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; 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.

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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.
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).

How’re they hangin’, guys?

While in the throes of working on my first investigational new drug (IND) application with its sketchy preclinical studies (and under a tight deadline), I happily distracted myself this evening with Jesse Bering’s Why do human testicles hang like that?

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My Friend Flugel: An Ode to an American Kestrel

A conversation with a fellow raptor fan and Kevin’s recent entry pertaining to the injured bald eagle congealed and triggered a few of my geriatric neurons, prompting the following nostalgic reverie about a former pet: an American kestrel.

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Name That Orb Weaver!

Since Labor Day weekend has passed, it’s time to put away those white shoes and to take note of the late summer orb weaver spiders.
Orb Weaver spiders are members of the Araneidae family. These include the ubiquitous yellow and black garden spider and familiar genera such as Mangora spp. and Araneus spp. When my kids were little, they referred to the more common Araneidae as “Charlottes” after E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.
Chimp Refuge field observers, Dawn & Bobby, recently shared a photo of an Araneidae arachnid that has set up her shop behind their house:

Continue reading “Name That Orb Weaver!”

Combating sucky radio with a cognitive exercise

If there’s one thing that characterizes any drive across northern New England, it’s not the pleasantly empty highways or the likelihood of hitting a deer or a moose; it’s the absolute dearth of decent radio stations. If you’re into country or the worst of classic rock (e.g., anything produced by the Kinks in their long, weary post-sellout days), you’re in luck. Otherwise you’re better served by belting out “One googol bottles of beer on the road, one googol bottles of beer…” all the way from Portsmouth to New York State, because fiddling with the tuner is a sure prescription for frustration.
Last night, however, somewhere near the Quechee Gorge, I stumbled upon a means of mitigating this joyless travel feature. Thanks to the personality whose signature phrase will always be “Kasey, could you please play… ,” I created a bastardized, highly limited version of the digit-span test for myself.

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Your youthful malapropisms

Since today is Saturday, I’m doing what I always do on days ending in “Y” and taking a break from writing about science topics. I could argue, however, that the following garbage might be vaguely associated with linguistics and hence, at a broader level, childhood or developmental psychology. I know nothing about these.
When I was two or three, I would sometimes have ginger ale and potato chips for a snack. For whatever reason I took to calling these “see-soo” and “tip-tips” respectively. This was clearly a formative language sort of thing; I heard the right words and jumbled them somewhere between Broca and Wernicke, and it was some time before I started spitting out the right terms for this healthful repast. I think I was about 30.

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A right smart view, all right: conclusion

So anyway, after the guy asked me if engaging in the five-knuckle shuffle was among my habits and I pleaded road-weariness in response, he shut up for a few minutes. It didn’t matter; I was pretty sure what was coming (so to speak). I slouched against the door and feigned sleep, though, of course, I kept one eye opened just so. We were probably halfway to Roanoke before the guy started working at his zipper. Evidently he either hadn’t finished the job back at Smart View or had a very healthy sexual appetite. He had the courtesy to ask me, “Mind if I do?” in much the same way others might have inquired whether I cared if they lit up. In fact, despite my distaste for cigarette smoke, I would have preferred his smoking a whole carton of unfiltered Camels and blowing huge toxic clouds in my face to his whacking away at his crotch as we tooled along (so to speak), but I didn’t have options to select from. I decided that had I known this was coming (so to speak) while exiting the bathroom back at Smart View I would have stolen his ride (though I would have been careful to somehow drive it without any part of me touching the upholstery, the gearshift, or the steering wheel) and pushed it off a cliff, as many were available and I’d always wanted to see a car explode in person.
Keeping my eyes averted was not difficult.

Continue reading “A right smart view, all right: conclusion”

A right smart view, all right: part 3

I watched the scenery pass, mindful of its beauty in a detached way — I’d seen so much of it in the past hundred hours that I was, sadly, almost inured to even the most spectacular views, and in spite of lingering trepidation surrounding the potentially befriggered intentions of my chauffeur I felt I could fall asleep in a trice should I be so stupid as to allow such a thing to happen.
After several minutes, the guy struck up a conversation, asking me from whence I had come to this part of the world. He told me his name, which I now cannot remember. Given the pressing issue of his lecherous actions, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that the sight of someone hammering up the Blue Ridge Parkway on foot (he’d first observed me at least forty miles to the south that morning) and toting a minimum of possessions was, all predatory instincts on the part of observers aside, apt to arouse a modicum of curiosity.

Continue reading “A right smart view, all right: part 3”

A right smart view, all right: part 3

I watched the scenery pass, mindful of its beauty in a detached way — I’d seen so much of it in the past hundred hours that I was, sadly, almost inured to even the most spectacular views, and in spite of lingering trepidation surrounding the potentially befriggered intentions of my chauffeur I felt I could fall asleep in a trice should I be so stupid as to allow such a thing to happen.
After several minutes, the guy struck up a conversation, asking me from whence I had come to this part of the world. He told me his name, which I now cannot remember. Given the pressing issue of his lecherous actions, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that the sight of someone hammering up the Blue Ridge Parkway on foot (he’d first observed me at least forty miles to the south that morning) and toting a minimum of possessions was, all predatory instincts on the part of observers aside, apt to arouse a modicum of curiosity.

Continue reading “A right smart view, all right: part 3”

A right smart view, all right (continued)

I was beginning to think t would have been wise to wash my feet in a stream rather than in a sink in the Smart View picnic area bathroom, the isolated nature of which suddenly seemed much more stark and apparent in the wake of my first lifetime encounter with a such brazen solicitor of the flesh. Besides the building it was in, there was really nothing else there, save for the view. The whole Parkway, in fact, was really just one long heat-baked ribbon of programmed isolation, free of domiciles and power lines and cross streets, and was rapidly losing its eco-romantic appeal.
Anyway, I put my shoes back on and began shuffling up the Parkway once more. I tried to determine if I would make it to Roanoke before nightfall and figured I’d need to average about 5 MPH in order to achieve this. This, on average, was faster than a walking pace and I really didn’t feel like running any more that day, so I began to contemplate hitchhiking, something I’d done only a couple of times during my journey and for very brief stretches at that.

Continue reading “A right smart view, all right (continued)”

A right smart view, all right: a wry retrospective

After posting a copy of an e-newsletter concerning the Blue Ridge Parkway I subscribe to, I was reminded of an experience I had almost five years ago – the time in my life (that I knowof) that someone secretly followed me for close to 100 miles in the hope of consummating a sexual liaison. I wrote about this experience for a now-defunct message board, and saved a copy for myself as part of writing about the greater journey to which this pursuit of sorts contributed.
I am including this here for several reasons. One, I wrote it and I have it on my hard drive, so that must mean I have to share it with the general public. Two, it’s kind of funny. And three, it demonstrates that it’s possible to be the quarry of a much-maligned demographic without forming negative stereotypes or opinions about said demographic.
I first arrived in Roanoke in August of 2002 and got there by running and walking up the Parkway from Asheville, N.C., 275 miles away. All I had with me was a backpack that held about 15 pounds’ worth of clothes and necessities. It took me four days to cover 240 miles (with about half of these done at a light run), leaving me 35 miles south of Roanoke on a day on which it was, according to the radio station I was tuned into at the time, 94 degrees.

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Orgasmic sparklers and single cask malt Scotch: a winning combination!

An e-droog recently waxed poetic about a single malt Scotch that she gave to a friend on the occasion of his thirtieth birthday. If I recall correctly, this was an especially rugged Islay beast, and stronger than the infamous Laphroaig. The subject of single malts triggered an avalanche of nostalgic reverie, not uncommon for us geriatrics, so I will inflict you with my aged yammering…and photos… here.

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“Obligatory” running and “bizarre” food preoccupations

Yesterday Dispatcher Ed wrote about how the government is complicit in the burgeoning rates of obesity and overweight in the U.S. owing to its preferential subsidies of low-cost, high-energy foods. (I laughed at the “how many calories can I get for a dollar?” experiment because I’ve played this game myself, deciding at some point that even a marathoner could live on Little Debbie snack cakes — at the time, eight sold for around a dollar and contained about 300 calories each, mostly carbohydrates.)
I found this interesting because one of the louder claims at Big Fat Blog, where THOU SHALT NOT SAY ANYTHING BUT GOOD THINGS ABOUT BEING OVERWEIGHT is a rule for anyone wanting to participate, has been that the U.S. government has a covert aim of forcing everyone to be thin, which explains, in their view, why the Health and Human Services department publishes suggestions for getting active and is, they seem to believe, practially the only reason the Centers for Diesease Control exists. (No good denialist group omits the federal government from the list of putative conspirators).
This got me thinking about a post I made on a now-defunct blog I called “Cognitive Emesis” (and that it was; oh, it was) in response to a BFB reader who pointed me toward a 1983 study concluding that certain male distance runners were unusually concerned with leanness.
The first response of any criticism of fundamentalist fat activism by a thin, active person is generally of the ad hominem sort — rather than address the argument, the fat activist will suggest or state outright that her interlocutor’s entire basis for agreeing with any “overweight-is-risky” premise is a morbid fear of weight gain. It’s no different than a workaday religious fundie yelling about how atheism is wrong because, in a nutshell, if it’s true there’s no god, we can all commit mayhem with impunity and the world is suckier than it should be. As Sam Harris has noted, even if atheists really did hold the bleakest, ugliest world view imaginable, this wouldn’t make Christianity true.
Anyway, rather than adopt the same rickety stance as this commenter, Margaret (“You only like what this study implies because you’re fat”), or point out that even if 100 percent of runners had pathological relationships with food, obesity would be no less unhealthy, I decided to have an honest look at the article.
I’ve reproduced my two-year-old post below, and have included the comments that originally appeared there. In re-reading this I was struck, not for the first time, by the general wishy-washiness of behavioral research. I can agree, for example, that a lot of runners have “bizarre preoccupation” with food and are “compulsively” athletic — and see myself in a lot of what the authors describe, really — but good luck finding useful clinical criteria for these. Maybe the primary investigator was a lardass or something.

Continue reading ““Obligatory” running and “bizarre” food preoccupations”