A hell of a way to follow up on America’s birthday

On Monday, the United States of America celebrated its 240th birthday. Things have gone pretty much downhill for us since.

American flag over Mississippi RiverTuesday, police officers in Baton Rouge shot and killed Alton Sterling outside a convenience store as bystanders Abdullah Muflahi and Arthur Reed recorded it on video.

On Wednesday, St. Anthony, Minn., police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile in the car also occupied by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and his four-year-old daughter. Reynolds live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook Live.

I knew I couldn’t unsee those videos but watched them anyway. They can’t tell the whole story, but they all looked way too much like extrajudicial executions of fellow Americans who happened to be of African descent. I have grown to accept that African-Americans have sound reasons to be nervous about getting stopped by police, even as I have never worried about anything more than getting points on my car insurance.

That’s unsettling. So is the thought that the excessive use of force by a minority of police officers vastly predates the existence of technology to publicize it, the efforts of news organizations like the Washington Post to track it, and the rise of protests by people trying to make a point that shouldn’t be that debatable: Black lives matter.

Thursday night, another person decided the answer was to take an AR-15 rifle to the scene of a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Dallas and murder as many cops as possible. This African-American–I refuse to use his name–killed officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa and injured seven others along with two civilians before the Dallas Police Department sent in a robot with a bomb (welcome to the future?) to kill him.

How could we as a country top the killings of two people almost live on camera? That was how.

None of those stories represent the nation I want to live in. Cops keep us safe–I sleep well knowing I’m not even a mile from Arlington’s police headquarters–but the rule of law is a good idea for them too. Don’t like how they do their jobs? Vote, every damn time, for leaders who will change that. Picking up a rock, a knife or a gun against people who volunteered to protect us makes you an enemy of civilization.

At least this rotten week brought two other things that do embody the United States I know. One was the sight of our daughter happily playing with day-camp classmates whose complexions cover most of the colors on the American quilt. The other came Friday, when the fifth anniversary of the final space shuttle launch reminded me that, as Anil Dash wrote, “We can do amazing things! I know because I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” Yes, we still can.

Thanks, Discovery

I’ve gotten out of the habit of posting here about the beginnings or endings of freelance gigs–I didn’t mark the start of my writing for the Disruptive Competition Project a year ago (in part because I wasn’t sure that site’s funding would get renewed for 2013), and I barely mentioned the conclusion of my work at CEA.

Discovery STS-135 badge

But since my sole outlet for the first few post-Post months was Discovery News, it seems worth observing that yesterday’s post about Google+ image-recognition marked the end of my contract with D News.

I have no hard or even bruised feelings about that. Discovery tried branching into personal-tech coverage by bringing me onboard, but we never developed an audience to justify the generous rate Discovery had offered me. (It could not have helped that for a while, I kept trying to shoehorn in wonky policy stories.) Instead of asking me to linger on, still out of place, at a lower rate, management granted me my unconditional release.

Since my output at D News was cut back from five or six posts a month over 2012 to only two a month this year–while I’ve since added other clients–the financial hit is manageable.

Now I’m just appreciating my better moments there: for instance, playing with a goofy robotic ball, breaking news about car2go’s deal with D.C., legitimately using “free beer” in a headline, and being one of a minority of reviewers to call out the infuriating keyboard on Samsung’s Galaxy S III.

The roughly 500-word limit on Discovery’s posts helped me write more concisely after years of assuming I’d have 800 or more words to play with, while its practice of running large pictures atop each post pushed me to take better gadget photos.  And the site’s content-sharing deals led to my work being reproduced on Fox News and Mashable.

Finally, Discovery was a good name to throw in when requesting press passes–say, when I covered the Tweetup NASA organized for the last space-shuttle launch. My STS-135 media badge remains my favorite press credential ever.

Describing the indescribable: the sound of liftoff

As a student of the English language, I appreciate the challenge of trying to describe something that readers haven’t experienced. It’s an honor to have your words serve as your audience’s senses, and you don’t want to let them down.

Over the last week, I’ve been observing many writers tackle a particularly difficult task of description: conveying what it’s like to hear the space shuttle lift off.

Having been privileged to witness that twice, I can assure you that no recording does it justice. (I saw Endeavour lift off in May as an attendee of the Tweetup NASA organized for that STS-134 mission, then returned this month with a press pass to write about the STS-135 Tweetup experience at Atlantis’s final launch for Discovery News and, in an article I need to finish writing, for ReadWriteWeb.)

The microphones on a lot of consumer-level gadgets are woefully inadequate to capture the finer points of nearly 7 million pounds of thrust erupting from only three miles away. But even the best audio gear available can’t recreate the feel of the shock waves blasted through the air by that energy, rushing up at spectators and thumping them in the chest. You’d have to set off explosives; pending the Air and Space Museum’s IMAX theater acquiring an ordnance budget and a long series of regulatory waivers, words will have to do.

Which words, though? Although the immediate reaction of many Tweetup attendees was that none would suffice, they found their own in the days after the launch.

Sarah Boots:

It feels like soundwaves hitting you, more than it feels like hearing something. It was completely mad.

Travis Senor:

THE SOUND! It came at us like a wave, which you could almost see coming, and hit with enough force to act on us as though we were trees bowing in the wind.

Jason Snell (you may also know him as Macworld’s editorial director):

a loud crackling sound as the air was shattered by the forces of the shuttle’s three main engines and its two solid rocket boosters.

A friend on Facebook tried this:

an intense crackling, like someone shaking a metal sheet.

Jason Major:

a growing rumble that culminated in a deep, flapping roar that you could feel as much as hear.

Among the assembled press, Ars Technica’s Jonathan M. Gitlin may have had the most creative description:

The first analogy I could think of was a washing machine full of rocks mixed over the sound of tearing giant sheets of canvas.

And me? Here’s how I described it in May:

a relentless, thunderous crackling, rumbling across the sky and through our shirts

But when I wrote an e-mail to my wife the day after the liftoff of Atlantis, I reached for a metaphor:

like fireworks erupting closer and closer and faster and faster until they’re pounding you in the chest.

I’m sad that nobody else will be able to experience this. But how we reached that point is a subject for another post.

Until then: If you’ve had the tremendous fortune to witness a launch from up close, how would you describe that sound?

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NASA Tweetup tips

If your inbox has an e-mail from a nasa.gov address with the subject line “STS-135 Tweetup CONFIRMATION”–congratulations! You won one of 150 invitations to see the last space shuttle launch from the Kennedy Space Center’s press site, about 3 miles from pad 39A.

Tweetup badges

You’re in for an amazing experience, as I found when I attended NASA’s Tweetup for the final launch of Endeavour in May. But it can also be intimidating to prepare for. Here are some tips I picked up that may help you get ready for your Tweetup.

(If you didn’t get that e-mail, don’t lose heart. People do get called up off the waitlist.)

Travel: As you may have read here before, the shuttle is not the most reliable vehicle ever, making the odds of an on-time launch for Atlantis on July 8 rather poor. Paying change fees or buying a refundable fare gets expensive quickly. Instead, fly Southwest or check fares between your city and Orlando a week from now; if they’re not much cheaper than tickets a month out, wait to book until NASA sets the official launch date at the Flight Readiness Review June 28.

Check alternate airports too. Melbourne is closer than Orlando; Tampa may be on the other coast of Florida, but the generous speed limits allow you to clock that distance in about two hours if you don’t hit traffic.

Hotels can be trickier. At the STS-134 Tweetup, many of us wound up staying together in rented houses or apartments for the first launch attempt–yes, despite the fact that most of had not met each other face to face until then. On the second attempt, with fewer people around, hotels weren’t a problem.

I usually Priceline rental cars but did not in this case: I wanted to be able to return them early or extend the rental if necessary.

Tweetup, day one: This is when NASA gives you a tour around the Kennedy Space Center–the highlight being the chance to walk into the Vehicle Assembly Building and gawk at a roof more than 500 feet overhead. As it gets damn hot in Florida, bring water and wear sunscreen. We were told to bring food as well, but that proved unnecessary when they invited us to hit the employee cafeteria. (The food is nothing special, but how many other cafeterias are across the street from a building tall enough to stack a Saturn V?)

The Tweetup will also feature talks and demonstrations by various NASA types. My favorites were astronauts recounting their experiences going up, staying there and coming back. The day should conclude with a ride out to the pad to see the Rotating Service Structure (the large structure on the pad that covers the shuttle until a day before launch) roll back to reveal Atlantis. But it may not: weather prevented our viewing RSS retraction on the first try, and I couldn’t get back to KSC in time to see it on the second launch attempt.

Tweetup, day two: This involves long stretches of waiting, punctuated by stabs of adrenaline when the countdown comes out of a hold, you look at the shuttle on the pad or you hear somebody speak the words “shuttle,” “liftoff” or “launch.” Aside from further talks by NASA folks, the only major event we had on the schedule before the launch was the chance to wave to the astronauts on their ride to the pad in NASA’s “Astrovan”–which, on the first try, came to an untimely halt when a wiring problem emerged and the Astrovan made a U-turn away from the pad.

It will be tempting to freak out over the weather. But although NASA’s Launch Commit Criteria look absurdly strict, they only apply to conditions at launch, not four hours before.

The press site–basically, an open lawn–affords a ridiculous amount of space to roam around. The closest possible view will put you on the other side of the countdown clock, but that was the only place I could park my tripod for an unobstructed view.

Many people don’t recommend trying to photograph a shuttle launch at all–you don’t want to watch it through a viewfinder. To avoid that issue, lock the camera on a tripod, oriented vertically, so it has the shuttle no higher than the lower third of the frame. (Don’t worry too much about getting the enormous zoom lenses you’ll see recommended for more distant spots; I took my photos with maybe a 20x zoom, using automatic focus and exposure.) When you get to a few seconds before liftoff, mash the shutter button repeatedly; 5 seconds after liftoff, zoom all the way out and keep pressing the shutter.

For the love of all that’s holy, don’t try to live-tweet the launch. But after the shuttle has departed from view, jot down your impressions while they’re still fresh.

Don’t plan on going anywhere for at least two hours after launch–it will take a while for the roads to clear.

With STS-135 currently set to launch in the late morning, I suggest getting a pre-launch breakfast at Baker’s Bagels, on State Route 3 a few miles south of the south entrance to KSC. When I stopped there in April, I was amused to a) see a kegerator with a “free beer” sign taped to its side and b) have missed Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley checking in there 20 minutes earlier. For a late lunch or dinner, Shuttle’s Dugout Sports Bar & Grill, a bit farther south on 3, could be any other sports bar–except for the shuttle and Saturn V models out front, the NASA photos inside and the KSC employees who show up.

What if it scrubs? Don’t panic, and don’t make plans based on initial estimates of the new launch time–especially if it’s a mechanical issue at fault. Use your extra free time to tour the KSC visitors’ center (we got free admission), and make time in particular for the hokey but enjoyable Shuttle Launch Experience ride. There are also non-space attractions nearby, such as beaches or the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. And take time to hang out with your fellow Tweetup attendees–having a beer with them while discussing when the launch might happen is all part of this weird bonding experience.