The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster: an anthology of reflections and perspectives

Today marks the 32nd anniversary of the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and its seven-astronaut crew. On January 28, 1986, the craft was ripped apart 73 seconds after it lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. All seven astronauts on board lost their lives, probably when the still-intact and depressurized crew cabin crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time, two-thirds of a lifetime ago, I was a sophomore at Concord High School, where Christa McAuliffe taught social studies. I was also a lifelong aficionado of astronomy and the space program, and was surely between girlfriends. As a result, I formed a lot of memories of this event and its aftermath – in terms of both the Concord community and NASA – in the days, weeks, months, and years that followed.

In 2007, I expanded on these memories in a series of five posts on the Chimp Refuge, then housed at ScienceBlogs.com; one year later I underwent a surprising experience related to the disaster, leading me to write another post. Links to all six of these entries are below, but — not to sound too much like a K-Tel record ad from the 1970s — I have collected all of them into this post. That’s right, for the first time, you can get all of these amazing hits in one place!

I have monkeyed with this migrating content so many times over the years that I am not confident of how many of the links, internal and otherwise, might be dead. But technical perfection is not the goal here, which may strike alert readers as sadly ironic. 

Continue reading “The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster: an anthology of reflections and perspectives”

Maybe this was Ted Kaczynski’s real fear

My knowledge of computers and operating systems is fairly pedestrian these days, but as a kid I was ahead of the curve for a while, learning BASIC when I was 10 or 11 and later writing some baseball- and running-simulation programs on an IBM PC Jr. (It helped that my dad was a programmer.) My earliest efforts were on an Atari 400/800.

In those days, it was a rare thing even for relatively “with it” adults to know anything about computers that didn’t involve playing games. If someone saw you punching keys with a screen in front of you and called out “Hey nerd,” you probably looked his way with an expression not of hurt but of pride. Only nerds knew how to *really* use computers. (I wasn’t a nerd myself, though. I was extremely suave. In addition to spending summer vacations running endless simulations of 5K races involving fictional runners on nonexistent teams at imaginary schools, I could solve a Rubik’s cube, play chess, create my own scaled-down rip-offs of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, and execute a variety of other social maneuvers that 13- and 14-year-old girls found irresistible.)

I remember wondering, maybe aloud but perhaps to myself, what would happen if one were to somehow locate a tribe of prehistoric cave people and furnish them with computers. (This was in addition to, of course, furnishing them with well-cooked food and reliable shelter, but only after they reached a certain level of proficiency with Astrosmash and Zork.)

35 years later, I don’t have to wonder anymore. It’s called Twitter, and it has a lot of first-degree relatives.

Charles Foley, underappreciated stalwart: 1927-2017

As soon as my mother told me she’d seen Chuck Foley’s obituary on Monday, I had a couple of immediate thoughts: one, I didn’t realize Mr. Foley was already over 60 when I graduated from CHS, and two, only with the benefit of adult hindsight had I come to understand the composure and skill with which he had handled a couple of things no one could have seen coming. This article in yesterday’s focuses on the latter.

When the police wound up shooting to death a student who had recently dropped out during my first-period sophomore English class (Mr. Fenton, room 201 or 202; I think we were reading Silas Marner at the time, and if not that, Great Expectations) it was a genuinely shocking event. Understand that in 1985, the incidence of kids bringing guns to school, with or without lethal consequences, was practically zero. And it wasn’t the kind of thing that happened in a relatively affluent, low-crime place like Concord.

Continue reading “Charles Foley, underappreciated stalwart: 1927-2017”

To the woman behind me in line at King Soopers (Boulder)

This is from my brief anthology of expired Craigslist “Rants and Raves” posts. The event in question did not happen, at least not exactly like this.
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To the woman behind me in line at King Soopers (Boulder)

Last night, at about 10 p.m. at the Table Mesa store, you were in line behind me. I think it was register 9. I was dressed in a short-sleeve plain blue button-down shirt, olive-green shorts, and Tevas, and was sporting a tan and a spiky blond haircut that belied my 41 years on the planet. In short, I looked good for my or any age. Hot, even. But I was about to trash whatever grand impressions you had to have formed at a glance in a most miserable and incontrovertible way. Continue reading “To the woman behind me in line at King Soopers (Boulder)”

Picking one’s nose, farting in church, and pounding one’s pud

If you identified these three behaviors as being related in the sense that they are generally considered rude, congratulations–you’re awake. Higher praise will be awarded only to those that recognize this collection of 15-letter phrases as the backbone of a 225-square crossword puzzle I designed roughly 20 years ago.

It usually went like this: I’d be on summer college break, and my dad would come home from work and start doing the crossword puzzle in the Concord Monitor while sitting on the back deck we had recently joined forces in building. (Well, I didn’t help that much.) I would grab my grandparents’ copy of the paper, flip to the same puzzle and join him outside. He treated these nightly ventures as research projects, using dictionaries almanacs, and whatever other resources he could (this was a few turns of the globe before the Internet) to bludgeon his way toward completion; I’d solve the thing in the traditional way, normally coming within a square or two and as often as not finishing with zero errors. (The NY Times puzzle this was not.) If this was a competition, neither of us acknowledged it. Over time we built up our respective and overlapping vocabularies of words and names found almost exclusively in crossword puzzles: “ort,” “Asta,” “St. Lo,” others.

Finally I decided to assemble a puzzle of my own. It was a decent effort; I made sure that the 15 x 15 grid had no more blacked-out squares than the usual puzzle of its dimensions, and, as noted in the first paragraph, even settled on a coherent “theme.” I think the clues for those three words were “Faux pas,” “Social taboo,” and “Public no-no.”

That was a real highlight. Now any idiot can design an elegantly dirty crossword puzzle without even working hard. And no, “licking one’s ass” was never in contention, so don’t go getting any gross ideas.

Another running memory, this one non-apocryphal

(A discussion on another forum inspired me to write this the other night.)

In April 2003, I was aiming to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials at the Boston Marathon. Having recently run a 20-mile race in 1:49, I had a decent shot if the weather and the Fates cooperated. Unfortunately, it was bright and cloudless and in the 70’s and climbing fast as I stood on the starting line. My coach and I had agreed that I would bail before halfway if it became obvious that for whatever reason I had no shot at running 2:22. Continue reading “Another running memory, this one non-apocryphal”

The New England High-School Indoor Track and Field Championships: a brief personal interlude

The meet was held Friday night at the Reggie Lewis Center (a work of wonder) in Roxbury, Mass. Among the better performers was a kid from Hamilton-Wenham named Jackson McDonald. He was seventh in the 55-meter hurdles in 7.78 seconds and second in the long jump in 22′ 6.75″. He has also high-jumped 6′ 6″. The previous Friday, at the Mass State Meet, he broke the meet record by jumping 23′ 3″. He then demolished the state record in the pentathlon last Wednesday. He’s narrowed his choice of colleges to U. Conn. and Boston U. He had previously looked at both UNH and UVM.

Noteworthy about this kid is that his mother and my mother are longtime great friends, having met about 30 years ago after winding up on the same team in an amateur women’s softball league. Renee is about a dozen years younger than my mom (she was in college wen they met) and used to take me skiing. In, I think, 1984, my parents, Renee, Renee’s husband Jared, and a few others were spending a weekend at Renee’s parents’ place in New Jersey. Very late at night, Jared was water-skiing with one or two of his buddies and was killed when he was cut by a boat propeller after falling. Everyone was devastated; Jared was a great guy. Renee eventually remarried and moved to Massachusetts, and she and my mom, though still in touch, were not as close. They have been through a lot together.

Anyway, it’s hard for me to imagine Renee having a kid who’s 18 years old. That’s older than I was when she used to let me take nips of peppermint schnapps on the chairlift at King Ridge.

My old high school, Concord, had two kids fare well in the distance events (one was sixth in the two-mile, another seventh in the 1000 meters).