Thursday, September 24, 2009

Important Questions

"Why did God make bees and honey ... and peanut butter ... and not make us with four arms?" My youngest son asked this of me last week during church. Great questions, all!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pinewood Derby for Men

My Elders Quorum sponsored a pinewood derby for the men in the ward. This was after a friend of mine who had mixed feelings about a similar event in her ward posted a blog entry about their ward, which did a rocket-powered derby. Of course, at this absolutely brilliant suggestion (it was a suggestion, wasn't it?), I encouraged our Elders Quorum President to specifically make our own party a rocket-powered event. After much discussion, we went with the "no rules" approach for the event, which suited me just fine. All I wanted to do was stick a rocket in the back of a car and watch it go.

In any case, the event went spectacularly well. Last Saturday evening (after dinner, so there was no food involved aside from some root beer floats), we gathered in the parking lot of the church where we set up a ramp for our pinewood derby. The sun was going down and the weather was great, so we expected there would be no launch holds. And there wasn't.

We started with the "gravity" portion of the evening. There were about a dozen racers who all brought their cars and put them down the track. As we didn't bring any paper to keep track of the brackets, our Elders Quorum President basically wandered around, attempting to keep the winners and losers in his head, and asked everybody "how many times have you lost?!" It was hilarious. Nobody really cared. We just wanted to have a good time. It was an evening without the kids (though some people didn't get that memo, but it was fine ...) and it was our time to do Stupid Guy Stuff.

My car was a beautiful green car (we had a leftover can of spray paint from last year) that I molded into an aerodynamic wonder. My ultimate goal was to keep it on the track. I was inclined to put wings on the side, but I was worried about impinging on the space of the car I was racing, so I couldn't do that directly. Nevertheless, after stumbling around in the garage looking for leftover hardware that I could put to good use, I came across some brackets that would do a perfect job. I bent them slightly and then carved grooves in the side of the car to mount them. The intent was not only to provide some control over air flow, but also to weigh the car down.

I drilled the hole in the back of the car to just the right diameter for the booster I had purchased (the smallest booster I could get from the hobby shop), and then drilled a front hole so that the engine could back-vent, as engines of that size normally do in order to pop a parachute out of a hobby rocket. (Later that I discovered that you can actually buy rockets that don't back-vent, but whatever.)

After assembling the car, I found that it was still too light -- about an ounce below 5 ounces -- to meaningfully compete in the "gravity" races (even though there were no rules, specifically about the weight). So, I pondered what to do. Standing in my kitchen, I looked across the room where the kids had some Legos scattered on the floor, and it hit me that I should mount a Lego dude onboard to give the ride some style. After final assembly, I concluded that the Lego dude would participate only in the "gravity" races, as we didn't want any casualties during the "powered" races.

The end result was pretty impressive:

During the races, though, my little Lego dude couldn't really compete. He was able to beat the balloon-propelled car and a few others that had some obvious mechanical limitations, but even so, he went down in style. His protective dome even got scuffed a little bit after his first race when he skittered across the asphalt of the parking lot.

With twelve cars, the ultimate winner was a guy who ended up racing several cars of his, and he took both first and second place. Nobody was upset, we were just anxious for the next phase of the races to begin. We decided it would be best to lay the track flat for this phase of the evening, and some guys attempted to split some wires so that both rocket-powered cars could be launched with one starter, but that didn't work, so it was down to two guys pushing two different buttons.

The first successful race was with two cars that were made from a kit. They looked nearly identical, and had very big engines in them. I immediately noticed that neither of them had holes to manage the back-venting. After the typical count-down, the two cars zipped down the track and bounced off the end cushion. Immediately thereafter, the back-vent from the engines caused a secondary burst of fire, ejected the rocket engine from the back of the cars, and threw fire into the face of a bystander! Check out the video:

After the smoke dissipated, we determined she was all right. We learned to stand further away and be prepared for the secondary blast.

Soon it was my turn. One time, I went up against a guy who had a toy helicopter motor mounted in his car to make the wheels spin like mad. I put my car down, sans Lego dude, and fully expected my car to smoke the guy. Not so! Much to my surprise, the littlest engine I could get from the hobby shop was a very small engine indeed. I got smoked! It was so embarrassing. Here I am, an aerospace engineer who works for NASA, and my car got smoked! By a non-rocket-propelled vehicle! How horrid! Some of the by-standers saw the whole thing and were stunned, as well. In fact, I think it even got tweeted to President Obama, who was tempted to give me a bailout.

Happily, another fellow who was there had the same size engines I had, but with higher thrust ratings. So, time for a rematch. And this time, I cleaned his clock. He wasn't even halfway down the track before I passed the finish line! It was impressive. To make it even more impressive, my car stayed on the track!

Indeed, every race my car participated in stayed on the track, which was not the case for every other rocket-powered car there (and some of the non-rocket-powered ones, too). My goal accomplished, we moved on to more fun stuff.

We moved the track over to the grass and raised the end. With our rocket-powered cars, you can imagine the end result of that!

At first, we raised it only about a foot. Then we came to our senses and realized that if we were going to intentionally launch cars into the air, we should do it right, so we raised the end of the track up to about a 45 degree angle. What followed was awe-inspiring. With the sun now down and it quickly getting dark, we watched as a streak of fire screamed up the track and arced into the night. It was a true thing of beauty. This was then punctuated by a secondary flash of light from the back-venting that would fire like a rifle shot in some random direction, the result of the car tumbling into the distance.

Check it out:

It was a great night. As we all departed, we were conspiring about how to make the event even better next year. I look forward to it, with visions of winged cars and really big engines in my mind ...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Where I've Been

Wow, it's been over two weeks since I last posted. It's just been busy. It's not been busy in the "I have something going every second of the day" kind of way, but it's more like the "there's something every night that prevents doing pretty much anything else" sort of busy. I think I need acronyms for those ...

Anyway, I thought it'd be good to record what the events were so far this month, with the plans for what's to come:

-- Tuesday, September 1st: A free evening.
-- Wednesday, September 2nd: Had the Elders over for dinner.
-- Thursday, September 3rd: Worked on stuff for church on Sunday.
-- Friday, September 4th: My wife went out with the "girls" and I played a computer game. Okay, so this night wasn't so "busy".
-- Saturday the 5th: Prepared a lesson for Sunday.
-- Sunday the 6th: Spent the evening with the family after a very long day at church.
-- Monday the 7th: Labor Day. After playing all day with the kids, I spent the evening watching a movie with my wife. (Wow, by this point, my life doesn't seem so busy ...)
-- Tuesday the 8th: Took my son to tennis lessons, then split from there to go home teaching.
-- Wednesday the 9th: Took my son to scouts.
-- Thursday the 10th: Had some friends over for dinner.
-- Friday the 11th: Worked on stuff for church on Sunday.
-- Saturday the 12th: Took my daughter to the baptism of her good friend.
-- Sunday the 13th: Had a long day at church again (they always are), then had "interviews" with the kids.
-- Monday the 14th: Had Family Home Evening with the family.
-- Tuesday the 15th: Went home teaching again.
-- Wednesday the 16th: Relaxed and watched TV with my wife.
-- Thursday the 17th (last night): Our home teacher came over.
-- Friday the 18th (tonight): The "raingutter regatta" for my oldest.
-- Saturday the 19th (tomorrow): The pinewood derby for the Elders Quorum (I've got a rocket-powered car ... yeah, totally cool.)
-- Sunday the 20th: Home teaching again.
-- Monday the 21st: Family Home Evening again.
-- Tuesday the 22nd: My son at tennis again.
-- Wednesday the 23rd: My oldest at cub scouts again.
-- Thursday the 24th: My oldest's birthday, and we're having some people come over that night.
-- Friday the 25th: My oldest's birthday party.
-- Saturday the 26th: My wife will be at the Relief Society General Broadcast.
-- Sunday the 27th: Amazing Race starts!
-- Monday the 28th: Family Home Evening.
-- Tuesday the 29th: Tennis lessons.
-- Wednesday the 30th: A free night?! Really?!

After compiling this list, I detect a few themes: church and kids. Somewhere in there we get a few nights where my wife and I can just relax and do stuff for us, but you can see it doesn't happen often. Usually when it does, we just like to sit and stare at some TV show. We often get to the point where we totally know we should do something productive, but we just don't want to because we're just so tired. I'm not complaining, though, just stating the facts. In any case, life is pretty good.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

My Job Description

My daughter had an assignment in her third grade glass a week ago, which reads:

Pretend that you are going to write a report. First, write the topic of your report. Then, write three things you would say about the topic.

The results? Check it out (spelling is hers):

Topic: My dad's job.
a. My dad works at JPL.
b. He controls the space craft in space.
c. They are cercing for Aliens.

I love it! According to this, I control an armada of spacecraft in an attempt to hunt down alien life forms. Awesome. Technically, I don't think you could say she is wrong, but I never really appreciated that I'm an alien hunter ...

(By the way, I find her spelling of "cercing" to be very interesting; you have to love the flexibility of the English language. I am also impressed that she knew to call the vehicles in space "space craft". She didn't know it was one word, but she knows not to call them "spaceships", which connotes a space vehicle that carries people.)

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