Dear Santa: My Letter for 2013

Dear Santa,

Greetings, good sir.  How goes life for you this past year?  I apologize for not being awake to say hello last Christmas.  With a one year old and another on the way, I was pretty beat by the time you made it to our house.  But thanks for visiting us last year.  I know the kids eventually will look forward to you coming to our house.  Right now they're in that state where they are confused that we're encouraging them to rip up the paper covering their gifts when the rest of the year they are forbidden from ripping up paper.  I'm sure you've seen it before, though, so I know you're not going to be surprised.

By the way, I apologize for the inconvenient entry into our apartment this year.  I had to wire our fireplace screen shut so that Leah would stop climbing into the fireplace and covering herself with residual ash and grime.  By now haven't you figured out quantum tunneling so you can just bypass the chimney altogether?  Maybe ask some of those scientists at CERN.  They can probably help you out.

I'm wondering, do you ever get email from spammers in Nigeria asking you for your bank account?  I'm sure you already have these people on the naughty list and have their email addresses on file.  Your surveillance system is better than the NSA, so I hear.  Speaking of that, maybe you can give some pointers to the NSA on how to ethically gather intelligence reports so that they get into less trouble.  I understand that there is a need to gather information to try and head off trouble before it begins, but I think some things are getting out of control.

Speaking of being out of control, this brings me to my first demand wish for the year: a brand new U.S. Congress full of people who have never served in office before.  I'm sure you've heard by now about the entire fiasco regarding the recent government shutdown that was initiated by congress.  In the end, they just wound up proving to me that they only have their next election in mind, not the actual solutions to anyone's problems.  I wound up working from home for sixteen days and was only two days away from having to take personal time and vacation in order to get paid and keep my health insurance.  Other contractors I work with weren't so lucky and spent a good month wondering how they were going to pay their bills or go to see family during the holidays.  Sure, the government wound up reimbursing both them and the civil servants, but that was after the fact when they realized that they goofed up royally.  Anyway, if you could spread some common sense among the voters this year, that would be much appreciated.  Any of the solutions I have come up with wind up sounding a lot like the end of the Tom Clancy novel "Debt of Honor."

Another thing I could probably use this year is a few months of good family health.  Ever since July, someone in my family has been either sick or injured at one point or another and it is starting to wear on my mental health.  My boy Sean suffered from a few seizures this past summer, but we are counting our blessings that he is doing well now.  My mother had a good health scare this past November after a surgery and we spent a good deal of time worrying and praying in her behalf.  Sarah injured her back badly once during the summer and I injured my back twice in the past six months.  Between all that, there have been colds, the flu, and ear infections between myself and my little family.  I'm just kind of sick of it all (pun intended).  So if you have some sort of panacea that you could slip into our stockings this year, I would appreciate it.

Work continues to go well, although I know we could use a few more customers.  We are doing well here at Johnson Space Center, but right now our work is limited solely to one team.  More contracts equals more stability for my job, despite the fact that it means more work.  I don't know if you have any inroads to anyone in the area here for visualization needs, but I hope we can get the word spread.

One thing I hope I can trouble you for is a little bit of scheduling magic for my extended family.  In a few months Sarah and I are going to go on a cruise with my parents, my brothers, and their wives.  Right now we're all on track to be able to go, but I know that last minute things might crop up.  If you can have some of your "special tactics" elves please work to ensure that everyone gets to go, I would much appreciate it.  This is probably the only time we will all get to go on a vacation like this together and I have been looking forward to it for quite some time.  Just to give you an idea, we started trying to plan it when I was a senior in high school, some thirteen years ago.  It's taken us over a decade to get it going, so I am hoping that everything goes smoothly.

I think we've got pretty much everything else covered for now.  I know little things will come up that will drive me nuts (like randomly illuminated "maintenance required" lights on the dashboard of the car), but we will handle them.  This year has been a little rough on me mentally and physically, but I'm apparently still standing.  Save some of your presents for those that really need a little more hope and cheer this holiday season.  I'm pretty well off in that regard.

I hope I see you this year, but if I'm asleep when you come this year, I hope you'll understand.  It's not easy wrestling two kiddies.  Plus, I'll probably be stuffed full of Indian food this year (Sarah and I have started a new tradition of going out to eat on Christmas Eve at a restaurant of non-Christian persuasion as to not inconvenience the owners).  Heaven knows I love my Indian food.

Take care, good luck on the flight, and watch out for predator drones.  I hear they are deadly.


-Brad Reynolds

P.S. If you have room in your sack, I actually wouldn't mind a 200 foot tall jaeger battle robot that I could use to fight any kaiju that I come across:


Sandboxing - An Experiment in Creative Thought.. Through Video Games!

I am a casual "hardcore" gamer.  That means that I like immersive video games, but with family life, I don't get to play very often.  (It's just as well, though.  They can be big wastes of time.)  In once sense, though, I find that a video game with a good, well thought out story can be just as stimulating and entertaining as a novel (I'm a Tom Clancy fan myself).  However, there are plenty of games out there where you watch a set of scripted cutscenes and are expected to act out someone else's fantastical ideas with the false idea that, because you're holding a controller in your hand, you should be in control.  These have often been overdone so much to the point where one can almost sense what is going to happen.

Game creators have gotten more creative with their story-based games, including parameters that allow you to choose the manner in which you will play the game that will affect the ultimate outcome (the Mass Effect and Deus Ex series being chiefly successful in my mind).  However, there is one genre that I have increasingly been rooting for, mainly because it allows for a bit more creative thought in the process: the "Sandbox" style game.

I spent a lot of time as a child in the sandbox in the backyard, creating countless cities (most of which were destroyed with a cataclysmic flood, i.e. the garden hose).  I think that's why I like the sandbox games.  By definition, a sandbox game has no set story and no linear gameplay.  Some might give you a goal to work towards, but none of them specifically require you to follow a story.  Many of them allow you to follow your own creative whims, resulting in some interesting creations.  Here are a few of my favorite ones that I have played and why I think they are valuable:

Sim City 4
Okay, so technically, Sim City is a "simulation" game, but the way I play it, it turns out to be a sandbox game.  I have been playing the Sim City series since version one, back when I was in elementary school (I hear the latest incarnation is terrible, though).  In it, you act as mayor in a city that you build for whatever purposes you would like.  In my eyes, it can be a great teaching tool to show how complex civil management can be.  I still can't seem to get my cities to maintain a balanced budget... which is why I cheat.

So for my game, one of the items I use to cheat is called the Money Tree.  It's an object that charges you negative money, so it adds money to your account.  Lots of it.  So I use those funds to plan out a city, experimenting with the best methods of transit planning, zoning distribution, and city beautification.  It turns the simulation into a sandbox, allowing me the freedom to do what my creative mind desires without the frustrations associated with the game.  This one will always be in my back pocket, even though my favorite version came out ten years ago.

Garry's Mod
Originally created as a modification of the Source engine created for the Half Life series of video games, Garry's Mod has garnered a very strong following over the years.  One of the things that caught my attention was the physics simulations that the game allowed you to dynamically create.  It has allowed many people (granted, with too much time on their hands) to create fantastic mechanisms like the one you can see in the video above.

I first played this brand of game on my niece's Nintendo DS and I had an instant appreciation for it.  In the game you play a character with a magic notebook.  Whatever this character writes in the notebook will be manifested in real life.  The game gives you various puzzles to solve, but leaves it open ended as to how you achieve the puzzle.  For example, one of the first levels I played had a cat stuck in a tree with the goal being to get the cat down.  Deciding not to try the obvious route, I decided to manifest a chainsaw and cut the tree down (with the cat in it, mind you... I'm not a cat person).  The puzzle was solved and I got my reward.  I was impressed by how many words were actually programmed into the game.  Eventually, I just wanted to see how many things I could type before it got confused.  I got to "narwhal" and gave up, because it kept manifesting everything I typed in.

I'm actually just getting into this game for the first time, although it has been around for five years.  The essence of the game is to guide your way from being a single-celled organism to being the dominant species on the planet.  The gameplay isn't incredibly complicated and actually is a lot of fun.  A few years ago, though, they released the "creature creator" portion of the game for free, which I was instantly impressed with.  It allows you to mix and match body parts to create any type of creature that you wished.  I think I have more fun designing the evolutionary upgrades to my creatures than I do actually doing the foraging.

Kerbal Space Program
I discovered this game over the past year and instantly fell in love with it (probably due to my current job more than anything).  In the game you are in charge of the space program of a race of small, green, aliens call Kerbals.  Although the game is still in development, it can be incredibly addictive in its current incarnation.  You design and build your own spacecraft like tinker toys with (hopefully) the right amount of parts to complete your mission.  I have had many launch failures, but in doing so have learned the correct way to build and fly spacecraft.

Oddly enough, however, this game was better at teaching me orbital mechanics than almost a year of working at a NASA center.  It has illustrated for me important spaceflight topics like specific impulse, Delta-V, spacecraft staging, and even proper spacecraft design.  Not bad for a game that it technically still "beta."

Of course, this is probably the most successful grass-roots sandbox game ever developed.  For those who haven't heard of it before, I can basically describe it as "digital legos."  You can build any blocky creation that your mind desires, as seen in the image above.

This game actually has a survival mode as well, (you have to go around and collect resources and protect yourself from monsters) which I like playing with other people.  My extended family all have this game as well as our own private server that we play on occasionally.  By playing with other people, we can divide our labor and collect more resources.  This allows for faster construction and overall safety for the group in the world.  It is quite fun to see what you can achieve with other people at your side.

Overall, I think gaming companies could learn something from the more successful sandbox games out there.  Nowadays it seems like the only thing being encouraged through mainstream games is more guns, faster cars, more zombies, more aliens, and more turning off your brain.  We give babies toys to help stimulate their brain, but often forget that there are still ways of stimulating your brain and having fun while doing it.  While I admit that there are plenty of people who waste their time on video games, I would still argue that they are a valuable medium for creative thought.  People can waste time crafting, golfing, reading novels, watching reality television, running for political office, etc.  Moderation in all things applies across the board, whatever your activity is.  However, I believe that video games, like many other mediums, has the same power to instill imagination within individuals.

So keep calm and game on!

Thankful for Dry Brine

I normally don't post anything really food-related on this blog that isn't somehow used as an art project first, but I have been meaning to share this.  A few years ago I was asked by a friend to cook the turkey for our upcoming Thanksgiving dinner.  My first go-around turned out okay, but ever since then I have been searching for the recipe for a perfect turkey.

In recent years I started looking into the process of brining the turkey before cooking.  However, brining in itself can be a messy process since it includes immersing a large, dead piece of poultry in a salty solution for a long period of time.  An alternative solution I learned about was dry-brining, which gives the same benefits without the mess.

Over the past year I have been experimenting with dry-brining poultry and have come across a combination that seems to work fairly well.  It leaves the turkey moist, tender, and with just the right amount of salt and herb taste to it.  Here is my typical recipe that I follow for a 16 pound turkey:


  • 3 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon thyme
  • 1 onion
  • 1 orange
  • 4-6 bay leaves
  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
  • Black pepper
  • Rosemary

Supplies and equipment:


I hope the turkey is thawed when you try this, otherwise you'll have a hard time.  Typically you want to do your brining for three days.  You can do this in two days in a pinch, but the longer it stays in, the better the effects.  Three days before your dinner, lay the turkey out on a cookie sheet (or another type of container that will contain any spills).  In a small bowl mix together 3 1/2 tablespoons of kosher salt and 1 tablespoon of thyme.  You can remove the giblets and place them aside if you're going to be using them.  Pat the turkey down with paper towels to remove any excess moisture.  Rub the salt and thyme mixture on the outside and interior cavity, focusing on the breasts and thighs.

You will then need to place the salted turkey into the 2.5 gallon storage bag.  (Place the giblets in as well if you are going to use them.)  Place the turkey in the refrigerator, breast side up.  Every 12 hours, massage the breast and thighs of the turkey through the bag, then alternate between breast side up and breast side down.

At least 8 hours before you need to start cooking the turkey, take it out of the bag and place it on a platter or cookie sheet in the fridge.  Pat it down to remove any excess moisture.

One hour before cooking remove the turkey from the fridge and place at room temperature.  Slice the onion and orange into quarters and set aside.  Remove the butter from the fridge to soften up and slice into 1 tablespoon sized segments.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.  Here's where things can get a bit tricky, but with a careful hand, you can make it work.  Carefully separate the skin from the breast and thighs of the turkey, taking care not to tear the skin.  Place the pads of butter under the skin and inside the inner cavity.  Season beneath the skin with salt, pepper, rosemary, and bay leaves.  Stuff quartered onion and orange into inner cavity.

Place turkey in a roasting pan on top of a roasting rack (I find that if I don't elevate it from the bottom of the pan, it tends to fall apart while cooking... not ideal)When cooking your turkey, follow the standard guidelines for cooking length.  I typically cook mine at 500 degrees for the first 30 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 325 for the remainder of the cooking time.  If the skin around the breast starts to look too brown the last hour, I place a light foil tent over it to shield it from the direct heat.

Once your turkey is done cooking, remove it from the oven and let it sit for 30 minutes lightly tented in aluminum foil.  After that, have at it!  I hope it turns out good.  This method hasn't ever let me down for creating moist, tender, savory turkey that all can enjoy.

One thing to note is that because of the salt-brining, the drippings might be too salty to be used in any gravy.  That is one drawback to this method, but you can always find alternative methods to cook gravy.


Cucurbita Maxima 2013

I have to admit that having two children under the age of 2 sort of drains my desire to do fanciful holiday crafts.  However, I've set the bar too high for myself, I suppose.  Anyway, this year I decided to do a rendition of Robert Downey Jr. ala Iron Man 3.  I recently got to see the movie for the first time (the reason: two kids under the age of 2) and really enjoyed it.  Actually, I really like all the Iron Man films, so I think this is a fitting tribute.

 The time waster

The time waste-ee

I had to put in a shot of my daughter's pumpkin

Click here for my comprehensive guide on how to do one of these. I think next year I might try carving one of these out with a rotary tool.  No joke.  I would love to know how to make these go faster.


Mark 3 Suit - Grunging it Up

Even though NASA might be shutdown, that doesn't mean that I have to stop working (yet... but that's another story).  In the mean time, I am at home doing some work.  I finally got the chance to take the Mark 3 suit into ZBrush to do some fine detailing:

After I got to putting back in the seams and wrinkles that didn't show up from the laser scan, I went back and created some grunge maps with added dirt and yellowing of the material. I even programmed in some controls for the rig so you could determine the level of dirt and weathering of the suit to fit whatever needs you had.

Now to test it out in an animation.  The rigging on this uses Modo's full body IK system, which doesn't always work out for the best.

Let's hope this shutdown doesn't last too much longer.


NASA: Asteroid Redirect Manned Mission

So for the past few months I have been working hard with the concept analysis team here at NASA JSC, helping them visualize the recently announced asteroid redirect and utilization mission.  It has been quite the brain-opening experience, learning about all that goes into planning a mission of this caliber.

One of the main things that we have been hard at work at here is an animation representing the manned portion of the mission, which is what the JSC team has been focusing on.  This animation was presented at a mission formulation review up at NASA headquarters:

It was very well received, which was good news for us.  We spent a lot of time this go-around making things look realistic and getting everything we could technically accurate.  (We had gotten a lot operationally wrong the first time we did an animation of this mission).

If you're wondering what I personally did in the video, it was pretty much the part from when the two spaceships dock to when they separate.  All of the modeling and animation was done in Modo while we did the compositing. To save render time on some of the less complicated vehicle shots, we wound up using Video CoPilot's Element 3D plugin for After Effects.  It took a lot to set up, especially since it doesn't cast shadows, but we wound up getting it in the end.  We also got to do our own J.J. Abrams-style lens flares for it, which was a nice touch in the end.  We used SonicFire Pro for mixing together the music, which helped out a bunch in the long haul.  It's a handy piece of software that anyone who regularly does videos needs to pick up.

Overall, I am pleased with the results.  It's a good blend of artistic interpretation with real engineering planning behind it.  Here are a few more still images that I created that were used in the review:


AMA Declassified: Mark 3 Surface Suit

Here's another peek into my work.  We recently got connected to the group here at NASA JSC who are working on the Mark 3 surface suit.  We showed them a few things that we could do and they were interested in how that could apply to their work. 

As a bit of a test run, they gave us a 3D laser-scan of the Mark 3 surface suit.  We quickly did a quick texturing and rendering of the raw file, which was well into the millions of polygons.

I am in the process of creating a low-resolution version of the suit, after which I'll project all the details of the high-resolution into a normal map.  It should be a good asset to have, once I finish it.  It certainly will be hard to create a usable rig for the legs, though, looking at the joints in the hips.  I'm still scratching my head about how to tackle that one.


ZBrush - Lunar Surface

I have been meaning to do a lunar surface ZBrush sculpt for work, and I finally got some time to work at home today.  This was knocked out in about three hours.  If I was doing it right, I would have split up the UV map into four or more tiles, but as it currently sits, the final texture maps were around 8192x8192 pixels.


ZBrush 4R6: ZRemesher

I haven't had much free time lately to do 3D stuff on my own at home, but I really wanted to try out a new feature in ZBrush.  The latest release included a tool they have been developing called "ZRemesher."  It essentially uses complex algorithms to analyze the surfaces of your sculpts to create a base mesh that works with the curves.  With the addition of this tool, it makes sculpting that much easier.

I did the above old man in about two hours in ZBrush.  It started off as a Dynamesh sphere where I got it to the proper size.  After that, I drew some curves on the surface to suggest how the polygon flow should be generated, then let ZRemesher do its magic.  I can't complain:

This truly solidifies ZBrush in my mind as a great development tool.  It's great to worry about technical details later and just focus on the creative at first.


AMA Studios: NASA Asteroid Retrieval & Utilization Mission

Something I finally worked on at my job here with NASA got announced to the public, so I can finally talk about it.

For the past three months, I have been working with a team here that is putting together the manned space flight portion of a mission to capture and study an asteroid.  We have been instrumental in helping the team both visualize and communicate their ideas to the rest of the NASA centers.  It is interesting to see how different concepts come together and how different ideas start to form actual missions.

There are a number of inaccuracies with this video, partially due to time constraints, and partially due to us having to fill a hole we see in the animation.  (You should see the stuff we had to cut out!)  However, the idea is there about what NASA has been charged to do.  Now we get to see if Congress approves the budget suggestion given by the administration.

All in all, this has been a very rewarding project and a lot of fun.  When I have more time, I'll go into more depth on what I did specifically that helped speed along the process.  In short, any shot you see that has a crewman or spacesuit in it is one that I either animated or did some compositing work on.


A Weekend Sculpt: Alien Bust

I had a "free" weekend and decided to spend part of it doing some sculpting in ZBrush.  I have been fascinated with this particular alien head shape and decided to do a little bust sculpting.  The tools in the latest version of ZBrush have been particularly useful in helping the artist with getting the topology to work for them.  Dynamesh along with qRemesher were both helpful in making sure that the topology didn't get too squirrely.

Since I haven't been too impressed with ZBrush's rendering capabilities, I used the Decimation Master plugin to export a lower-res version of the bust out.  Shading, lighting, and rendering were all done in Cinema 4D with some post-processing done in Photoshop.  All in all, this was a fun little practice session.


AMA Unclassified, Part 2: Z1 Spacesuit

I wanted to share one more thing that I've been working on that isn't in the SBU (sensitive but unclassified) realm.  One of the things that we haven't had good access to in the past at our company is actual spacesuits to get texture and reference photography from for our 3D models.  Recently we got to go see a pressure test of the Z1 spacesuit, which we wanted for our library of models.

This character was created and rigged in Modo with the textures done in Photoshop.  Hopefully one day I'll be able to take it into ZBrush and do some real sculpting to it, rather than faking it in Photoshop.

This and other fun perks are a few of the reasons why I am enjoying this job immensely.

All images created by AMA Studios/Advanced Concept Lab JSC