My Blog

National Rocket Competition Comes to Muskegon

Hello, Everyone.

I have talked with a number of you about attending this event.  If you haven’t figured it out, I am excited about it, which is the reason I wrote the postings on Rocket Building and have been dusting off some of my old Estes rockets (these are store-bought and they almost always work).

I hope everyone is able to attend.  All the information I have at the moment is posted below.  I will put more on here as I learn more and/or find things we need to know.

Hope to see everyone there!


WHAT:   The Muskegon Michigan Area Rocket Club (M.M.A.R.) will host the National Rocketry Contest here at the Wastewater facility. This is a week long event that goes from Saturday, July 28th through Friday, August 3rd.  They said the “sport launchings” will begin on Saturday and go throughout the week.  The “competition launchings” will be Monday through Friday.  The competition flight hours will be from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm.  There will be rocketeers from across the country. This is a great opportunity for families to see some exciting rocketry.   I was also told Mr. Estes (of Estes Model Rocket company fame) will be attending.  For full details on this event, visit the National Association of Rocketry Annual Meet Website:    The National Association of Rocketry’s main website is:

OUTING:   I am organizing a group outing for everyone interested in attending this event.  I talked with the President of the local club, and he suggested Wednesday, August 1st would be a really good day because, among other things, they are holding the G-Force Egg Launches.  The winners have to demonstrate the egg they launched was not broken either on the way up or the way down.

WHO IS INVITED:  Everyone is invited!  If you didn’t get an email from me, please excuse the oversight.  You are invited anyway!  Please fill out a comment form below to tell us you are coming and any other details you want to add.  Hope to see you there!

WHEN:  Wednesday, August 1st beginning at 10 AM.  The events end for the day at 4 PM.  My recommendation is to rendezvous at the entrance at 10:00 AM.  They expect around 150 contestants plus visitors and other club members, so it shouldn’t be a big crowd.

COORDINATION:   I will be out of town from July 24-31, but I have access to email and cell phone.  We can also communicate with the postings below to let everyone know who is coming and any special arrangements.

ADMISSION:    Admission is free to anyone who wants to watch.  If you want to launch rockets while you are there, there is a $25 charge (and you have to bring your own rocket).

WHAT TO BRING:  Come as you are!  If you have a rocket, bring it.  I have some Estes rockets I built a few years ago that I plan to bring.  Vendors will be on hand for motors. Experienced rocketeers will be available to assist with launching. The club provides launch equipment.  I am going to bring a couple foldable chairs and a cooler with some pop and some muchies and stuff.

WHERE:  The event is held at the Muskegon Wastewater Facility

DIRECTIONS:   From Muskegon intersection of US 31 and M-46 (Apple Avenue) go east 6.9 miles to Maple Island Road and turn left (north) to go 2.2 miles to entrance of the Wastewater Facility road. Turn right (east) and go 2 miles to the launch site entrance on the right. The club MMAR sign will be there.  GSP site coordinates:  N43 degrees 15′ 44.4″,  W 86 degrees 0159″ 4′


Rocket Building 101

When I was a kid, I had a chemistry set.  My parents thought it would be educational, and for a 10-11 year old kid, I suppose it was.  But after I’d made all the crystals and stinky stuff,  I yearned for more.

That was about the time the kid across the street introduced me to carbide.  This is a little rock with an unusual property:  when you spit on it, it bubbles like crazy (kinda like spitting on an Alka-Seltzer).  And if you hold a match to the bubbles, they ignite.  This got me very excited.  But when I went home to my chemistry set, I was disappointed to learn carbide was not one of my chemicals.  Reading the manual more closely, they explained that my set only included “safe chemicals” that do not explode.  That is when I knew I had to go outside the system.

After making discreet inquiries about this carbide stuff, I found a kid who had some.  He was willing to trade me a small supply for 4 steelies, 8 puries, and 10 of my best cateyes (marbles).  It was a high price, but I was determined.

When I got them back to the lab (my chemistry set in the basement), I began experimenting with my new purchase.  I found if I contained the gas and let it build up a bit, it ignited with a very satisfying “boom.”  To do this, I used very high-tech equipment consisting of a tin can with a hole in the side that I made with a hammer and nail.  My experiments suggested the best nail hole should be near the opening, about 1/2 inch from the rim.

As you know, you can’t really count on results you find in the lab.  If you are going to do proper testing, you have to field test it.  Fortunately, I had a large driveway for that very purpose.  My required components for the test included:  a wood board (launch pad), a tin can with a hole in the side, a carbide pellet, matches, and spit.  I carefully put the pellet on the pad, spit on it (being careful to get generous amount of spit so as to fully cover the pellet).  Place the can over the spit-pellet. Wait until the can fills with pellet gas.  Then hold a lit match next to the little hole in the side of the can.

This produces a really great little explosion, which blows the can straight upward for several feet.  Several repeated trials convinced me I was on to something.  Unfortunately, my supplies were running low.

At this point, I could have gone to talk to my parents, but I hadn’t really talked with them about exploding things.  And, after all, the chemistry set manual proudly proclaimed there were no exploding things inside, which suggested grownups might not approve of exploding things.  And, at this point, I was not willing to expose my plans to risk of ruin.

Fortunately, I was by far the best marble player at Lincoln School.  Only Fred Herring could sometimes beat me, but not often.  So, armed with a few more marbles, I went out to increase my wealth.  And I knew all the tricks.  As soon as my challenge was accepted, I would immediately say, “Triple Kings! Last all times!”, which guaranteed me the coveted right to go last for the duration of the game.  Lots of kids, knowing my reputation, wanted to play for “Funs”, but I didn’t give in.  It was “For Keeps” or nothing.  And, of course, we all agreed that “Trades” were allowed because if you lost the game, you certainly didn’t want to lose your lucky marble, so you were allowed give up a similar marble of like quality.  And, with every kid who would agree, we would put an extra marble or two in the pot to increase the stakes.

In four more days, I had what I needed to go back to my supplier.  He was happy to see me.  He’d even laid in a new supply in anticipation of my return.

A few more days blowing tin cans into the sky led me to some disappointment.  The amount of satisfaction you get from popping a tin can up in the air has a diminishing rate of return.  After 30-40 times, the launches seem to blur together.  I recruited Keith Anderson, my brother Larry, and Jeff Stibitz into the launch team.  It was fun to share the experience with others, but, eventually, I knew I needed more than just blowing a tin can into the air.

I knew I needed something that could go higher and faster.  I needed more power.  I needed to have a rocket if I was ever going to achieve greatness.  Nothing else could reach the heights to which I aspired.

Fortunately, my wait was not a long one.

(Continued in Rocket Building 201.)

Rocket Building 201

Keith Anderson is the one who took my fascination with carbide tin cans and elevated it to the level of rocketry.  I think we were 11 or 12 at the time.  He said he heard from a kid that you could make rocket fuel just by cutting off a bunch of match heads.  An intriguing concept to be sure, but my initial lab work to test the concept was not particularly successful.  Lots of matches were hard to come by, especially without raising adult questions.  There are only so many times I can justify lighting the little alcohol lamp that came with my chemistry set.  So, unfortunately, we had to abandon that line of research.

More inquiries turned up rumors that rocket fuel could be made with some sort of charcoal and sulphur and saltpetre combination.  Closer scrutiny cast some doubt on this, however.  Saltpetre was used by farmers for some reason we couldn’t seem to understand.  It was also (according to a friend’s older brother) used by the military to keep their soldiers from having a good time – whatever the heck that meant.  How could anything like that be used for rocket fuel?

This is when I realized we might need to go to the library to find out more.  I found a book by a guy named Goddard who made some early rockets.  It had to be a good book because they said he was the Father of Rocketry right on the front cover.  One of the first fuels he experimented with was saltpetre mixed with sugar.  Eventually, he went on to use liquid oxygen and stuff like that.  I decided to give the saltpetre another look because they talked about it in the first couple of chapters of the book.  The beginning of the book was the easiest to understand, although each new chapter kept adding more drawings and formulas and diagrams and complicated stuff.  Sticking to the first chapter would make things much easier.  I admit the saltpetre and sugar didn’t really sound plausible, but the guy had written it in a book, so it had to be right.

The next part of my plan was more complicated.  How would I get my mom to help me acquire the saltpetre I needed?  What if she asked me what I wanted it for?  Would she accept that “I need it for a chemistry experiment.”  I doubted it.  She had a sharp and suspicious mind when it came to mysterious and smelly things coming from the basement.  But, I took a chance, and after several days of nagging, she agreed to take me to a feed store.

The store smelled like a barn, but we found what we were looking for.  In fact, they were selling it by the scoop.  You just shovel how much you want into a bag.  I’d hoped to get enough to fill a small bottle from my chemistry set.  Instead, I came home with an unending supply.

Eager to begin my experiments, I went to my basement lab with my book and my new loot.  I had to make a quick run back upstairs for a supply of sugar.  Mom gave me some, although she questioned why I needed so much.  I carefully mixed the sugar and the saltpetre together in the recommended ratio.  I read the mixture had to be heated, and, if you did it right, it would turn into a liquid.  They did say you shouldn’t let the temperature get above something like 325 degrees or something called “combustion” might happen.  But that didn’t matter to me, because 1) I didn’t have any way of measuring the temperature, 2) I didn’t know what 325 degrees were, and 3) what the heck was “combustion” anyway?

Reality can be a harsh teacher.  Laws of Chemistry, I found, just hate to be ignored.

My little alcohol lamp was merrily heating the stuff in my test tube.  And, it actually was turning into a liquid, just like the book said it would.  Now at this point, you might think I should have known what to do next.  But the book was kinda sketchy on that part.   So I hadn’t really thought about what might come next.  When the liquid in the test tube started boiling, all I was really thinking about was the interesting thick bubbles that were forming.  Which is probably why I wasn’t expecting the explosion.

On the scale of explosions, it wouldn’t be considered a huge explosion.  In truth, I don’t even remember the sound.  I do remember the mushroom cloud that leaped out of my little test tube.  It shot up until it hit the ceiling, at which point it started spreading throughout the room.  You know how everything seems to be in slow motion during an emergency?  It was like that.  I watched that demon cloud as it broke free, leaving its signature forever on my mind, indistinguishable from the nuclear bomb blasts we were taught to fear.

The reason I knew there was sound from the explosion was because my mom came racing down the stairs and directly to my workbench where I sat in stunned silence.  I knew I was in trouble.  I hadn’t exactly offered full disclosure on how I intended to use that saltpetre.  And I was pretty sure she wasn’t expecting it to be explosive.  I knew she saw every detail of my deception clearly written on my face.

Instead, she surprised me by asking me in a rather angry voice, “Have you been smoking?!”  What?  Smoking?  I was only 12.  Why would I be smoking?  That was when I realized she had seen all the smoke and drawn the wrong conclusion.  I leaped on the opportunity to give her an explanation other than the one she feared most.  I explained it was just a chemistry experiment.  I tensed for the possibility she might change tack and begin a new line of interrogation into what kind of experiment causes explosions, but after checking my workspace for cigarette butts, she was satisfied and left.

Now some people might consider this experiment a failure.  Not me.  I had proven that whatever it is they feed to farm animals and soldiers had great explosive power.  I just had to make sure to avoid the explosion part.

My inquiry soon shifted to another area.  What was I going to use for a rocket?  I certainly didn’t have any.  Anything made of plastic would certainly not work.  Rummaging through my dad’s workshop turned up an interesting possibility.  It was a cardboard tube about a half-inch in diameter.  This was perfect!  I had limited permission to use dad’s power tools, so I used the jigsaw to turn a dowel into a nose cone for my rocket.  I then taped it into place with electrical tape (none of that scotch tape stuff for us; my dad was an engineer and had all the good stuff).  The next problem was wings.  How do we make it go straight without wings?  I found cardboard on the back of a writing pad and cut out a triangle.  I knew the wing had to handle the high wind speed and high G-forces during the moments after launch.  So I used glue to hold my triangular wing in place.

Mixing up a batch of rocket fuel was easy, now that I’d perfected the process.  In fact, I made several process improvements by introducing a small pan that held 5-6 times more than my test tube.  My final improvement was the introduction of a small glass stick to stir the liquid (and reduce the chance of that combustion thingy happening).

As soon as I finished the cooking, I set the pan aside to cool.  Later, scraping out bits of the fuel, I poured the combination of nuggets and powder into my rocket’s body.  I was ready.  My rocket launch would be the first one ever seen on Crestwood Lane.  I called my friend Keith over to witness my proudest moment.

I had to prop up the rocket with twigs to keep it pointing upright.  And we had to use stones to hold the base of the rocket off the ground so I had room to get the match close to the fuel.  You might be thinking a smarter way to light a rocket would be with a fuse, but there were none in my chemistry kit, so I had to improvise.  It turns out the first few matches didn’t do the job.  The reason for this is every time I thought the rocket might be lit, I would break into a mad 100-yard dash for shelter.  Actually, none of the matches so far had started the rocket fuel burning.  And I was rapidly running out of matches.  Going back to Mom for more matches was not an option.  So I had to be strong, for the sake of the launch, and hold the match in place until ignition was confirmed.  Ignition, it turns out, is not shy about giving confirmation.  The only problem is ignition seems to turn almost instantly into launch, which doesn’t leave as much time as one would like to run away.

On this day, Dr. Goddard’s spirit was with us and everything went right.  Flames shot out of the bottom of the rocket, thrusting it upward.  It zoomed up and up, leaving a trail of smoke behind it as it made its ascent.  I admit it didn’t go perfectly straight; it actually seemed to do a lot of twisting and turning and a little wobbling, but it was close enough.  And when it had spent all its fuel, it turned around and fell to the earth.  It fell straight down (aided by the weight of the dowel nose cone and the wing).  It landed in the grass, with its tail sticking up in the air.  This was to be one of my best launches.

I was ready to run back to the basement and mix up more fuel, but it was not to be.  The little rocket’s butt was burned to a cinder.  In fact, we’d lost at least 3/4 inch off the length of the rocket because of the hot exhaust.  And the walls of the rocket where very thin in several spots.  It looked like the rule would be: one rocket, one launch.

And thus began the adventures of the Rocket Boy of Crestwood Lane.

(Continued in Rocket Building 301.)

Rocket Building 301

When you are 11-12, girls aren’t really much of a distraction.  This lets you throw the full weight of your passion into more scientific pursuits.  For me, this was my rockets.  Having perfected the rocket fuel that was to lift me above the ordinariness of carbide cannons and other children’s toys, I was ready to take my rocketry to the next level.

Over the next few months, I experimented with different rocket bodies made from many different substances.  I created special wooden nozzles for the rockets that would give greater compression and lift to the rockets.  I experimented with different wing designs.  I tested different mixes for the rocket fuel, including powder fuel vs. solid fuel.  All of these unique rocket designs had one thing in common, which my mom summed up rather well.  “They’re just sticks of dynamite with fins glued on,” she said.

My rocket production laboratory became a mass production assembly line that would have impressed even Henry Ford.  I prepared everything I needed to build 3-4 rockets at a time.  With enough saltpetre and sugar, I knew I could reach the moon.

The rocket design changed over time, as you might expect.  I eventually settled on a process that involved cutting a wooden dowel into two pieces.  The first piece was sharpened to a nice point to ensure minimal air resistance.  The second dowel had a hole drilled through the center, which was a technique I designed to increase the rocket’s thrusting power.

Now the rocket body presented something of a challenge, since I had long since run out of that cool little cardboard tube.  But I discovered the paper my dad sometimes brought home from the paper mill was exceptionally strong.  I learned to take a few sheets of paper and roll them into a tube.  I used the two dowels to get the paper as tight as possible.  I then used tiny nails to attach the paper to the nose cone.

Even the wings were a new design.  Basically, this was a triangle folded in half so the rocket was nestled in the “V,” providing it with two points of contact for the glue.  To keep the wing stabilized, I designed a second smaller triangle wing that fit into the larger wing to provide additional stability.  It was an engineering marvel.

After the wings dried, I filled the rocket with my enhanced fuel.  When it was full, I carefully pounded the nails through the rocket’s paper body to attach the nozzle dowel.  The job was nearly complete.  I still had to add more rocket fuel to fill up the hole in the dowel because I hadn’t yet solved that fuse problem.

Now, I have to admit what my mom said about my rockets was mostly true (about sticks of dynamite with fins glued on).  And you can imagine all the time I spent picking up small bits of paper from exploded rockets that had been blown all over our driveway and lawn.  But I wasn’t discouraged.  I knew it was just a matter of time before I got it right.  And besides, my reputation for rocketry was becoming legendary among my friends.  They even started calling me One-Match-Steve.  All my friends were of the stick-the-match-sorta-close-and-then-run-away-as-fast-as-you-can type.  I, on the other hand, was the only kid stupid enough to hold the match steady until the rocket started burning.  It didn’t matter.  I wore my new nickname with pride and dignity.

Eventually I developed the Wanderer Class of rockets.  They had smaller fins and less compression on the exhaust, which seemed to make them less likely to explode.  Even today, I remember with great fondness the rocket I called Wanderer II.  It had a revolutionary new wing design, and I’d altered the basic design a bit.  My friend Keith was there for moral support.  Wanderer II did not disappoint us.  It got off to a great start by not exploding on the launch pad.  That alone guaranteed it shelf space in my Rocket Hall of Fame.   There might have been more entries, but piles of shredded paper didn’t impress anyone.  After all, I had my standards.

The great Wanderer II continued to rise, reaching a height of approximately 20-25 feet above the ground.  In my mind, this baby was not only in the Hall of Fame, it was the leading candidate to become the Hall of Fame centerpiece.  I would write a book about it, rivaling anything Goddard had written.  People would come from everywhere to see how I had done it.  And if NASA wanted a few pointers, well that was OK with me too.

That was when things took a turn for the worse.  More precisely, the rocket decided it had enough of this “up” stuff and decided to try a little “sideways” stuff.  It didn’t like that very much so it quickly switched to “down” stuff and then “over” and “back” stuff.  I remember marveling at what an interesting display of zigs and zags was taking place before my eyes.  Somewhere out of the corner of my eye, I was aware that Keith was running at top speed in the opposite direction.  But I couldn’t be bothered with that now.  This was history in the making.  I almost forgot to move when one of the zags started heading straight at me.  But at the last second, a new zig forced it up.  It got about 25 feet up when it began a new maneuver.  This one I call a spin-in-place.  You often have to develop a new vocabulary to describe the varied takeoff sequences, especially if you haven’t quite worked out some of problems with the wings.  So naturally my journal is full of technical terms like “spin-in-place”, “zig zag maneuver”, “twisty”, “shaky”, and “wabbly”.

The spin-in-place maneuver lasted quite a while.  The tail of the rocket just went around and around.  That was the last thing I remember before the explosion.  Suddenly, Wanderer II had vanished from the earth.  The only evidence of its departure being those darn little pieces of paper and cardboard that came fluttering down.  It looked like he wasn’t Hall of Fame material after all.

But no matter.  My career had just begun.  And the perfect rocket was yet to be made.  And I was just the kid to do it.

(Continued in Rocket Building 401.)

Rocket Building 401

Now, with all these design problems, you might wonder if I ever got it right.  I think it was Edison who said, “I haven’t failed.  I now know 1,000 ways it won’t work.”   Words to live by.  And, we did eventually get it right.  At least on one occasion.  And that was the last rocket I ever built.

At this point, the only other kid with the guts to participate in my advanced research was Keith.  We never called him One-Match-Keith, but in his own way, he had courage.  He had his own chemistry set, and he had access to his sister’s outdoor doll house which we quickly converted to a mobile lab.  It was here we hit on the best combination of rocket fuel.

We used exacting standards to evaluate the quality of each new batch of fuel.  It consisted of breaking off a small BB-sized piece of the fuel, placing it carefully on a flat surface, and then lighting it with a match.  Our trained eyes would evaluate the intensity and the length of the burn.  Usually, this only lasted a second or so before everything was consumed.  Sometimes the fuel was so good, the pellet actually danced around while it was burning.  Those were the formulas we liked the best.

Then came the day we discovered the perfect combination of ingredients.  We knew when we finished the cooking process that it had potential, but it wasn’t until we gave it the BB-Fire Test that we knew what we had.  Instead of sitting still and producing a nice big flare, this little BB burned so hot and so fast, it launched itself.  It didn’t need to be in a rocket or anything.  It just flew.  And, since we were inside a 6 x 8 foot doll house, the flying BB bounced from wall to wall like a bullet.  Keith and I ducked and dodged that flaming pellet from hell.  Eventually, it was quiet.  When the smoke cleared out of the doll house, we examined ourselves for burn holes, but it seemed we’d been spared.

Being the good scientists we were, we naturally repeated the experiment.  And sure enough, everything was exactly the same.  Even the terror and the mad scramble to get outside the little house was the same.  I’m sure that little fire bug tried to hit us this time, too, but he was going so fast it was hard to steer, so he had to content himself with multiple ricochets off the walls, floor, and ceiling in the hope of winging us with a lucky shot.  He failed.

We smiled in triumph.  At last we had the ultimate fuel.  We’d been working all summer to perfect this.  Unfortunately, we’d taken no notes on the exact combination.  As perfect as it was, we only had one batch of it.  And if we added any common batch to it, it would only reduce its power.  So we resolved to save this for a special rocket.  One that was worthy of such amazing fuel.  It wasn’t long before we found it.

Now in our neighborhood, not all kids are the same.  I was a BB gun kid.  Some kids had pellet guns, which required you to pump up the air pressure for each pellet.  Keith was one of those rare kids who had a CO2 powered pellet gun.  When I saw that cool empty CO2 cartridge, I knew we had to do something with it.  Nothing this perfectly formed should be thrown away.  That’s when I realized it would make the perfect body for a small rocket.  It was made of metal!  And it already had a natural nozzle built into the end of it.  And, if it worked out, we could easily get more of them.  Perfect, perfect, perfect!

Now the wings were a bit of a challenge.  No cardboard wings would do for this bird.  We anticipated G-Forces that would leave cardboard wings standing on the launch pad.  We needed something stronger.  Back to dad’s workshop where we discovered a small triangle of sheet metal.  I had no idea how to cut metal, but then I realized it was the perfect size and cut already.  My eyes glistened.  Things were coming together.  But how do we attach this wing?  Elmer’s was not going to do it this time.  Although electrical tape was one of my dad’s favorite solutions (this being before duct tape came along), it didn’t seem right.  I considered soldering, but I wasn’t allowed to use the soldering iron.  I had heard of welding, but I was pretty sure if I wasn’t allowed to solder, I wasn’t going to be allowed to weld.  But then, as I was rummaging through my dad’s workshop, I chanced on a glue called Liquid Solder.  If there was ever a sign that I was supposed to stay on the path I was on, this had to be it.  I squeezed out some of that liquid solder, my only disappointment coming when I read you had to wait 24 hours for it to dry.  When you are 12, 24 hours is pert near forever.  But, when I reminded myself we were building the perfect rocket, I knew some things just couldn’t be rushed.

The next afternoon, the glue was dry.  Keith came over early.  We carefully worked our Ultimate Fuel into a fine powder.  We couldn’t use fuel chunks because the hole in the CO2 was only about 1/8 of an inch, so it had to be powder.  And, in yet another sign, there was just exactly enough powder to fill the rocket.

And when we went outside, we found perfect launch conditions.  Not a cloud in the sky.  No traffic on our street.  No kids anywhere near.  We set up the launch pad at the end of the driveway.  We pointed the rocket upward, tilting in the direction of the far end of the street.  All was ready.

And who should have the honor of launching this rocket of rockets?  There was no question really.  Only Rocket Boy, the foremost rocket scientist in this part of the country deserved such an honor.  I stepped forward, accepting my due, and pulled out a match to do what needed to be done.

Keith, always the smarter of us two, was standing at the far end of the driveway.  But I was fearless in this moment of my greatest triumph.  I reached down with the burning match.  The fuel was so amazing it took but an instant to light, surprising even me.  I didn’t even have time to run away before the rocket thrust itself into the air.  I watched it climbing higher and higher.  Soon it had gone higher even than our streetlight, which was a new personal best for any rocket I had ever built.  That is when it exploded.  I don’t mean “exploded”, I mean “EXPLODED”.  The sound was like a real stick of dynamite.

I stood there in shocked disbelief.  There were no little paper shards falling to the ground.  That little rocket was gone-gone-gone.  And with the force of that explosion, I knew it could have gone anywhere it wanted to go.  I looked around the immediate area to see if there was a hunk of exploded metal lying somewhere on the ground.  I didn’t see any metal shards, but I did see Keith’s heels as he continued sprinting through the field toward his house.

Now, you might think a missing rocket would call up a Twilight Zone moment.  For me, it called up a Horrors on Haunted Hill moment.  As I wondered what could have happened to my rocket, how far it could have gone, and how much damage it could do, I knew with fatal certainty the only thing that could have happened.  That rocket was pointed in the direction of the Fonstein’s house on the far side of the circle.  I couldn’t see the house because it was 1/4 mile away, but I could certainly picture the hole in the side of the house and the 2-3 dead people inside.  I hoped I hadn’t killed all of them.  As I rechecked the flight angle, I realized my only hope was if they hadn’t been home at the time.  But it was close to dinner time.  Surely they would have been sitting at their dinner table, close together, where a single missile strike would get them all.  And what could I do?  It was too late to do anything.

And so, I went into my house.  At best it might take a day before their bodies were discovered.  But after that, it would be simple to calculate from the hole in the side of the house the direction from which the rocket had come.  I knew I needed to put my affairs in order.  They would be coming for me soon.  But I didn’t want to make it too easy, so I said nothing.  I just stoically awaited my fate.  When they came for me, I would calmly admit everything.  Through that night and all the next day, I waited.  Still they did not come.  Nor did I see any police cars or ambulances.  Nor did I see Keith, although I am sure he watched for police cars from his bedroom window.

By the second day, I dared to hope things might not be as bad as I feared.  Or maybe they hadn’t discovered the bodies yet.  I had to know.  So, filled with fear and trepidation, I began the long walk down the street.  All along the way, I looked for any sign that my rocket had not gotten that far, but I found none.  At last, I was in front of Lee Fonstein’s house.  I looked up, afraid of what I might see, but, as near as I could tell, there were no holes in the wall.  And I thought I caught a glimpse of movement from inside the house.  Could it be?  They had somehow survived?  A flicker of hope emerged.  And I cradled it like a precious flower.

Now, years later, I can’t tell you why, but I never built another rocket after that.  Maybe it was because I became interested in girls.  Or maybe another hobby came along and displaced my interest in rockets.  But I think it was simpler than that.  I think there are times in your life when some cosmic force reaches down to give you a good emotional shaking.  Kinda like God’s way of saying, “What’s the matter with you?  Are you nuts?  Stop that!!”

This time I listened.

Top Ten Reviews

One of my favorite sites over the years has been  They started out reviewing internet and computer-related items like website hosting services, email services, virus protection software, etc.  Since then, they expanded into a broad range of topics.  It is an internet version of Consumers Report, and I think it is better.  And its free.

This is one of the first places I go when I want to see if something has been reviewed.  They identify the top 10 products in each category.  They have a useful description of the important features of the products so you can figure out what is important.  They tell you how the products compare on a number of different criteria.  And they give you the price.

To give you an example of the range of reviews, these are some of the reviews you can find at their site:

    • Best Selling Laptops
    • Best Robot Vacuum Cleaners
    • Digital Camera Reviews
    • Top 10 Phones and Plans
    • All-In-One Printer Reviews
    • Best Washing Machines
    • Internet TV
    • Online Stock Trading
    • and much, much more…

At the bottom of their website is the opportunity to join their mailing list.  This is one I have been on for a long time.  The most important thing, of course, is they send you the new reviews they have completed.  They even include little blurbs about things like:  how to speed up your computer, why smart phones are turning us into work-a-holics, the “doomsday virus”, and more.

I highly recommend it.

Sky Lanterns (Part 2)

On the 4th of July, a small sub-set of intrepid adventurers gathered to watch the fireworks.  Many of these were the same suspects involved in the original Sky Lantern Incident.  (If you haven’t read “The Sky Lantern Incident”, read that one first.)

We stood on Pigeon Hill looking out over the dunes in the direction of Heritage Landing and the Muskegon Country Club.  Both sites are well-known for their fireworks.  This time, because of Michigan’s liberalized fireworks laws, there were sounds and sights all around us, even coming from Pere Marquette Beach.  At least one display was happening at the site of our infamous Sky Lantern Incident.  The light from the fireworks surely lit up the broken body of our little friend high up in the Coast Guard tree.

As we watched the fireworks, I thought of our little lantern friends, whose only crime was wanting to be free.  To ride high and free in the sky as they were meant to.  I tried to put this thought out of my mind.  The last time I tried to free them had not gone so well.  But try as I might, I could not cast out the thought.  I even told myself that surely on 4th of July, with the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air, there was no way to get into trouble.  And so I quickly walked home where some of them waited my return.

I chose four of the sturdiest and best looking lanterns I could find.  One yellow, one white, one red, and one green.  A fine-looking group they were, too.  I returned to the fireworks watchers with my prizes.  When I arrived, I could tell they had mixed feelings about this venture.  No one would make eye-contact with me.  After all, they had been party to our last effort, which hadn’t exactly worked as planned.

But my new-found enthusiasm was at least somewhat contagious.  I quickly recruited the most adventurous of the group (Ardis).   The others held back, showing various degrees of fear and fascination on their faces.  Ardis calmly held our pretty lantern in place while I lit the little square at the base.  Her only trace of fear showing when she wondered aloud if the lantern’s surface would retain her fingerprints.  Soon enough we had fire and a little smoke rising up inside the lantern.  She said it was getting hot, but she held on anyway.  Every few seconds we checked to see if we had positive buoyancy.  Then, proud lantern midwife that she was, she announced that it was time.

I held the lower rim while Ardis released the balloon.  Yes!  It was ready.  At this point, it occurred to me to wonder about the wind.  Last time, he had vexed us beyond all reason.  This time, I felt nothing.  No wind.  Perhaps he was in pursuit of other victims.  Perhaps he didn’t like the sound of all the explosions.  It didn’t matter.  This time, our launch would be without the demon antics of our evil friend.

Eagerly, I gently lifted and released the rim of the lantern.  Slowly, ever so slowly, it moved away from me.  Then it seemed to lose a little altitude as it drifted in the direction of the Harbour Towne Condos.  Quickly sighting up the lantern, I saw that at its present speed and course, it would ever so gently drift into two large pine trees.  Alas!  How could this happen again?  It was a calm night.  Conditions were ideal.  Nothing should have gone wrong.

But then, miraculously, the lantern began to lift.  It lifted and lifted until the tree no longer posed a threat.  Our baby was airborne and free.  What a sight!  At this point, our fearful friends were heard to comment on the grace and beauty of our lantern.  Up and up it floated.  A magnificent sight by all accounts.  The accolades were unanimous.  That was when it occurred to me that this needn’t be a solitary journey.  Three more lanterns stood in readiness.

I turned to ready the second lantern.  I was surprised my action was not met with cries of joy and other expressions of unconstrained enthusiasm.  Instead, they were holding back.  They wanted to see what happened to our pioneer before they were willing to trust.  How could they hold back?  Didn’t they see what I saw?  Did they not believe?

As I paused, wondering if I could generate any enthusiasm for a second launch, I heard a lot of calculating and figuring.  I heard things like, “It looks like the wind is moving in a safe direction.”  “Probably the light will go out long before it ever lands.”  “The light only seems to burn for about 5 minutes.”  “We should have timed it to be sure.”  “People probably didn’t even notice us with all the other fireworks going on.”  I saw the fears and the doubts begin to subside, although they lingered until the lantern flickered out of sight.  Slowly, I could feel the sense of pride emanating from our group.  That is when I knew a second launch was going to happen.

This time, Jim joined Ardis and me.  He helped Ardis steady the lantern as I made fire down below.  Jim moved several times up and down and around the lantern to observe all aspects of the operation and making mental notes on everything he saw.  I could see the gleam in his eyes.  I have always been able to recognize talent and management potential.  I resolved right then that the next lantern launch was to be his.

This time, everyone knew the playbook.  The fire burned nicely.  The lantern inflated nicely.  We had to puff out the sides a little, but otherwise it was going well.  It was T-minus 10 seconds, and all systems were green.

Then, like members of a synchronized swimming team, we flowed and floated around the lantern as it powered up for liftoff.  And a magnificent liftoff it was, too.  The wind took it back toward the trees, just as before, but this time, we had held it a little longer, and so it rose faster.  The trees were never even a possibility.  We complimented each other on our excellent launch techniques and on the wonderful sight as this lantern joined his sister in the sky.

Then, suddenly, someone sighted a lantern in a place it should not have been.  Over near the Muskegon Country Club.  We watched, wondering how our baby could have made it so far.  Then we realized the truth.  They also had Sky Lanterns.  And they had launched one.  Although I felt a moment of disappointment at no longer being unique, it was quickly replaced by relief from knowing there were other conspirators doing the same thing.  Did they have the same experiences?  Had they nearly set the Country Club on fire?  Had they narrowly missed the trees?  Maybe they spotted our lanterns and drew the courage necessary to make their own launch.  The sky was a big place.  They were welcome there too.

A thought occurred to me.  It was motivated, I am sure by our nearly disastrous experiences the other night.  What if the police saw the lanterns rising up from Harbour Towne and the lanterns rising up from the Country Club at the same time?  Which ones would they go for?  I feared we Harbour Townies would become examples of our justice system long before the Country Clubbers.  But when I looked up again, I reminded myself of the near-perfect launches.  Nothing could stop us now.

This time, I wanted to make sure we had photos (having been criticized for not having any the first time).  Jim required a little more instruction because of the child-proof device on the lighter that has thwarted more adults than children.  But he quickly mastered the complex mechanism and made fire.

This time, Dad came forward to help.  I was pleased.  A trained engineer is always a welcome addition in any high-risk endeavor involving fire.  Dad watched carefully, like the professional manager he is, leaving the details to other members of his team.  This time the launch was flawless.  I was busy taking pictures to mark the moment.  Ardis was still worried about leaving fingerprints, but I told her that didn’t matter any more because there would be a picture of her doing the deed on the internet within a day.  With such evidence, no one needed fingerprints.  And no denials were possible.

And so went the fourth launch.  Absolutely flawless.  With a team like this, the Russians would never have beat us in the Space Race.

As we sat around afterwards, basking in the glow of our achievement, it was a glorious feeling compared to our first attempt.  The first attempt had left us broken and bitter.  Defeated by the wind at every turn.  Forced to head home carrying the extra lanterns we had not dared to launch.

But tonight was our night.  We were amazing.


The Adventure Continues here…

Gridlock Party

It is obvious to me that our political process is deeply flawed.  The frustration I hear and feel every day that emanates from Washington is getting worse and worse.  I think I have a solution.

The Abuse of Power

To begin, let me define the basic problem.  Each political party is made up of a variety of special interests. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means it only takes a vocal minority to establish a position within a political party.  Once that is done, the party is obligated to honor it and advance if it can.

The parties advance their causes by passing laws and regulations.  We all know to pass a law, the House of Representatives and the Senate pass it and then the President signs it.  It is my thesis our biggest problems happen when the House and the Senate and the Presidency are all controlled by the same political party.  Let’s call these power brokers (House, Senate, and President) the Big Three.  And we will call any party that controls all three the Ruling Party.

Consider this: most of our legislative actions are done by majority vote.  If 51 people want something and 49 do not, it can become a law, no matter how much the 49 disagree with it. This is the “tyranny of the majority”.  There really is no way to guarantee protection of or respect for the minority position.

Regardless of which party is in power, that party tries to pass laws and regulations to satisfy their special interest constituents. If they have enough power, they get their way and they effectively move the societal pendulum away from the center. (Think of the “center” as the “comfort zone” for the vast majority of us.)  If they have enough power and/or stay in office long enough, they push things so far away from the center that things start getting bad for the rest of us.

And, to further complicate things, the Ruling Party is often driven by one of their minority special interest groups, who are often not even a majority opinion of their own party.  What kind of check and balance is there to prevent the “majority” from changing things that the real majority wants?  Not much.

I know you are thinking right now, “Well, it is true of the other guys, but not about MY party.”  Sorry.  It is equally true in either direction.  Given enough power and enough time, neither party is immune.  Absolute power corrupts.  Just that simple.

Do We Need A Ruling Party?

My argument is the best times for the American people happen when no single party controls all of the Big Three. Why is this?  It is because when no one has all the power, neither party can get into too much mischief.  Even if one Party wanted something, if the Other Party is in control of just one of the Big Three (House, Senate or Presidency), then it isn’t likely to happen. Neither party has the power to force its will on not only the Other Party but also on all the rest of us.  This is a very good thing.

We have all heard the term “gridlock” applied to Congress. They usually say it like it is a bad thing; I think it is a great thing.  As long as we have gridlock, then no single party can ramrod a piece of legislation through just because they have one more vote than the Other Party.  When we have gridlock, we have a balance of power that is good for the rest of us.

When the Pendulum Is Out Of The Comfort Zone

When we find things are starting to feel bad, there really aren’t a lot of choices for us as individual citizens.  We really have only one choice: vote out the Ruling Party and put in the Other Party. This sorta works. We elect the Other Party because they promised to move the pendulum back to the center.

When the Other Party Gets the Power

If the election throws out the Ruling Party and makes the Other Party the new Ruling Party, then we have effectively transferred absolute power to the Other Party. The new Ruling Party, proclaiming their mandate, will do everything they can to reverse the actions of the previous party and move things further back in their own direction. If they take it too far, of course, it causes us pain, because once again we have been moved out of our comfort zone.

And when that happens, what do we do? We do the only thing we can do: we vote them out and put the first party back in.  And the process begins all over again.

When the Other Party Gets Some Power – Gridlock

If the election resulted in something less than a clean sweep, and we have a situation where there is no Ruling Party (because both parties control at least one of the Big Three), then we have managed to break up the power block of the Ruling Party. This, in my opinion, is the ideal outcome.  The Ruling Party no longer has the power to rubber stamp whatever they want done. This gridlock environment means there are no more slam dunks in the legislative arena.

It is true that a gridlocked Big Three isn’t going to be as “productive” as a Ruling Party with complete control over the Big Three.  But do you want that?  I don’t.  That just guarantees more fussing and fighting while the dominant party jams its agenda down our throats.  And then, of course, we have to wait until the next election when we can throw them out and try to reverse the damage they have done.  Am I worried about a do-nothing congress that just sits around and collects their fat paychecks? Nope. Not a bit. Our country is used to paying people not to work. I have no problem bribing 435 + 100 + 1 elected officials to just sit on their hands.

I think Gridlock is a much better solution than throwing one party or the other out every 8-12 years. It would produce a lot less wailing, name calling, gnashing of teeth, biting of knuckles, and general animosity than any other solution.

My Proposal

So here is what I propose. Right now, we can all go into a voting booth and vote a straight party ticket. I want to add one more check box to that ballot. I want the option to vote for the Gridlock Party.

So who is in the Gridlock Party?  How does it work?  Well, it is quite simple, really.  The Gridlock Party ballots get counted last.  Count up the other ballots first.  Figure out who would have won.  Then if it looks like either party will become the Ruling Party with control over the Big Three (i.e., winning too much power), then our votes go for the Other Party.  Think about it.  We are voting to limit the power of the majority by denying them absolute power.  Then everyone has to play nice if they want to accomplish anything.

We combine the full force of our voting power (liberal, conservative, and independent alike) to vote for a condition we believe will be better for everyone.

Gridlock Party Credo

We, the members of the Gridlock Party, are made up of all races, creeds, ideologies, and religions.  And we are liberals, conservatives and independents.  But the thing that unifies us is we don’t want to be jerked around by either party every few years.  We don’t care about various social issues to the exclusion of all else. We don’t want causes. We don’t want raging debates. We are tired of half of the world being divided into enemy camps because they are conservative or liberal.  We are tired of not being able to talk with neighbors about politics for fear of offending or inciting them.  We just want a quiet enjoyment of our lives.

What are the biggest advantages of the Gridlock Party? Simple. We know when gridlock prevails, neither party has enough power to pass anything over the trampled remains of the Other Party; this puts an end to ramrod legislation and unpopular laws passed by a “majority”. Yes, it is true that fewer laws will be passed. This is a good thing. If they do pass something, then both of their fingerprints are on it. If it turns out to be a problem, they are both motivated to fix it. There will always be ideological differences. But if something happens that really is bad, and both parties can agree on a solution, then it is probably OK for us too. If they can’t agree on a solution, it is probably because each party wants to take us further away from the center. So it is just fine with me that they don’t reach an agreement. If they can agree, then OK. If they can’t, then I don’t want to go there either.

I can’t think of a better system than our democracy, but I do think we need to control the abuses of power that happen when one party gets too much Power. I, for one, will never again say “gridlock” like it is a bad thing.

The Sky Lantern Incident

On Wednesday, June 27th, there were seven of us that met on the beach at Pere Marquette Park for a cookout.  It was a great idea.

Afterwards, I decided it would be fun to launch some Sky Lanterns Peg had given me for Christmas.  I first saw them in Thailand.  They filled the night sky as they drifted leisurely out over the Andaman Sea.  At times, you could see dozens of them.  It was a magnificent sight.

The Sky Lanterns Peg got me are very similar.  They are like small hot air balloons.  You light a fire in the bottom, and the balloon part fills with hot air, making it rise.  Simple, right?  Well, it turns out there is a bit more to it.

It was windy on the beach, even by Lake Michigan standards, so we gathered to light the first one in the shelter of one of the dunes.  I was the self-appointed torch man whose job was to get the fire started.  There were 2-3 others who helped hold the lantern upright; the others were busy shouting out instructions and encouragement to the rest of us.  The fire wasn’t too hard to start.  The real problem was holding the lantern steady and upright so it could fill with the hot air.  And, of course, the wind didn’t help.  It swirled around us, trying to put the fire out.  And then, when the fire was going well, the wind changed tactics and tried to rip the lantern out of our hands.  But we didn’t let any of that happen, and slowly, the lantern filled with hot air.  Eventually, we knew the time was right, and we released the lantern.  And watched as the lantern moved slowly upward into the darkening sky.

By this time, we had attracted a crowd.  I wasn’t aware of them until I noticed the applause that accompanied our launch.  I was so proud.  My first launch was a complete success.  And I looked back to watch my baby as it moved further up and away.

The Lantern Snatching TreeThat was when I realized our sky lantern was not heading out over Lake Michigan.  To be honest, I knew the wind was blowing north, but I thought it would be shifting toward the north-west, which would have been fine.  As I took in more of the surroundings than just the lantern, I realized 1) the lantern was not heading out toward the water, but instead was moving north-east, 2) there is a line of trees in that direction, 3) the trees marked the boundary of the Coast Guard Station, and 4) the wind about 10-20 feet above the ground was moving hard and fast toward the trees.  My poor lantern had no chance.  He struggled to gain altitude.  But the wind held him down.  The nasty wind drove our helpless lantern relentlessly on a direct collision course with the trees.  There was never really any hope.  Our lantern tried to move around the trees, but the wind pushed him this way and that, never waivering from its target.  Suddenly, it looked as if the lantern might have out-maneuvered the wind, but then a tree branch reached out and grabbed the lantern and held it tight.  My heart sank as I saw my little friend trapped and without hope.  Meanwhile, the wind and the tree were busy giving each other high-fives in celebration.

I knew the lantern was not happy at the ruination of its maiden and only voyage.  Fire would be his answer.  My thoughts were furiously trying to calculate the chances of the tree catching on fire.  I stood there helplessly looking 50 feet up, waiting for the tree to burst into flame and the Coast Guard to come rushing out to save the day (and arrest the arsonist who had threatened their lives).

Whichever god it is that watches over children and fools was also taking care of me that day.  The fire sputtered and went out.  The relief was palpable.  You could feel it everywhere.  No arrests would happen on this day.

We stood around breathing great sighs of relief.  Happy nothing bad had happened.  We had dodged the big one.  That was when someone said, “There isn’t as much wind down by the water.”

Something should have told me that was a bad idea, but it made so much sense.  Being closer to the water would avoid the trees.  It might even increase the chances of going straight north or even out over the water.  It was a good plan, really.

The Evil Wind

It turned out there was more wind down by the water, not less.  But my group of accomplices were prepared, and they quickly got into the wind-blocking huddle formation, and we made fire again.  Although there was more wind, it didn’t bother us because by now we were highly trained experts in the launch maneuver.

Finally, we achieved lift off.  But our poor lantern!  As soon as it got past our sheltering embrace, the evil wind was waiting.  The same evil wind that destroyed the life of his brother.  But this time, there were no trees.  I smiled.  We had outsmarted the wind.  He was helpless to do anything except lift our lantern upward on his way to the stars.

That was when I realized the wind had yet another trick up his sleeve.  He didn’t have to let our lantern go up; he could make it go sideways.  And he could do this for a very, very long time.

A quick calculation of the wind direction revealed that once again the Coast Guard Station was to be its target.  But this time, it would not be a tree.  This time, it would be the building itself that would burn.  A Coast Guard tree going up in flames might be considered a foolish prank, but a second attempt on the same day would surely brand me as a terrorist.  If only it hadn’t been a military installation the wind had chosen.  How I hated him for this awful betrayal!

But could I catch that runaway lantern?  And somehow abort this impending disaster?  I could see the wind had a 75 foot head start on me.  But fear is a great motivator, and I burst into the fastest run I have done in years.

I could see I was gaining on the lantern.  Or maybe the wind was just toying with me.  The wind seemed to pause.  The lantern saw its chance and quickly rose 2-3 feet.  I was overjoyed.  If it rose at this rate, it might yet rise above the building and escape.  I dared to hope.  Still 50 feet away, I slowed my headlong rush.

Suddenly, the lantern was pushed down again.  It was now only 3-4 feet off the ground.  And picking up speed.  I saw the fence that surrounds the Coast Guard property.  I desperately hoped the lantern would get caught by the fence.  Maybe then it would not  endanger the lives of the military people living there.  Suddenly, the wind began lifting the lantern.  That was when I realized the wind’s fiendish plan.  The wind had hoped I would give up, thinking the fence would save me.  The wind knew I would be stopped by the fence.  He also knew he and the lantern could easily sail over it and go on to the building just a few feet away.  I, however, would be powerless on this side of the fence, left with nothing to do but watch the building as it burned to the ground.  I wondered if I could climb the fence.  I also wondered if trespassing on a military base would be excused if I did it to put out a fire.  Maybe.  But a fire that I caused?  Maybe not.

Have I mentioned that fear is a great motivator?  This time, I ignored everything except my need to catch that lantern before he cleared the fence.  The quality of my remaining years hung in the balance.  In an amazing burst of speed, I tackled the poor lantern just before the wind could lift it over the fence and out of my reach.  It was close.  I mercilessly killed the fire in our little lantern.  There were strangers on the beach who had watched me speed past them.  They watched me now, carefully avoiding eye contact, and clearly afraid to do or say anything that might draw the attention of the mad lantern murderer.  As I dragged the broken body of our poor lantern back to my friends, I could feel their silent stares at my back.

For some reason, my friends failed to understand the situation as I did.  When I returned to them, still dragging the dead lantern behind me, I did not receive the accolades that were my due.  Instead, I was greeted by laughter and ribbing about how fast I had taken off running.  Did they not see my heroism and the ultimate sacrifice made by my little friend?  Did they not understand the terrible peril that had been averted?  Did they not picture me in a federal lockup somewhere?

I did notice that no one suggested we try lighting the third lantern…

The adventure continues here…


China Trip

Marge and I had a great trip to China (April 13 – April 27, 2012).  It is an amazing country and many of the pictures in my head were totally outdated and/or wrong.

I would like to share some of our experiences here.  The goal isn’t to produce a travel log, but rather a series of insights and observations.  First the disclaimers:

    • Our tour was with Viking River Cruises, which is first-class all the way.  Almost all the excursions were included, and we stayed in excellent hotels with excellent service.
    • The trip began in Beijing and ended in Shanghai.  Our travel was by jet between the cities except when we were on the river cruise when we were on the boat for six days.
    • The tour guides were outstanding (they worked for Viking).  Our guide particularly so; he kept us entertained and laughing and touched by his candor about his own life story and what it was like for him growing up in China.
    • We were kept busy almost all the time.  We did not have a lot of time to wander on our own.  I can’t say we saw the “raw underbelly” of China; we didn’t.

Some of the things that were absolutely impressive:

    • The streets are wide and clean and the traffic is mild by USA big city standards.  I was expecting an overwhelming number of bicycles and motorbikes, but we did not see them.  Apparently, the bikes don’t dare go on the roads and the motorbikes are restricted in the cities (at least in the big ones).
    • Everything is on a scale of grandness unlike anything I have seen before.  The streets are very wide, the sidewalks are very wide.  The buildings are all new and shiny.  Almost all the buildings are multi-story structures.
    • The buildings are unique.  They were designed by different architects from all over the world with what appears to have been a nearly unlimited budget.  They are amazingly unique and elaborate structures.  And on certain buildings, you will hear about things that had to be changed or done differently because the architect simply didn’t understand the feng shui.
    • The only duplicated buildings we saw were the high-rise condos that were everywhere.  You see clusters of 4-8 condo buildings that look the same; next to them on all sides are more clusters of condos with their own style of building.  Most of the the buildings were 10-20 stories, but a few were as short as 5-8.  These buildings were not as “pretty” because, even though they are new, the air conditioning units are installed outside the buildings.  And you often see laundry hanging on the balcony to dry.
    • We saw huge swaths of bulldozed land.  At one end, you would see the bulldozers sitting idle.  In the middle, you would see what looked like a flat tilled field full of broken concrete and other building materials.  These were the remains of the houses that used to be there.  The government has a program that knocks down your house, gives you a certain amount of money for it (a little more for larger houses), and then sends you to the bank to arrange financing for a condo.
    • Condos are build by private contractors.  You have to pay them in advance for your condo (and then hope they don’t go bankrupt and you lose your money).  The buyer is subjected to various up-sells by the contractor for extras (tiled bathrooms, American toilets, carpeting, non-toxic paint, etc.).  The mortgage rate our tour guide got on his condo was 7%.
    • Energy use is a big concern in the country.  On the outside of condo buildings you can see panels of lights.  There is one light for every unit.  If you turned up your air conditioning unit too high, then you get a ticket for over-using the energy.
      • We went into an amazing indoor shopping mall.  Surprisingly few people there.  The biggest surprise is that it was around 80 degrees everywhere inside.  The second biggest surprise is that all the posters with people modeling clothes, holding up products, etc. were all Western.
    • The Chinese people we met were very friendly; they seemed very willing to go out of their way to be helpful.  I got separated from our group once and had no problem finding someone who made phone calls to get me back to them.
    • Chinese have a reputation for very bad manners.  Things like blowing your nose (two finger style), spitting on the floor in restaurants, etc. were supposed to be common.  We didn’t see any of this.  Apparently Chairman Mao introduced and popularized these bad manners as a way of showing disregard for the rich folks.  China over the last few years told its people to improve their manners because the tourists don’t like it.  Apparently it worked.
    • It was very easy to get around with English.  Children study three subjects in elementary school:  Chinese, Math, and English.  There are more people in China who speak English than the population of England.
    • The Three Gorges Dam project (done to generate electric power) displaced over 1.3 million residents.  The government built new homes for them.  In some cases, we even saw where the government moved topsoil higher up the mountains so the farmers could continue farming.  Can you imagine a project in the USA that would move 1.3 million people?  It would never get approval.
    • Some of the older people don’t like “the new ways” and having to move.  There is a family value that says it is very good to live and die where you were born (and where your parents and grand parents lived and died).  Displacing people who believe this is hard on the people.
    • We saw a huge number of gigantic monitors everywhere.  Imagine Times Square and all the electronic screens there.  Now imagine it everywhere you go.  Some of them are government displays (like the gigantic one we saw in Tieneman Square) that carried the latest government slogans.
    • Western franchises and branches were everywhere.  You can go to McDonald’s or KFC or TGI Friday or Subway in all the cities.  You can find all the big name extra fancy stores there too.  And the GM and Ford dealerships.  They don’t discount their prices either.  But you will also see lots of non-American brands there too (lots of European and Japanese brands).
    • Pollution is a problem (and a growing one).  Half way into the trip I had to get some medication to supress an alergic reaction that had been building up since my arrival.
    • Our guide told us to be careful when buying things on the street.  He was primarily concerned about toxic materials in the products.  Avoid things that come into contact with your skin.  Avoid things that might give off odors in your home or other closed environments.
    • Religion is an interesting thing.  I know China had been largely Buddhist before Communism, but I had read that almost none of them were considered Buddhist any more.  I was surprised to see the few temples we visited were full of young Chinese people.  Our guide said most people practice a blend of Buddhism and Taoism and ancestor worship.  Somebody is going to have to do another count, because it is definitely higher than what was reported a few years ago.
    • I have to say something about the Great Wall.  You can’t climb it without being overwhelmed by the enormity of their task:  building a gigantic wall over 3,000 miles long.  It is hard to imagine the amount of work that went into this.  Up and over mountains and any obstruction in its way.
    • The government seems to understand capitalism.  They created three state banks and they compete with each other.  So do the 2-3 state owned airlines.  And lots of other companies.  Lots of the businesses we saw are locally owned and operated.
    • People work for private companies where their wages are not uniform.  Some pay much better than others.  If they get fired, they can get government assistance until they find another job.  However, there is great reluctance to doing this because it can affect your credit rating (yes, that is right).  The government doesn’t always know when you are working, but it always knows when you have drawn assistance.  Because the banks have access to this info, it can show them that you may not be credit worthy.  So people usually rely on family or savings during these times.
    • One child per family.  If you have a second one, you don’t go to jail, but you do get fined.  You could also lose your government job.  You also have to pay for your child’s schooling by yourself.  And more.  In spite of this, according to a Pew Research survey (2008), 76% of Chinese support this policy.
    • It is the male child’s responsibility to contribute to the retirement needs of his parents.  But what happens if you do not have a son?  Even having only one son to take on full responsibility for the parents can be a lot of pressure.
    • One child per family has also produced significantly fewer female children (abortion, etc.).  This changes the marriage dynamic since the guys are in competition for fewer mates.
    • Education is very important.  And it is competitive.  The kids study hard to qualify for advanced education.  Our guide told us he studied 16 hours a day to pass the entrance exam to get into high school (otherwise he would have gone to trade school – and his dad would have “killed him”).  He said the only TV he watched was the one hour news show because current events were on the exam.