied to an even older sweatpants drawstring. But he's bring it over, drop it in your lap, and wait for you to throw it.

He usually brings it right back, but sometimes he'll drop it several feet short. Then he just stares. But before long he figures it out and the game can continue.

The other day, I threw it over the back of the couch. Poor kitty couldn't figure out how to get to it. After I moved the couch, he was happy again.

Right now, he's sleeping angelically on the chair. Of course, I'll be moving him in couple of minutes, so who knows...

Monday, January 19, 2009

16 Years Ago today

I've posted this over on OT before, but I thought I'd post it here:

January 19, 1993 -- George Bush is leaving the White House and a young Democrat is moving in.

I had just finished my student teaching, and was officially on the eligibility list for subbing in the Paramount school district. It had been my intention to teach Elementary, so I had trained in a 4th grade gifited class and a kindergarten (there are more stories there -- perhaps another day).

About 5:30 am I get the call -- but the assignment is for the middle school. Naturally, I'm not going to turn down my first gig, so off I go.

The assignment is for a 7th grade Health class. I get to the classroom, and there on the teacher's desk is the day's task.

"Have the students read this worksheet and answer the questions."

The Female Reproductive System


I have about 20 minutes to gird my loins (sorry) for this 'discussion'. All the girlie naughty bits out on display -- plus the impossibly complex inner works.

As I said; Yikes.

I manage to scribble my name on the board, and as first period starts, I'm still in a state of shock.

My commentary for the first three periods can be summed up by quoting Ralph Kramden -- "Hummina hummina hummina".

During the nutrition break, a teacher from next door pops his head in -- welcoming and checking on the newbie. He tells me about a student I'll be seeing in fifth period (right after lunch) "You can't miss him" he says, "he's got bright red hair. He'll try something, I'm sure."

OK, fine. Just what I need. Fallopian tubes, vaginas, menstrual cycles, and a smart-ass seventh grader.

By now, thanks to repetition, I can at least read some of the information and 'explain' some of the simpler processes involved. I brace myself for 'Red'.

The class comes in, and 'Red' takes his seat, center row. We read through the material, and things are fairly calm. When we get to the part of how the baby has to pass through something that's normally the width of a drinking straw, 'Red' raises his had. "Does it hurt?" he asks. Now, the first thing that came to my mind was my mother telling that it's like "sh!tting a watermellon." Of course, that particular metaphor would not be appropriate, so I tell him "I've never had it happen to me, but you should ask your mother."

"No way!" he yells, "she already says that I'm a pain in the ass!"

I survived that first day, went on to teach Elementary for another 2 1/2 years, then moved on to middle school. I'll be teaching human reproduction (for the first time) sometime early in the Spring semester -- I've got my own version of 'Red' (not the hair, though), so maybe I'll bless some other sub...

Friday, January 16, 2009

Big Ass Atoms

and a little ego-horn tooting too

Over Winter Break I was trying to find a good way to help my students get the Periodic Table of Elements (about 15% of the California Standards Test Science section is on the Periodic Table).

One afternoon I was fixing dinner. A modest meal of beans and rice. All of a sudden an inspiration hit.

Make model atoms -- use beans for the nucleus and rice for the electrons. Nice and tactile (teacher talk) and bizarre enough to be memorable (OK, not very accurate scale-wise, but that's an easy cover).

But how to make this more than just playing with food? And just how can I get the Periodic Table into the equation?

I toyed with the idea for a while -- making piles of beans and rice on construction paper. Then it came to me -- have the kids make model atoms, but they have to use the information from the PT.

That was it. Genius -- Wile E. Coyote level genius if I do say so myself.

Add a card with the information for an element - symbol, atomic number, average mass, etc. The student has to work out how many protons, neutrons and electrons -- and put the electrons in proper shells. Also identify metal, semi-metal, or non-metal, & state.

White beans became protons. Black beans became neutrons. Rice represented the shell, and small pasta shells became electrons.

We did the whole thing today -- and they all got it. Protons = the atomic number (check). Neutrons = atomic mass minus atomic number (check). Electrons = same as number of protons (no ions today, thankyouverymuch). Shells -- only two electrons in that inner shell (check) and fill the others with eight before building the next one (check).

And only a small amount of protons, neutrons and electrons found there way onto the stairs outside the room.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Back to work

OK, so I'm a little late. Sorry.

Three weeks off flew by, and the reality of getting back to the daily grind of work hit me Sunday night...

It was going to be an interesting return. Right before the start of Winter Break we were told that the entire school was going to be re-keyed. It seems that the foreman of the construction crew on campus had left his ring of master keys unsupervised and, well...

We were told that the office would open early, so the early-birds would be able to get their new keys and maintain their idiosyncrasies...

I had to wait - that promise of opening early never materialized - along with the four or five other anxious early risers hovering about the office door. Several kids arrived to the sight of this gaggle of instructors pacing about - a somewhat intimidating image for the first day back, I'm sure.

When the office finally opened, we were told that we had to sign-in, then go over to the cafeteria to turn in our old keys and get the new ones, fill out some paperwork, then return said paperwork back to the main office where we had just signed-in.

Yes, school bureaucracy at it's best - the very model of Redundancy.

Well, the day went amazingly quickly, all things considered. The kids were fine, we got a lot of work done. I had two new students assigned, and one other checked out (the PC term of "OT" - Opportunity Transfer - has replaced the less-than-flattering "expelled")

This morning, I heard from several teachers in my building - the new keys for the ladies 'reading room' don't work any more. Yes, district efficiency once again.

Up next - designing a BAA (Big Ass Atom)...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Cat Crazies

Fido is being a major butthole. He's got a major case of the cat crazies -- running into the room, jumping up on my swivel desk chair (spinning does not make him calmer...), then pouncing on the printer.

He loves the printer.

It's not one of those "ohh a warm spot" things, since I've kept it turned off. It's not even a good perch -- way off in the corner and half-behind a chair.

I put an upside-down egg carton on to, hoping to discourage him. He just steps around it -- and will hit the power key -- and often the 'copy' key too. This means he can check out the cool sounds coming out and the paper moving. Maybe I'll put something over the controls...

When he jumps off, he steps on the (now sagging) paper tray.

Why dosen't he sleep like cats are supposed to?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Vegas -- and a Happy Ending

Vegas – ah Vegas

Every year I take advantage of the third week of Winter Break for a trip to Sin City. I usually go during the week (commonly Tue-Thur) but this year I decided to go over the weekend, mainly because of the availability of David Copperfield tickets. I’ve been a magic fan for as long as I can remember, and have tried to see this true master magician for many many years.

When I checked on Vegas.com right around Thanksgiving, I was pleased to see Copperfield tickets on the list. However, there was a problem with the weekday dates, so I bit the bullet and grabbed a Saturday matinee spot.

I flew in on Friday afternoon (somehow, and I don’t really know why, I eschewed my normal practice of taking early flights – it was weird, waiting around the house until noon before heading to the airport. But I digress…) and got to the Luxor around 3:30. There was a huge line of people waiting to check-in (one reason why I like the Tue-Thur schedule), and finally got to my room just after 4. After dropping my bag, I headed for the casino.

I have claimed to many that Black Jack is my game in Vegas, so after a quick survey, plopped down at a $10 table.

And was $120 down within 15 min. Yikes. I took a break with some slot play – and rebounded with a net $5 gain. There are dozens of different themed slot machines (we can’t really call them “one armed bandits” anymore, as the classic pull mechanism is quite passé, and actually a minority on most casino floors these days) but the basic operation is similar. You can bet multiple lines (some as many as 25) and designate values ranging from 1 – 10 ‘credits’ per pull.

This means you can be betting up to 250 ‘credits’ on each play.

Another innovation is the fact that one no longer has to lug around buckets of nickels (or quarters, dollars, etc) to feed the machines. In fact, there is no coin slot to be found. The machines take bills only -- $1, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 are all welcome, even if the ‘credit’ value is a paltry 1¢. When you ‘cash out’ a ticket is printed with the remaining value. These can also be inserted into another machine. If you want to get cash for your ticket, there are automated kiosks located throughout the casino that will disperse funds (but they don’t issue dimes…).

I discovered a group of four Star Trek (Original Series) themed machines that looked like they would be fun to play. They had the usual video display, along with an extra video screen above that showed a slideshow series of images from some of the more popular ST:TOS episodes.

These were very friendly to me, as my net was a nifty +$75. I broke even (or so) in other slot play. I never did get back to the Black Jack tables. I also managed to come out $8 ahead in sports betting, thanks in a large part to a last minute shot on the Flyers beating the Ducks.

However, my real purpose was to see some shows. Copperfield was Saturday afternoon, and I still had Friday night to deal with (“deal” – Vegas – get it?). Carrot Top is at Luxor, so I got a ticket. I had seen his show a couple of years earlier, and was expecting much of the same (prop humor, topical jibes, along with an occasional self-deprecating gag) which is just what we got. It was pretty good. However, I was surprised to see, at the end of the show, Carrot Top’s got himself some major guns (and pecs) – really rather gross, IMHO – and youtube posters insist that they’re implants.

Saturday dawned cold in Vegas (32°F) and I still had several hours before Copperfield. I wanted to check out the CBS Television City spot at the MGM Grand (they do audience surveys/polls). I was in the first group of the morning, about six or seven, and we saw an episode of Rules of Engagement. I’d seen one or two episodes on the tube and my ‘meh’ opinion didn’t change.

However, during the pre-show background survey, I managed to find myself selected for a special focus group discussion that afternoon, along with the promise of $75 for my time.

There were ten in the group, and we had to fill out several pages of questions (technology in the home – computers, video, games, ect.) before we saw a very interesting presentation with some nifty new iPhone, Blu-Ray, and interconnect features. “Blu-Ray Live” will allow you to use your computer/TV pair to chat/blog/view special features straight from the studio (Disney is leading the pack right now). An easy $75.

David Copperfield started with a short video clip with snippets of Copperfield references in popular culture (various TV shows tossing off “I’m not David Copperfield” when confronted by a no-way-out situation, and so on) finishing with a David Letterman bit featuring a Copperfield look-alike cruising the streets of New York.

The show itself started with Copperfield appearing, along with his motorcycle, in a small cage on stage. He then did some slight-of-hand tricks (a ladies diamond ring getting tied in the string of a tiny shoe shoved in his back pocket, etc) He did several other illusions (some with his trademark duck companion).

The highlight of the show had several aspects. He starts off telling the story of his father, who had a dream of being an entertainer (he had won a couple of awards and a scholarship to a prestigious acting school), but his own father (David’s grandfather) was dead-set against it. “Those people are no good. They never make any money.” So a dream was shot down.

Years later, the 13-year-old David told his grandfather of his own dream of being a professional magician. Same reaction. But David persisted, and his grandfather refused to talk to him again. After his first professional show, David thought he saw his grandfather in the back of the audience. He rushed out, but couldn’t find him.

Another part of the story, Copperfield’s grandfather was also devoted to the Irish Sweepstakes (at the time, there were no state lottery games, and unless you wanted to deal with the Mob and their numbers rackets, the Irish Sweepstakes was the only big prize game in town). He always played the same group of numbers, and wanted to win enough to buy a brand new convertible (he wanted a turquoise sedan). He never did win, and when he died years later, the family found all his old Sweepstakes tickets. And one other surprise – the ticket stub from young David’s first professional performance.

On stage, he tossed an old Tupperware® lid into the audience – apparently making random a selection. He asked the winner (a man who said he was from Argentina) for two numbers between 1 & 50. After he gave his choices (18 and 7), Copperfield asked him “boxers or briefs?” which was answered with “31”. After a linguistic battle, we finally got “briefs – blue” The lid was then tossed deeper into the audience.

The next contestant was from Russia – more language fun, but we got the numbers 21 & 6, along with “4 months” (last time you ‘got busy’ – how that translates into Russian, I’m sure I don’t know). David asked him to toss the lid to another spot, and it flew – right into Copperfield’s hands on stage.

I shouted out “give me two numbers…” and got a chuckle from the Master Magician.

He tossed the lid right in my direction, but it sailed just over my outstretched arm. The woman who caught it gave us the numbers 8 & 47, along with her birth date of April 7. After each number and ‘secret’ was revealed, David had written them on a large poster dangling from the ceiling.

Copperfield then brought them on stage. He pointed out the sealed clear plastic box that had been suspended over the stage (in easy view of everyone) throughout the performance. The box was lowered and the new assistants opened the six locks. Inside was a cassette tape and two large envelopes. He brought out a tape player, and the “April 7” lady put the tape in and pressed play.

David’s voice comes out, “earlier this evening I made a prediction… the numbers 18, 7, 21, 6, 8 and 47… and blue briefs, 4 months and April 7…” as we hear the voice, David is unfurling a large paper from the first envelope, which has the same information written on it. He then had the “4 months” guy open his envelope – inside were two old car license plates, with the numbers 18 – 7 – 21 on one and 6 – 8- 47 on the other.

He then had the two men move over to a couple of pillar-like stage props, having them bend down and put their arms completely around them (hugging). A curtain was lowered to about 4 feet above the stage and – presto – there was a 1948 turquoise convertible sedan. He climbed in and started the motor…

The finale was a twist on a classic illusion. Once again, it involved audience participation. 12 large silver beach balls were released into the audience and we were told to knock them around until the music stopped (knocking beach balls around – I’ve spend enough time at Dodger Stadium to be an expert…)

And when the music stopped, there was one right in front of me. “Anyone with a beach ball in their hands, come on stage!”


I trotted to the stage and was directed to a side view location – I was going to be one of the witnesses, but still on stage. Eight of the others were sent into a ‘jury box’ like structure with chairs that had been lowered from above. Once they were seated, each was given a flashlight, and they were told to move the lights around, shining them on the inside of the curtain. (I did get to see one secret – as the people were loading into their jury box, David was ‘introducing’ them – “the Waltons – John Boy, Mary Ellen, Elizabeth … Dr. Evil …” but moments before I had noticed placard with those same names on the stage right were Copperfield would stand.)

The curtains were pulled and the jury box contraption raised about 10 feet. I could see the mechanism pulling them up, and the stage lights went out and a spot hit Copperfield. He pulled the curtain away and the people were gone.

Then he pointed to the back of the theater, and there they were, flashlights still moving around. I never saw them leave the jury box…

The rest of the weekend was uneventful – some more Star Trek slots, too much time in the buffet, and some great tacos and tequila (marvelous pomegranate margaritas, fer sure) and home.

Well worth it, but next time I’ll go back to my regular week-day sojourn.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year

Now, isn't that an original title?

Things were pretty quiet around here. In the past (going back 10 years or so) this neighborhood sounded like a war zone, often starting as early as 11:30 and lasting the better part of an hour. We've had some real firepower shot off (automatic and semi-automatic, along with the occasional shotgun and assault weapon), but this year there were only a few gunshots (we had some for Christmas, too).

There were plenty of public service announcements warning folks about shooting in the air -- and the local police have installed "gunshot sensors" around the city that can triangulate within 30 seconds.

There were plenty of 'illegal' fireworks, though. Bottle rockets, firecrackers and the like.

I was in bed by 12:30 -- such is the life of us pedos veijos.

Fido, on the other hand, is very much a young whipper-snapper. He insists on climbing up on the printer. This morning he somehow managed to hit the 'copy' button and then tried to grab the paper as it fed through, causing a major paper-jam. I've tried double-sided tape (he likes it) and now have an old, upside-down egg carton stuck to the top. He just side-steps it.

Of course, once he gets into trouble, he runs over to his current favorite toy -- one of those yellow Livestrong bracelets with an old sweatpants drawstring tied on. He'll bring it over and drop it into your lap -- ready to play a game of fetch. That's right -- I've got a cat with a dog's name who likes to play a dog's game. Oh well, I guess things could be worse (like maybe starting to bark?)

Well, be good. Or at least be careful.